Words by Alasdair Belling and photos by Ashley Mar.
For a worryingly large amount of serious music fans, the idea of a cover show involves a half-empty RSL with the sound of pokies drowning out a sad rendition of ‘Summer of ’69’, sung by a collection of 40-something year-olds with workable Fenders and tattered dreams.
Such stereotypes don’t just fail to recognise the exploding (and hugely exciting) tribute scene emerging in Australia, they also prevent people from enjoying high energy, professional productions performed by musicians in their prime, bringing the hits of our yester-decades to life (minus the inflated egos, carpal tunnel and substance withdrawals that you might find at a Scorpions or Whitesnake gig in years gone by).
Case in point was Sydney cult-heroes Frankie’s World Famous House Band’s Van Halen tribute show on Friday night.
What began as a one-off event last year at the beloved rock ‘n’ roll pizza bar in Sydney’s CBD quickly transformed into a full Australian tour, taking in the capital cities for some rustic theatre-like socially distanced shows celebrating over 30 years of genre defining anthems.
Incredibly, the show was prepared and ready to roll before the death of Eddie Van Halen last year – transforming the gig from a fun night out to a hugely significant musical tribute.
“We had intentions to just throw it out there for a singular night in Frankie’s….but the idea of the tour came about when Eddie passed, and we thought ‘there’s more at play here,” recounts drummer and Frankie’s co-owner Jordan McDonald.
“It was such a timely thing to drop a Van Halen specific show.”
With members of the band lending their own talents to the likes of Rose Tattoo, Mi-Sex and Wolfmother (among others), as well as having their renowned Monday night weekly performance at the venue with a range of different guest frontmen and women, it’s impressive enough that the lads had learned two hours of Van Halen tunes on top of their usual load.
From staples ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Everybody Wants Some’ and ‘Dreams’ to deeper cuts ‘Romeo Delight’ and highlight ‘Light Up The Sky’, there was something to enjoy for both the spandex wearing die-hard and bemused casual fan, with guest vocalists Simon Hill (David Lee-Roth) and Spencer Jones (Sammy Hagar) bringing all the cock, rock and swagger needed for the show.
At its heart though, this was a communal celebration of tunes that combined blistering solos, massive hooks, and questionable lyrics, done with utmost integrity.
From guest axe-wielders for the hits including members of Furnace and the Fundamentals, and the jock-clad guitar trio from local heavy metal favourites Battlesnake for a triple-attack on ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’, to the drill on the guitar neck effect for ‘Poundcake’, this was Van Halen celebrated, but not imitated.
Indeed, the band chose to omit mega-hit ‘Jump’ from the set, a move which was met with indifference from punters. This was a night for the music first and foremost. The chart-toppers could wait for another day.
“We’re not there to imitate…we celebrate the shit, do it our way and do it with respect as opposed to copy. There’s a market for the dress up, and a market for the celebratory stuff too,” notes McDonald.
“We’ve done similar shows with other acts at Frankie’s as one-offs….Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy…there’s been a few, playing the bands that we love. But we’ve always been really surprised by the amount of appetite the public has for this kind of stuff,” he admits, noting that as far as tribute shows go, “nostalgia will always be a hot ticket.”
A look at the live events picking back up in the post-Covid era certainly reflects that sentiment, with concert promoters Silverback Touring set to host upcoming runs from the likes of Kiss Off: The Ultimate Kiss Party, A Tribute To The Music of Bon Jovi and the Bon But Not Forgotten AC/DC tribute.
While the Frankie’s band’s take on Van Halen is certainly firmly in the one-off celebration category of the tribute world, it’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer mass appeal of a high-energy professional covers gig.
As the evening concluded with a furious take on ‘Hot For Teacher’, there was a sense in the crowd that it no longer mattered who performed the music. With the lights, songs and musicians with the attitude and chops to pull it off, it didn’t matter that it was Frankie’s World Famous House Band on stage as opposed to Diamond Dave and his band of boozy men.
What was important was that rock ‘n’ roll was being brought to life again in a live setting, and crucially receiving a hit of adrenaline that the composers themselves may have been unable to deliver in their latter years.
After all, even the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is just Australia’s best paid cover act. And no matter how celebrated they are, we doubt you’ll hear the cracking out ‘Panama’ any time soon.
The Songs of Van Halen performed by Frankie’s World Famous House Band
Friday 26th February
The Triffid, Brisbane
Thursday 18th March
The Gov, Adelaide