Every year, the Hangar, the Orange County Fair's secondary live music venue, becomes a certified Valhalla of tribute bands. Fans of acts like Journey, Prince and Depeche Mode routinely shell out $16 to watch some very talented and very capable musicians pay homage to the artists they adore. But it's doubtful that those talented pretenders who channel Abba, the Eagles or David Bowie have as surreal a story involving their particular muse as does Josh Tanner, who performs tonight as the frontman of Springsteen! The Ultimate Tribute to the Boss.
Tanner, a longtime vet of the Southern California music scene, has never formally met Springsteen. But three years ago, two years into his tribute to the Boss, he was backstage at a his show at the L.A. Sports Arena. Looking like he'd stepped off the cover of 1975's Born to Run, complete with the leather jacket and wharf rat-like hirsuteness,Tanner was just hoping to get an up-close-and-personal sighting of his longtime musical idol. What he got was a lot more than he expected.
"There were about 100 people back there, lots of celebrities and that, but as he was walking off-stage after his last song, he walked right up to me and said, 'You, you're the one. You're the guy,' and he just stared at me, way past the point where you want to turn your eyes away," Tanner recounts.
"But I just took all that mojo in. I was shaking but his energy and charisma were so strong I just knew I had to take it all in. I don't know if he was really tired and delirious from the show, or maybe he'd heard of me through my website and just knew I was keeping the fire alive, but it was really odd," Tanner says. "Security came up and I thought they were going to take me away but then he just turned away and walked into his dressing room. He didn't acknowledge anyone else."
"I don't know why he did that but the next night, we were playing the House of Blues in San Diego and that was the first time I felt all of him coming through me, singing. It was none of me. So I do think I took some of his mojo. He got into me and he gave me that extra little boost to give me that breakthrough. Now there are nights when I'm onstage when I turn him on and I don't even know it's me up there."
Whether possessed by Springsteen, highly susceptible or just a weirdo, the fact remains that when you see Tanner do his Bossy thing, you can't help but be transported back to the early days of the E Street Band. He looks, moves and sounds like Springsteen and he's pretty much the next best thing to seeing the real guy in the flesh. We decided to sit down with him to talk about his quest to become the greatest fake boss of all time.
OC Weekly (Joel Beers): When did you first encounter Springsteen? Tanner: I grew up in the same city as he did, Freehold, New Jersey. My dad owned a hobby shop downtown and when I was around 10 years-old, he'd take me to work and I'd peek in a place called the Hullaboo. This was before the E Street band was even formed and even though I didn't know it was Bruce Springsteen, that sound, the old rock 'n' roll meets Motown. It was just an amazing feeling. So much soul. And he was the guy making it happen.
Has it been a lifelong goal to perform as a Springsteen artist? Not at all. I moved to Los Angeles to play music and to actually try not to sound like him. If you're from Liverpool, you don't want to sound like the Beatles, and it's the same when you grow up in Jersey with Springsteen. Plus, when I moved out here, he was my escape, my connection back home. Whenever I was missing home, or when things weren't going so well, I'd sit in my car and listen to a cassette tape of him, close my eyes, and I'd be back in New Jersey. Because I knew everything he was singing about. And I didn't want anything to taint that. But after a while, so many people said I looked and sounded like him, I figured, why not?
What about people who would say tribute artists are just kind of talented vampires, making money off milking someone else's work?
There are always going to people who say that. From what I've realized, the artists who have tribute bands are either flattered and don't mind, or actually go after (the tribute bands) and trying to collect money from them. But I really think it's a form of flattery. I don't know how many times I've done a show and people come up to me and say, 'I never knew Springsteen played that song.' They actually get turned on to the music and go out and buy his records. So I think guys us like actually are helping the artists."
Has anyone from the Springsteen camp ever hit you up?
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No, they haven't. Either way, it'd be OK, though, because it would some kind of acknowledgement. And I wouldn't be worried about it. I'm from his same hometown and so I think I have more of a rite of passage or sense of connection with that particular tribute. I also have that built-in New Jersey culture and the character he writes about and the places where he hung out, I know. I use that and pull from that. So even though is a character impersonation that I take very seriously in terms of getting it right, I think there's more of a reality with this tribute band. And that's important. Because if you're going to go down this road, you can't go half-way. You have to be all-in.
This is the third time you've played the OC Fair. Anything special about tonight's gig?
We were asked by the guy who does the booking if we could do some songs from Springsteen's first two albums. Most of those songs we've never touched, so we added a three-piece horn section and will be doing some really cool, textural things, like "Wild Billy's Circus Song " and "New York City Serenade." But we'll make sure to get the hits in as well.