Atomic Light Orchestra (ALO) performs the music of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) at the Avalon Theatre on the Eastern Shore Jan. 14.
Being a tribute band is a funny thing. Your audience wants to hear the music of the artist they love played precisely as they recall it from the record—yet somehow each tribute act must be indistinguishable from its brethren. And the bill is especially tall when the original artist’s songs require so many instruments; this is certainly true of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).
However, the Baltimore-based Atomic Light Orchestra (ALO) does the best they can with “only” six members versus ELO’s typical touring complement of 13. The tribute band has been on the scene for three years, and will be performing at the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland, Jan. 14.
“We pay tribute to Jeff Lynne’s iconic band of the ’70s and early ’80s. We love that music,” said Dennis Schocket, the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist. “We don’t use any pre-recorded tracks of any kind. Everything is performed live. And we’re proud of that because it’s difficult music to convey and get right.”
Schocket is joined by co-lead guitarist and vocalist Gregg Simmons, bassist and keyboard player Bronson Wagner, percussionist Phil Brotman, keyboardist John Kelly and classically trained violinist Greta Thomas. The band first started jamming together after attending an ELO show in 2018, and were ready to give their tribute act a serious go when the pandemic came on the scene in early 2020. Since that time, ALO has been earning fans one venue, one show at a time in order to satiate the hunger of those who still miss ELO, which hasn’t toured since 2019.
“ELO music is very thick. There’s a lot of moving parts [and] the chords are difficult,” Schocket said. “It’s really fun, and it’s really satisfying when you pull it off and see a good crowd reaction.”
Schocket himself is a songwriter, and has been leading the band Starbelly for years. Unlike when performing his original work, recreating ELO’s catalog brings with it both audience expectation and the need to pay extremely close attention to the compositions of another writer. When asked if it was difficult to find fans of ELO who could not only play but perform at the level required to reproduce those signature songs live, Schocket minces no words.
“It keeps you on your toes musically because you have to try and play it like it sounds,” he said. “You can’t be lazy, just sort of wing it. You have to really pay attention.”
In addition to ELO tunes, the ALO group also trots out some tunes by the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that comprised Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Schocket believes that the DNA of those two projects were so similar given that Lynne was the driving force behind both acts. It makes for quite an upbeat setlist overall.
Schocket has never met Lynne in person, which is somewhat surprising considering he mentioned during our interview that the two musicians share a mutual friend. Perhaps Lynne might even come out to see ALO, thus completing the circle. However, Schocket is quick to point out that his musical hero is known for his reclusivity.
“I’m an unabashed geek when it comes to Jeff Lynne. I love everything he’s ever done,” Schocket said. “To me he’s as important as a Beatle. He worked with each Beatle except for John Lennon, of course. I [also] love the records that Jeff Lynne worked on with Tom Petty.”
Perhaps that very affection creates problems of its own. Schocket relates that, following a recent show, a rather well-meaning fan offered what he described as a backhanded vote of approval.
“Her compliment was ‘I was astounded at how good you guys sound.’ And I know what she means by that,” Schocket said. “Again, there’s only six of us, and we’re not doing pre-recorded tracks. Some tribute bands [use] pre-recorded tracks; that’s not a detriment to them, but it’s a bit of a badge of honor for us: We just do this live. What you see is what you get.
“When a band is really getting it and it’s being produced right in front of you…people appreciate that. And when you hear the harmonies jumping…I hope that people are like, ‘Wow, they are really authentic.’”
The members of ALO get together as often as feasible to rehearse and work on their setlists, which typically include such crowd-pleasers as “Do Ya.” Schocket is a musician full-time, and the members of ALO have outside gigs too. He’s hoping the band’s reputation will increase beyond the DMV area so they can continue playing festivals beyond their local zip codes.
“This summer we played the Trifecta Festival in Baltimore, which was incredible,” he recalled with pride. “They had all tribute bands and maybe 10,000 people.”
In addition to leading both ALO and Starbelly, Schocket has a solo album of his original compositions called “Weathervane” coming out in the new year. He tries to write music daily from his home in Fallston, and is fortunate to have a wife who is supportive of his artistic ambitions. (Schocket also takes on fixer-up duties when his missus is off at work.) He says his local musical community is supportive, allowing him to continue pursuing the dream over the course of several decades.
“But it’s also difficult for my other band, which is an original band, to get your music out there to monetize it,” Schocket said of his non-ALO output. “But it’s also rewarding. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
And even though his January gig with ALO was in fact moved from a different venue, he shrugs it off philosophically: It’s never personal, he insists of double bookings, and the club in question typically gets them another slot down the line.
“You just keep your head up and always try to be the good guy in that situation,” he said. “That’s always the way I advise anybody: Try to take the high road.”
That high road will see him and the other members of ALO roll into the Avalon Theatre Jan. 14 after being double-booked at the City Winery in D.C. Schocket vows a good time for all as this still-young era of relearning how to rock out together continues its growing pains.
“We’re really psyched to play it. We are gonna be on the stage close to two hours playing straight-up ELO with some Traveling Wilburys thrown in,” he said. “It’s going to be a happy night—people smiling and laughing and dancing, and we want you to sing along!”
Atomic Light Orchestra plays their rendition of ELO music at the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland, Jan. 14. For tickets, visit TheAvalonTheatre.com.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.