Authenticity is key for Springsteen tribute band, Tramps Like Us

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PITTSFIELD — If you are going to perform Bruce Springsteen songs to Bruce Springsteen fans you better know what you're doing. Fans of the Boss, the kind who get tattoos of his lyrics and will likely arrange to have him mentioned in their obituaries someday, expect a singularly intense stage experience, usually on the long side. They know every word and beat of his expansive catalog, often several versions of songs. It is something very real.

"[The fans] are great, but they expect a lot and that's a good thing," said John Winton, the saxophone player for Tramps Like Us, a Springsteen tribute band that will be performing Friday at the Colonial Theater. On stage he has the tall task of capturing the spirit of the late great Clarence Clemons, and it's not about look or imitation. "We're not trying to be those guys, we're trying to catch that feeling you get at a Bruce show."

The group came together as a tribute band, playing Springsteen's songs, in 1990. They are led by Mark Salore, who is the front man and guitar player, and they've played gigs all over the Northeast and elsewhere, and earned the praise of fan groups and websites and members of the Springsteen orbit like his first manager, Mike Appel.

Reached for a phone interview this week at his home in New York, Salore described growing up just north of the city and finding Springsteen's music in the 1970s.

"I was raised on this, it's in my blood," he said. "It's funny, a lot of people ask how I memorize all these lyrics. I never memorized them. I've listened to these songs since I was 14."

It's not a hard thing to imagine — when the E Street Band performs "Hungry Heart" the band lets the crowd sing the entire first verse. And that's the hard part, of playing for a crowd that often knows the music by heart.

For Winton, who is a generation younger and just joined the band four years ago, the music has always been around. He described growing up outside New York and how his dad always had the music on in the house. When he first picked up the saxophone in fourth grade, Clemons was on his mind, with his big, blow-the-doors-off solos and powerful stage presence, an approach to playing in the back of his mind even as he played classical and jazz. He was ready for the opportunity to dive into Clemon's singular, eccentric style.

"Until they try to do it a lot of musicians don't realize what goes into it," he said. "It isn't technically the most difficult music to play, but it is very difficult to get the emotions right."

Salore agreed, and said that that's something you can't fake. "If you don't have the feel and the vibe and the style, you really can't play it."

At the moment, Tramps Like Us brags a repertoire that amounts to over 140 songs. Salore said his personal favorites are from the first four albums that he first found as a teenager, especially everything off the album "Born to Run" from 1975 — songs like "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "Jungleland."

For their performances, they said they try to keep in touch with the crowd wants. About 10 years ago he worked out a system of video monitors for each band member — the other members include Ken Hope on keyboards, Marty Matelli on drums, and Jonathan Sanborn on bass — from which he can quarterback what song they play next.

"I make the set list as we go," he said. "We pick an opening song, and then we read the crowd, and whatever we feel like playing." That way they can respond — does it feel like the crowd wants to get up and dance? Is there a particular song people are calling out to hear?

This is the plan for Friday's show at the Colonial. But for special occasions, those aimed at the truly hardcore fanatics, the band has also explored a niche of performing specific, legendary concerts from start to finish. These are famous shows fans know from bootlegs and reputation, like a September 1978 show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J., which was broadcast on the radio and Salore said he taped and listened to "about 10,000 times." Each of these dozen shows in their catalog feature the unique, embellished versions of the songs, with different intros/outros and rearrangements.

It's a part of the band's evolution over its decades. They originated when Salore and some friends from school were playing their own music in New York in the 1980s. One place they called was the Rock `n Roll Club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, where the owner was a huge Springsteen fan who liked Salore's group's Springsteen covers. He suggested they might make a go of it as a tribute band. The response from fans and audiences convinced them they were on to something.

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They got along but moved up a notch when their original keyboard player moved away and they brought on board a professional musician, Hope, who wasn't as deeply familiar with the work and had to get up to speed on hundred songs.

"He made a huge commitment and it really made a difference to me and the band, and we really kicked in," he said. "It was no longer a friend thing, it was a business thing and we were going to really see where we could go with it."

Winton described how it was a "dream situation for any musician" to come into the band, which has been around over 30 years and had found its rhythm with a well-earned reputation for capturing some part of the Springsteen experience for its audience.

"Getting on stage and playing music is always the fun part," he said.

In concert

Who: Tramps Like Us

What: Bruce Springsteen tribute band

When: Friday evening at 8

Where: Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield

Tickets: $25

Reservations/Information: 413-997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org

at The Colonial Theatre

Friday, November 22 at 8pm

Tickets: $25


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