photography ©Trina Bean & Ryan Allan – 2014


Who’s Bad at the Belly Up – Friday December 19th, 2014
a venue & experience review.

BellyUpLogoWe pulled up at the Belly Up in Solana Beach about a half hour before the show. I prefer to spend my Friday nights in sweatpants. I’m more of a day-drinker, but the the chance to see the self-proclaimed “Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band” was too great a lure. Going out to a show can be a huge pain in the ass. Besides the whole “putting on real pants” thing you have to find parking, get tickets, interact with people. The Belly Up made all that a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable.

Located Solana Beach’s Design District, the Belly Up is a well known music venue that has hosted more great bands than I can list. The neighborhood is a little sleepy, and at 8:30 Friday night Culture Brewing Co. and the Wild Note Cafe were the only things open. We pulled up in front of the CBC, parked and walked 30 feet to the box office. We didn’t even know there was additional parking in a lot next to the club. An uber-friendly box office employee handed us tickets, and we were in the line waiting for doors to open in minutes.

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The crowd was as mixed as I’ve ever seen at a concert. Mid-20’s to mid-60 year olds were ready for some Michael Jackson. The waiting crowd was boisterous, and some baby-boomers next to us were talking about how they saw Michael live in the 1980’s. For a minute I forgot we were seeing a tribute show and not the original MJ.

It didn’t take long before the line was moving, we made it through ID check and walked into the Belly Up. It was not what I was expecting. In my head I imagined a dive-y music club with sticky floors and dirty bathrooms covered in graffiti and stickers. But instead I was presented with a clean, well-designed space. Much bigger than anticipated and a bustling full bar. From the entrance you walk into the center of the space. The first bar is on the right offering booze, wine and a variety of craft & domestic beers. Tap, can and in the bottle available. On the left is a merchandise kiosk, and directly in front of you is the stage complete with neon Belly Up sign on the wall behind it.

bellyup-2Directly in front of the stage is dance floor, and to either side is general seating. The room opens up pretty significantly, and it was easy to find a few seats near the stage. On the south end of the room the seating is somewhat stadium style so even in the back you are looking down towards the stage and on the north side there is not only lower level seating but an upstair VIP-esque balcony. The walls are covered in framed event posters, paintings of blues musicians and framed poster-sized photography of famous 1970’s musicians. White Christmas lights, and low accent lighting along the edges were the primary source of lighting. There is a second bar on the south wall, but it wasn’t open for this event. In all, the Belly Up can hold up to 600 people, but the layout feels much more intimate. It feels smaller in a good way. No matter where you are you feel as if you’re right in the middle of the show. The best views were directly in front of the stage which was standing only. There are support beams everywhere so most of the seats have a bit of an obstructed view. There is no way around it.

The bar has a full food menu with reasonable prices between $8-13 for meals brought over from the connected Wild Note Cafe. A beer and a soda was $9.50 which felt a little high considering the soda was pretty small and for our designated driver. But still not overly expensive considering it’s a music venue. Plus, there were waitresses cruising the floor so if you didn’t want to give up your seat (No Saving!) you wouldn’t have too.

bellyup-4DJ Rashi was spinning pre-show jams when we got there, and the acoustics were great. Definitely better in front of the stage, but not too noticeably worse to the sides. DJ Rashi was rocking a lot of funk in the form of Prince, Parliment Funkadelic and James Brown. We had only been here a few minutes and people were already dancing ready to party. As a DJ, DJ Rashi was the bomb. Yes, I said “the bomb.” He was rocking on a laptop instead of vinyl which the old skool part of me had a hard time reconciling, but the jams were so good I stopped caring pretty quickly. He was so good the 60+ year old lady next to us in the skintight zebra print bellbottoms was moved to dance. By dance I mean aggressive pelvic thrust for about 40 minutes. And, wait what?! DISCO BALL!

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The Belly Up won me over in the first 20 minutes. The sound is great. The atmosphere very well done, and you can tell that someone cares about the place. Everything is clean, yet warm and inviting. Easy to find, easy to park, service all night was top notch. As far as a music venue goes the Belly Up is up there on my list of places to go. Great place to listen to music, dance, bring a date or meet up with friends (as long as they are 21+). I was comfortable in my jeans and t-shirt, but I wouldn’t have felt out of place dressed up either. All around thumbs up.

•••••

And then the lights went down. It was time. Time for Who’s Bad. Time for Michael Jackson. Time for things to get crazy. Before I regale you on the high-octane, endorphin rush of an event this was, watch the video. Just watch it. Do it.

Who’s Bad is a Michael Jackson Tribute Band. They are not Michael Jackson. They don’t claim to be Michael Jackson. Multiple times throughout the show they spoke about what an honor it is to play MJ’s songs, and what a great inspiration he was and continues to be. Who’s Bad is a full band that plays Michael Jackson songs. There is a drummer, guitarist, saxophone, trumpet and lead singer who has the smooth MJ dance moves and a voice to match. At times, the sax and trumpet even led to a New Orleans brass band feel with a heavy dose of rock n’ roll pop.  They make the songs their own. A true tribute as opposed to a copy. To the crowd of MJ loving fans that didn’t matter. As far as they were concerned this was a real Michael Jackson show. Chants of “Michael, Michael, Michael” started as the band walked out.

mj-trib-6The entire stage was lined with screaming women of all ages, and one dude who looked like Garth from Wayne’s World all grown up. The second row was mostly the men who came with those screaming women. Many of them throatily cheering as well. MJ’s reach knows know bounds. There were men and women of all ages, races and style preferences there. I had no doubt a bra, and maybe some panties would be thrown on stage at some point. Maybe a pair of boxer shorts too.

The band started with “Jam.” Being played live and with the the trumpet and sax it is a banger, and a good starting point. They followed it up with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” The crowd was in hysterics. Any band member getting close to the edge of the stage was in danger of being sexually assaulted as hands reached up and grabbed on. I haven’t seen that much sexual tension or aggression at a live show since I saw Styx at the county fair in 1998. Then “Smooth Criminal” started, the band started doing the dance from Moonwalker, and things went to a whole ‘nother level.

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Who’s Bad rarely disappointed. They played classics from the Jackson 5 era, they played the hits from Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and even a few newer ballads when things need to slow down a bit. Before the show I e-mailed with the band about why they do what they do. I asked what they thought MJ would think about their tribute show, what inspired them to perform, and if they had Who’s Bad groupies. The responses were humble and classy, kind of like I’d like to believe they would be if Michael himself were answering.

We’d hope MJ would be proud of the high energy and commitment to the performance. It’s always about captivating the ears and the eyes of everyone watching the show.

It’s really all about knowing we are lucky to be in this moment. To be on stage, melding our talents together to pay tribute to an icon of music. MJ cared so much about his fans and you can tell through his performances.

Who’s Bad has been around for 10yrs, so some may call a few of our adoring fans groupies…but we call them friends. People travel far and wide to show their appreciation for MJ’s legacy.

mj-trib-2For 90 minutes Who’s Bad put on one of the most enthusiastic energetic shows I have seen. There were loosely choreographed dances, MJ outfit changes, and even crowd participation. For “The Way You Make Me Feel” a half dozen ladies were invited to join the band on stage. I was honestly concerned for the safety of the band. Near the end of the show, hype man and trumpet player, Ray McCall Jr., teased the audience with a list of the best of MJ’s songs. Asking us which we thought we would hear next. Then they went into a finale of “Billie Jean,” “Thriller” and “Beat It.” They danced, and we danced. They took MJ’s songs and played the shit out them. Occasionally, going off into instrument solo’s, and letting their own personality as a band show through MJ’s original brilliance.

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A two song encore ended the show just short of midnight. And a crowd drunk on Michael Jackson nostalgia, and probably some tequila shots spilled out into the streets of Solana Beach. My only complaint…no “Dirty Diana”.

Who’s Bad has been touring as a tribute band for 10 years. See their up-coming tour dates here.

Belly Up’s list of up-coming shows & show tickets can be found here.

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