For 11 years, the Rising Sun Arts Centre in Katesgrove has been hosting a regular tribute night featuring the work of iconic song writers and artists. From David Bowie to Carole King, Depeche Mode to Kate Bush, amateur troubadours and musical all-comers have been welcome to perform their songs without audition or prejudice.
Zac Yeo has been the tireless organiser for the past eight years, after taking over from Katie Cooke, who herself took charge from event firestarter, poet and author, AF Harrold. Harrold originally started tribute nights as a way of channelling his admiration and friendly correspondence with the late singer-poet, Leonard Cohen.
Zac, along with front-of-house warm-up man, gifted musician and mic fiddler Damien Passmore, have curated some great entertainment and memorable nights out for music lovers over the past few years. They both also manage to perform in various guises while running the event together, with Zac often appearing with partner Abi Hawkins as well as with Damien and his ad-hoc house band. The emphasis is mainly on musical fun, but there are some very talented musicians and singers amongst the acoustic shoe-gazers, a capella warblers and the odd comb-and-paper pot-banger.
[Matthew] How do you choose the tribute?
[Zac] Mostly on a whim, but when I took over I did write some criteria. It had to be someone with a substantial back catalogue who had enough material for a wide choice, and good song writers, preferably covering a broad range of genres. One of the main things is for each night to be a contrast from the one before, and if people sound surprised, then I have done my job and that’s the right choice. From Black Sabbath straight to the Pet Shop Boys was a leap of faith and I wasn’t sure how that was going to go down; in the last year or so Damien and I have chosen the acts together.
What was your personal favourite and least favourite?
Nights like Björk, Prince and Eurovision were the best because the music is so varied that people are forced out of their comfort zones and become more spontaneous. On Björk night, there was one act looping their piano, playing back while they were still playing the song, and we had a harp for the first time. For a memorable tenth birthday special, when people were invited to do a song by a previous tribute night artist, Damien and I performed with AF Harrold and Katie Cook with a mash-up of as many of the leftovers that we could shoe-horn into one song, entitled Unclaimed Medley. We called ourselves The Five Doctors; the fifth ‘doctor’, Muz, was absent and represented by a photo on a stick.
Do you break even?
There’s no even to break because we are all volunteers. Once we have paid the electricity, the money goes towards the building. We pass the hat (from our varied hat collection) round at the mid-evening break and £5 is the suggested donation.
Where does Damien get his material from?
I don’t know generally, but on the fifth birthday special, which was one-hit wonders, he contacted the artists on Facebook or Twitter and got a variety of responses. Clive Jackson from Doctor and the Medics was very happy to be contacted, as was Michael Fenton Stevens, the bloke off of Spitting Image who wrote and sang the rubber chicken song. The singer from Deee-Lite was less than happy about it and took great offence. She did provide Damien with something to say on the night, anyway.
George Michael and Wham! tribute night (Youtube video: Ross Hale).
Have you noticed that a lot of the tribute artists are dead?
Some were old and some were dead before we started, but last year was a bad year; we lost the first three tribute acts and the producer of the fourth. We chose George Michael before he died and it wasn’t actually a memorial show. I really hope this doesn’t continue and I can’t accept any blame for their deaths.
Have you ever been channelled by the spirit of the person whose material you are playing?
Not at all; it’s fun. What’s odd is when you try and deconstruct a song you thought you knew and you suddenly realise there are more key changes and layers you hadn’t imagined were in it.
Have you ever told anyone to leave the stage?
Yes; this woman turned up late, missed most of the other acts, expected to go on whenever it suited her and then stormed off in a huff when Damien politely refused her demands to play more songs than had been agreed. She did completely murder her song as well. We didn’t pull the plug or have to physically restrain her, but she was given a stern verbal warning.
When is the best time for a toilet break?
I wouldn’t know as I never see the toilet; it must find its way onto the walls by sweating and osmosis. I never get a chance to go as I am too busy running around, but best avoid half-time.
Do the musos ever get stroppy when things go wrong?
Not generally. On Cure night, I got annoyed because I couldn’t hear my guitar and I shouted to Dan at the mixing desk to turn it up. Then I realised I had stepped on my lead and pulled the plug out.
Who designs the posters?
I do the running order poster and Muz (local artist, musician and furniture restorer) designs the brilliant posters. Muz memorably hosted one of the nights years ago when Kate Cooke was busy.
Ever thought of an album or CD?
No to an album or CD, but the recordings on Youtube are really good. Ross Hale makes them; they are of remarkable quality considering the ramshackle, seat-of-the-pants chaos on some nights.
What’s special about the Rising Sun as a venue?
The fact that it allows something like tribute night to happen. When people put a thing on, they know they have the freedom to do whatever they want without pressure to be a massive success. It’s a forgiving and free environment to play in.
Do you ever play sober?
I do have a couple of pints to relax but no more, for performance sake.
What have been some of the more unusual instruments?
Kazoos, harps, samplers, cajón, dustbin lids, bells and even a glockenspiel for a bit of a Depeche Mode song. Dave King did play a roll of Sellotape and a tea chest on Beck night. I did the saxophone solo on Madness song Embarrassment with a kazoo. We also had some magnificent tubular bells for a version of East 17‘s Stay Another Day at a Christmas special.
Do you like lardy cake?
I am a vegetarian and I don’t much like the sound of it. I had been a vegan but I had a relapse in the night and drove to an all-night Tesco for a slab of cheese which I consumed in the car park.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.