Over the past seven days, The Black Keys performed for 50 people at Nashville's diviest dive bar, a Keane show at Marathon was cut short by a transformer literally catching fire (at long last providing the answer question, “Where the universe stands on that irritating ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ song?”) and The New York Times blew the lid off Music City's organic mustache ranchers (and also restaurants, we guess). But even with all of that buildup, we still weren't prepared for witnessing Tenacious D singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with The Protomen at Exit/In on Friday night.
Yeah. So, that happened.
We arrived on the Rock Block early enough to glimpse the huddled proto-masses in a line that stretched down Elliston and wrapped around the corner. Charmed as we were by the weapons-grade earnestness on display — all wearing black Protomen T-shirts, all practically bouncing up and down in excitement for what we local jerks just think of as “another local rock show” — we weren't interested in sharing in it. Given the choice between chilling next to the hollowed-out carcass of a payphone next to Fiesta Azteca for an hour or spending it at Gold Rush, we'll pick Gold Rush every time.
Two beers and a burger later, we were drawn into the Exit/In fray by the dulcet tones of a Ramones cover band. Not to be confused with Warthog — the preeminent local Ramones tribute that is essentially just Superdrag with a sneer — the Remones feature members of Cheap Time, Hans Condor and Totally Snake in slavish devotion to the first three Ramones records. None of this fancypants Phil Spector “Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio” garbage, just two-minute songs about sniffing glue and chainsaw massacres. We can only assume that the two cover bands have West Side Story-style rumbles on the reg.
The Remones exist in a weird world where they're covering punk songs with more precision and skill onstage than the real-life band would have. Part of it probably has to do with the fact that, as far as we know, they're not all strung out on heroin. (Good job, guys!) But more than that, they don't have much of a choice. Their job for the night is to convince a room full of people who were all too young to have seen this particular era of the band live that they are that band. And mission accomplished. Kinda. The Remones absolutely looked and acted the part — they owned the stage, especially “Joey” — but it also felt a little too perfect. It wasn't sloppy or chaotic enough to feel like a real punk show.
The crowd, for their part, seemed amused but disengaged. Sure, they chanted along to cries of “gabba gabba hey” during “Pinhead” and pumped their fists during the hits, but it was polite fist pumping. This wasn't going to be a JEFF the Brotherhood show — absent were the mosh pits, crowd surfers and drunken shenanigans that we know and love from the average Infinity Cat freakout. But, then again, that's to be expected. This was a thoroughly Protomen crowd, and while they aren’t openly hostile toward bands outside of their 8-bit sphere, they're also not particularly interested in anyone who isn't wearing silver facepaint.
Well, anyone who isn’t wearing silver facepaint, or isn’t a famous rock star.
As the excited murmur of “Jack Black is in the building” began to spread through the crowd, we dipped out of Exit/In to avoid a long bar wait and drink like hoodrats in the apartments neighboring The End. After chugging down vodka with an enormous cat named after Henry Rollins, we stumbled back across the street just as the Protos began their epic reprisal of 2010's Queen cover show.
It's no secret we have trouble with the creeping menace of cover bands in the local music scene. When we found ourselves ensconced in a New Year's Eve meat market featuring My So-Called Band, we mostly just felt a little sad that these drunk bros and bro-ettes would never party that hard at a NORM show (or even show up, for that matter). In a complete reversal of the way things usually work, the crowds at those shows aren't there for the band — they're there for the songs. Somebody could stick a “Now! That's What I Call Music” compilation in a boom box and the party would still rage on. Which is a bummer, because everyone in Guilty Pleasures, My So-Called Band and so on are ridiculously talented.
This, however, was totally different. Everyone in the room was pumped for The Protomen — not for Queen, not for a Freddie Mercury hologram, not to relive that scene from Wayne's World, but legitimately pumped for the band onstage. The Protomen would've had the same frothing mad reaction from everyone under Exit/In's roof if they called an audible and just played their own songs, which made all the difference in the world. As soon as the first chords of “Don't Stop Me Now” rang out, all of our ill feelings about cover bands and the importance of originality in local music — and every other lofty, pretentious idea we had about this bit of the local rock Venn diagram — washed away immediately.
Because, y'know, fuck it. Sometimes we just want to sing “Somebody to Love” at the top of our lungs, and there's nothing wrong with that.
We caught the last Proto-Queen show and, as expected, the band blew those songs out of the water. This wasn't just a silly lark; The Protomen are light years Queenier than whatever is trying to pass itself off as Queen these days. It was more or less the same show we saw in 2010 — right down to Evil Bebos' Devin Lamp reprising his role as David Bowie during “Under Pressure,” and Neil O'Neill's impossibly impractical body-stocking (it was like he was wearing nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all). But, as much as we wanted to hear “Bicycle Race,” the selection of hits and album cuts was satisfying to relive.
But that's not what people will remember about this show. The only thing that the crowd would take away would happen in the middle of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the obvious closer, when Raul Panther introduced Tenacious D — and a few hundred heads promptly exploded. Jack Black and a couple of dudes who weren't Kyle Gass appeared from behind the curtain to belt out the last operatic chunk of the Queen epic, which was promptly captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. Rumors of Jables making an appearance at the show had been swirling since The Protomen opened for The D in Canada earlier this month, but no one was sure if they would even show up, much less appear onstage.
It was a night that was quintessential Nashville, the dork-rock equivalent of John Prine dropping in at Station Inn, and we loved it. JB may not have been onstage long, but it was long enough to give us a crazed “we want to party all night” third wind. Proud as hell of our city and The Protomen, our adrenaline sent us into the wind, cavorting at The High Watt to 5 Knives and telling everyone we could about what they missed, and how ashamed they should feel for missing it.