The Unforgettable Fire Talk About Playing with Their Idols, Two Decades in the Tribute Game & More

Photo Courtesy of The Unforgettable Fire

The Unforgettable Fire headline the first Shamrocks and Shillelaghs Fest, presented by Convention Hall and Pop Break on Saturday March 18. We spoke with the band’s singer Tony Russo about he came to the band, their ability to stay fresh and one of the biggest nights of their lives.

The Unforgettable Fire began their journey to becoming one of the world’s most renowned U2 tribute acts on, appropriately, New Year’s Day 1995.

They were one of the first tribute acts in the scene outside of The Machine (Pink Floyd Tribute), Crystal Ships (Doors Tribute), and a handful of others scattered about the country.

Little did the band known during their mid-to-late ’90s run (1997 to be precise), that a young Tony Russo would be in the crowd of a show they did at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Cafe on Bleecker Street in New York City.

Russo was a massive U2 fan and bore an astounding resemblance to Bono. He was well aware of how much he and the famed frontman looked alike, and used it to his advantage. In the late ’80s he dressed up exactly like Bono (mullet and all), and entered his college’s (Glassboro State now Rowan University in South Jersey) wildly popular lip sync challenge. He and three friends won the contest hands down, mostly due to Russo’s uncanny impersonation of Bono.

So, it was literally fate that put the band, and Russo, in the same room together in the ’90s. According to the singer, he knew he had to be in the band, which was one of the only U2 tributes in the country at the time. In 2001, after the band and their original singer parted ways, Russo auditioned to become the lead singer of The Unforgettable Fire, and he has not looked back since.

Since 2001, Russo an The Unforgettable Fire have continuously stood atop the tribute band world. Anytime U2 releases an album or goes on tour, UF (as they’re affectionately known as) is literally on fire (bad pun, we know) in regards to how in demand they are.

Russo said one of the reasons the band has remained relevant, is the same reason he, and his band mates George, Craig, and The Mick have remained in the band for so long. The reason is that the band never plays the same show twice. The Unforgettable Fire changes their line-up dramatically from show to show. They’ll play deep cuts, rarities, and intriguingly, different arrangements of popular songs. The band actually studies how U2 performs their songs on tours. So for example, a song could sound one way from the famed ZooTV Tour, but another on the Elevation Tour. Unforgettable Fire can break out almost any version of any U2 song going.

This diversity of blending hits with deep cuts and alternate versions of songs often leaves audience members scratching their heads in awe because they’ve never the song before. For Russo, and the band that’s a rewarding moment.

Russo, who sound eerily similar (in a good way) to Bono also points to the fact that U2 is still a vibrant, viable band that creates new music, as a reason for Unforgettable Fire’s success. Think about it for a second. There’s no new music from The Doors, The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin — so how much can their tributes really shake things up when it comes to a setlist?

The band knows all too well about shaking up a setlist — especially when two of their heroes walk into their show for an impromptu guest spot.

In 2006, the band was invited to play the 20th anniversary show for atu2.com, a long running, and highly regarded U2 fansite (this site actually pre-dates the band’s official website). The show was at The Cutting Room in New York City, and U2 happened to be in town for a run at Madison Square Garden. Through the grapevine had heard about the atU2.com show, and according to Russo The Edge and Adam Clayton made their way to the club on an off night, and somehow unbeknownst to anyone got into The Cutting Room and caught the band’s set.

It was then announced that the band’s famed guitar tech Dallas Schoo was going to come on stage to perform with The Unforgettable Fire. The band was honored and ready to roll with this surprise, but were a bit puzzled when Schoo tuned a guitar, and walked off stage.

Then The Edge and Adam Clayton walked on stage.

Russo admits to being absolutely stunned at what was happening. He soon figured Bono would walk out, and U2 would take over the stage. However, there was no Bono…just Russo as the singer. Edge called for the band to play “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Russo admits this was a crazy song to pick since it’s got a complicated time signature, and the effects pedals Edge needs for the song are very, very specific. Luckily, UF’s guitarist, “The Mick” had a similar rig.

The band with their two guest stars ripped through the song to deafening ovations — Edge pulled everyone in for a photo, and then requested the song “Outta Control.” After they tore trough the song, Edge and Clayton bowed and left the stage.

For Russo and the gang — there was no coming down from this. Publications, and social media exploded for two straight days. They didn’t even sleep that night after the show, the energy and excitement, and shock were too strong to come down from.

It’s been nearly a decade since that show, and with U2 revving a new tour, the demand for The Unforgettable Fire is high as ever. Tonight they perform at DROM in New York City, then jet over to (le) Poisson Rouge on Bleekcer Street for a late show. Then on Saturday they perform at Convention Hall in Asbury Park for the first ever Shamrocks and Shillelaghs Fest.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites