"This is a song about a place," Whitlow says, "near where Geddy Lee grew up. I'm sure you can relate." The audience reacts as though Whitlow has announced that the beer is on him as his trio begins to play "Lakeside Park." When you're in a tribute band, you expect that everybody does relate. It's what separates you from just another fan willing to live out his dream singing along behind the wheel.
"We've listened to MP3s of other tribute bands," Whitlow says from his home near St. Louis. "As far as sounding like Rush, we're one of the best." He pauses. "Maybe I'm erring on the side of humility." To gain a foothold in the prog-eat-prog world of Rush tribute bands, Thunderhead hired professionals to videotape a show and pressed a limited number of three-song CDs. Both media, shoved into a slim three-ring binder, were mailed to promoters. Thunderhead wants to blow farther than just St. Louis. The band members plan to eventually play a fan convention in Toronto, the place where Rush tribute bands throw down.
"Some of those bands have four or five members," Whitlow says as though shaking his head in disbelief. "We don't care about looking like Rush, but we want the music to sound as close as possible. We're re-creating that experience for the fans. It's like they're at a Rush show, yet it's not, because we're not really Rush."
To sound like Rush, then, Thunderhead mixes up-to-date hardware with a purist's disdain for sequencers and recorded backings onstage. "It's a matter of listening to the record and figuring out how to get that sound out of this machine," Whitlow explains. "The current gear has so much architecture that I don't think many keyboard players dig through them to really make them musical."
Whitlow and his brother found Rush in high school in the late '70s and early '80s, but Whitlow didn't begin to apply his musical training (he played trombone) to duplicating Rush's uniquely sterile sound for some time. Until Thunderhead formally launched in 1996, Whitlow was a bass player for hire, sitting in with classic rock and jazz bands with regular bar gigs that couldn't afford to offer sick days. Now Whitlow gives private lessons at home and devotes his practice and performance time to Thunderhead.
"It's been a lot more work than I thought it would be," Whitlow says. "[Audiences] want to hear these songs the way they should be heard, and that takes time. And with a trio, there is no place to hide. We're busier onstage because Steven and I play the keyboard parts with our feet on Taurus pedals, which means that they don't really get a frontman. But with Rush and us, the true frontman is the band, which is unique."
Whitlow also rides a learning curve when it comes to mimicking Lee's thin, high wail. "I try to sing full voice, not falsetto," Whitlow says. "Over time, I've noticed that Rush builds long interludes into their songs where Lee doesn't sing. Maybe that's how he can do it."
Whitlow says it's those interludes as much as anything that draw Thunderhead's audience. "I'd say about half the people who come to see us are musicians," he says. "As a musician, I was interested in Rush because I understand music theory, counterpoint, pitch and harmony. The way they -- and we -- combine that with technology and song structure is what interests me. Some people think that they're too technical, but I think when you put intelligent music with intelligent music and you put together these complicated parts that fit well together, there are no boring parts."
But most of Whitlow's favorite bass players are less concerned with replicating studio parts than Whitlow must be. "It would be great to be in a band like Bela Fleck's, where you're creating the spirit as you go. But bands who jam are going to reach a certain crowd, and we have a certain crowd that we reach. And there are a few places in the show where Rush is spontaneous, so we can go off a little at those points. Some people like that and are open to change, but some won't like it.
"Right now, what we're trying to do is get Thunderhead out as this tribute show," he continues. "The people who come to see us are Rush fans. In my heart as a musician, though, I hope to be moving forward. Like, okay, we're Thunderhead, but we're really us."
It's difficult for a tribute band to maintain its fanbase once it tries to establish its own identity, but Whitlow feels his audience is up for the challenge.
"Rush fans are intelligent, somewhat deep in thought and quite emotional," he says. "A lot of that is that [Rush drummer] Neil Peart is a gifted lyricist. He's scary smart. He used to be on Omni magazine's editorial board. I have a lot to learn just to pursue 1 percent of his knowledge." (You were expecting the leader of a tribute band to be less than awed?) "It makes sense: Neil is a drummer, and poetry has rhythm." Whitlow demonstrates by reciting from "Jacob's Ladder," including the verse that gives his band its name. "I guess it's important that we learn to play that one," he says with a laugh.