The very concept of a tribute band might seem absurd and abhorrent to some. It's a group of performers making money, sometimes a lot of money — one Houston venue can pay upwards of $1,000 for a tribute act's first gig — for a show where, guaranteed, absolutely nothing new or revolutionary will occur.
Critics think tribute bands are heretical and counterproductive. Musicians eking out a living with their original compositions are rightfully jealous and disappointed that tribute acts routinely outdraw them. But those bands — and, more importantly, their fans — continue turning out.
"Having been on both sides, it's soul-crushing," says Brad Caudle of local Led Zeppelin tribute Black Dog. "You're in an original band and you show up and say, 'Here's my baby,' and the response could be, 'Well, your baby's ugly.' It's frustrating, but you have to be realistic about the general nature of people."
No tribute band expects to play for teeming masses, but they do face a much lighter promotional burden than original acts. They're practically guaranteed an audience. Provided they can deliver the goods, tribute bands can piggyback whatever artist they're imitating to decent (if not spectacular) crowds. Original bands, of course, have to pull their audience out of the ether.
"If I'm doing a Bowel show on Saturday night," begins Jeff Poppe, percussionist for local metal group Bowel and member of AC/DC tribute Brian's Johnson, "I know it's a Saturday and original music, [and] I'm gonna have to hit the pavement and bust my ass to get the word out."
But a unique set of pressures comes with that built-in audience. Original performers are limited only by their technical abilities and imagination, but cover/tribute sets leave little to no room for improvisation or interpretation.
"The expectations for a KISS tribute have a lot of similarities to a Beatles tribute, or an Alice Cooper tribute, because you're dealing with identifiable characters," says Mike Campion, who has played Gene Simmons for a decade, currently in Dressed to KISS. "A Pink Floyd tribute is more about the light show; Led Zep requires the musicianship. We're never claiming we're great musicians, but we're confident in the presentation. We give the experience, not a note-by-note [re-creation] of the records."
Caudle and Black Dog come in through the out door, as it were. "Black Dog is not looking to do a note-for-note re-creation, but we do try to master the feel — capture the soul and communicate it back to the people in a way they can connect to," he says. "Zep's live shows were crazy, and none of them mirrored another, so we really shoot for the sound from the records instead of trying to re-create the live experience."
"You're trying to pull off something that's already been created, then trying to convince people you're that band," adds Joe Garbo, drummer for the recently reunited Toology.
Garbo thinks more technically adept bands like Tool inspire tribute bands for different reasons. "A lot of the fun is in the challenge, because that music is not easy to pull off live," he says.
Caudle concurs. "It's a different energy than a cover band, and a different kind of thing to do musically. It feels good to tackle the more challenging songs and pull them off," he says.
Tribute bands that click experience the same energy and adulation from their audience the groups they cover experienced in their heyday. But since that audience already has intimate knowledge of their repertoire, tribute bands must be as devoted to their musical craft as their original counterparts.
"We just want a large, responsive crowd that will create that energy to throw toward the stage, so we can gather it up and throw it back," says Caudle.
For Rick Wood and the guys in Lights Out and Bad Motor Scooter — tributes to UFO and the slightly more obscure Montrose, respectively — it's about fellowship. "Some people bowl; we rock and roll," he says. "It's a way for us to hang out and play music, and fortunately we have the opportunity to jam in front of people who love that music just as much as we do."
"Younger kids will see us at Fitz's and say, 'That was awesome! I really like your songs! Do you guys have any CDs?'" offers Jeff Poppe. "I'll say, 'Yeah, we do — go home and Google AC/DC.'"
For every one journey from preteen air guitar to whiskey-saturated tour bus, thousands upon thousands of musicians woodshed for years without seeing any professional return. Family, career, adulthood and the overall menace of reality force part-timers either to face total failure or to realign their priorities.
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"It's interesting; the people who were in original bands ten years ago were adamant that they'd never play in a tribute, but you start creeping up on 30 and realize your chance to make it has kind of passed," says Campion. "At that point, it's more about having a good time."
Many musicians would sooner pawn their gear than settle for anything less than stardom. Others realize they can live without playing original music, and basking in their audience's approval is reason enough to take the stage. It just so happens someone else's art is the medium, and the performers are also (arguably) the biggest fans in the room.
"The guys who make it deserve it," says Toology's Garbo. "That's a hard road — those people are trying to express creativity.
"Tribute bands, I think, just want to have fun."