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.
Tell me about the process. Do you study videos of them? Concert footage? Do you try to match up the music videos and the concert footage? How do you decide?
You know, there are a certain amount of songs we have to play every show, about 12-15 songs that I have to play because if I don't, after the show, a hardcore U2 fan will come up to me and wanna kick my butt, because they love these songs! Originally, when we started the band, I started with the idea of the early stuff because I grew up on the War album, and I love Joshua Tree, and all the stuff they've done.
But those songs, as a whole, you can't really sustain a show because the people that come want hits. So we always make sure we honor the early stuff with a five song block in every show, because that's what we all grew up loving. We're all in our late 40s, so those were our high school days and early college time.
Right. So it's taking you back. High school and college is when, at least for me, music really punched me in the soul.
Yeah! Music now is like a soundtrack to our lives, but back then it was everything!
Yeah. Now it's different.
It is. And I love it, man. I love doing the summer stuff. It's just awesome to see younger people in the crowd singing along to some of this stuff. It's just awesome. I feel honored that I get to do this, honestly.
Do you have to get special permission from U2 to do all this stuff?
Yes. There is some publishing rights stuff you have to do, but when we were first going to tape the Red Rocks show, I wanted to make sure that it was legal for me to film it. So I worked with Live Nation for years, and so I asked what I needed to do and so we put it through the management channels. And honestly, they didn't want our money!
No, they were like "You know what? Are they any good?" And people said "Yeah, they're great!" So like none of these places would take our money! They just said not to worry about it and I love that about them! Because a lot of bands don't like the tributes.
Yeah, I'm thinking U2 is pretty set on cash. So have you ever met Bono?
I have not.
I tried on the first leg before he hurt his back, and I had passes to get into the media room, but I just didn't. And, you know, I'm a fan, but I'm not like a wait in line, autograph, kind of guy. For me, it's just about the music and the honor to play Red Rocks was something that was so important to me. Our guitarist met him, though -- when they were coming through the tunnel for the 360 tour, and got his picture.
And that's something that a lot of the tributes out there rely on; it authenticates them by getting a picture with them. But for me, it was like, playing Red Rocks was about as authenticating as I could possibly ever be. That was always the drive for me, recreating the show that inspired me. I just don't know if anyone has that kind of full circle moment in their life. I just hope everyone finds their way to do it because it's incredible.
The 360 moment.
Yeah! It was incredible. That was what I got to actually perform! Not in the mirror, but on the stage.
I don't know; the mirror with a comb is pretty awesome. That's how I do it.
The mirror and the comb! Look, if this doesn't show people that if you just stay with it, you can do anything, I don't know what does.
So inspiring. You guys play a ton of St. Patty's shows, right?
Yeah. That's always like a solid run. Six shows in three days kind of stuff.
Do you love it or do you hate it? I mean, is that one of the things where you're secretly saying "Holy shit, if I have to fucking, play a St. Pat's Fado's show again, I'm gonna kill myself?"
[laughing] I look forward to it until we're doing it.
Every year I look forward to it because there will always be a ton of people, but I forget how many amateur drinkers there are on St. Patrick's Day. And it gets almost kind of scary sometimes because it's a mass of people. These places we play don't really think of a ton of security for us in those situations.
The people get so into what we're doing, and I love the spirit of it all, and I'm Irish, so I love that day no matter what. We get to play the best party in Denver every year at Fado's, and we've done some great things because of St. Patrick's Day because we play U2. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's our biggest payday of the year.
It's love and hate. So what's your favorite St. Pat's Day memory?
I remember the first time we played Fado's, nobody knew who we were because we were a new tribute, and there had never been a U2 cover band in this town. And I remember we played Vail, and the same day we played a 3 o'clock show at Fado's, and we went straight and headlined Soiled Dove -- all in the same day.
And that's when I realized this band had arrived. People went crazy for us, and I knew this was going to work. I knew I was going to do this for as long as I want to now. It wasn't just a one time thing. I'm gonna be branded as Billy Bono, and that what it's become; people know me all around the country as Billy Bono. I will do this as long as they come. It's awesome.
Do you have a favorite fan memory?
The fans become friends; I go to their birthdays, and they bring their families to the outdoor concerts. This just gives me so much joy because of all the people I meet and the relationships I build out of it. That's the best part. I see these people all the time now. I look forward to seeing them because I know they're gonna come out. You know, I just went through a battle with cancer; I had a tumor in my throat.
Yeah, it was the size of a large marble. Thyroid cancer just came out of nowhere.
Oh my god. Are you okay?
Yeah. I mean I had to do a ton of vocal exercises, I didn't have any control at first, but literally in three weeks, I was almost back to 100 percent -- I trained myself back to it. And I flew in another Bono, and I sang half the show with him. And I know it sounds close to 100 percent to everyone else, but I think I'm probably about 95 percent in my head, but God bless that this is the way it worked out because it could have been a lot different.
That is crazy.
Yeah. It's been a really intense summer for me; I lost my mom to cancer ten years ago, and I took care of her with my dad, so it was kind of like, not ironic, but fitting that it happened to me. I don't know if that's my next platform. This band is such a great vehicle to tell my story on stage, and people just get so connected to the songs.
I had a fan -- I played Elway's to about 2,000 people; it was the biggest crowd there I've ever seen -- and I was telling my story about my tumor and everything, and this girl comes up during the song, and she's looking at me and talking to me, but the songs going, and I can't hear her, but I nod to acknowledge them.
That's just the polite thing to do...
I actually always try to read their lips. I'm trying to read her lips, and she's holding her heart, and she's got this thing in her hand. She gives it to me, and she grabs my face, and she gives me this kiss, and she's hugging me. She's just a young girl; she's probably in her late twenties, and she's dancing with a pack of her girlfriends all night and they're having a wonderful time.
After she does this, she just disappears, I never see her again. And she's crying when she gives me this, and I don't have time to look at it at that moment; I just throw it in my pocket. So I get back home, and I'm looking at it with my wife, and it's a locket, and it's her breast cancer survivor locket. And she gave me this on stage. She wanted me to have it. That's what this has turned into. It's an amazing thing that's going on. Getting this unwanted title of "Cancer Survivor."
Do you give to any charities? Do you have a foundation or anything?
Actually I just signed on with Love. Hope. Strength. I had been thinking for a while that's who I need to be teamed up with. It was founded by the lead singer of the Alarm, Mike Peters. When I first started to listen to U2...my other favorite band at the time was the Alarm. He battle leukemia in '05 and started this amazing foundation, Love. Hope. Strength. It's a platform for people to register to be a part of a database for bone marrow transplant matching for cancer patients.
Going forward, there will be a booth at my shows, so you can sign up and with me help save lives one concert at a time. I think it's fitting that the Alarm was supposed to be the opening act for U2 at that red Rocks show, but was rained out....but now I am working with his foundation as a U2 tribute performer. Life works in "Mysterious Ways".
Good job living! Share your story!
This is for my mom and a ton of other people who didn't make it. And if I can go on stage and touch some people with some great songs? That's my responsibility.
Do you have a favorite song that really moves you on stage?
Yeah, by far, my favorite song we sing is, "Where the Streets Have No Name." It just elevates people. It makes them joyful.
Do you ever feel like you want to do something else, or do you think this is your calling?
I think now...I know this is what I was meant to do. Everything I did before led me to be doing this. Red Rocks, the video in my bedroom, you know, it really has been a life path. I know I belong here, and I can never see myself doing anything better. I'm 49-years old, and I get to be on stage in front of large crowds. To me, that's the juice. For me, it's all about the stage. Making people feel whole and happy.
It's rare that you find something in your life that you absolutely have to fucking do.
Yes! I have to fucking do this. That is the best way to say that. I have to fucking do this. And I can't wait until I can fucking do it again.
For more on Under a Blood Red Sky, visit the band's site at UABRS.com. On a coincidental and semi-related note: To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Under a Blood Red Sky, and in honor of the late Barry Fey, the film will be screened on Thursday, September 26, at the Rocks, preceeded by performances by the Samples and Madam Sin. Tickets are on sale now at TicketsWest.com and all King Soopers stores.