For Vamsi Tadepalli, Who's Bad just keeps getting better.
When Tadepalli founded his Michael Jackson tribute band in 2004, he didn't expect it to take him around the world or bring together diverse groups of fans, but that's how it's worked out.
As he was about to graduate from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Tadepalli — who plays saxophone — enlisted some of his jazz-school friends to create an upbeat cover band and, after considering the songs he wanted to play, Michael Jackson was the natural choice.
"I was thinking (of playing) real funky tunes, and I was already a fan of Jackson's music ... and watching people's reactions when one of his songs comes on in a club or bar, whether it's tapping their feet or nodding along or mouthing the words ... I thought, 'Why not just do all Michael?' "
Finally, what cemented the deal was that, "no one else (was) out there paying tribute as a band (to his music). I mean, there's been plenty of impersonators over the years, but there wasn't a band trying to re-create his music in a live setting."
While Tadepalli's jazz background doesn't really come into play in the tribute band, he says playing Jackson's broad base of tunes have helped him grow as a musician.
"You're not gonna hear a jazz version of 'Billie Jean.' (But) Michael's music covers R&B, rock and soul and funk and disco, Motown ... and that's what keeps the gig interesting ... because there's so many different styles that you cover."
The band has played around the world, with memorable 2010 stops including Bucharest (Romania), China and Singapore. Tadepalli said that last year Who's Bad also did 48 shows in the U.K., one of them at the O2 where Jackson was last scheduled to perform. "It was pretty humbling," he said.
This year, the band has already played around 70-75 concerts, with trips to South America and Puerto Rico, and stops across the U.S. planned for the fall.
While Tadepalli never had the chance to meet Jackson personally, Jackson's manager and longtime friend Frank DiLeo caught the group's show in Nashville and was blown away.
"He said, 'The show was great, and Michael would have been proud,' " said Tadepalli.
Jackson's death "cemented the idea, for us, of feeling obligated to keeping his music alive."
Tadepalli said show-goers can expect a full concert atmosphere when they see Who's Bad.
"We've got the costumes, the choreography; our show is based on Michael's live shows, so you're gonna see the moonwalk, you're gonna see the 'Smooth Criminal' choreography. It's an infectious party production."
Tadepalli said the shows bring together fans of all ages.
"There's a whole plethora of new fans out there, from ages 4 to 70. ... It's just so amazing to see that even after he's gone, he's still able to reach all ages."
As for Tadepalli's favorite Jackson material, he says he definitely leans toward the older stuff "but that's also because those songs have horn parts." When pressed, he says his favorite song is Jackson's "I Can't Help It."
"It's actually a Stevie Wonder song but ... it's got a jazz chord progression, which may be why I like it so much!"
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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