When drummer Paul Weinberg and bassist Ryan Porter left renowned Baltimore band The Bridge in 2004, they knew they wanted to keep playing music. But life on the road just wasn’t for them.
So they formed the Weekapaug Orchestra, a Phish tribute band that fizzled out after a few years. That’s when Porter thought: What about a Talking Heads tribute?
“I had never heard of Talking Heads tribute,” Porter, 41, said. “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid.”
And so the Psycho Killers were born, named for the band’s 1977 hit.
Ten years later, the band is still paying homage to the Talking Heads’ rich catalog, putting its own spin on the band’s funky, new wavey, rockin’, rhythmic songs. The band plays a sold-out show at Union Craft Brewing on Thursday.
While the phrase “tribute band” may come with some baggage, the live show makes it clear that the Psycho Killers are far from a bar band going through the motions — all of its members come from the city’s rich original music scene. Lead vocalist and guitarist Jon Wood, an original member, plays in electro-jam quartet Electric Love Machine along with longtime Psycho Killers keyboardist Jon Brady. The band’s other singer and guitarist, Jax Martone, is a member of psychedelic folk band Fractal Cat.
“We definitely bring a unique twist on it. We like to stretch out some of the tunes, kind of jam a bit,” he said. “Our shows are spontaneous, no songs sound the same.”
The band’s improvisational approach goes back to one of the reasons its founding members thought there would be an audience for the Psycho Killers in the first place — Phish covered the band’s 1980 West African-influenced album “Remain in Light,” turning a new generation onto the Talking Heads’ music.
“I was always a fan of Talking Heads, but I would say that definitely when Phish covered them, that made me even more of a fan,” Weinberg, 38, said. “The style is just fun, there’s a lot of songs that everyone knows and there’s some more obscure, lesser-known songs that only the true fans know well, but it’s fun stuff to play.”
The band debuted in 2008 opening for Grateful Dead tribute Splintered Sunlight at Federal Hill venue The 8×10 to a packed house. Porter says they sold out the venue within that first year.
“At first it was a fun idea and I thought, ‘I’m not sure how many people will latch onto it,’” Porter recalled. “It was kind of like, ‘wow, people are into this.’”
Since then, the band has played all over the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area, playing last year’s Hot August Music Festival, opening for rising altimore-based jamband Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at the world-renowned 9:30 Club in D.C. and sharing the stage with Thomas Dolby, known for his 1982 hit “She Blinded Me with Science.” A contemporary of the Talking Heads, Dolby saw the Psycho Killers at an 8×10 show and liked what he heard.
“We would always practice in Jon Brady’s old house, and his basement was kind of a wreck,” Weinberg said. “It was bizarre and almost surreal. We were in Jon Brady’s basement and there’s Thomas Dolby sitting in with us and he breaks out his keys, and he’s got his setup with his ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ loops and all that. It was just weird, but it was amazing.”
While Dolby, who is a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, is unlikely to make an appearance at the band’s Valentine’s Day show, the Psycho Killers like to switch it up for the annual concert, throwing in love songs by other bands. Past shows have included performances of “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley and The Wailers, “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin and “Just What I Needed” by The Cars.
For Weinberg and Porter, who work in real estate and sales, respectively, and are both married with kids, getting to play music for sold-out crowds is pretty special.
“The energy, feeding off the crowd and being able to still play music, something I love to do and have been playing since high school, is a blessing,” Porter said. “I’m just so happy I get to do it and not only that, people come see it. We’re lucky.”
Echoed Weinberg: “It’s just pure enjoyment.”
About THE BEAT: Marc Shapiro, a lifelong musician and concert-goer, writes about regional and national musicians, concerts and festivals. He is managing editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore Style. More of his photos can be viewed on his Facebook page, and he can be reached at [email protected].