A humble opinion on tribute bands

The stages leading to the formation of a tribute band seem natural enough. Obsess over a band. Learn all of their songs. Play their music in your basement (or garage, or whatever) with like-minded individuals. Finally: Witness said band’s break up, and in response, become the defunct band. This final stage is the most difficult to understand artistically, mostly because it assumes that at some point, a musician reaches a moment, consciously or not, when what started as playful fandom becomes a serious endeavor. In other words, at some point, a tribute band decides to become a tribute band.

The central irony is obvious. However solid a performance, a tribute band will never actually be the band it pays homage to. But it’s possible that living someone else’s life is not what every tribute band is out to do.

My previous experience with tribute bands is limited to the case of my former guitar teacher, Paul, who played in Crazy Train, a tribute to the music of Ozzy Osbourne, which for him meant keeping up a rather unfortunate blonde mullet in the style of guitarist Randy Rhoads.

So, when approaching Pat Downes, the vocalist and guitarist of Badfish, a seven-year-old Sublime tribute band set to play the 9:30 Club tonight, I did so expecting the absurdity of a ska-obsessed imitator. I expected overuse of “dude” and “awesome.” I expected hilarious references to sticky icky, Mary Jane, sparking up a doobie, et al.

This is not what happened.

Despite my initial efforts to prove otherwise, Downes was, truth be told, not crazy. He didn’t offer rare Sublime trivia. He has never bought Sublime’s used tissues, fingernail clippings and chewed gum off eBay. Shockingly, the man seems to have interests outside of Sublime. Yes, I think he did say “awesome” once. But beyond that, Downes is a musician who just happens to dig Sublime’s sound, which before speaking to him didn’t seem possible.

The intention of Badfish seems straightforwardly populist: give Sublime fans – now unable to hear the actual band – the opportunity to enjoy Sublime’s music. “Our main thing is authenticity – not trying to stray too far from what Sublime did,” said Downes.

He recounted a past Las Vegas show that gave the band the opportunity to play with Bud Gaugh, the original Sublime drummer, who later voiced that he had to keep looking at the members of the band because they sounded so similar to the real thing.

Downes will perform tonight alongside bandmates as Badfish. But because he seems to have interests outside of Sublime, Downes and the others will open for themselves – as themselves – under the name Scotty Don’t, their non-cover band.

The sound, said Downes, is a mix of rock and reggae, not unlike the style popularized by the band they cover in shows more than one hundred times a year.

“I had some songs that I had written, but we didn’t want to take away from the whole Sublime tribute experience,” he said. “It’s a supply and demand thing.” There’s a demand for Sublime music. He loves Sublime and he fills that demand, leaving some room for his own work.

Am I a converted Sublime fan? No. Do I endorse this band? Not really. But is it possible that there’s space for sincerity in a project based on imitation? I’m not ruling it out.

Badfish performs at the 9:30 Club tonight. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $17.

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