The Eerie, but Rocking, Show Must Go On
Jackson Cover Band Lights Up 9:30 Crowd

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cristina Bunton bought airfare to London and spent $650 on two tickets to the Michael Jackson farewell concert series that was scheduled to begin next month, and then the King of Pop died. So here she is, standing in line outside the 9:30 club to see a Michael Jackson tribute band.

"Oh, it's so depressing," says Bunton, 24, who lives in the District. "I was this close to seeing him. But I just want to hear the music right now. This is for remembrance."

Inside the 9:30 club last night, a capacity crowd -- most of whom looked as if they were born the year "Thriller" was released (1982) -- screamed to Who's Bad: The Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band.

"Tonight, everybody, we celebrate the King of Pop, Michael Joseph Jackson!" yelled frontman Joseph Bell. "We are here to keep the King of Pop alive. It's all about the music, right?"

More screaming. Most everyone looked as if they were there for a Dave Matthews Band concert (lots of polo shirts and summer skirts), but there were some fedoras, some white gloves and at least three guys dressed as the King himself: one in a red leather "Thriller" jacket, one in an unbuttoned white dress shirt and rolled pant legs, and District resident Michael Behr in a gold-buttoned military outfit reminiscent of Jackson's "Dangerous" days. Behr invited a bunch of friends to the show several weeks back.

"My Evite reminder went out and he died 10 minutes later," said Behr, 25. "It was really eerie. Last night, I was really freaked out."

Speaking of freakiness: Who's Bad had been booked at 9:30 since March, and this night was to be another night of kitschy, catchy copycat jamming. Then Jackson died, and the band's first gig in Washington turned into a media event, a center for emotional triage, a resurrection of sorts.

"I don't know when I may burst out crying," says Bell, 43, who flew in from Atlanta yesterday afternoon wearing a bejeweled bandanna, black aviator sunglasses and a belt buckle sporting a sparkling letter "J" written in fake crystals.

The six-man band rolled in about 4 p.m. and immediately submitted to a round of interviews with CNN and other media. Bell and founder-manager Vamsi Tadepalli, 28, repeated, over and over again, for different cameras how they were in shock over Jackson's death, how they're just planning to do the best show they can do, how the real way to honor Michael is to keep the music alive.

"I didn't sleep much last night," says Tadepalli, who started the band five years ago with fellow music performance majors at the University of North Carolina. The band's agent has been fielding calls from Atlantic City, Las Vegas, London and the Ritz-Carlton in Tampa. Everyone keeps calling and texting. Everyone wants to cash in on Jackson, as soon as possible.

But the 9:30 club, and Washingtonians, got lucky. The Who's Bad show was half-sold Thursday morning. After Jackson's death was confirmed that afternoon, the remaining 600 tickets sold in 90 minutes. That evening, a second show was added and sold out by noon yesterday.

"I can't think of words to describe it," says Kisha Shorter, 9:30's director of marketing. (Here's one: Ka-ching.)

"Every since I heard 'Billie Jean' in the back seat of the car growing up, that bass line -- it shook me," says Bell, who lives in Atlanta and has the same soft falsetto speaking voice as Jackson did. A little over a year ago, he hooked up with Who's Bad, which plays everywhere from House of Blues locations to a theater in Starkville, Miss. But last night's performance in D.C. is a -- well, what is it?

"A freakish coincidence," says Jackson fan and audience member Minneh Kane, 50, of Arlington. "It would've been just fun seeing people pretend. But now it's nostalgic."

"For me it's a consolation to be here tonight, to be here with other Michael Jackson fans," says Elma Diggs, 23, of the District. "I really wanted to be out amongst people, to mourn with others. I'm glad that we have this opportunity."

"Mich-ael! Mich-ael!" the crowd chanted before the set. Who's Bad took the stage around 9:15 and opened with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." They hit Jackson's highlights, from "Smooth Criminal" to "Black or White" to "Billie Jean," and everyone sang along. The covers were occasionally souped-up and rap-ified, but most songs were faithful to the poppy, populist MJ spirit. When Bell donned an Afro, and the disco ball started spinning, and "You Are Not Alone" kicked into gear, everyone put their hands in the air and started swaying, dizzy with collective nostalgia.

"Though you're far away," Bell sang, "I am here to stay."

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