Billy "Bono" of U2 tribute band Under A Blood Red Sky on how life works in "Mysterious Ways"
Like any other town, Denver has its share of cover bands. For the most part, the outfits here don't merely perform somebody else's music; rather, they put time, energy and effort into really channeling the acts and eras they're emulating. This is especially true of this week's cover band, Under a Blood Red Sky.
See also: Cover Band of the Week archives
When it comes to fans, Under a Blood Red Sky has some of the rowdiest, fun, devoted fans ever to hit Colorado. And as we all know, when we drink, we like nothing better than some sweet, sweet, U2 to get us jumping, amirite?
We recently got a chance to sit down with Billy Bono (aka Billy Bunting) of Under a Blood Red Sky -- which is rounded out by guitarist Ted "The Tedge" Gravlin, drummer Jerry "Larry" Bosque and bassist Todd "Adam" Brown -- for a chat about how the act picked U2 to pay tribute to, realizing a life-long dream of recreating his band's namesake concert at Red Rocks and how life works in "Mysterious Ways."
Westword: So you guys got started -- I was looking through your website, and it makes it sound like you guys got started in 1983, but...when did you actually form the band?
Billy Bono: No, it started in 2005. New Year's Eve was the first time we ever did it. And we opened for Super Diamond, which is a big Neil Diamond tribute band.
Yeah! I fucking love Neil Diamond.
And we're actually opening for them at the Ogden on September 28, if you wanna come.
I'm down for all shows, friend. All shows.
Okay! Yeah! We're also doing another show the week after for Jack FM. It's a promotion they're doing at a place called Gibby's Sports Saloon on September 22nd. And it's called "Sunday Bloody Mary Sunday."
Yes! I heard about that. Holy shit! I love bloody marys, a lot.
Great! It's a bar in Aurora, and they have a sand volleyball court, and they are putting a stage in it, and it's going to be a brunch/beach party. But the Ogden show is going to be fun. That was the first show we ever did at the Paramount Theatre, and it was originally asked of our original band -- the bass player, Todd, and Gerry and I were in a local band called XLulu for ten years together. And they hired us to open for Super Diamond. They asked us in October for a New Year's Eve show, and I had this idea about this tribute for about a year. You know, I grew up in Connecticut, and I bought the video, U2 Live at Red Rocks; Under a Blood Red Sky, when I was fifteen in 1983. I was a senior in high school, and I used to play that thing to death
[laughing] I think we all did. I mean I was only six, but I remember it.
Right! I used to sing to it with my comb in the mirror, before I could really even sing yet. I mean, I grew up singing in choir and church, but this was different. I just got so inspired by this tape. And I used to just dream of playing Red Rocks. That's what I would imagine in my mind as a kid. In my room, singing to the songs on the video, and I had this dream. I was gonna play Red Rocks one day, and that was my dream for twenty-something years. So I started a band in college, then I went to LA and played there for about five years; I got a deal with some music stuff, but it didn't really go anywhere, and I didn't really like Los Angeles. It wasn't really my scene. The band kind of folded -- it was called Cast of Thousands. It was Tears for Fears kind of stuff.
That's super cool.
Yeah, 1989. So I moved to Colorado because I wanted to be close to Red Rocks.
Well, who doesn't?
Exactly. And you know, I'm a huge skier. I grew up skiing. I had a cabin in Vermont on the mountain, and I wanted to get back to the mountains. You know, Red Rocks is here, and I remember seeing that U2 video, and I was like, "That's gotta be someplace like Scotland or something! It looked all historic and then I turned it over and saw that it was actually in Denver, Colorado! And I always knew, I just knew that I was always gonna live here someday. I didn't know how or why, but I just knew I was gonna.
It was a premonition!
Yes. And then I moved here, had a job change and just found myself going to hundreds of shows at Red Rocks. I saw everything up there. I was just in love with music and XLulu got on all the stages in Denver, but not that stage. We opened for some bigger bands at the Paramount, the Fillmore, and I just never got large enough with my own music to play Red Rocks, so about a year before this New Year's Eve, I thought about it, and thought, "What can I do to get up there?" And then I thought, "Well why not just start a tribute to that show [Under a Blood Red Sky]."
So why U2?
I think it's because I grew up singing them. They were kind of my heroes, and you know, you emulate your heroes. So I had this one show opening up for another tribute band, Superdiamond, and I asked the guys at Live Nation, Don Strasburg and Brent Fedrizzi, and I asked if he minded if I morphed my band into a one-night-only recreation of that show, and he said "Man, you're great! Do whatever you want." Which was awesome. So I had the banner! I had torches! You know, I was opening up that show like I was the headliner. I dropped $3000 of my own money on five cameras to videotape this because I thought, if I did this right, this would be my path to Red Rocks. And, you know, I really believed that.
Belief is sometimes all we need to make shit happen, man.
Right! So I did wardrobe. I kneeled when he did. I said the same things he said in-between songs. I did theater, so I really did it like a play, and I taped it. And it was two years from the time was the 25th anniversary of that Red Rocks show, so my idea was that I would have two years to brand it in Denver, get a buzz about it, sign a promoter that would feel it worthy to go up there and do a 25th anniversary show.
Yeah. That was the idea. So I got this video. I put it on MySpace, and the Internet, and it started to get around. People on New Year's had flipped out because nobody had ever done that. It was such a historic concert for Colorado. I mean it pretty much put us on the map internationally. It blew it up. Barry Fey did that for this place, and so my show got through to some people. I started talking it up to people, and within a year and a half -- I didn't even make it two years -- I performed at Film on the Rocks in front of 9,000 people.
That's cool. What was the movie?
It was Wedding Crashers.
They had a live wedding that someone did on stage, and it was the first time that Film on the Rocks allowed a band to do two sets. So we came on early, and we did a rendition of the original show -- as much as we could in the time allotted, and then we took intermission, they do this wedding, and then we came back on and played 45 more minutes.
We got to play like all the hits that had never been played up there, "With or Without You," "Pride," "Streets With No Name." And so we got to play all these songs and just to have 9,000 people sing "With or Without You" at the top of their lungs at Red Rocks was like...I'm looking at this crowd, and I just couldn't believe I did this. I got there. It was my 24-year-old dream from a sixteen-year old kid, and I just never gave up on the idea that that was going to happen. My father was in the front row, you know, bawling his eyes out.
Oh. How cute!
Yeah. I remember the coolest thing about it, though. I mean, I had been to hundreds of shows at Red Rocks when I moved here in 1990, but this was the very first time that -- and this is what struck me the most, when you're a fan, you're looking down: You know, when you play at Red Rocks, your looking out into a sold out crowd, and here I am...I'm looking up! I was just like "Wow! This is awesome." And then once that hit the Internet, it went kind of viral to the U2 community, and we started playing House of Blues tours.
Yeah, we traveled to Seattle, Portland, and Spokane, and we went to Arizona. We get out of state now quite a bit. And we are a local band; we all make Denver our home. We do between forty to fifty shows a year now. We're now kind of on autopilot. Now we also play cultural art centers.
We just did one back in Connecticut, we're doing one in Minnesota, and we're starting to market ourselves into that kind of avenue because the show that we do is different than just the regular local band. It's more of a theater experience; it's as authentic to their original shows as we can make it.