America's live music scene is cacophonous with hundreds, maybe thousands, of tribute bands. On any given Saturday night, roadhouses, bars, nightclubs and concert halls echo with fervent recreations of bands ranging from the beloved to the notorious. They often carry names pregnant with insider significance to hardcore fans: The Rolling Stones tribute band Voodoo Tongue combines the Stones' album Voodoo Lounge with the group's glottic logo … The 4 Horsemen are instantly associated with the name of a classic Metallica song … and Another Brick borrows a snippet of lyric from Pink Floyd's The Wall. Here are four of the best: Bands that, in honoring the essence of their heroes, create a work of performance art that is also uniquely their own.
Rain: The Gold Standard
Unless your name is Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, there's no way to even imagine being a Beatle. But on this particular overcast afternoon, on this open-air stage in the middle of Times Square and before some 40,000 singing, swaying, joyous onlookers, the guys who make up the Beatles tribute band Rain are coming as close as anyone.
"Hey, Jude … " begins McCartney double Joey Curatolo. And as he heads into the familiar piano riff that drives beneath the song's opening verse, a roar can be heard from as far as 46th Street.
Beat for backbeat, note for grace note, Rain has been honing its Beatlecraft for decades, ever since the group first emerged as a southern California bar band. Curatolo, Joe Bithorn (George Harrison), and Ralph Castelli (Ringo Starr) have been playing Beatles tunes together since the mid 1980s; Steve Landes (John Lennon) has been with them since 1998, and their musical director Mark Lewis — let's just call him the Fifth Beatle — is the guy who enlisted them all.
Rain — which takes its name from a lesser-known Beatles tune that appeared on the flip side of Paperback Writer — is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to tribute bands. The band plays to sold-out concert venues around the world, and its 12-week Broadway engagement — the one that had them performing in Times Square as part of New York City's annual Broadway on Broadway concert — runs through January 9.
The extended Broadway gig marks a level of accomplishment rare for most tribute bands, and a precious period of semi-stability for a group that's been on the road almost forever.
"I was born in Manhattan," says Bithorn (who proudly pulled out his AARP membership card). "This is a chance to visit my old stomping grounds." Unwinding at Chez Josephine, a 42nd Street restaurant, after the outdoor concert, Curatolo confesses he wasn't surprised by the crowd's enthusiastic response (when the band abruptly stopped playing) on the long final fadeout of "Hey Jude," the audience continued its sing-along chant, "Nanana Naaaa — Hey Jude!"
"Everyone is a Beatles fan," he says. "In our day and age, you must be. We're just celebrating right along with them. It was beautiful."
In the show, Rain traces the Beatles' career from their 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance to their final recorded track on Abbey Road. None of the band's show is pre-recorded. The early Beatles songs have surprising complexity that makes live performance tricky enough. But later, the Beatles labored for weeks on individual songs — layering vocal tracks, adding instruments and sound effects, and famously playing some elements backwards. They made up their sonic landscape as they went along, and Rain had to listen to the Beatles' records and reverse-engineer the sound from scratch.
"We depended on our ears as the manuscript," says Curatolo. "Nothing was ever written out by the Beatles. To be able to pick out the nuances vocally and musically is an art in itself."