Posted by: pop-break | April 5, 2013

Cover Me! Interview Series: The B Street Band

bill bodkin does the e street shuffle …

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Tribute and cover bands are a unique animal. These are groups outfitted with extremely talented singers and musicians that make their living performing the music someone else has written and performed.

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These bands range from the local weekend warriors who are out to make a few bucks to cover their bar tab and entertain there pals at the corner pub to full-on touring bands who perform at major concert venues in front of thousands of people. Bands like Badfish — A Tribute to Sublime and Dark Star Orchestra (the Grateful Dead tribute) have made long and lucrative careers performing the music of legendary musicians.

In this new monthly column, Cover Me!, Pop-Break editor in chief Bill Bodkin, who spent the greater part of a decade covering these groups who inhabited the Jersey Shore, is shining a light on those tribute and cover bands that stand above the rest. These groups are the ones that have made a cultural impact, that are regarded and beloved by fans and the musicians they cover themselves.

And what better place to start this column, especially for a site that’s based in Asbury Park, than with the longest running tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen — The B Street Band.

If you picked up a copy of the book Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, you’ll read a rather unusual story about the lean days of the E Street Band. It was well before the group’s mind-blowingly immense run as the biggest band in the world, when they were popular and selling records but still were pretty much broke as a joke. The story goes that the group was getting furious that a Bruce Springsteen tribute band had popped up along the Jersey Shore, where all the band members lived at the time, and they were actually making more money than the guys in the actual group. And to make matters worse, promoters were booking The Big Man himself, Clarence Clemons, to play the same show as this band — and Clarence was making money working with a tribute band, a group that was playing the music he helped create.

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And you guessed it, that group was The B Street Band, known then as Backstreets. And despite this rumored animosity, the band has received the nod of approval from The Boss himself and they’ve become an essential part of the Jersey Shore scene, performing weekly at venues like The Golden Nugget Casino and Headliner Nightclub (in season) as well as various other large nightspots along the famed beaches of Jersey. To many who begrudgingly afford to see The Boss live, B Street is the closest they’re going to get to hearing his music. And with their uncanny sonic and charismatic resemblance to the Bruce and the E Streeters, the masses have accepted them as their Boss by proxy and have been enjoying this concept for decades.

Pop-Break caught up with Willy Forte, the band’s founder and keyboardist to talk about his love of Bruce’s music, performing at President Obama’s inaugurations and the story about him and the band in the latest Bruce biography.

Pop-Break: You’ve dedicated your life to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Tell us about some of your favorite, initial Bruce experiences and why you fell in love with his music.

Willy Forte: The first time I saw Bruce was at The Spectrum [in Philadelphia ] in 1981, it was The River Tour. It was a two-night stand, and I was at both. One of the nights I was standing by his mom, who was a hairdresser at the time. I introduced myself to her and she said how she had heard about the band because we used to do minute commercials on the radio on WPLJ and WNEW. But that, seeing him live, that was the clincher to me … he hooked me. I just loved his music.

Funny story: I was actually introduced to Bruce’s music by my friend Joe Maddon, who’s now the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. He had an 8-track of one of his albums and he said to me, “You gotta hear this guy.”

Then with the band, we started doing about five to six songs of his in our set early on. From that point we started getting this cult-like group of fans who’d follow us just to hear those five to six Bruce songs.

So after seeing him live and then seeing the reaction and emotion we were getting to his music, I know that this is what I wanted to do.

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PB: So when you full-time with the tribute thing, was it difficult finding gigs?

WF: When it comes to tribute bands, it was a complete 180 from what it is today. Nobody wanted to hires us, they didn’t think no one would want to come and listen to one band’s songs being covered for one to two hours.

PB: So that performance really changed your life?

WF: That performance sold it for us. We became apostles of Springsteen music after that. He’s generated so much music that we can do all sorts of different things as a band much like he and his band do. We never have a set list — you’d think it be planned. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band are a solid improv band, they changed a lot of things in their songs live. They had such a passion for it and so we had to learn how to market, adapt and be entertaining like they were.

PB: For those of us at the Jersey Shore who love the tales of the days of yore, what was the first spot you played at?

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WF: I remember on May 19, 1980, we did a huge show at the Park Place building in Asbury Park. We had borrowed money from a coal miner in Pennsylvania so we could do radio to promote the show. We did 2,000 people … on a Tuesday night. After that, the calls started coming in.

PB: You guys played a few times with The Big Man, right? From reading the book Bruce, this rubbed some of the E Street Band members the wrong way right?

WF: Yes, we did some nights with Clarence at The Tradewinds in Sea Bright. Those nights grew in stature as the years passed, but we didn’t perform with him too many times. When the guys in the band heard it set them off. He was getting paid playing their songs when they weren’t working or making money. People were really excited about the idea of putting us together. But then [Springsteen manager] Jon Landau made Clarence stop. I remember we played one show on a Monday night and thousands of people came out, they were just starved for Bruce.

Funny story. I ran into [E Street bassist] Gary Tallent for the first time last summer. [Former E Street drummer] Vini Lopez introduced us. It was 30 years after that incident you mentioned that appeared in the book. So I introduced myself, “Hi Gary, I’m Willy from Backstreets. I know you’re probably not very fond us, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry if we did anything to insult you.”

He looked at me and told me that he had nothing against me at all. He was just unemployed at the time and here we were playing the music of his band, jamming up and down the Shore and we were playing with Clarence … all while he wasn’t getting a paycheck. So luckily there was nothing personal at all.

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PB: Out of curiosity, why change the name of the band from Backstreets to the B Street Band? Much better choice in my opinion, but just wondering.

WF: We were known as Backstreets — A Tribute to the Boss. It turned out the name “Backstreets” was owned by two brothers in Philadelphia. They copyrighted the name and went on to sue Tom Petty’s Backstreet Records and ended up settling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then our turn came up and the case was in federal court for eight years. I remember they were trying to subpoena Bruce for the case [laughs]. The judge in the case was on our side and remember him saying to us, “Why don’t you just drop some letters in the bands name, it’ll probably sound better anyway.” So we did and we became the B Street Band.

PB: Was there ever a lean time for the band — a time when people didn’t care as much about hearing Bruce songs as say they do nowadays?

WF: I think during the period when Bruce was kinda floating around and punk music and other styles of music came into focus and the scene changed. It was a holding period for a few years. But we all knew he would come and that when he started again it would be bigger and better than ever. We had to play some other music in order to be adaptable and I was proud of that, it showed we weren’t one-dimensional.

PB: You’ve performed for Bruce … so was that the most nerve-racking experience ever? Can you talk about that night?

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WF: He came into Tradewinds [a former nightclub in Sea Bright]. He heard a lot about us, and it’s not like Bruce didn’t like us. If Bruce or John Landau didn’t approve of us, we wouldn’t be doing this for a living. So it turns out Bruce had been working out and had come in to get a sneak peak of us tune up. It wouldn’t a comfortable position for Bruce to come in during out show and watch because of the attention he’d get. Bruce ended up seeing us and told us we did a nice job.

PB: You’ve performed at President’s Obama’s two inaugurations. How did these even happen?

WF: We represented New Jersey. We’ve done a lot for both parties, but for the Democrats especially. Lots of people in D.C. grew up on Bruce, so we’ve performed them. Had Nancy Pelosi come onstage with us, even some senators that play guitar come on jam. For some reason, they like New Jersey for parties.

But that night was a great honor. Barack and Michelle did come to the party we were at, bit they didn’t come into the main ballroom. I was kinda glad they didn’t because when the President comes into the room everything stops. And it kinda puts a damper on the vibe of the party.

We’ve also played for Chris Christie’s inauguration too. In fact, when we were at a show he had the FBI come and grab us so he could come over to say hi to us.

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PB: In the band repertoire, what’s the hidden Bruce classic that gets the biggest response?

WF: We just started re-doing “Drive All Night,” which was always a part of Backstreets sets. It was our fight song, it was part of us. We cut it out of our set for about 10 years and I’m glad we did and I’m glad we’ve brought it back.

PB: And finally, have you guys been incorporating the music from Bruce’s latest record, Wrecking Ball into the sets and with the diverse music range the album covers how has it been performing these songs and how’s the reception from the audience been?

WF: It’s been great. The music is a bit different, it’s a whole new parameter and I like it. For example, “American Land” is like that with its instrumentation. Glenn Stuart, our lead singer, really nails Bruce’s persona in that song. Same thing with the song “Wrecking Ball.”

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