On Wednesday night, at the 9:30 Club, I went one of the weirdest concerts I have ever attended. The Rock Bottom Remainders have to be one of the most unique and unlikely cover bands of all time. The band is composed of best-selling authors turned amateur musicians, who live out their collective rock-star fantasy by performing less-than-perfect versions of rock-n-roll classics while occasionally wearing wigs, costumes, and silly hats. We are talking about book industry heavy hitters like Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Mitch Albom. As MC Roy Blount Jr. joked they are the only band that has sold more books that The Beatles.
I first heard about The Rock Bottom Remainders in the 1990’s while working at Reprint Bookshop, a wonderful and now sadly closed independent bookshop. The band had a kind of mythical status as stories of their rare sightings were told by my co-workers as if they were akin to the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. I have always been curious about this literary rock band with a rotating line-up of best-selling authors (at one point even Stephen King was a member!), but I never thought that I would have the opportunity to see The Rock Bottom Remainders perform.
The 2010 Wordstock Tour has The Rock Bottom Remainders conducting a short East Coast tour to benefit World Vision’s efforts on behalf of Haiti relief. In addition the band will also share proceeds with local causes in the cities they perform in. Here in DC they chose the Washington-based America’s Promise Alliance; and We Give Books, who will donate 5 books per ticket-sold to DC Public Schools.
I really did not know what to expect going into a concert where some of the literary world’s best-sellers would be putting it all out there by picking up instruments they do not master and taking to the stage. The 9:30 Club was about a third full when humorist, Roy Blount, Jr. took to the stage wearing a very large, plush, American flag top-hat. This set the tone for the show to come immediately; the night was to get much, much sillier. Blount acted as MC for the evening, briefing the audience on the less-than-professional nature of the music to come by telling an anecdote of an old performance when Frank McCourt was singing one Beatles song while the band was playing another!
The band was composed of several hugely successful authors (covering just about every literary genre conceivable), a few professional musicians as ringers, family members, and a classic rock superstar. Playing the keyboards was Mitch Albom of “Tuesdays with Morrie” fame. On guitar, the wildly popular humor writer Dave Barry. On bass, suspense novelist Ridley Pearson. Playing second guitar was thriller writer, Greg Iles. On saxophone, former Washington Post writer and best-selling memoir author, James McBride. Rounding out the back-up singers was publicist and band-founder Kathi Kamen Goldmark; Amy Tan, best-known for writing “The Joy Luck Club”; and legal thriller author Scott Turow. Just about everyone had their turn as lead vocalist. The band was filled out by a professional drummer, a professional saxophonist, Dave Barry’s brother, Mitch Albom’s wife, Scott Turow’s two daughters; and the former singer for The Byrds, Roger McGuinn!
Scott Turow approached his microphone wearing an insane blonde-wig and a purple feather boa. Next to him was Amy Tan also wearing an outrageously huge, blonde, New Wave wig and a slinky black dress. The rest of the band were rocking the middle-aged author moon-lighting as middle-aged rock stars look: sports coats, jeans, t-shirts. Everyone on stage had a huge smile on their face and so did everyone in the audience. It was truly surreal to see so many recognizable authors on stage preparing to rock out. It struck me as very funny seeing Mitch Albom behind his massive keyboard. I had no idea how much more humor he had in store for us.
The band played their tunes as best they could. Occasional looks of intense concentration would erase a smile when someone had to focus on their guitar solo. But no one took themselves too seriously. When there was a mistake made (and there were many) it was laughed off and the tune would grind past it. The Rock Bottom Remainders whole PR approach is to play on the humor of their amateur musician status and I won’t deny them that by saying they were a very good band. The best musical compliment I can give to The Rock Bottom Remainders is that there was never a point in the evening when you could not recognize what they were trying to play.
They were a very earnest band in their effort and an extremely entertaining band in their delivery. The entire night was full of music but also the collected wit of a stage full of best-selling authors. The audience was laughing, clapping, and singing the entire time. Witty stage banter was not the only humorous element though. Scott Turow changed wigs several times through out the night, each new one more outrageous than the last. Amy Tan delivered two amazingly bad and hilarious lead vocals (Blondie’s ‘One Way Or Another’ while wearing Kanye West slit-glasses and The Shangri-La’s ‘Leader of the Pack’ featuring her husband as the cool motorcycle rebel). I got the impression that Amy Tan must be one very fun lady. And Mitch Albom delivered an incredible two-song Elvis tribute running on-stage as gold-jacket era Elvis complete with an Elvis wig and sunglasses. Albom had all the moves and while the band jammed before ‘Jail House Rock’, he turned his back to the crowd and hip swiveled right down to his t-shirt and boxer shorts!
Roger McGuinn was invited on stage as the band’s special guest to play and sing a few classics. According to Roy Blount Jr., McGuinn was invited to “remind the audience what good music sounds like”. The Bryds’ front man brought his instantly recognizable voice and sang about four or five tunes. Including, of course, The Bryds’ hits ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, both of which provided unexpected, special moments during a night of out-right silliness.
The Rock Bottom Remainders concert on Wednesday was a really good time for some very good causes. The band and the audience looked like they all had a blast. Seeing these literary titans turned tongue-in-cheek rock-gods in concert was something I never expected to have the opportunity to experience. It was a funny, surreal evening and I am very glad that I was there.