Foreverland: Never say ‘Neverland’ (Palo Alto Daily News)
By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News
Posted: 06/23/2011 12:06:46 AM PDT
Updated: 06/23/2011 12:06:46 AM PDT
The Bay Area’s own Foreverland is not your standard tribute band. Instead, it is a talented ensemble that seeks to capture the musicality, theatricality and excitement of Michael Jackson.
Oakland resident Morty Okin, the group’s trumpeter and manager, said, “There so many Michael impersonators out there who have had plastic surgery and have like, four- or five-piece bands. We just did not want to end up being that. The more we rehearsed, the more we realized it was getting a little more serious than we thought it was going to. We realized how complex his music really is. We just kept adding and adding musicians.”
Foreverland is comprised of 14 pieces, including another trumpet player, Sunnyvale’s Manny Angel. For bigger events — including on Friday at San Francisco’s Mezzanine and on Saturday at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre — they add San Jose’s Pamela Fields to provide Janet Jackson vocals.
“The whole band grew up Michael Jackson fans,” Okin said. “We all had ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall.’ But I don’t think any of us really delved into it until this. And we have so much more of an appreciation now. I can’t even tell you how much of a genius the guy was. For one person to know every aspect of a show on that large of a scale, it’s ridiculous. How did he do that?”
Originally, they toyed with the notion of calling themselves Macho Jackson. But they chose Neverland instead. Their first show took place at Bimbo’s 365 Club, five days before Jackson’s death.
“I got a letter from the Jackson estate. It was six months after we started playing out,” Okin recalled. “They said they had a trademark on ‘Neverland,’ which they don’t. But we don’t have the resources to litigate, so we just ended up changing the name.”
So Neverland became Foreverland. Their timing made them an instant smash. But the novelty factor wore off quickly. It was the band’s musical chops that established them as a must-see act.
“The first couple of shows after he died were jam-packed at Slim’s. We were like, ‘This is bittersweet. But this is crazy!’ But after the first couple of shows, it totally died down. Michael-mania was over. And so we’ve had to pay our dues the last year-and-a-half. We went from playing sold-out shows to playing for, like, 10 people up in Santa Rosa. It took a long time to build up to where we are, that’s for sure.”
They didn’t consider packing it in.
“Man, it’s the funnest band that any of us have ever been in. And, musically it’s probably the most challenging. It’s a great group of people. Awesome music. That’s really what kept us going.”
It was difficult to find the right band members, especially the four vocalists. “You need four people to cover Michael’s vocal range. It’s really impossible to have one person cover it. And it’s great, because that way we can emulate so many of the harmonies, as well, that are on the recordings, that one person wouldn’t be able to do. They each take turns singing lead on different songs. Plus we have back-up singers. So vocally, it’s full-on. Those guys have a lot of vocal rehearsals.”
Foreverland brings to life the sounds of The Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and, of course, Michael’s solo work, particularly the earlier material.
Once they had the sound down, Foreverland still had to master the showmanship aspect. “We’re really lucky. Our vocalists are all seasoned pros. And the horns, about a year ago, we all stepped up and said, ‘You know what? It would look amazing, if we did choreography along with the vocal section.’ So now we have the whole front line, all four horns and the four vocalists all doing choreography together. It’s a spectacle.”
Detroit native Okin, 41, moved to the Bay Area with a band from college in 1991. He has played in many groups, including ska and rock contingents. Until Foreverland, the most successful was a big swing band in the ’90s called The New Morty Show that featured Connie Champagne. It was a national touring act.
“I never thought that I would be in another band that would be that successful. To have this happen a second time in my life, it’s pretty ridiculous,” he said.
Recently returned from New York and New Jersey, Foreverland has Southern California shows lined up in August and possibly a U.K. tour in the near future.
Okin said he has been overwhelmed by the positive reactions from the Michael Jackson fans. “That was something we had no idea what to expect. The responses have ranged from, ‘Holy… a bunch of white people on stage, doing Michael justice,’ to hardcore fans crying, telling us ‘Thanks for not impersonating him. This band’s incredible!’ We never expected this.
“Even back when we had small crowds, they went nuts. So we’ve never actually had a gig with no response. None of us have ever been in a band like that. Every band has a lack of response here and there. We’ve never had that. It’s a testament to Michael’s music, for sure. But it’s also a testament to us.”
Okin and company strive to make every performance a thriller. They’re looking forward to their return to the Fox. “Great venue. Great people to work with. Redwood City crowds are absolutely unbelievable. I’m sure they realize how lucky they are to have a venue like the Fox. The place is amazing. When it was closed for a year, there was such a void. To have it reopen is phenomenal.”
Foreverland might release recordings as they ease on down the road. Veteran performer Okin is exhilarated by the group’s progress. “This is the hardest band experience for me, because I also do the all the booking, management and everything like that. But it’s been the most gratifying, as well.”
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