"I've been beaten down. I haven't slept. I've been up all night," says Will Forte, the founder of popular Bruce Springsteen cover group the B-Street Band. The 63-year-old musician tells Rolling Stone that when news broke that his band would play a Donald Trump inauguration party this month, he received a flood of emails excoriating the group.
"We kind of fell into this and never saw it coming," he adds. "I'm only a small fry. I like publicity, but I didn't want this kind of publicity. The last time we had this much publicity is when we almost played the Craigslist Killer's wedding up in Boston."
The group finds itself in the crosshairs of politics and music after announcing their appearance at the Garden State Presidential Inaugural Gala on January 19th in Washington, D.C.
"We're a non-political band," Forte insists. The B-Street Band have played dozen of shows for both political parties for decades, he says. They even appeared at the same gala for President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013. "We're hired to do things and we don't look at what the repercussions are of playing an event at all," Forte says. "We don't even go into politics that deeply. The guys in the band are so easy-going, I don't even know if they have any politics." He lets out a deep laugh and sighs.
Formed in 1980, the B-Street Band still play more than 200 shows a year. Actual E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Vini Lopez and the late Clarence Clemons have sat in with them. Speaking to Springsteen for a 2012 Rolling Stone feature, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart said, "The only band I think I've seen more than Bruce Springsteen is the Springsteen tribute band Backstreets," referencing the tribute band's former name.
Now, in between performances like "Coach Lennon's Birthday Bruce Bash" and the "Steinert After Prom Fundraiser," the B-Streeters are dealing with a public relations nightmare for agreeing to the Donald Trump gig (something, Forte adds, they are under contract to perform). And then there is the problem of the band's image. The cover band members worry how they will appear performing the music of Springsteen, who has been vehemently opposed to the president-elect's campaign and platform. The so-called "party" has thrust the group into an unlikely, and unwanted, position.
Springsteen himself hasn't been shy on his Trump feelings, calling him a "flagrant, toxic narcissist" with "simply no sense of decency." "The republic is under siege by a moron, basically," he told Rolling Stone last year. "The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it's a tragedy for our democracy."
Springsteen appeared at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally right before the election, performing a solo acoustic set and telling the crowd, "Hillary's candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation and of an actual vision of America where everyone counts."
"If there's any concern, it's that I do upset Bruce."
For Forte, the issue is more about the office itself than who's running the country. "I respect what Bruce said and we owe everything to him, but I also have respect for the office of the presidency no matter who is involved," Forte says. "A little bit of us going down there originally [in 2009] was because we were honored to be part of that celebration of the office of the presidency. It's not about the candidate or who was elected; it was about the office of the presidency. I was performing for that. C'mon, we're a bar band. It's got nothing to do with politics whatsoever."
Forte says the B-Street Band signed a contract to perform at this month's event in 2013, one week after performing at the Obama gala. The event, he claims, centers more on New Jersey pride than any party affiliation. "It's really just a New Jersey party and that's how we look at this event," he says. "We never, ever thought this would happen four years ago. The way it's portrayed in the media is that Trump hired us for the inauguration. I don't have any dealings with Trump at all! It's just a New Jersey gala."
"We are thrilled to have the B-Street Band back for the third time, having had them for our last two Obama inaugural balls," Nancy Fatemi, executive director of event organizer New Jersey State Society, tells Rolling Stone in a statement. "We consider them the official band of the New Jersey State Society and would not consider any other group. We have been holding this event consistently since the 1950s. Our ball is always nonpartisan like our organization and a celebration of democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. Springsteen music is magic to the ears of our New Jersey members and guests, regardless of party."
The controversy hasn't changed the group's plans to appear at the event. "We're contracted," Forte says. "I've been in enough litigation in my life. I have four kids. I'm 63 years old. I can't make stands like other people can. I'm not in that position. Whatever the politics may be, [the band] understands that I'm just trying to do what's right."
A representative for Springsteen declined to comment, but one E Street Band member has already expressed his frustration over the event. "Please tell me this is more fake news," Garry Tallent, the group's founding bassist, tweeted in response to a story on the B-Street Band's appearance. "Or at least a joke."
Asked what he would say to Springsteen about the controversy, Forte takes a long pause. "We are honored and very grateful and the opportunities all of these years are directly because of Bruce Springsteen and his music. We would never intentionally disrespect what he's given us the last 37 years," he says. "If there's any concern, it's that I do upset Bruce and he doesn't get the real story behind this. I do worry about that."
Rascal Flatts singer Gary LeVox will perform at the Veterans Inaugural Ball on the Inauguration Day of President-elect Trump. Watch here.