08/08/2013 Marin Independent Journal, Feature story , 'Lib at Large: A tribute to tribute bands'
FOR AS LONG AS I've been covering Marin rock, I've resisted writing about tribute bands. My feeling has been: Why should I give space to copycat groups slavishly playing the hits of famous rock bands when I could be shining a light on deserving local musicians composing original music, or profiling the many rock stars who live among us in Marin County?
But I can no longer turn a blind eye to what has become a phenomenal trend in live music here and across the country. Every month, tribute bands and cover groups are filling prime weekend slots on the calendar's of Marin's bars and nightclubs. There's an obvious reason for it.
"Those are the bands that make money," explains George's owner Todd Ghanizadeh,
who's dubbed his San Rafael nightclub "tribute band central."
When he renovated the Fourth Street hall three years ago, he tried to get Marin's Huey Lewis and the News to play the grand reopening. When that didn't happen, he booked the Tom Petty tribute band Petty Theft instead.
On Aug. 16, he'll realize an ersatz version of his dream, when his club will at long last reverberate with the hits of Huey and the News — played by Super Huey, a Huey Lewis tribute band founded a year ago by 48-year-old Roy Merlino, who came of age listening to Huey's hits in the 1980s.
"We're fired up to be playing at George's, Huey's old stomping grounds," he says. "One of the things we didn't realize when we started this project is the demand for it. What's really interesting to me is we can be onstage and see people our age, and the music is taking them back. But then you see the 20-somethings, and there's no way they grew up on Huey and News, but they're digging it. It's exposing that music to a whole new set of fans."
In Mill Valley, Sweetwater Music Hall general manager Aaron Kayce has a stable of tribute bands he books knowing they'll fill the house with partying fans.
"They sell tickets," he says. "Those crowds have a blast. They have a great time eating and drinking. They're the most fun crowds we have," Kayce says.
Super Diamond, a nationally known Neil Diamond tribute band, plays Sweetwater on Aug. 9. The Wonder Bread 5, a wig-wearing quintet covering everyone from AC/DC to Hank Williams Jr., comes to the club on Aug. 16, followed on Aug. 23 by Reckless in Vegas, a new band covering songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other 1960s Las Vegas acts. Coincidentally, one of its members is original Huey Lewis and the News bassist Mario Cipollina. They'll be sharing the bill with Pretending, a Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders tribute group.
Explaining the attraction, Kayce says, "You're not going to have the opportunity to see Neil
Diamond or the Pretenders very often. But if you love their songs and want to hear them done really well, these bands give fans a chance to do that. And for 25 or 35 bucks."
The original Sweetwater earned a national reputation for presenting many of America's top roots bands, a tradition Kayce says he has no intention of abandoning.
"The heart of what I want to do is present original music," he insists. "But it's a balance. You don't want to overdo it with cover bands. But I also want to throw a great party, and those bands throw a great party."
Clubs aren't the only ones benefitting from the cover band craze. Musicians who may once have had dreams of rock stardom are making a living playing the music of the rock stars they once hoped to follow to the top of the charts.
Fairfax guitarist Monroe Grisman had once pinned his hopes on American Drag, a rock band he formed to play all original music. But, six years ago, he agreed to fill in for a member of Petty Theft when that band opened at Bimbo's in San Francisco for Super Diamond, and he's been happily playing Petty covers with the group ever since.
"If you had asked me eight years ago about playing in a cover band, I would have scoffed," he recalls. "I was one of those guys who was anti-cover and tribute bands. I was strictly doing only my original music. So it was an odd thing for me, being in band that plays somebody else's material."
He changed his tune after he saw that fans will flock
to hear songs like "American Girl" and "Refugee" and "I Won't Back Down." If they can't always hear them sung by the man himself, they will happily settle for the next best thing.
"People dig our band, and they dig that we aren't trying to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," he says. "We stay within the boundaries of the idiom, but we do our own thing with it and we play the music really well. People dance and sing along with us. At the end of the day, Petty's songs are great rock 'n' roll. I don't get tired of it."
Fans will tell you that some of the best tribute bands sound almost as good as the real thing. Surviving members of the Grateful Dead thought John Kadlecik, founder of the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, sounded so much like the late Jerry Garcia that they recruited him to play Garcia's part in the post-Dead band Furthur. A headline in this week's Rolling Stone calls him "the best Jerry Garcia since Jerry Garcia."
Thin as a rail, he looks nothing like Garcia. And many tribute bands don't try to look like the group they're covering while others are out to be virtual doppelgangers, from the songs they play to the clothes they wear.
For the past dozen years, 59-year-old Rudy Colombini has been playing the role of Mick Jagger in the Unauthorized Rolling Stones, one of the oldest and most popular of Bay Area tribute bands. Colombini moves like Jagger, wears Versace and Gucci like Jagger and has a hard time getting along with Keith Richards like Jagger.
"In 12 years," he says, "I've gone through eight Keiths. He's a hard personality to have around, a loose cannon. If you've got a guy who's got a little Keith in him, he's not going to stay. And you won't want him."
After graduating from San Rafael High School, Novato bass player Jesse Scott studied classical music at the New England Conservatory of Music. His main gig is as the bassist in the Van Halen tribute band Hot for Teacher. He's also in Rock Skool, a cover band playing classics from the '70s through the '90s. And he's been playing John Entwistle's bass parts in "Keith Moon: the Real Me," a musical about the late Who drummer at the Eureka Theatre through Aug. 18.
He's felt the sting of criticism from rock musicians who stigmatize tribute bands, saying that because they don't play their own music, they can't truly be creative. But Scott brings up something that has never occurred to me. And that is that every symphony orchestra playing Bach or Beethoven or any of the old masters is really just a glorified cover band.
"Even though I'm heavily influenced by rock, I studied classical music in college, so I'm trained to play other peoples' music," he says. "I get off trying to get as close as I can to them without being them."
He pointed out that when he studied with the Boston Symphony, he was told that some of the instruments played during Bach's era, for example, don't exist today. So it's impossible to recreate that sound 100 percent perfectly.
"But if you can get to 90 percent, you still have space to be creative and grow and improvise," he says. "And I've figured out how to do that while also honoring the music as closely as possible. And people here that."
With that in mind, I'll never look down my nose at tribute bands again.
Contact Paul Liberatore via email at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.