For Ffej Herb, founding a tribute act started with the impetus that probably should drive the inception of such a project: the intense passion of a fervent fan.
Solar Federation, the Harrisburg-based tribute to progressive rock trio Rush for which Herb is the drummer, will perform at 9 p.m. Saturday at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Township.
“Without a doubt, they’re my favorite band in the history of recorded music,” Herb said with enthusiasm in response to the simple question, “Why Rush?”
“I always thought it was hokey to have a tribute band while a band was still touring. The thing that worked out well with the timing for this band is I put it together back in 2015, right around the time Rush announced their 40th anniversary tour. Knowing it was going to be their last tour, I thought it was the right time. With Rush not touring, their fan base is so fiercely dedicated.”
But recalling the history of Solar Federation’s formation doesn’t do justice to the process of finding the right musicians to reproduce the skills of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, a task Herb called daunting.
Meeting guitarist and vocalist Eric Wirsing, whom Herb says was accomplished in the virtuosic vein of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, was a step in the right direction.
“Finding a Geddy Lee was … man, you’re talking about a guy who does three things at once,” Herb said.
Veteran instrumentalist Mike Bitts became the solution on bass and keys, and Wirsing’s wife, Berklee-trained singer Julie Schreiber, presented herself as the right fit to take on lead vocals.
“The thing about other Rush bands was they typically had the music down pretty well, but they usually had a guy up there singing songs Geddy recorded in his 20s when he was wailing away,” Herb said. “To have someone up there who can hit the notes pretty effortlessly … she has pretty much the same range as Geddy, and she delivers it with so much passion. She’s the real deal.”
Herb, who grew up listening to heavy metal, said it was a natural progression that brought him to Rush, a band largely known as a “musician’s band.”
“I think Neil Peart put more drumsticks in kids hands … they’ve been influential in that respect,” Herb said.
And it’s Herb who takes on the role of perhaps the most vaunted musician in the revered trio. Peart is widely considered one of the most technically accomplished tubsmen in rock history, his carnival of a drum kit a fixture in rock-drummer lore.
“(It’s) very nerve-wracking, but at the same time, so much fun,” Herb said of the group’s collective responsibility to perform. “That was the first thing I thought of when I considered putting together the band. This is a band that is put on a pedestal and almost worshipped.”
Solar Federation took the challenge seriously, rehearsing their initial set for an entire year before issuing a teaser video of “YYZ” on YouTube.
“We got really good feedback, and our first show went really well,” Herb said. “And that gave us the courage to move forward and take on more difficult pieces.”
In the Rush catalog, Herb noted, it’s not uncommon to find epic-length “9- to 12-minute songs,” but it was one of the band’s celebrated radio hits that became a point of anxiety for Herb during an early performance.
“The drum solo in ‘Tom Sawyer’ is one of those iconic drum solos … you can almost sing it, even if you’re not a musician you can appreciate it,” Herb said. “I was thinking, ‘The future of this band is hinging on me playing this part correctly.’ Luckily, I happened to nail it.”
And nailing it has become Solar Federation’s modus operandi as they have garnered attention from fans throughout Pennsylvania and beyond in nearly three years of touring.
“I remember our first show, there was a married couple who drove from Columbus, Ohio, to Lancaster, Pa., and they said it was well worth it,” Herb said. “That continues to floor me. We’ve had people come see us from as far away as Virginia and North Carolina.”
Built organically through word-of-mouth advertising, the band’s reputation is the result of hard work and critically-acclaimed performance.
“A lot of people, when they think of a tribute band, think of a group of guys standing up on stage and wearing wigs and retro clothing and a show presentation,” Herb said. “Our band doesn’t do that at all. We are strictly focused on the music and try to do faithful, accurate presentations of songs that appeared on studio albums.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Solar Federation — a tribute to Rush
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: River Street Jazz Cafe, 667 N. River St., Plains Township
Additional information: Admission to Solar Federation costs $8 in advance and $10 at the door the evening of the show. Advance tickets and information are available at https://bit.ly/2EbJaq5 or 570-822-2992.