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Photo By Don Button

The tribute-band business seems to be booming, with at least one outfit coming through town nearly every weekend. Although groups have covered the Beatles, the Stones, Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond through the ages, the hit-makers of the ’80s and ’90s are quickly commandeering the market. Hence, tributes to Blondie, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Depeche Mode and—as a quick Google search confirms—more than a dozen bands currently posing as U2.

Now, the fact that U2 remains one of the biggest and best live acts around (which may explain the trail of tributes) poses a serious challenge for today’s copycats. You figure, with the real deal still out there, they’d better put on a hell of a good show.

Enter the San Francisco band Zoo Station, which brought its “Complete U2 Experience” to a packed house at Harlow’s last Friday. As the lights dimmed, and the hardcore U2 fans surged toward the stage, the electricity in the air could have fooled you into thinking the Irish foursome really was backstage.

Photo By Don Button

But with opening notes to “City of Blinding Lights,” the magic quickly faded. As the tongue-in-cheekily named Adamesque, Barely Larry and the Sledge tried to give their flat sound a bit more punch, they were joined by lead singer Bonalmost, whose voice also came across too weakly. And while the other three were looking rather … Atomic Bomb, the frontman clearly sported a Joshua Tree coif. Blowing the illusion further, Bonalmost looked slightly scrawny; the Sledge, slightly beefy. But for a tribute band to have a fighting chance, its audience must accept such flaws and look beyond the inherent cheese factor. If the sound and performance are believable, the look isn’t as important.

Fortunately, as Zoo Station played on, the sound did improve, the musicianship came through, and the crowd ate it up. Bonalmost found his voice, which actually sounded pretty authentic, and employed a heavy dose of stadium-sized rock-star moves. The diverse set list spanned the entire catalog, from “The Electric Co.” and “Gloria” to “Mysterious Ways” and “Vertigo,” with an encore of U2’s first single, “Out of Control.”

On the downside, the backing vocals from Adamesque were lacking the um, Edge, that many songs require. On the upside, the band wisely kept the between-song banter to a minimum and avoided any use of props beyond Bonalmost’s red Gretsch hollow-body and harmonica for “Desire.”

If you closed your eyes and just listened, there were some remarkably note-perfect moments. “I Will Follow” and “Pride” had the crowd in total-belief mode, singing along so passionately that it seemed convinced the band was even better than the real thing. And six minutes into the classic “Bad,” it was clear that Zoo Station wasn’t playing a live version; it was playing the definitive live version: eight-plus minutes, exactly as it was performed at the 1985 Live Aid concert, complete with a medley of “Ruby Tuesday” and “Sympathy for the Devil” mixed in. Details like that made the show well worth it.

Admittedly, good tribute bands can be a lot of fun and a little addictive—guilty pleasures that leave you wanting more. Hey, isn’t there a Police tribute coming next month?