Above: Matt Urban (l) and Joe Trainor of The Rock Orchestra at The Grand’s Copeland Hall. Photo by Joe del Tufo.
By Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald
Trainor and Urban, both 50-somethings, have seen their professional — and personal —relationships grow and strengthen over recent years. Along with an 110-musician-deep roster, they’ve been rocking the Brandywine Valley as the leaders of TRO since 2017.
As one of the area’s most well-known tribute bands, TRO specializes in taking on a range of classic and alt rock “Best Of’s” — from their annual weeklong celebration All Together Now (formerly known as BeatleFest) to concerts honoring the music of Queen, Genesis, Tom Petty, Talking Heads, Jethro Tull, and Sir Elton John, among others. (Often, this writer will re-watch their quarantine-era video of Tiny Dancer and still get chills.)
WE WILL ROCK YOU
The two were already juggling busy schedules when they developed the idea, so why launch a tribute band?
“Because Joe’s insane, and I’m insane too,” laughs Urban.
“It was out of boredom,” Trainor muses, who had begun performing one-off tribute shows with other musicians in 2004, starting with Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“From the get-go, I didn’t want to be in a ‘singular’ tribute band,” Trainor says. “I wanted to tackle other artists and do other things. Part of the fun for me now is we’re always learning new material.”
They began performing together in earnest in 2010-2011 as In The Light, a six-member ensemble that played several successful gigs, including their first performance of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album in its entirety. After a time, both felt the artistic pull to reinvent their brand but continue to work with In The Light colleagues and artists they’d met through their involvement in the Shine a Light concerts.
“I’d always intended [Physical Graffiti] to be a one off,” says Urban. “I knew I was getting people who were busy in other bands. But afterward, everybody was like, ‘Hey, let’s keep doing this.’”
Trainor agrees. “I didn’t just want to do Zeppelin. I said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ and that led to In The Light performing their Queen [show], and the Who, and the Eagles.” Once they formed TRO, they scheduled initial performances at The Queen before approaching (former Grand Executive Director) Mark Fields with a partnership idea. “He dug it,” Urban said, and TRO settled into a performance home at The Grand.
Today, Trainor is TRO’s lead singer and artistic director while Urban mans the drum kit and managing director duties, although Trainor admits there is some cross over. Additionally, they both balance full-time jobs against their TRO responsibilities — Trainor with Gable Music Ventures and Urban with NüPOINT Marketing — and Trainor serves as the longtime music director of City Theater Company. Each also performs with their own respective tribute bands outside of TRO: Trainor sings with Angry Young Band (Billy Joel) and Urban is the drummer of Echoes (Pink Floyd).
FANS PLAYING FOR FANS
The duo’s goal for TRO is to replicate the music not just with reverence to the artist but for the original recordings as well. “We try to build [the show] so that we’re doing it note-for-note off the record as people remember,” Trainor says.
And Urban notes that, unlike larger performing artists, TRO is completely unscripted — just an authentic interchange between musicians who are connected and care about each other. “I’ve had audience members say [to me] that the appeal is not just the music, the band, or the presentation, but it’s seeing people genuinely having fun together and supporting each other on stage.”
As artistic director, Trainor seems a masterful mad genius at pairing orchestrations and musicians until he’s found that magic combination.
“We try to find people who share in that same reverence, and our lineups change from show to show based on that,” he says. “The approach that I try to convey is that we’re fans playing for fans. We don’t try to put ourselves above the audience; we’re just the people leading the sing-along.”
“That’s the brand that we wanted to create,” Urban says. “An understanding that when you come to our show, you’re going to see people at the top of their game. That’s what people are responding to.”
Longtime TRO fan Karen Singley could not agree more. “What I love most about them is how they perform the shows true to the artist — down to every last note.
Joe makes sure [the performance] sounds
just like the song you heard on the radio, and that’s why I am a huge fan. You know you are going to see a great show!”
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM
While TRO has played in The Grand’s Copeland Hall for past shows, this is the first season that their entire series will be presented in the big hall.
“The fact that we’re doing more and more of our shows there — as well as all of the shows this season — is a testament to our partnership with The Grand,” said Urban. “They’re emphasizing us a lot more because they understand that it’s connecting with the community and that’s what’s cool. They also have a real interest and focus on artist development.”
“We deeply value the relationships with our resident companies,” says Pam Manocchio. “Not only do they bring the highest quality of their artforms to our stages, but they also bring a strong sense of camaraderie and collaboration. We’re lucky to have them all here!”
The most mind-blowing thing for both Trainor and Urban may be how The Rock Orchestra is now spoken of alongside the other longtime resident companies of The Grand.
“The whole idea of TRO in the same breath as OperaDelaware, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and First State Ballet Theatre means there is really good classic material in the rock genre that should be elevated so that audiences experience it as classic, like the Symphony,” Urban says. “That approach dictates something unlike a cover band because it’s a different kind of reverence for the material.”
Trainor agrees. “My goal from the beginning has been to legitimize what we do within the greater arts community; to acknowledge that recreating Elton John or Jethro Tull or David Bowie can be as important to an arts community as Verdi, Mozart, or Tchaikovsky.”
Trainor admits it makes him “tingly” when he sees The Grand post about their partners and TRO is in that mix. “I feel a little like the Fox TV Network back in the ’80s — you know … it was always channels 3, 6, and 10, and then Fox showed up with all these cool things. Like, we’re something fresh and different,” he says.
With the new season looming, what do the two most anticipate taking on?
“I’m most looking forward to Springsteen, because he’s one of my top-five favorite songwriters,” says Trainor. “Bowie and Fleetwood Mac are going to be amazing as well, but Bruce is a personal favorite.”
Urban checks Fleetwood Mac — especially Rumours — as his pick. “I can’t wait to dig into that,” he says. “We’ve got an amazing band that will really suit the material. Bowie is a close second. My daughter, Grace, is a huge Bowie fan. I’m excited to do a show that celebrates one of her favorite artists.”
Manocchio says TRO has developed their audience over time with a solid combination of folks who love their band as much as the music.
“Copeland Hall was the natural choice for these performances,” she says. “Fans are already responding [to the series], and our expectations are high.”
As they head into a new performance year, there’s still more the two seek to accomplish with TRO.
“Our primary goal is to grow the audience,” says Trainor. “To keep doing good work and making more people aware of what TRO brings to The Grand.”