Mike Demers has been playing in cover bands around Victoria since 1986 – some may remember him as the leader of 80s retro band Nuvo Wavo.
Seldom in nearly 30 years of playing local and regional gigs had he covered the music of Roy Orbison. But in 2014 a light bulb went on for him about the far-reaching appeal of Orbison’s music. Demers heard friend Benji Coey, a drummer and co-owner of the Northern Quarter Restaurant in the Hudson District, play a couple of Orbison tunes and asked about his interest in the rock crooner.
“He told me ‘my dad played it all the time, and I grew up listening to it,’” Demers recalls of their conversation. That summer, Coey bounced the idea off him: “let’s do a tribute.” Demers did some research online and found no one was doing a full-band homage to Orbison. So they got to work and assembled a band.
Thus was born The Lonely, which started by playing to a packed house at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney in January 2015, and about 150 shows later is filling 600-800-seat theatres in Canada and the U.S. The band features Demers on guitar and lead vocals as Orbison, Coey on drums, recent addition Adam Cleland on guitar, Gord Light on bass and vocals and Jack Weyler on keyboards.
Their success, fuelled by the popularity of Orbison’s music with retirees, caught Demers somewhat by surprise initially – their return show in April 2015 at the Winspear Centre was half sold before they even put up a poster, he says. This niche act eventually caught the eyes of Vancouver-based concert promoter Rock-It Boy Entertainment and manager Bob Burrows, who have worked to expand The Lonely’s reach.
After a Feb. 16 sold-out return trip to Nanaimo’s Port Theatre, they have three shows booked in and around Phoenix later this month. Each is expected to sell out or come close to it, which has Demers shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s unbelievable, it’s positively amazing,” he says. “I think Roy sells the first show, we have to sell the subsequent shows when we go into a market again (like Nanaimo).”
While he’s thrilled this project has taken off, Demers says it does make sense. “There was no reasons why it wouldn’t work. Roy was big; he wasn’t a B star, he was an A star. And his family has done a good job of keeping his name around, which is what he wanted.”
The band plays music from Orbison’s solo catalogue as well as his collaborations as a member of the Travelling Wilburys, plus other hits from the era such as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “This Diamond Ring,” “The Rhythm of the Falling Rain,” “World Without Love” and “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers.
The shows don’t feature a lot of flash: there’s no light show and each band member stands on a rug, a simple setting that matches Orbison’s performances well. A popular and sometimes emotional feature is when the house lights come up and Demers asks if anyone saw Orbison play live and their favourite songs of his.
It’s all about the music and carrying people back.
“Sometimes it feels a little like 1963, but for many of these people, it’s their soundtrack and they’re very appreciative,” Demers says.
The Lonely won’t be back to do a Victoria show until June 19 at the McPherson Playhouse (tickets are already close to half sold), following a road trip across B.C. in March, the Prairies in April and Atlantic Canada in May. They’re also heading to California in the fall and in October will entertain on a Danube River cruise from Hungary to Germany, booked by a woman Demers says “was dragged by her daughter” to one of their shows in Halifax and loved it.
For tickets to the Victoria show, visit rmts.bc.ca or call 250-386-6121.
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