Tribute bands are pretty bizarre. Sure, it’s fun to see a band play songs you already know word for word, and it’s fun for bands to play those songs. But what motivates a group of musicians to move from playing covers to actively attempting to disappear into another band?
I was already pondering these questions when I walked into Altar Bar last Friday. There, members of Anti-Flag and White Wives — performing as Green Day — were opening for Pittsburgh’s very own Rage Against the Machine tribute band, RATM2. (The Catastrophe started the show with a collection of pop punk covers, which I missed.)
With “Green Day,” I had pretty good idea of what to expect. They were playing Dookie in its entirety, an album almost everyone of a certain age has owned at some point. They played it well and clearly had a good time doing it; the crowd seemed, more or less, to have a blast.
RATM2 ramped things up with audio of President Obama vowing to close Guantanamo Bay. My plus-one, a self-described “#1 Rage-head,” grinned at me. Could it be that these guys were … true believers? Then they launched into “Testify,” and it was … pretty good. Not bad at all, actually. The band was solid, and what Fake Zack de la Rocha lacked in funk, he made up for in charisma. I was quickly charmed. And then he started talking.
The first major offense was when Fake ZDLR held up an iPhone to take a picture of the audience, saying “One ... two ... three … make some noise for the Internet, yall!” My friend gasped: “Zack would NEVER say that!” And it IS hard to imagine the real ZDLR posting photos of his fans — or of anything — on the Internet. Fake Zack, you’re playing right into the NSA’s hands!
But the real jaw-dropper came when Fake ZDLR, after inexplicably comparing the pit to Sochi, segued into the topic of Pussy Riot. “Those bitches are fucking hardcore!” he proclaimed before — from what I could garner (it was hard to hear) — he began to make fun of the un-listenability of their music. Calling women bitches? Showing less than total solidarity with Pussy Riot? COME ON GUYS.
Which (sort of) brings me back to my original question: RATM was hugely popular, and many, many of their fans were (and are) indifferent or hostile to leftist politics. (Sup, Paul Ryan?) And, really, I’d be happy to listen to any band that can play a committed and passable rendition of “Bombtrack.” The best moments of the evening reminded me how great those songs are, and how much fun it is to hear them played really loudly.
But if you’re even going to touch the political stuff — which is such an integral (if sometimes cheesy and mock-able) part of the real band — why not commit to that as well? It’s hard to imagine why or how one could memorize all of those lyrics without internalizing more than “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” But then again, can anyone in the year 2014 really take anything as seriously as Rage Against the Machine did? Could anyone in 2000? RATM2 may not be Rage we want, but it’s probably the Rage we deserve.