YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A group of local rock artists got together at Cedars West End recently to play a Weird Al Yankovic show. It wasn’t the first time Valley musicians teamed up for a tribute concert, and it won’t be the last.
The ringleaders of the shows – usually Fred Whitacre of Kitchen Knife Conspiracy and John Anthony of The Vindys – enjoy working with their colleagues and tackling different music.
Whitacre, in fact, has created a side project that exists solely for the occasional one-night-only tribute show. The act, dubbed Control + Alt + Rewind, has done tributes for Jeff Buckley, Stone Temple Pilots, the Headbangers Ball and Chris Cornell at local clubs.
An English and video editing teacher at Harding High School in Warren, Whitacre is a founding member of Kitchen Knife Conspiracy. He plays drums for the long-running death metal band.
“Control + Alt + Rewind allows me to stretch my musical wings,” he says.
Whitacre and his musical collaborator, Noll Hartman, came up with the idea several years ago.
“I like playing original music and I’ve been doing it for [24 years] with Kitchen Knife,” Whitacre says. But working with a mix of musicians on completely different styles of music is just fun. “We’ll get some friends together, go over the songs that each one likes best, pare the list down to about 16, and play,” he says.
For his next project, Whitacre might revisit the Jeff Buckley set. He’s also kicking around something even more unusual.
“We talked about a ’90s female fronted band with a powerful singer, like Alanis Morissette,” he says.
TRUE TO THE ORIGINAL
Like Whitacre, The Vindys’ Anthony is also a teacher with a penchant for tribute concerts. The guitarist plays lead guitar and teaches music at Austintown Fitch High School, which includes instructing students in rock’n’roll.
He, too, took part in the Weird Al show. A few weeks before that, he put together a band for an Audioslave tribute concert at Westside Bowl.
“I’m always looking for a guitar playing challenge,” he says. Audioslave was especially intriguing for him.
“One of the last great innovators is [Audioslave guitarist] Tom Morello,” he says, not only for the sounds he makes but because he wrings them out of an ordinary guitar without the use of gadgets.
He has long been a fan of the band and its forebears.
“Audioslave was my introduction to Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden,” he explains, “because I was too young when they were on MTV. “
Reproducing intricate music with great accuracy is something he feels strongly about.
“I strive to sound the same [as Morello] in tribute shows,” Anthony says. He believes all tribute bands should be held to that standard.
“Classical musicians will scour every note of, for example, Paganini, but rock cover bands get a pass because it’s rock, even if they’re not playing it correctly or doing all the little ‘isms,’” Anthony says. “With my tribute shows, I strive to play the songs note for note.”
He demonstrated his perfectionist streak years ago as a music student at Youngstown State University. It was then that he started a series of annual concerts with fellow students to perform the complex, offbeat and jazzy songs of Frank Zappa.
In more recent years, he put together a tribute show to perform the punk and ska soundtrack of the Tony Hawk video game, and also a show of ’90s pop rock covers with Vindys singer Jackie Popovec, Clay Colley of Black Wolf and the Thief and members of Hoss and the Juggernauts.
For the Audioslave show, he enlisted Hayden Brooke to cover the powerful vocal style of the late Chris Cornell. “Hayden is one of the most gifted singers in town and it was an opportunity for him to shine,” he says.
WEIRD AL LOVE
The idea for the Weird Al Yankovic tribute show rests squarely on Christie Hayes. She’s not even a musician but is married to Matt Hayes, the drummer for The Labra Brothers.
The Weird Al concert, she says, was a labor of love that was years in the making.
A lifelong Weird Al fan, she says she was hooked when she first heard his music while in grade school. As she got older, she developed a deeper appreciation for his talent.
“This has been a passion project in the back of my mind for probably my whole life,” she says.
She originally planned to do the show in 2020 but had to postpone it because of the pandemic.
“When I saw that a Weird Al movie was coming out this fall, I figured we better do it now before someone else gets the idea,” she says.
Hayes assembled a group of 12 friends, each of whom is a Weird Al fan.
In addition to Hayes, Whitacre and Anthony, the band included Bo Violette (a classical musician), Jeff Penney (Poland High choir director), DJ DePanicis (Blue Collar Band), Carolyn Colley and Clay Colley (Black Wolf and the Thief), Matt Hayes (Labra Brothers), Alexa Anthony, Jim Merhaut (JD Eicher) and David Labra (The Labra Brothers).
Even though she spearheaded the project, Hayes works in the tech industry and has no musical background. “But I did get to play the slide whistle in the concert!” she says. She also sang.
Putting the band together, rehearsing and staging the concert was a big undertaking, she admits.
“I’m just lucky to know people who could handle it,” she says. “Rehearsals were easy, because they all knew the music and if something was missing, someone would recognize it.”
Like Whitacre and Anthony, Hayes caught Weird Al in concert this summer in Akron.
Weird Al Yankovic rose to fame 40 years ago by taking the biggest pop songs of the day and turning them on their ear with fresh and comical lyrics.
He made a slew of hilarious MTV videos in his prime. One of his most popular was “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Hayes was introduced to Weird Al in 1999 when her older brother brought home the “Running with Scissors” album.
“Lots of kids loved Weird Al then, but I never grew out of it,” she says. “He’s a brilliant musician and songwriter and a great personality.”
Pictured at top: Musicians who teamed up to stage a Weird Al Yankovic tribute concert posed for a group shot after a rehearsal. They are (top row) Bo Violette, Jeff Penney, DJ DePanicis, Carolyn Colley, Matt Hayes, Alexa Anthony, John Anthony, Jim Merhaut and (bottom row) Fred Whitacre, David Labra, Clay Colley and Christie Hayes.