“Tribute bands suck, OK?”
Craig Martin, founder of Toronto-based Classic Albums Live, didn’t miss an opportunity in his phone interview to express confidence as well as a good deal of disdain. He didn’t mince words about the way cover bands, or “whimsical, weekend warriors” ruin his favorite music. He even said they “should be working at Burger King.”
And ironically, it was with this conviction that Martin maxed out credit cards and exhausted his savings to launch Classic Albums Live in 2003.
“I was broke,” he said, before adding, “I was fearless.”
The former Mick Jagger tribute performer was playing Rolling Stones songs (sans costumes) when he came up with the idea to have musicians play classic rock albums track-by-track, part-by-part without overdubs or computer effects.
Now, Classic Albums Live has 150 dates a year in North America, and Martin has plans to boost that number to 200.
Martin employs local and non-local professional musicians for Classic Album Live performances, which will include a performance of Led Zeppelin II Friday night on the Weinberg stage.
“All of our attention is on the music,” Martin said. He emphasized that the Classic Album Live musicians don’t wear costumes, wigs or fake mustaches.
“That was very freeing,” Martin added. “Love the record. Learn the record. Play the record.”
His musicians are so concerned about the music that they have an anticlimactic introduction to the crowd — the shows typically begin when the artists walk on stage and tune their guitars.
Since 2003, Martin and his team, including music director Rob Phillips, arranges ensembles that can include groups of as many as 13 musicians. Even parts such as George Harrison’s sitar playing in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is not overlooked. Musicians will either learn a new instrument or Martin will get a performance request from a musician who already plays that instrument.
“We’re a cover band the same way your local orchestra is a cover band,” Martin said.
He took this thinking a step further.
“We’re actually better than an orchestra,” he noted, “because we have no room for artistic interpretation.”
The classic rock albums that Martin’s company performs have been analyzed for decades. Any aberration can be noticed by die-hard fans.
“’Whole Lotta Love’ starts with a cough,” Martin said of the opening track to Led Zeppelin II. “We do the cough [on stage] and maybe six people in the audience say, ‘They did the cough!’”
After performing Led Zeppelin II, the Classic Album musicians at the Weinberg will take a 20-minute break before playing a second set of Led Zeppelin’s music. The set will include rare songs from the band that many say paved the way for heavy metal. It’s not uncommon for classic rock fans to tell Martin his musicians played a song they never heard before.
“Welcome to church!” Martin often says to them, fully embracing his role as a music evangelist.
Classic Albums Live allows Martin to go full-circle, returning to the wonder of rummaging through the record collection of his friend’s brother.
“That’s the album that changed everything,” Martin said of Led Zeppelin II. “This is classical music. This will endure.”