City Lights: Do you think he’s Rod? Sounds just like rocker Stewart
If you’re old enough to remember the 1960s, you may recall the heyday of comedian Vaughn Meader, who briefly became a superstar for his impersonations of John F. Kennedy. The story goes that on Nov. 22, 1963, as the nation reeled from Kennedy’s assassination, fellow comedian Lenny Bruce began his act by walking to the microphone, standing silently for a moment and then sighing, “Man, poor Vaughn Meader.”
Of all the gifts that nature may bestow on us, a knack for impersonation is among the odder ones. By definition, it’s not an original gift — we earn acclaim by mimicking another person, even if we put a comic twist on it. And often, impersonators get by on quantity more than quality, as anyone who has watched a casino performer blaze through a decent Elvis Presley or a passable Jack Nicholson can attest.
Sometimes, though, a performer evokes a celebrity so uncannily that it feels like a calling rather than a hobby. And that’s the case with Alexander Roberts, who leads the tribute band Atlantic Crossing and does what may be the greatest Rod Stewart impression this side of Rod himself.
Now, I don’t know that for sure, since I haven’t seen all the other Stewart tribute bands — and there are plenty of them. An online search pulls up Miss Judy’s Farm (“the quintessential tribute to Rod Stewart and the Faces”), the Rod Experience (“the one and only historical tribute to Rod and his band”) and Rick Larrimore (“The ‘Ultimate’ Tribute to Rod Stewart”). That last one sports the online slogan “Accept No Substitutes!” Nice bit of logic there.
The thing is, when Roberts and I met last week at a restaurant in downtown Huntington Beach, I could accept him as a substitute — at least until he spoke. The Surf City resident, who runs a fashion accessory company during the day, has a decided look of Rod to his face, and his spiky blond wig made the resemblance even more striking.
His deep American accent, though, sounded nothing like Stewart’s raspy English brogue, so I demanded a demonstration. At first, Roberts demurred and invited me to hear him at Atlantic Crossing’s April 25 show at Don the Beachcomber — its first performance since last summer because a personnel change had led to a brief hiatus. But no. I had my recorder running, and I wasn’t returning to the office without evidence.
Roberts agreed to sing the first line of Stewart’s 1988 hit “Forever Young.” With a mutter of “OK, here we go,” he steadied himself for a few seconds and then roared out the words, “May the good Lord be with you down every road you roam.” On the sunlit patio, a few heads turned in astonishment.
“My speaking voice is not Rod,” Roberts explained with a grin. “But the singing voice is.”
Stewart’s high tenor — famous for its sandpaper roughness, yet disarmingly sweet and vulnerable — is a singular instrument, and here, frankly, was its double. In short, Roberts makes such a perfect Stewart that I would have sworn he began honing his act the day “Maggie May” came on the radio. As it turned out, though, Roberts didn’t discover his performing niche on his own.
A karaoke machine did that for him.
Four years ago, Roberts, his wife and several friends went to Harvey’s Steakhouse in Huntington to celebrate Halloween. The group arrived too late for the costume contest — Roberts had thrown on a sharkskin suit and gone as a “rock star” — and turned instead to karaoke. When Roberts’ turn came, he sang a Beatles tune and then saw a Stewart classic next on the playlist.
It was after he sat down that he realized he was on to something. Audience members shouted requests for “the Stewart guy” to go back up, and the owner later approached him and offered a steady gig. Roberts didn’t even consider himself a musician, but as he sang to prerecorded tracks over the next six months, instrumentalists began to approach him and offer to join.
Atlantic Crossing, which now comprises five members, has played at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort, the Coach House, Mission San Juan Capistrano and other regional venues. Phil Chen, a bassist for Stewart’s band in the late 1970s, has sometimes joined Roberts and his cohorts. They’re hoping he’ll be available April 25.
In the course of a show, Roberts typically goes through three costume changes, ranging from Stewart’s late-1960s mod look to his glamorous disco-era trappings. He’s used to playing for an audience of about 70% women — Stewart always was a heartthrob — although he notices the men hitting the dance floor with the first strains of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
Depending on what kind of man you are, that song may also be the evening’s low point. Stewart is entrenched so firmly now as an elder statesman of pop, “Great American Songbook” records and all, that it’s easy to forget what a love-hate relationship he had with listeners decades ago. Late-'70s hits like “Sexy” and “Hot Legs” may have won legions of new fans, but they also dismayed some who adored the rugged folk style of his early work.
Greil Marcus, in 1980’s “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll,”of Stewart, “Rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.” Jimmy Guterman awarded Stewart’s 1971 album “Every Picture Tells a Story” the top spot in his book “The Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time” — and included more than one Stewart disc in its “Worst” companion volume.
But then, your favorite Rod may simply be different from theirs. And chances are that whatever it is, Roberts will get to it at some point in his show.
“It’s five decades, and it’s so many different genres of music,” he said. “When I get a new musician in, they don’t realize how diverse the music is.”
About his role model, Roberts added one more thing: “As popular as he is, he’s still underrated.”
MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at email@example.com or (714) 966-4617.
If You Go
What: Atlantic Crossing
Where: Don the Beachcomber, 16278 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach
When: 8 p.m. April 25
Cost: $10 presale, $15 at the door, $25 VIP
Information: (562) 592-1321 or donthebeachcomber.com