Time Traveling with Tribute Bands

Second in my 3-Part series on Music Lover Musings. This week: An Epiphany (even tribute bands create real memories)

Last year I wrote a pretty lengthy feature story for what I like to refer to as my “day job” with a local arts and entertainment monthly on the rise of the Tribute Bands in the area.

I remember when the idea of a tribute band meant “Elvis Impersonator” (now referred to by the more politically correct Elvis Tribute Artist) and “Beatlemania.” Then, when the 1980s rolled around the Michael Jackson tributes begin popping up everywhere.

I had never given these types of bands much credence, until I saw how big a demand there is for them now. Tribute bands are a weekly event several live music venues in my area, and some of them bring with them these multi-media shows celebrating the history of a certain artist. Others have latched on to “pops concert” circuit, fronting full orchestras.

I talked to both venues and local music promoters telling me how popular tribute acts have become, as well as some musicians in traveling tribute bands telling me how many gigs they get each month. Some of these guys play in their own original music bands, as well as in two or three different tribute bands.

I have to tell you I’ve gained quite a bit of respect for these guys who are able to turn their love of a certain era or artist into a full-time gig. There’s a niche for them, and I totally “get it” now.

First, I don't have to tell you there are some pretty horrendous tribute bands out there, and witnessing them can be excruciating.

Nothing is more humiliating than having to witness an overweight, over-the-hill, barely in-tune man in a discount Halloween costume thinking he’s channeling The King, but he couldn’t be more tacky if he were painted on black velvet holding a Snickers bar and bottle of pills.

I remember walking into a restaurant I had been looking forward to eating at all day, and there was this remarkably bad Elvis tribute artist with a home karaoke system ambling from table to crooning at horrified patrons. It was like witnessing a slow-moving train wreck, and I turned to my husband with a look that may have physically knocked him out the door. We didn’t say a word until we go home, after swinging by Popeye’s for take-out. I was admittedly a bit bitchy the rest of the evening, so disgusted I was by this man’s disruption in what was supposed to have been a pleasant evening.

I’ve seen a Selena drag queen, and some garage band relics I’m assuming were supposed to be, I’m guessing, Steely Dan. I appreciate them wanting to celebrate a favorite performer, but if you don’t got it, you don’t got it.

To be a good tribute band, you have to adhere to three rules in my book: don’t try to only be an over-the-top caricature of the performer, actually know who the fans and followers of the act are, and most importantly, be good musician in your own right.

Recently, I’ve seen more and more bands who are doing their best to adhere to these rules, because I now fully realize the reason people go to tribute concerts: Time travel.

When you attend a really great Tribute show, particularly when it’s an artist that is no longer performing or alive, it gives you a chance to be part of an era past. The experience at its least is like attending a really fun interactive musical production, and at its best is like stepping through a portal into the past.

Last week, I talked about the frustration of getting “rockblocked,” and this was the case when Prince came to my city to perform when I was 15. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near that show, because my mother told me he “he gets X-rated, you know. They said he gets into a bathtub on stage.”

Oh, what scandal!

Jump ahead 30 years, and we hear about a Prince tribute band, Purple Madness, coming to our neighboring city for a big street dance. The tickets were $20, so we passed. I mean, 20 bucks for a tribute show? C’Mon, it’s not actually Prince.

We happened to be in the area the day of the show, and were walking down this historic Main Street area where the concert was being set up. We had come out of a bookstore, when I heard, booming a few blocks down:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through that thing called…life!”

The band was doing their sound check for the night. We wandered over to where the stage area was, and there was a small crowd of people hanging around to listen.

They weren’t in their costumes yet, and there were people still setting up purple scarves on the mike stands, but holy crap, the singer sounded amazing. You could tell is wasn’t the real thing, but there was an essence there that was so true to the performer, you felt like you were listening to a Prince concert. I closed my eyes and just listened to the performance, and suddenly I’m back in high school. It felt like I was did get to see Prince live, after all. When the song stopped, the band launched into "Raspberry Beret," and even though they were just doing their sound check, they were polished.

Okay, I thought, I can see paying $20 for this experience. A friend of my husband attended that evening, and said it was well worth it.

I’m not going to be so quick to dismiss a live music event, just because the word “Tribute” is attached anymore.

Before the summer was out, we found ourselves at a tribute concert.

A Queen tribute band called Queen Nation was closing out a summer-long outdoor concert series, and everyone in the family wanted to see them, including my brother and his family who were in town visiting my dad. With the upcoming Freddy Mercury biopic getting so much attention, we thought it would be fun caught up in the Queen frenzy that seems to be everywhere.

The stage was set up on the field of a ballpark with a modest crowd pouring in, and we waited for my brother's family to join us. The sun hadn’t set yet in, so it was till pretty hot out, making us wonder what kind of crowd was going to show up.

We took our seats in some empty chairs up in the stands and waited. When my brother arrived, they were all in a pretty foul mood, because they got a call from their neighbor watching their home, worried someone may have tried to break in. They spent the last 30 minutes before the show making calls back in fourth to home, and griping about the situation. It turned out, it was a false alarm (the damage was caused by some bursts of high winds), but they were still agitated over the incident.

Great, I thought, this is going to be a lot of fun

Guess what? It was an absolute blast. The weather cooled off when the sun had set, the modest crowd grew pretty big and enthusiastic. It was beginning to feel like a concert setting. Most importantly, when Queen Nation took the stage, they immediately made an impression. They were spot-on in their sound, and the singer who was Freddy Mercury had his mannerisms down. I apologize for not remembering his real name.

Plus, they weren’t trying to be Queen, they were celebrating them. They introduced themselves by their real names, and talked about similar shows they had done in the past. Plus, there was no politics, just comments on what they loved about the people in the people our city.

The leader singer, who lives in New Orleans, added his own bit of persona to the act by tossing beads to the audience between songs. We had all abandoned to comfy stadium seats to be part of the crowd up front, and my youngest daughter endured the crunch of the crowd and the noise hoping to catch some. It’s hard when you’re shorter than the rest of the world.

For their final number before the encore, they asked if anyone was exciting about the Queen movie, with the crowd responding with a roar of enthusiasm. They then asked if anyone knew the name of the movie, and when everyone shouted “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they went right into to it. Everyone crunched up front jumped up and down the entire song, including myself.

The encore was even better, because, as you can guess, they saved “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are The Champions,” for last. My oldest daughter, who is Robert Plant’s hair doppelganger, and my brother’s oldest, who is also rocking some serious hair, had their hands in the air swaying back and fourth singing.

It was trippy. If it weren’t for the cell phones being held up by a few avid audience members, you would have sworn you were back in the late 70s or early 80s.

When the crowd thinned a little during the end of the encore, my oldest nephew lifted my daughter up, so she could see the stage better. “Freddy” pointed right to her and tossed her a string of little silver plastic party beads. That made her day. She had her prize.

This is why we go to concerts. We can escape whatever we have going on in our lives for a couple of hours to just enjoy the music and energy of the crowd. In the case of a good tribute band, we can even escape to another world entirely.

My brother and his family had forgotten about the day’s problems by the end of the show. My husband, who said he wasn’t planning on getting any photos since they weren’t “the real band,” was snapping some cool shots so we could remember this concert.

A tribute act can also be a “stair step drug” into getting into the music of the actual band. Younger generations who will never, ever get to see Freddy Mercury perform live, got an experience of what it may be like to be part of a Queen concert, and understand a little more why this band was so groundbreaking.

The morning after the show, my youngest was up singing along to Queen’s Greatest Hits on the Alexa, belting “Don’t Stop Me, Now,” at the top of her lungs. She was still “having a good time.”

It wasn’t just the concert itself, that made it a special event for her, everyone.

After the show, the lead singer, as well as the bassist, was hanging out by the stage. My daughter wanted to thank him for the beads, and get a picture with him, but there was as small crowd around him.

While we waited, the bass player came up to her and said. “Hey, you want to try out the bass?” and he set his bass guitar around her neck, so we could get a photo. He did the same for my 15-year-old nephew, who is already a huge Queen fan.

Before we could even thank him for a great show, he thanked us for coming and making them feel so welcome.

By then, the circle around “Freddy” had subsided, all the kids got photos with him as well. Although everyone knew this band wasn’t “the real Queen,” they were part of a real experience for all of us.

Because this band did such a good job creating a Queen concert experience, plus the fact they “kept it real” when they were off stage, made for a summer memory for everyone in the family.

I was talking to my brother how great these guys sounded live on the way back to our vehicles. He nodded in agreement.

“And,” he told me. “They get it! They know why they’re doing what they do.”

Yes, they got it! And when you got it, you got it.

Image by Rick Tate.

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