On Friday night, a once-viral YouTube clip beamed down from cyberspace, materializing as a musical band of living, breathing humans who graced New York with an entire hour of genre-warped Nickelback singles. In theory, “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback” seems like the most heinous sacrilege, muddling something people generally love (Motown) with something people generally hate (Nickelback). However I challenge you to delete “How You Remind Me” from your brain. Plus, Motown and Nickelback share something in common: both are responsible for selling lots of records. That an off-the-cuff, homemade video of “How You Remind Me” actualized as a real band on a real stage is worth a raised eyebrow in this post “Harlem Shake” climate. YouTube has a thriving subculture of quirky covers people, and earlier this year, Nataly Dawn, singer of the schticky “video-song” duo Pomplamoose, made the great leap into a serious, surprisingly tasteful singer-songwriter album on Nonesuch. But before we let our wild fantasies about Motown Nickelback run wild, let’s recap the band’s career:
See also: Why Do People Loathe Nickelback So Much? (And Do They Deserve It?)
Back in 2011, Nickelback played the halftime show at the Thanksgiving Day match between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. The Canadian “post-grunge” bros’ appearance incited furious backlash across the nation and the Internet for snaking the Motor City’s musical spotlight. At that moment, Nickelback’s mainstreamed schlock-rock was easier to shit on than ever, and whatever shred of integrity was left on Chad Kroeger’s fuzzy chin seemed guttered.
See also: So… How Was Nickelback’s Big Thanksgiving Performance?
Come game-day, NYC piano man Scott Bradlee proffered a laurel branch via YouTube: a Motown Tribute to Nickelback. The timely, light-hearted video went viral, and Bradlee’s re-imagining of “How You Remind Me” had some folks second-guessing if Nickelback’s soulless, clichéd strummery is completely devoid of artistic value after all.
Since then, someone at Live Nation got such a kick out of Bradlee’s cover that the act scored a big-time booking at Squamish, a major-ish music festival in Canada. Bradlee ran with the buzz, and one Kickstarter later, had assembled a set’s worth of Motown Nickelback material for the sake of a gig.
To celebrate the iTunes release of its S/T EP, A Motown Tribute to Nickelback played its first hometown gig to about 70 people at the Cutting Room, a fittingly weird venue for the unlikely performance. The big, slick, corporate-feeling room had candle-lit tables with dinner service, plus a $20 per person minimum!? Nevertheless, there were a gaggle of musicians’ friends in the crowd, as well as a fair number of middle-aged couples whom must have figured this show to be an amenable alternative to an actual concert by that “cool,” “popular” band Nickelback they’re always hearing on adult contemporary satellite-radio.
Initially, Bradlee said he “didn’t even know many Nickelback songs.” He comes from a jazz background and describes himself primarily as an “improvising musician.” Current Billboard hits and immortal pop songs flow from his fingers in a stream of ivory, played in old-fashioned ragtime and jazz idioms. We caught up with him when Motown Nickelback initially popped off, and he’s still working the same concept: “a song is something fluid… the genre isn’t necessarily a part that’s fixed, a genre can be anything.” While he extends that philosophy to Nickelback’s insidiously crappy songs, he admitted that he approached the serendipitous pairing of styles with an “added sense of irony.”
On stage, vocalist Drue Davis made a convincing, charismatic frontman for the group. He sang in a high, spritely voice that’s got soul, and he deftly riffed falsetto “oohs.” Atop Bradlee’s bouncy piano, Davis nailed the saccharine quality that made those catchy Motown hooks so smooth, easy, and uplifting. A twin sax solo on “Photograph” was a nice touch, and Davis’ duet with powerhouse vocalist Karen Marie on slow jam “Gotta Be Somebody” soared, while the band wielded dramatic starts and stops. When they asked the audience to sway, everyone looked up from their $19 chicken fingers to wave hands, hoisting table candles like lighters. “Lullaby” in its bass-driven, Motown form totally outshined Nickelback’s original (duh) from 2011’s Here and Now.
When I asked Bradlee if he thought Nickelback’s music shared musical DNA with Motown in particular, he said no, but that a few songs “were just no-brainers. I heard it and was like, ‘oh, that’s just like this Brenda Holloway record from whenever.'” I couldn’t help thinking about how boss Charles Bradley’s gritty cover of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” was for SPIN‘s 20th anniversary tribute to Nevermind. If we consider “post-grunge” Nickelback the dead end of Nirvana’s spent musical lineage, there is maybe some tenuous connection between the styles. However, the band skewed more jazz than soul–it made a lot of sense to learn that Bradlee directs the music for the immersive, Macbeth-inspired, cabaret fantasy Sleep No More.
Instead of exploring a non-EP cut like “Animals” (my favorite), Bradlee and co. broke the spell and busted out their “Grandpa Style” rendition of Macklemore’s divisive chart-topper “Thrift Shop.” Bradley posted “Thrift Shop” to YouTube after receiving countless requests during his weekly, livestreamed, “virtual piano bar,” netting 1,230,000 views in 3 weeks–nearly quadruple the views of the original Nickelback tribute. The band implemented some theatrics, morphing “Rockstar” into a faux-gospel rave up, and just like on YouTube, percussionist/guitarist Tim Kubart is a tambourine exhibitionist, shimmying uncontrollably and throwing heaps of smiles in every direction. Whether you cringe or are delighted, it’s truly hard to avert one’s gaze from the overzealous tambourine antics.
“This whole band has been my social experiment,” said Bradlee. “The most interesting part has been getting people to actually enjoy or take pleasure in something that they would swear they hate.” However as Bradlee tells it, the big festival crowd ate them up. “During ‘Rockstar,’ a girl threw a bra at our lead singer and he caught it in the middle of the song,” he said, “it was like life imitating art in that case.”
Overheard: “A twenty dollar minimum… per person!?” – dude at the table next to mine. That’s Karmic retribution for bringing your date to a Tribute to Nickelback show.
Critical Bias: I’m really more of a Stax guy.
Random Notebook Dump: The servers are singing every word.