Tribute band The Musical Box recreates ground-breaking early shows of prog-rock legend.
Picture this: You climb into the shiny-yet-cramped cabin of a time machine, and pull the round porthole door shut with a slam. You strap yourself in and close your eyes for what is sure to be an exhilarating ride to another time. Off you go.
Suddenly, you stop, crank open the door, and through the haze and smoke, you’re inside a dark theater with a stark white curtain across the back of the stage, and white instruments there waiting to be played. Then, you see white-clad men take their places, followed by a white-faced character who slowly emerges through the curtain wearing a giant flower around his head. Then you hear a distinct British voice say, as only he can, “Good evening.”
Yes, the ride on this particular time machine is a musical one, taking you back to the early 1970s when a band called Genesis was beginning its ascent to the top of the progressive rock world, mainly on the creative strength of its fancifully ornate lyrics, astonishing individual musicianship and dazzling theatrics mostly provided by its flamboyant and gifted lead singer, Peter Gabriel. There was nothing at the time like a Genesis show, certainly never before and maybe never since. And alas, there are no time machines either, so nothing can really bring back those original shows, except the memories.
Well, nothing except for The Musical Box, that is. Formed by Canadian musician Sebastien Lamothe in 1993 — to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Genesis’ epic 1973 record “Selling England By The Pound” — The Musical Box has painstakingly grown into the most well-known and pre-eminent Genesis “cover band” in the world, replicating performances from Genesis’ career with astounding accuracy in both music and show, pleasing millions of die-hard Lamb-era fans as well as members of Genesis itself. The Musical Box is reproducing an entire set from Genesis’ legendary 1973 “Foxtrot” tour, as well as a few other same-era Genesis epics, at the Birchmere on November 17.
“When they started out, Genesis had a pretty big impact on the Eastern part of Canada,” Lamothe, 42, told me recently. “Later generations like me weren’t able to witness those original shows, but eventually somebody introduced me to this music, and I was very touched by it, very fascinated by it. So we all entered into this Genesis universe as teenagers, and 20-plus years later, we still care very deeply about the music.”
But The Musical Box — a name taken from (surprise) an early Genesis song of course — is a lot more than just a band playing great versions of songs by another artist. It’s the intense, uber-dedicated attention to detail they go through to actually reproduce the show itself — everything from not only the perfection of the songs themselves, but also to the precise details of the staging, the pinpoint exactness of the costumes — that sets them apart from many of the world’s great rock tribute acts. Every single detail is replicated as if it actually was that mystical bygone era, and you actually were sitting in that dark theater waiting for this new thing called Genesis to unfold in front of you.
“There wasn’t a lot of footage out there [of these older tours],” Lamothe continued. “YouTube wasn’t around, the shows were kinda lost in time. So at the beginning, we tried to capture what would have been a Genesis show, the whole mythic aspect of the early Genesis performance. Then, we slowly got bits of information on what the shows were really like, and as the band’s reputation grew and we started playing internationally, it attracted a lot of people from the early days, and all these people that were attracted to us, they were reliving special moments and were really interested in helping us conjure up those shows by using their own memories. This included members of the band’s old crews who could really help us get incredibly close to the original.”
Lamothe added that musically, it’s really all about working to replicate the early machinations of Genesis by tirelessly learning the intricacies of both their playing and their presence. And with a roster like Gabriel, Rutherford, Banks, Hackett and Collins, it’s been a huge task to nail the feel. But getting nods to play in legendary venues like Royal Albert Hall in London clearly shows that nail it they have.
“We’ve really perfected this approach where we really try to forget ourselves and try not to put too much of ourselves into the mix when it’s time for the interpretation of the songs, the arrangements,” Lamothe said. “I don’t know if people know how difficult it is and how long it takes to get it right. But it’s what we do best.”
Denis Gagne, who joined the band in 1995 and plays the Peter Gabriel role on this current tour, is utterly astonishing both vocally and dramatically, acting out every Gabriel nuance to a tee while lavishly adorned in exact replicas of the wild costumes Gabriel used to wear on these early tours. If you squint, you swear you are back there seeing the real McCoy…or Rael as the case may be.
“Denis came to the band as a huge Peter Gabriel fan, he even had a slight British accent even though he’s Canadian!” Lamothe remembered. “But he understands not only the mimicking and stage presence, but just as importantly, the layers of psychology behind it all.”
Members of Genesis have embraced The Musical Box as a fitting and legitimate tribute to the early Genesis legacy — both Phil Collins and Steve Hackett have played onstage with the band, and Peter Gabriel brought his family to their live show, noting that “this was what Daddy used to do.”
“We were rehearsing with Phil and it was very exciting for us yet very stressful for him, quite honestly, because he hadn’t played the song in a while,” Lamothe said. “We kinda forced him into playing The Musical Box song with us, and he rehearsed all afternoon by himself, and he was very very nervous. But it was a very special moment. The fans loved it, and it surely had the vibe of the original.”
Lamothe is clearly proud and justifiably so, of The Musical Box’ ability to do more than ample justice to those ground-breaking early Genesis shows, an era when the blend of theatrics and rock and roll were blossoming, and the stories were being told by musical geniuses ahead of their time. And it’s because he and his bandmates have spent the better part of their adult lives immersed in everything Genesis that they feel they have a special responsibility as caretakers of this incredible music.
“We pride ourselves thinking that we’re some form of contemporary historians, because overall it’s something that we feel is very important,” he said. “By playing this music, we’re crystallizing a very specific moment in time.”
The Musical Box performs Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. $39.50 available 703-549-7500 and online here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for vps3.washingtonlife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for classic rock cover band Second Wind.