Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Greg Flamm, founder/guitarist of Chicago-based U2 tribute band, Vertigo USA, about U2’s upcoming album, meeting Bono and what makes for a good tribute experience.
CP: How did Vertigo come to play together?
GF: We’re a little bit over three years old. We got started in April of 2005. I’m based out of Chicago, and I was playing in another U2 tribute band for three years. I have a history of doing U2 tribute bands. In 1986, I had one called The Unforgettable Fire based out of Chicago. We lasted four years from ‘86-’90. The funny thing is, if the Internet existed then like it does now, that band would still be around, but when you’re relying on snail mail and a phone hotline for fans to get tour dates, your world is a lot smaller. I had experience with this and how to book it. I took some time off in the ’90s to do some original stuff. Come 2002, I joined another band and did that for three years. We started Vertigo when the last album came out. The main thing we have with this band is that we were booked 15 times by the U2 tour operators to do events along the tour. There were seven or eight cities. They took us to Hawaii for the finale. We played in Mexico City and in Monterrey, Mexico. There’s talk that we might be going with them to Europe by the winter. We’re working with the tour operators because they’re getting ready for the next tour now.
It’s funny because a hours ago, I was linked to four songs from the new album that are really bad quality. They are of Bono playing the songs out of his house in the French Riveria that a fan recorded. You can hear the waves hitting the shore and people talking, but you can hear it really well. I think he has a speaker facing out towards the house because he knows fans hang out near his house. They did that with the last album (“How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”), too, but the quality on this is much better. I’m listening to it, and it’s just amazing stuff. It’s very “Achtung Baby” flavored. The name of the new CD is “No Line on the Horizon.”
CP: How many times have you seen U2 perform?
GF: My God, I couldn’t even tell you. I know I’ve been in the high 20s or 30s. I’ve seen at least one show from every tour since the 1985 tour. I haven’t missed a tour since then. I’ve seen more shows during some tours than in others. On the “Elevation” tour, I only saw one show. During “Vertigo,” I saw 10-11 shows. I saw 13-14 shows during the “Joshua Tree” tour. I just happen to live in Chicago where they do multiple dates when they tour. It’s easy for me now to go to different cities, but being hired by U2’s tour operator last year made it really easy to see them, obviously.
CP: Have you met the band?
GF: We got to meet the band last year - not the whole band at one time - but Bono once. When I talk to them, I don’t tell them I’m part of a U2 tribute band. It’s the last thing on my mind. I’m not about pushing my band when I meet them. If I have one minute with Bono, I’m not going to waste it telling him about my U2 tribute band. What I will say about them is that they really care about what people think about their show. They’ll ask what you think about the lighting or the set list. They really want to know. People blow smoke up their butt telling them they’re awesome, and they like that, but if you bring up a point about the show that you really liked the lighting or whatever, Bono will actually stop and turn his head and listen to you.
CP: Beyond just the costuming, U2 is known for their elaborate stage set ups. How elaborate are Vertigo’s?
GF: It’s not as big as we’d like it to be, but it’s definitely bigger than most other groups. Our backdrop is not just a black backdrop - it’s a mesh backdrop, so we do some lighting behind it that separates us from a lot of other bands. We play everywhere from Irish bars to arenas, and wherever you are, if you have that backdrop, it’s a more consistent look to the band wherever we play. That makes it look more like a concert than a band set up in a corner somewhere. We’re always trying to add something new. We want to get to a point where we can hire more road crew. We have people who want to invest and get us up to the level of having L.E.D. curtains and things like that, so we definitely have aspirations to bring it to that level, but when you can only play a theater so much, it doesn’t make it financially viable to do that.
CP: Obviously, people can’t expect you to have 100-foot tall video walls and things like that, though, right?
GF: (laughs) Right. The good thing is that, as time goes by, the price of that stuff goes down and becomes easier to get to for the common folk.
CP: How difficult is it to replicate The Edge’s playing? He’s known for his experimental sounds and use of bizarre effects. How do you pull it off?
GF: It requires quite a bit of equipment. That’s the other thing that separates us as well. I take the time to bring the equipment needed to recreate that is a lot. To recreate the sound on “With Or Without You,” you need a special effect called an Ebow, which most people don’t have. People have tried picking a guitar to get that sound, and it doesn’t work. At a U2 show, there’s a mountain of equipment, and I can’t say I have that set up, but I definitely have $50,000 worth of stuff to pull it off.
CP: That’s pretty crazy.
GF: It is, especially when you’re trying to set up in an Irish pub. When you’re playing festivals or bigger venues, it’s not as big a problem.
CP: Beyond the equipment, is The Edge’s music technically difficult to play or is it more matter of combining the right effects?
GF: I think it’s just knowing U2 from practicing and playing the songs as long as I have. It’s a mind set you get in to. I think anyone who does a tribute band hard core after 200 shows, I don’t want to say you channel them, but you know what to do. After doing this for so long, it’s almost like you pick up on their style. If somebody does Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eddie Van Halen for a long time, they have things they do. That’s kind of what I do. Every week, I’ll pop in a DVD or a bootleg of a show and go, “Oh here’s something I could do better.” There are also different versions. On almost every tour, they do different versions of a few songs. We almost always go with the live version. Our stuff is not studio version by any means because we’re trying to recreate that spirit of a U2 concert, so it makes sense that we would play it like they play it live, which would include segues they do between songs.
CP: What, in your mind, is the most difficult thing about pulling off a convincing, successful U2 tribute show?
GF: Honestly, it’s pretty easy. If you do the homework and play the songs right, it’s easy to evoke the feeling. The best part about doing this is getting the crowd response, which you do get, but on a way smaller level. People just want to get lost in that moment and get into the singalongs and all that stuff. That’s really the best part. It’s not the hardest part, but it’s definitely the best part and the part that keeps me doing this. When we have that moment during “With Or Without You” at the end and the crowd is going off, it’s just great. The great thing about U2, is that there are so many songs that are like that. You might go see other bands that have one or two moments a night when they get that response, but U2 is getting a big crowd response for about 75 percent of the show. That’s really the intangible every night for us. We know we’re going to play the shows the same every time, but it’s figuring out how to get the crowd into it.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...