Once the domain of super-serious, straight-up cover bands like Sticky Fingers (The Stones), Crystal Ship (The Doors) and the thousands of Beatles covers bands who flourished after the Broadway musical Beatlemania made it cool to be faux, the world of tribute bands has evolved along with every other musical movement. From the weird and marginal (Mini Kiss, a band of little people who lip sync to Kiss recordings) to the ultra professional (Bjorn Again ,the highly successful traveling fake-Abba stage show), tribute bands are multiplying and diversifying.
In the post-millennial, post-irony era, it is difficult to enjoy even our “guilty pleasures” without some conceptual tweaking that allows us to feel that we are in on the joke. So while the more serious tribute bands continue to rake in literally millions of dollars per year from ticket sales, a whole crop of acts have emerged that combine off-kilter performance art with sing-a-long élan.
Tragedy, The Bee Gees Tribute band http://www.letsmaketragedyhappen.com/
One popular trend in this direction is the stylistic mashup—like New York City’s Tragedy, who play heavy metal versions of Bee Gees songs; Beatallica, a seamless blend of thrash metal and Fab Four pop; Hoboken’s Skanatra, who apply a spirited blue-beat to the Ol’ Blue Eyes repertoire; and Hayseed Dixie, whose bluegrass renditions of hard rock classics—and elaborate fictional backstory—have kept audiences chuckling for over a decade.
An offshoot of the hybrid tribute act is the gender switch—e.g. Hell’s Belles (femme AC/DC), Deva (double-X chromosome Devo tribute), Lez Zeppelin (“All girls, all Zeppelin”), We Got the Meat, (Portland’s all-male Go-Go’s) and The Pretty Babies, the all-girl Blondie tribute band led by New York singer/comedienne Tammy Faye Starlite, who was an actress before she turned to musical comedy.
“I like to play characters,” says Starlite, who also plays Mick Jagger in the hilarious all-female Rolling Stones act, The Mike Hunt Band. “I guess I’d call myself a ‘performer’—like Liza, but less sequined. And unfortunately, with fewer opiates.”
Inhabiting the persona of Debbie Harry, Nico or Mick “is like doing a great play. The singer is the lead character, and the songs are the lines.”
Bambi Kino Photo Credit: Andrew Bicknell
Then there are the less theatrical but still high-concept acts. Former Guided By Voices member Doug Gillard (now mainly a solo artist) has recently begun playing in Bambi Kino, a Beatles tribute with a twist: their song selections and playing style directly copy the early-‘60s, Hamburg-nightclub-playing era of the band, during which their set lists were mainly pop covers and a few primitive originals. Although the group, which includes Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot, doesn’t assume fake Beatles identities, they do aim for sonic authenticity.
Says Gillard, “We try to avoid more modern guitar chord voicings, licks, and drum fills in favor of period-appropriate styles—which is a challenge. There’s an appeal for us in really inhabiting the music and the era we’re playing songs from.”
Aside from the artistic challenge, and the potential to make some money, what motivates tribute artists to do their thing? Singer Cathy Cervenka heads up the New York-based Cathyland rock collective, which puts together tribute shows for their favorite ‘80s artists, demonstrating both great devotion and dashes of amiable camp. A recent gig had Cervenka performing, with gusto and supple vocal skill, Pat Benatar’s breakthrough Crimes of Passion album with a strong backing band in full ‘80s spandex array.
“There’s nothing more fun than getting to play your favorite songs onstage with your band,” says Cervenka, “for an audience of fellow fans, who know every word and guitar lick of every song.”
She adds reverentially, “It’s a very communal experience.”
By Paula Carino
Paula Carino is a musician and writer based in New York. She’s written for AMG, American Songwriter and contributed to the Encyclopedia of Pop Music. She’s also a yoga teacher and authored the book Yoga To Go.