Back to Life
Prague Revival Bands

Mozart's been dead for more than 200 years, but you can still hear his music in venues throughout Prague almost every day. This is a city that loves its music, and where great works only become better appreciated over time, so it's no surprise that Czechs appreciate classic rock tunes even when performed by new artists, or cover bands. When you consider that the communists banned "decadent" Western music for years, so that there was no chance of seeing the original acts here, it's clear why Prague abounds with what are known locally as "revival bands".

It was with dread and reluctance that I set out to explore the Prague "revival" scene, especially because so many of the local bands revive groups that still tour - R.E.M, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or U2. The revival concept made more sense to me in the context of an artist who's died or a group that's disbanded like Janis Joplin or The Doors - but even then I felt that any musicians good enough to imitate a talented artist should be writing their own songs.

My anxiety was amplified when I realized that the bands I would be seeing were primarily groups I had seen before and whom I could see again because they still tour. But my opinion began to shift after the first notes of The Cure revival, a.k.a. The Ordinary, as they dove straight into the classic tune "Fascination Street" at their May 22nd show in front of a crowd of about 50 at the Rock Café. The singer's voice was incredibly similar to Robert Smith's, which delighted me, but I was convinced his tone would surely waver after a song or two - it seemed impossible that anyone could mimic Smith's voice so accurately for an extended stretch of time.

Another shock to my preconceived notions about revival bands was that the group didn't attempt at all to appear like The Cure - no big black hair, no all-black clothes. My idea was along the lines of Beatlemania: the group, I thought, was supposed to mimic the stage presence of the artist. (In fact, the band says it doesn't even consider itself to be a revival, though they were billed as such for this show.) Instead, the focus was on recreating the exact Cure sound, and that's exactly what they did, with an emphasis on classic Cure from the '80s. Songs like "A Night Like This," "Close to Me," and "Boys Don't Cry" were reproduced with such precision that I could close my eyes and imagine being back at my first Cure show in 1985. But when I opened them again, there were the same Czech guys, looking nothing whatsoever like The Cure but playing with a genuine love for the music and the talent to pull it off. The only weak point was the drums, which were off in some places, especially on the slower songs.

In contrast, the U2 revival was more like the Elvis impersonator (or Bono impersonator) that I'd envisioned. At their May 25th show at the Lucerna Music Hall before a crowd of at least 200, the singer came out in Bono-style sunglasses and proceeded to replicate Bono's stage presence as well as his voice. As in an actual U2 show, he held out the mike to audience members so they could sing along to the chorus on such classics as "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "I Will Follow," and "Where the Streets Have No Name." He clapped his hands over his head to the beat at certain points, inviting the crowd to join in - and they did. I was actually a bit surprised that there were no impassioned political speeches between songs and no flag-waving.

But if imitation is the highest form of flattery, this clearly was a group of guys out to flatter U2. The faux Bono, after a particularly good solo, even gestured to the guitarist and proclaimed "The Edge!" to the delight of the many fans present. While the vocals on occasion were clearly not the true voice of Bono Vox, they were generally a great substitute, the guitarist was spot on and, so far as anyone in the crowd was concerned, these guys were U2. The encores, "With or Without You" and "Desire," probably couldn't have brought a more enthusiastic response if the original band had played them.

The Metallica revival, who played May 26th at Vagon, was perhaps less authentic. The vocals, especially later in the set, were less reminiscent of James Hetfield than of Lemmy from Motorhead. After the recent departure of the previous singer, one of the guitarists picked up the slack and is apparently still getting his bearings. Still, Lemmy rocks, and so did these guys. They were obviously well-rehearsed, managing the breaks and tempo shifts of old Metallica numbers like "Blackened," "Shortest Straw," and "Seek and Destroy" tightly. Although the crowd was small (roughly 40 people), there were headbangers up front just as at a real Metallica show. Death-metal T-shirts, black jeans and shirts, and long hair were all in attendance, with not a mullet in sight, and, just like after a real Metallica show, my ears were still ringing the next day.

The local Doors revival, who bill themselves as "Other Voices," were more like my original conception of a revival band, first of all in that the real Jim Morrison "retired" quite some time ago, so a good imitation is a close as I'll ever get. His presence also seems almost inimitable. You can mimic a voice and parrot mannerisms, but charisma isn't easily faked.

The Other Voices' show on June 5th at Stromovka Park was both a surprise and a disappointment. The sound man, who was apparently deaf, ignored entreaties by the band itself to turn the volume down and as a result, the sound would distort, especially during dramatic moments. However, these guys can really play music. The keyboardist has dutifully studied Ray Manzerik to the point of obsession. The guitarist, apparently a new member, was less authentic as a Krieger substitute but nevertheless viable, enjoying himself and entertaining the small crowd at the same time. And a harmonica player who joined in on a few numbers, notably the opener, "Roadhouse Blues," added that rootsy blues sound that the guitarist sometimes lacked.

The star of a Doors revival has to be the singer, however, and in this case Milan Puta fortunately gave a good approximation of Morrison's voice, although the band, probably because of the new guitarist, stuck to the bluesier numbers (for example, "Back Door Man") and did little in the way of Morrison's more "poetic" tunes. Replicating the original band would anyway have been a difficult feat, given the outdoor venue and a peak crowd of maybe 30. Still, the band was again significantly better than I'd expected, and no doubt they'd be even better in an indoor hall, where they assured me they draw bigger crowds.

All in all, my conceptions concerning revival bands changed dramatically over these four shows. I doubt The Cure has ever played Prague, and U2 and Metallica charge a wee bit more than 100 CZK on the rare occasions they make it here. The Doors, of course, never made it here and never will. But why let that stop you (or me) from enjoying the next-best thing? If you like The Cure, you'll probably like The Ordinary, and if you like U2 you will no doubt enjoy their tribute (and Lucerna is a great place to see it). Ditto for The Doors and Metallica - great bands with great tributes, right here in Prague. Should none of those be your thing, look for the Stones, Janis Joplin, Faith No More, R.E.M, Queen, or one of the many others playing Prague every month. At 100 CZK, you don't have much to lose, and you might be pleasantly surprised.