Best tribute to tribute band is the audience forgot about its singer’s wheelchair
Yep—a Foo Fighters tribute band in Garwood, New Jersey Saturday night.
I don’t like the whole idea of tribute bands. I have always maintained that it’s better to be a good band than to sound and look like a good band. But what the hell – Liverpool had just iced the Champions League title and we needed to celebrate. Worst case, I figured I’d come away with ringing ears, a strong buzz and Everlong on repeat.
And besides, this group, Best of Foo, had a gimmick. But it wasn’t the fact that the lead singer, a Dave Grohl soundalike and even kinda lookalike, was confined to a wheelchair with a pretty debilitating condition. The gimmick was that the guitar player was my son’s baseball coach. The triumph of this band – this noisy, talented, red-shirt-and-skinny-black-tie-wearing band of brothers – is that by the time they got to the chorus of Learn to Fly, everyone at Crossroads had forgotten about the wheelchair.
Best of Foo takes the thing that’s initially most obvious about their band and instead of playing it for sympathy or laughs or just novelty, they just rock. That’s all they do.
Best of Foo’s singer is Phil Barbetta. He surpassed my requirement for tribute bands in that he performed the material with not just slavish devotion but brought obvious affection for the songs.
Barbetta told Rock and Roll Globe, “I’ve been singing in bands for over half my life now and all of them have been on the more aggressive side.” One of those other bands was Corevalay, a metal band working the North Jersey clubs with original tunes (including a catchy one called “Rewind.”) But there’s a different dynamic when performing songs where the audience are already fans of the songs they’re going to hear, and the only “risk” comes from achieving buy-in to your version of them.
“Foo Fighters songs are something else,” Barbetta said, “And I love it. I have to approach songs with so much energy and honestly it is so much easier singing these songs to a crowd then it is at rehearsal. I have also been taking voice lessons the last few years, which have really helped.”
A rare condition
Barbetta has a rare condition called Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. Often called AMC or simply arthrogryposis, it gets its name from Greek for “curving of joints” – its exact causes are not known and there is no cure. It affects those who have it differently, ranging from debilitating to barely noticeable. In Barbetta’s case, he’s got the sort of floppy bent wrists that don’t flex correctly, in addition to the wheelchair. And then when he gets to the chorus and he’s roaring “There goes my hero – he’s ordinary” and with drummer Chris Kozar whaling on the floor tom somehow it’s that much more powerful even than the original.
On the night I saw them, something happened that Barbetta told the crowd had never occurred before. He had to use the bathroom in the middle of the set. Had nothing to do with AMC – just had to go. But it gave rise to a truly lovely little scene. In the middle of a loud-ass set, with a hundred North Jersey meatheads getting hammered, his bandmates lifted Barbetta out of his chair, laid him on the stage, and then lifted his gigantic wheelchair off the stage. Barbetta meanwhile executed this flip maneuver to sit on the stage and then the bandmates lifted him into his chair. He rolled to the bathroom, came back and then the whole process in reverse. It was actually quite moving to behold – the band lifting their leader out of and into his chair and then watching him resume total command of the stage with these testosterone-drenched Foo songs.
“That bathroom break was probably the funniest mishap,” Barbetta told the Globe. “Though I’ve had many other situations arise where the wheelchair added some extra steps. Luckily every band I’ve been in has had strong enough guys to get me around!”
That fits. My son’s coach, Dennis Kozar, is a competitive powerlifter when he’s not shredding the riff in Monkeywrench or trying to manage his team of yeshiva students past Weequachic High. (Here’s coach/guitarist in a video of my guy gutting out a single in Newark.) Barbetta told of another episode that reveals some of the challenges faced by anyone with disabilities.
“Honestly, most of my challenges playing out [involve] finding an accessible bathroom and even sometimes getting in the venue itself. Some places are definitely better than others. Not to mention, few venues have stages with easy access. I had a show once in NYC and we took the subway to the venue. We did not know the subway there was not accessible to the streets. We were scared about being late, so my band carried my 300+ lb. wheelchair from the bottom of the subway, over the turnstiles, and up to the street.”
I did a whole book about a family and its struggles with rare diseases. I learned that there’s basically two ways to carry on after an unexpected diagnosis. You either resign yourself to the unfairness of life. Or you find ways to make your mark, like the children in the book have done.
On Saturday, I kept calling out for “The Pretender.” They didn’t play it that night, because the hits kept coming. But I’ll be back. I want to hear Phil Barbetta scream, “What if I say I’m not like the others / What if I say I’m not just another.”
VIDEO: Best of Foo covers Monkeywrench (live at Crossroads in Garwood New Jersey)