By day, guitarist Dennis Neil seems like just another L.A. musician, working around his home, answering e-mail, and contemplating future bookings. By night, however, Neil undergoes a strange and startling metamorphosis guaranteed to strike fear in the heart of an unsuspecting 'N Sync fan. For when the sun goes down, the mild-mannered Neil dons a pair of ripped jeans, a flannel shirt, and a black leather jacket and becomes … Neil Young, shaggy scourge of the slick and superficial.
Of course, Dennis doesn't really become Neil Young, but he does manage to conjure an amazing facsimile. Dennis fronts a band called Heart of Gold, a group devoted to keeping alive the memory of the unkempt Canadian maestro (even if the original is still around).
Welcome to the world of the tribute band, a unique form of musical idolatry that's been a noble pursuit for thousands of talented imitators for years. Tribute acts come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors, whether it's the casually attired quartet paying heartfelt musical homage or the full-tilt, spitting-image variety with an obsessive devotion to detail. Any band that's had even the slightest brush with fame is potential tribute-band fodder — no act is too big, small, good, bad, obscure, loud, or fast, or even too offensive, to be copied.
Onstage's intrepid leap into world of the tribute band uncovered faux versions of a"bote range of acts, from the Beatles to Black Sabbath, Steely Dan to Stevie Ray Vaughan. We also found bands mimicking made-for-TV acts such as the Monkees and the Partridge Family. Don't forget Elvis Presley, who probably spawned more imitators than anyone. Although bands modeled on acts no longer touring (or alive) definitely have a leg up — people generally want what they can't have — even fresh faces such as Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Creed have inspired their own tributes.
If you want to get in on the tribute-band scene, there seems to be plenty of room at the top — even for the most, shall we say, time-tested concept. For example, at last count more than a dozen gainfully employed facsimiles of AC/DC were roaming the countryside, sporting names such as Dogbone, TNT, and Dirty Deeds, pumping out Angus riffs for anyone within earshot.
As you might expect, tribute bands are more often than not the by-product of a long and unabashed devotion to the parent act. “We're all big fans of Neil Young's music, we all love great guitar work and vocal harmonies, so it was a perfect match for us,” says Dennis Neil. “Four of us had been in another tribute band doing Crosby, Stills, and Nash music. It only made sense to join together, and that's how Heart of Gold was formed. The sound was right on from the beginning, and with just two rehearsals, we were on our way and gigging.”
Not that past fanaticism is necessarily a requirement. Take, for example, L.A.-based guitarist Lenny Mann of the fancifully named Zep sound-alike Led Zepagain. Mann accepted the job of imitating Jimmy Page with little prior experience.
“Actually, I knew about four Led Zeppelin songs when I was approached to audition for this gig,” Mann says. Still, the position seemed like a perfect fit. “What better challenge for me professionally than to emulate such an influential artist?” he says. “Besides, I get a kick out of wearing Jimmy's black dragon suit.”
Although some may find the notion of copying a rock 'n' roll superhero laughable, many of the players toiling in tribute bands are first-rate. They have to be if they're to convincingly imitate the moves, licks, and harmonies of some of the greatest rock musicians of all time.
John Mueller as Buddy Holly
Getting Into Character
However impressive their musicianship, the most important thing for many “serious” imitation acts is adopting the physical attributes of the targets of their affections. “To be a great tribute band, you have to put on a show that allows your audience to feel like they are part of the act,” says Neil (Dennis, not Young). “You've got to get the artist's look and sound together. For us, that meant getting a head-to-toe Neil look going. And since I was the guy doing the singing, I had to do it. So I hit up many of the local costume and wig shops and Salvation Army stores and found everything I needed to do the trick. Since I look nothing like Neil, it takes quite a makeover to get ready for our performances.”
Getting into costume is one thing; adopting the designated artists' exact stage mannerisms and vocal affects (including all between-song banter, singing styles, and so on) is the ultimate manifestation of the tribute-band experience. Though many large acts stay in character for the whole show, that's where Dennis Neil draws the line.
“My ‘Neil'' pretty much stops at the look, the singing, and the over-the-top stage mme sents of the real Neil,” says the guitarist. “For one thing, Neil speaks very little on stage — he's been known to go through entire concerts without uttering much more than a ‘How ya doin'?'' So the in-between banter returns to Dennis. That's the approach we've adopted, which is in keeping with my philosophy that the crowd stays clued in to the theater of the whole thing.”
Looks aren't everything, of course, as evidenced by bands such as Pennsylvania-based quintet Number Nine, a three-year-old troupe with a master list of more than 100 Beatles tunes. Number Nine is a dead ringer for the Fab Four in sound only.
“I based our group on another really fine all-Beatles band from Dallas called A Hard Night's Day,” says keyboardist and guitarist John Heffelfinger. “They were the first all-Beatles band I'd ever seen that made no attempt to dress up like the Beatles.” Heffelfinger thinks the costumed approach is “kind of lame.” For him, the music's the important thing: “nothing canned, choreographed, or staged.” The band mostly plays clubs near where its members live, though the Beatles' continued popularity gets Number Nine other “interesting gigs” as well.
There's a lot more to launching a convincing tribute act than meets the eye. Many of these bands do an extraordinary amount of prep work, from learning the songs the right way (in the original key, with the proper chord voicings, detunings, capo positions, and so forth) to finding exactly the same makes and models of the instruments, amps, and effects employed by the original.
It can get expensive. In his pursuit of Neil Young's guitar sound, Dennis Neil spent some serious bucks in acquiring a Gretsch White Falcon, the axe favored by Young in the early '70s. He also went to great expense tricking out a black Epiphone Les Paul with a Bigsby and chrome hardware, la Young's “Old Black.” And that's just the beginning.
Using the Internet, Neil tracked down Young's amp tech, Sal Trentino. “He was real cool and helped lead me to the exact same amps used by Neil [Young],” he says. Among them were a '59 Fender Tweed Deluxe and a Magnatone 280 through a Baldwin Exterminator — all modified to the actual specs used by Young. The band's second guitarist, Gary Richardi, also owns several pricey Gretsches. Added up, it's quite an investment. “I definitely don't recommend an equipment quest like this for anyone who's watching their dimes,” says Neil.
Guitarist Dave Meyer is the Ron Wood imitator with Stones clones Sticky Fingers. He wouldn't dream of leaving home without the proper tools. Luckily for him, the real Stones are pretty scattered when it comes to picking gear. “Those guys have played most every kind of guitar at some point,” says Meyer. “I use a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Tele. Our ‘Keith'' plays several Teles and Strats and the clearbody Dan Armstrong guitar.” For amps, ‘Ron'' and ‘Keith'' use vintage Fender Deluxes and Twins, '80s Marshalls, and a Line 6 Pod, to name just a few.
For Number Nine, faithfully covering one of the most hallowed acts in history isn't something to be taken lightly. They use an arsenal of Rickenbackers, Gretsches, and Epiphones to duplicate the sound of rockers such as “Revolution” and “Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.” Six- and 12-string acoustics stand ready for lighter songs like “And I Love Her” or for adding the authentic acoustic rhythms to tunes such as “Eight Days a Week.”
“We do the best we can for a weekend-warrior-type band. Fortunately, we all have real jobs, so we can afford to own a few ‘correct'' instruments,” says Heffelfinger.
Modern sound aids help make Number Nine's show complete. The band totes around an Ensoniq EPS and a companion EPS-M rack sampler for keys, hooked up to a Line 6 AxSys 212, which is, appropriately enough, a modeling amp. Thanks mainly to Heffelfinger's day gig in the audiovisual world (he's a sales and applications engineer for a leading manufacturer of AV remote control systems), Number Nine is able to include sampled details like the feedback intro to “I Feel Fine” or the droning sitar that runs throughout the psychedelic manifesto “Tomorrow Never Knows,” cued through a touch-screen-based system.
“I use that to manage the keyboard setups, vocal processor presets, and my Line 6 amp as well,” says Heffelfinger. “Without it, jumping around from ‘I Am the Walrus'' to ‘Penny Lane'' to ‘Got to Get You Into My Life'' wouldn't be possible.”
E' Casanova as Michael Jackson
Imagine All the Income
How much money do tribute bands make? That all depends on where you are, who you are, and how well you do the job. It's not uncommon for the right act to make a pretty fair pile of dough on any given occasion. At one recent outdoor event, Grateful Dead copyists Shakedown Street raked in a cool $12,000. Led Zepagain can pull in anything between $800 and $1,500 for a typical West Coast gig and about $2,500 to $4,000 when they travel. For newer, second-tier tribute bands, the take is usually a lot less. Still, both Number Nine and Heart of Gold manage a respectable (and consistent) business without having to leave their home regions.
“Trust me, we're not putting our kids through college with the money from this band,” says Number Nine's Heffelfinger, whose band makes anything from $350 to $750 a night. “Of course, we're only serious about the music — not the money,” he says.
Playing mostly around Los Angeles, a real hotbed for tribute bands, Heart of Gold averages $200 to $300 per gig. “The most we've made is $500 for an hour set,” says Dennis Neil. “We've had higher offers, like playing in Europe at $1,000 to $1,500. To make a lot of money as a tribute act, you have to be a road band and travel a lot. We haven't gone that route yet.”
Tomorrow the World
When it comes to working in the tribute world, location is key. Along with Los Angeles, other tried-and-true markets include the Midwest (a historical bastion for the arena rock favored by many tribute acts), the Southwest, and Canada. Theme parks like Disneyland and Six Flags make regular use of tribute bands, as do fairs and festivals across the country. By contrast, the East Coast, particularly the Northeast, appears to be somewhat less hospitable to the tribute-band phenomenon.
A tribute band naturally stands a better chance of survival in a major metropolitan market. Still, Led Zepagain's Lenny Mann thinks that venues in more remote regions are beginning to find the concept attractive. “Just by looking at the listings of tribute bands on Tribute City [www.tributecity.com], you can see the trend starting to show all across America and the world,” he says. “In the U.K., tribute acts have been quite popular for a while now.”
Some tribute bands have managed to sniff out pockets of support by tapping into the regional popularity of a particular group. Shakedown Street set up shop in Denver — an area with a history of supporting all things Dead, tie-dyed, and patchoulied — and have lived the good life ever since. “In an area like this, it's a natural draw,” says Jake Wolf, the group's drummer. “The Dead, Neil Young, Dylan are all huge out here. It makes perfect sense to be doing this.”
Riding the Wave
Naturally, the biggest variable in the tribute-band sweeps is the overall popularity of the artist being copied, which explains the abundance of counterfeit Led Zeppelin, Who, AC/DC, and other classic-rock icons. In the tribute-band business, nostalgia is a prime motivator. Fans too young to have heard the real John Bonham in person will pay good money to hear a top-flight imitation. “People who missed the era of Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and the Doors, as well as those who were really there, can all enjoy seeing a simulated concert,” Mann says.
Not surprisingly, the fortunes of many tribute bands can rise and fall with the on-again, off-again popularity of the real thing. When the Blues Brothers 2000 flick rekindled the memory of the Saturday Night Live R&B duo, tribute act the Jake & Elwood Blues Revue was right there, riding the wave.
Number Nine took advantage of the recent surge of Beatles hype. “We've just tailored our newest song list to the tracks on Beatles One,” notes Heffelfinger. “I mean, it topped Billboard for months — people are dying to hear those songs right now.”
Tribute acts can often fare better than the average cover band when it comes to bookings, depending on the popularity of the artist being impersonated. “In general, tribute acts are easy to sell,” says Michael Yorkell of All Access Events, a Boston-area promotional agency. “Clubs always enjoy having a great tribute act come in.”
Still, those in the know warn that any emerging tribute act that doesn't do its homework beforehand will quickly find that paying tribute doesn't pay anything. “New tribute bands really need to wait until they're totally ready — they should be nothing short of top-notch,” says Dave Hewitt of DMH Enterprises, a booking agency based in Los Angeles. “There are so many people out there who decide to be a tribute to some band, who just get out there, play a bunch of the songs, and that's it. In a way, it dilutes the power of the bands who are really good, who put on a show and care about the actual musicians they're paying tribute to.”
Yorkell agrees. “The most important attribute is looks and sound,” he says. “If an act lacks those two things, it will never make it in the tribute market.”
Although familiarity usually works in a tribute band's favor, occasionally variety-seeking club owners will balk at the one-dimensional aspect of a group's repertoire. “In most cases, the novelty of our band has opened doors for us where another run-of-the-mill cover band might not get any notice,” says Number Nine's Heffelfinger. “But it's also worked against us, when a club owner can't fathom how people could enjoy a group that covers the music of just one band for four hours straight.” At such times, Heffelfinger gets actively defensive. “We politely point out that there is probably more variety in our 110 Beatles songs than there is in the entire repertoire of any other band they currently use,” he says. “Go listen to a typical blues, R&B, or funk band for about an hour and tell me I'm wrong.”
Of course, when you're covering an act that's been active for some 40 years and has never gone out of favor, variety is a moot point. As Sticky Fingers' Dave Meyer points out, “Who is going to argue with a dead-on ringer for the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band?”
Meyer continues, “It's a guaranteed built-in audience, really. It's unfortunate that people aren't more interested in hearing new music, but that's often the way it is. They want to hear their favorite songs, and generally speaking, there are a lot of bad original bands out there performing bad songs, with no look, no presence, anything. Let's face it — with a good tribute band, you pretty much know what you're getting.”
Exposure Entertainment — “Progressive Agency for Established Professional Performers and Up-and-Coming New Music.”
All Access Events, a management agency for tribute bands.
Dead ringers from Denver.
An extensive site devoted to the world of tribute bands, run by Led Zepagain's Lenny Mann.
What's In a Name
Choosing a good name can be important to the success of a tribute band. One tried-and-true method is to name the band after a classic song or album by the parent act. Another way to go is to come up with a clever, evocative name. Overall, tribute names range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here's a small sampling.
Abbalanche One of many Abba clone bands.
Fistful of Alice Playing the music of Alice Cooper.
The Danny Steele Orchestra A 12-piece Steely Dan band from the United Kingdom.
Fast and Bulbous A Frank Zappa tribute band from Italy.
Is This Tom Jones? Do we really care?
Missing Links A California-based Monkees tribute band.
Peat Loaf One of a surprising number of Meat Loaf tribute acts.
The Beached Boys Fun, fun, fun.
The Rolling Clones A facsimile of Mick, Keith, and the boys.
Tiny Tina Not the latest doll — a Tina Turner tribute.
David Simonsis a New England-based music journalist.