Preview: 'Thriller' Night at Mr. Smalls

Local musicians

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When bands set out to pay tribute to an artist by performing an album in its entirety, they don't often reach for the biggest-selling album of all time.

"Thriller," after all, is, not the easiest to execute live, given Michael Jackson's otherworldly talents.

The Ruckus Bros. will take on the challenge Friday night at Mr. Smalls in a concert curated by local production group Touchfaster, whose inaugural tribute was doing The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" album at James Street Tavern last year.

The choice to do "Thriller, says Rachel Vigliotti, director of operations for Touchfaster, "was just the desire to pay homage to Michael Jackson -- and it's close to Halloween."

The Ruckus Bros. is a 20-piece ensemble featuring members of Gypsy and his Band of Ghosts, Backstabbing Good People, Jazzam, Wreckloose, Velvet Heat, Steel Town Soul, Gene the Werewolf, Elevations and more. It will be a full-scale production, Ms. Vigliotti says, with animation and members of the professional dance company Evolve as the dancing zombies.

"Nobody really has a voice like Michael. So there have been things that have been modified," Ms. Vigliotti says.

Diego Michael Byrnes, director and founder of the Ruckus Bros. and a member of Gypsy, will be the brave soldier taking on most of the vocals, along with Jon Belan and Cait Cuneo. He has been training with breathing exercises and vocal work outs.

"The lower voice seems to be the first step to refining my higher registers, my 'head voice,' which is what MJ was all about. That is just practice routine stuff though. The real challenge is doing it all confidently, accurately and with the intensity of a laser beam. Michael Jackson didn't just have perfect pitch, he also had a lot of power behind his notes, as well as the confidence that comes with a lifetime of high energy performances."

Mr. Belan, of the band Gene the Werewolf, will become just that with help from makeup artists from ScareHouse.

Touchfaster, which presents the RAW:natural born artist events, is an entertainment and media services company that offers musicians services such as audio recording, marketing consulting and graphic design.

"Many of the musicians that we work with use their musical talents to obtain their main source of income, and we want Pittsburgh to be a city that continues to make that possible," Ms. Vigliotti says.

'Thriller' Tribute -- Where: Mr. Smalls. When: 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets: $15; $32 VIP; Details: The all-ages concert includes a DJ set from Tracksploitation. Prizes and giveaways, including a grand prize for best costume.


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We asked some of the other Ruckers Bros. to weigh in on what "Thriller" meant to them:

Jon Belan, Gene the Werewolf: "I am probably one of the only ones in the band old enough to remember hearing and witnessing the nostalgia of the 'Thriller' album when it came out in 1982. I can remember walking through Kmart with my mom, and there were TVs set up around every corner playing the 'Thriller' video, so we bought the cassette and video the same day. I instantly fell in love with the album. I can remember my neighbor and I would swing on his swing set and listen to it all day. Not only has 'Thriller' had a huge influence on my songwriting, but my band actually covers the title track, and I have actually mimicked Michael Jackson's white suit on stage."

Max Somerville, Wreck Loose: "I actually didn't hear the album in its entirety until we started this project six months ago. So it was really eye-opening to hear some of those songs for the first time and immediately recognize them as timeless and beautiful. The melodies are so infectious and the grooves are so tight. I can't think of too many albums that have grabbed me so fast."

Jessica Zamiska, Velvet Heat and Steel Town Soul: "I can't remember the first time I heard the album, but I do remember the first time I saw the video for 'Thriller.' I was probably around 10. I was in awe of Michael Jackson. He was the ultimate performer. I loved the song and of course tried to learn the dance. I had grown up watching old movies with my pop-pop, so the fact that Vincent Price was a part of it was really awesome to me! (Although none of my friends knew who he was)."

Scott Mervis:; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.

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