- Photo from themusicalbox.net
I'm not a fan of tribute bands. Actually, I don't think I've seen that many; I guess it would be fairer to say I'm not a fan of the idea of tribute bands. The notion of a group of obsessive fans like Dark Star Orchestra aping a specific Grateful Dead show, right down to the setlist and extended jams, makes me feel the neeed to smack my forehead. But when it was announced that the Musical Box—a Montreal tribute band that re-creates the performances of early-'70s Peter Gabriel-era Genesis—was mounting The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, replicating the costumes and visuals from the English group's original 1974-75 tour, I didn't think I could turn it down. That their only stop in the Northwest was in Tacoma made me all the more determined.
Genesis is not, and has never been, a cool band, but I somehow discovered their early progressive work as a pre-teen, and it's music that I never grew out of. Their 1974 double concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is them at their proggy peak: It's a virtually incomprehensible rock opera about a New York graffiti tagger who gets sucked into a wall and has bizarre, horror-movie-esque adventures on the other side. It's Alice in Wonderland with mythic creatures and even stronger sexual undertones. Somehow, the Musical Box scored all the original slides that the band used as backdrops (there were hundreds of them), plus either got the original or painfully re-made Gabriel's elaborate stage costumes. (For an idea, take a look at the Slipperman costume above.) There were lighting tricks, mics hidden all over the stage, a flash explosion, and all kinds of theatrical stageplay in aid of storytelling. Short of a Broadway musical, it was as theatrical a show as I've ever seen. It also made me yearn for more bands to do this kind of thing: short of Of Montreal, whose stage shows are ADD-riddled, borderline-annoying freak fests, no group is currently offering this kind of visual/theatrical element in their live show. It's a real shame: Music + theater has nearly unlimited emotional power, and while it's not easy to pull off, when it works it is stunning.
Once I got over the cognitive dissonance of seeing a shortish French Canadian tackling the role of trim, handsome, 24-year-old Peter Gabriel, it became simple to get sucked into the show. The band sounded great, perfectly replicating the heavy prog and '70s timbres on the record. During brief interludes, the singer even recited, word for word, the bizarre and hesitant narration that Gabriel would announce to the crowd to cover up the band's tuning breaks. True to the letter, the Musical Box plonked and squonked over the singer's speech, just as Genesis did during the original shows, which to me seemed like they were taking their roles a trifle too far.
But everything else was great. I can imagine someone having never heard The Lamb wonder why anyone would go to all this trouble, let alone why I would trek up to Tacoma to witness it. But judging by the crowd—mostly male, all older than me, all ecstatic—this weird, dorky music strikes deep and lovely chords in listener's hearts. Even better than the full production of The Lamb were the two encores: "The Musical Box" and "Watcher of the Skies," which ended the show on an incredible high note. It was theater, it was rock 'n' roll, and it was among the strangest shows I've ever been to. I'd drive to Tacoma to see them do it again in a heartbeat.