A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty lengthy feature story for a local publication I edit on the rise of “tribute bands” in the area.
I remember as a kid in the 1970s the idea of a tribute band meant “Elvis impersonator” (or as they prefer to be called, “Elvis tribute artist”) and Beatlemania. When the 1980s rolled around the Michael Jackson tributes began 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 at 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 or era. Others have latched on to the “pops concert” circuit fronting full orchestras.
I had 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 musicians play in their own original music bands as well as in two or three different tribute acts.
Since then I have gained quite a bit of respect for these performers 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.
I don’t have to tell you there are some pretty horrendous tribute bands out there, and witnessing them can be excruciating. 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 table 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 got home—after swinging by a fast food place—so disgusted I was by this man’s disruption in what was supposed to have been a pleasant evening.
I’ve seen a Lady Gaga drag queen who looked and sounded nothing like the artist and some garage band relics I’m assuming we’re 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, actually be a 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 they fully realize the reason people go to tribute concerts: time travel.
When you attend a really great tribute show, particularly when it is for an artist that is no longer performing or even alive, it gives you a chance to be part of an era past. Sometimes, 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.
When I was 15, there were bands I loved who never came near my area, and sometimes when they did, I either wasn’t allowed to go (weeknights when homework was due) or didn’t have the disposable income for tickets.
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, when it isn’t actually Prince?
We did happen 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 soundcheck for the night. We wandered over to where the stage area was, and there was actually 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 wowza, this guy sounded amazing. You knew it 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 it was a Prince concert. When the song stopped, the band launched into “Raspberry Beret,” and even though they were just doing their soundcheck, 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 that summer was out, we found ourselves at a tribute concert.
A Queen tribute band called Queen Nation was closing out a free summer-long outdoor concert series, and everyone in the family wanted to see them.
This was when the Freddie Mercury was biopic getting so much attention, so we thought it would be fun caught up in the Queen frenzy that seemed to be everywhere at the time.
The stage was set up on the field of a ballpark, with a modest crowd pouring in, and we waited for my brother and his family, who had been in town visiting my dad, to join us. The sun hadn’t set yet in, so it was still 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. Some pots were broken and other items had been dragged out in the parking lot. They spent the last 30 minutes before the show making calls back and forth 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…
It turned out to be an absolute blast. The weather cooled off when the sun had set, and the modest crowd grew to a pretty big and enthusiastic one. 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 performing as Freddie Mercury had Mercury’s mannerisms down.
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 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. My youngest endured the crunch of the crowd and the noise hoping to catch some, but it is hard when you’re shorter than the rest of the world.
For their final number before the encore, they asked if anyone was excited 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 the sone. 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 son, who is also rocking some serious hair, had their hands in the air swaying back and forth singing. It was trippy. If it weren’t for the smartphones 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 up front thinned a little during the end of the encore, my oldest nephew lifted my younger daughter up so she could see the stage better. “Freddie” 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 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 step through a portal to another world.
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,” took a bunch of cool shots so we could remember this concert.
A tribute act can also be a “stair-step drug” to getting into the music of the actual band. Younger generations who will never, ever get to see Freddie 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, were hanging out by the stage. My daughter wanted to thank him for the beads and get a picture with him, but there were a few people crowding 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 was 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 “Freddie” had subsided, and 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.
This band did such a good job creating a Queen concert experience. They also “kept it real” when they were off stage, which made for a great summer memory for everyone in the family.
I was talking to my brother about 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 and who they are doing it for.”
Yes, they got it! And when you got it, you got it.