Roy Orbison was defined early on by his outward appearance. Sporting a top-heavy head of jet-black hair, with sunglasses and suit to match, he cast an unforgettable shadow, to say the least.
But once his non-stop run of hit singles made him one of the top performers of the 1960s, fans cared less about his uniform and more about the swan-like voice that had become his calling card. Orbison, who was more ingenious than he was given credit for, soon parlayed the two sides of his personality into a Hall of Fame pop-music career, one that is still greatly respected long after his death in 1988.
Local performer Mike Demers marvels at the connection audiences have with Orbison’s music. So much, in fact, that he created his own Orbison tribute, dubbed The Lonely.
“Playing solo shows on Saltspring [Island] at the Shipstones Pub over the past few summers, I’ve watched the response to Orbison,” he said. “People were always catcalling for Orbison before I had even played any.”
It helps that Demers can easily replicate Orbison’s velvety croon, something that presents a problem for others hoping to imitate his style. Demers, a veteran performer with decades of experience, had already taught himself the correct cadences, so taking the next step and forming a band that plays only Orbison’s music was the easy part. Finding the right players to join him was key, however, so he turned to drummer Benji Duke — a longtime Orbison fan — for help.
Duke, who plays in several local groups, pulled members from two of his regular gigs: Chris Lloyd (guitar) and Jack Weyler (keyboards) from Bonehoof, in addition to his Meatdraw bandmate bassist Stefan Bozenich.
Their first gig as a unit was on Jan. 17, for Theatre SKAM’s 20th birthday bash. Almost instantly, the chemistry was there, Demers said.
“I wanted to bring in a group that basically knew how to work together, which has really paid off. I really wanted the sense of a group, rather than the sense of hired guns, and present it as a band.”
The Lonely is set to play its first full concert Saturday at the Charlie White Theatre in Sidney. The bad news for Orbison fans is that all 315 tickets have been scooped up in advance. The good news is that The Lonely have already rescheduled a return to the theatre on April 23, to meet demand.
The feedback he has received has Demers adjusting his plans. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he forged the partnership with Duke. Thus far, the two have been more than happy with the audience reaction, Demers said.
“A lot of people assume it is simply going to be people 60-plus who are into this. While that is going to be largely true, we were pleasantly surprised by the people in [their] 20s and 30s, who, thanks to the Internet, totally know about Orbison and are into it. We’re expecting a more diverse crowd than people might think.”
The Lonely is booked into the Cascades Casino in Vancouver on March 26.
Following that, Demers and Duke will decide where the project takes them. In the meantime, the two friends are happy to be bringing the music of Orbison back to stages around B.C.
His music never went away, Demers said, but audiences definitely forgot how good Orbison was at his job.
“How much of this is impersonating and how much is a tribute? I’m not trying to talk like him. We’re not trying to be that. We’re just happy to get his music on stage.”
As for what exactly what to call this new project — cover band? tribute act? — Demers will let his audience decide.
“In the industry, people talk with their nose down about cover tunes and stuff. I think of it more as song-archiving. It makes sure people know who Jim Croce is, and who Harry Chapin is. We don’t need to be obsessed with the past, but there a few little gems.”
What: The Lonely: A Tribute to Roy Orbison
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Charlie White Theatre, Mary Winspear Centre, 2243 Beacon Ave., Sidney
Tickets: Sold out