The tribute to The Rolling Stones brings together artists who rarely cross paths for a good cause.
Roots rocker Butch Walker grew up playing Rolling Stones songs in his high school cover band. “I was mostly into heavy metal and stuff like that, so there’s no way I was going to be great at having the nuance and technique of those players,” he says. “I was probably playing those songs on a shitty Ibanez with a pointy headstock and too much distortion, not really nailing the sentiment and the vibe.”
Walker has played seven or eight of the Best Fest tribute concerts, and he’ll be at Tipitina’s Thursday night for Stones Fest. “It’s really just a thing where a lot of friends get together and have an excuse to play music by some of our favorite bands and drink and be merry, and give money to a good cause,” he says. “I don’t know who wouldn’t want to do that.” Stones Fest is also a chance to revisit the inner fan that made him want to play music in the first place.
The show will present a night of songs by The Rolling Stones performed by an all-star lineup that includes Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudekis, George Porter Jr.,John Mccauley of Deer Tick, Jesse Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Karen Elson, Doyle Bramhall II, The White Buffalo, Pat Sansone and Glenn Kotche of Wilco, Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman of Dr. Dog, Joe Pug, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Matt Sorum and Ace Harper, Vanessa Carlton, Eric Pulido of Midlake, Butch Walker, Ryan Miller of Guster, Nikki Lane, Lukas Nelson, Ruby Amanfu, and Jonathan "Boogie" Long, but the show has a history of last minute drop-ins as well.
The night is part of The Best Fest series, which started 10 years ago when music industry veteran Alex Levy and music writer Austin Scaggs decided to pull together a bunch of musical friends to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. The show was in Manitoba’s in New York’s Lower East Side. “We packed the place out with our friends,” he says. “If you wanted to go to the men’s room, you had to walk through the band.”
It was such a success that they decided to do it again in a larger venue, and again, and again, and they found bigger and bigger artists wanted to get involved. Soon they were putting on the tributes in New York’s Bowery Ballroom. They expanded the tributes to include Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones, and now 10 years later they’re national events.
“Nobody was making any money,” Levy says. “It was for the fun and the love of the music and this gang of musicians and actors who were all hanging out in the bars here on the Lower East Side.”
From the start, the shows have been benefits, with part of each ticket going to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. The organization emerged from the effort to help singer Victoria Williams deal with the costs of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the release of 1993's Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. Now, Sweet Relief helps musicians with their health care costs, so it became the festivals’ beneficiary. “I was a kid answering telephones at Atlantic Records when that Sweet Relief album came out,” Levy says. “We did a Dylan Fest in San Francisco, and we flew Victoria Wiliams out from her home in the Palm Springs desert area.” Since Jameson Irish Whiskey came on board as a corporate sponsor underwriting the production costs of the shows, they’ve been able to donate 100 percent of the door to non-profits. At Tipitina’s, one dollar from each ticket sold will go to Tipitina’s Foundation, and the rest will go to Sweet Relief.
Walker has started friendships with musicians he otherwise wouldn’t have had a reason to spend time with if it weren’t for the Best Fest shows. “It’s kind of cool to through us in one backstage area and almost have that nervous prom feeling for the first hour,” Walker says. “Then by the end of the night everybody’s doing shots together and exchanging phone numbers.”
According to Levy, that experience is common. “At rehearsals, all these relationships would form,” he says as musicians start inviting others to join them on their songs. “I’ve seen bands form as a result of these things. I’ve seen husbands and wives happen. I’ve seen babies happen from this. Bands decide to go on tour together. It’s really been amazing, and the audience picks up on that too. There’s very little separation between the party on the stage and the party in the crowd. We’ll be on stage and look out and there’ll be half of the artists that are performing in the audience because they want to watch too.”