In the 2001 film Rock Star, former rapper and underwear model Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg fronts a tribute band that pays sonic homage to his favorite hard rockers, Steel Dragon. He takes the gig so seriously that he gets into an onstage fistfight with his guitarist.
“There’s no solo after the break,” shouts the alleged singer. “That’s not how the song goes!” POW, right in the kisser.
His policeman brother ridicules his sibling’s career as a clone. “You know the sickest thing about you, little man? You don’t have any fantasies of your own. You fantasize about being somebody else.”
Some musicians see tribute groups as a way to get a foot in the door of the music industry. Others have been on the other side of that door, only to find more closed doors. Copping someone else’s successful act may seem the only chance at earning a bit of applause, adulation, and -- ultimately -- affirmation, however secondhand.
In Rock Star, Wahlberg gets fired from the tribute group. One phone call later, he replaces the singer he idolizes in Steel Dragon and, within a few dozen movie minutes, he’s leading that band to greater heights of fame than ever before, transforming overnight from wannabe to bona fide.
To paraphrase another unreal character, Rocket J. Squirrel: “That trick never works.”
Though few have gone directly from paying tribute to playing stadiums, this hasn’t stopped the number of soundalikes from growing exponentially over the last few years.
We contacted as many local tribute acts as we could find, barring the endless array of Elvises (Elvi?), since they frankly get too much media attention already and this only causes them to breed all the more, like porky pop-culture kudzu.
We’ll start with the most unlikely of the lot, an all-male tribute to the Bangles who dress in drag and call themselves the Dangles.
“We acknowledge how ridiculous it is to dress up and pretend to be something you’re not, just to get a tiny taste of someone else’s fame,” says lead Dangle Tarzana Hoffs (real name Percy Murray). “We’re like the supermarket generic brand trying to Hoover a few bucks from the pocket of some chump who refuses to pay full price for his Cheerios. Or, more accurately, the TV versions of Private Benjamin or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…cash in on whatever’s hot and maybe, just maybe, lightning will strike again the same way.”
“We’re not delusional,” says Murray. “We know we’ll never have a hit record, so we just play it for fun, and the audience, when they get it, they have fun too. That’s as long as the crotch of my pantyhose doesn’t rip. I may look better in a miniskirt than Susanna Hoffs, but if Mister Happy accidentally pops out, then nobody’s smiling anymore.” Indeed.
40 Ounces to Freedom is all about Sublime. “A lot of people think I sound very similar to [Sublime singer] Bradley Nowell,” says 27-year-old front man Dane Scott. “Some people even say I bear a striking resemblance to him.”
According to Scott, “We do Sublime with a twist. We play a lot of the specific guitar solos and bass lines the same, but we also like to improvise on top and add our own arrangements of some songs…we don’t try to look like Sublime, although the drummer and I have both been tattooed by one of Bradley’s longtime buddies.”
The 40 Ouncers have a richer musical pedigree than one might expect from copycat rockers, perhaps explaining their hectic gig schedule.
Scott spent six years with Tubby and is currently working on a project with former Social Distortion player John Maurer. Bassist Sol Turpin (36) also fronts Safety Orange, while Jeremy Miller (31) plays in Stepping Feet, a Dave Matthews tribute. Adam Bausch (33) was the original drummer for Slightly Stoopid. “Adam actually played gigs with Sublime back in the day,” says Scott, “so he knows them all. I met Bradley’s widow when I worked for a store I think she owned in OB, called On the Contrary. I was her shoe guy.”
Scott says those days of reliably gainful employment are long gone. “Now, we all support ourselves with music. Nobody has a ‘real’ job. And Sol is the only one of us who’s married, for around two years now. It’s hard to be married and make a living as a musician at the same time.”
Dust N’ Bones is an homage to Guns N’ Roses. “We try to sound as much like the albums as possible,” says singer Richard Gwaltney, who founded the band in 2005. “But at the same time, we let our personalities come through. Anyone who thinks they can just go out there and be an actor will fail immediately. You have to be real, be yourself, and do what you want to do, regardless of the fact that you’re the ‘fake’ version.”
Regarding visuals, he says, “All of us go as far as we can to emulate the look of the original Guns N’ Roses members. We go for sort of an action-figure version of what everyone recognizes.”
Gwaltney — who strongly resembles his dimpled doppelganger — says gig offers increased when GN’R’s long-awaited Chinese Democracy album became a reality. “This works in our favor,” he says, “but we’re not trying to be them or anything. We just respect their artistic genius.”
The players all have day jobs and are spread around the county; they meet once a week in OB to practice. At 26, Gwaltney is the youngest member. “The other guys are all mid- to late 30s,” he says, “and the only married one is Tommy, our lead guitarist. He’s got a kid who’s way too young to understand the awesome magnitude of his father being in a GN’R tribute.”
“In my opinion,” says Gwaltney, “being married almost defeats the whole purpose of being in a Guns N’ Roses tribute. You should be able to rock out with your cock out.”
Led Zeppelin tribute Dazed and Confused has also benefited from the renewed activities of forebearers, in their case the November 2007 one-shot Zep reunion at England’s 02 Arena. “In the months surrounding the concert,” says vocalist Jason Ott, “we played more and better gigs than usual. That’s when we first began booking at A-list places like the Belly Up Tavern and Canes.”
Formed in 2006, the band doesn’t attempt to look like the mighty Zep. “We decided early on to let the music speak for itself,” explains Ott, whose day job is doing graphic design and cartography. “There are plenty of bands who dress like whoever they’re paying tribute to, but most of our fans are glad we don’t. Zeppelin’s music takes you on a trip all by itself, and you don’t need dragon suits or bell-bottomed jeans to ride.”
That said, Dazed and Confused is particular about replicating Zeppelin’s sound as authentically as possible. “Our drummer has a John Bonham replica kit, complete with a huge gong. Our guitarist uses a violin bow and Jimmy Page’s signature guitars, including a double-neck model.”
As for faithfulness to the original recordings, Ott says, “There’s some improv, but almost everything we play is something that Zeppelin did in the studio or in concert. Our drummer, Jeff Smith, is quite the Zep history buff, and he often presents us with alternate recordings of tunes, some of which are only heard on rare bootlegs.”
The five band members range in age from 36–42; three are married, two with children. “[Keyboardist] Mike Davenport brought his kids to our last show,” says the unmarried Ott. “They had a blast. It was one of our best gigs! We normally play 21-and-up shows, so it’s not usually a family affair.”
Asked about the band’s worst gig, Ott recalls a set at Canes. “I was jumping on the stage and slipped, gouging my leg open. Blood was spurting out, and it wouldn’t stop. The show must go on, so we used a guitar rag and duct tape and made a makeshift tourniquet, and I played the show without another hitch. I later found out that keeping a tourniquet on an injury like that for an extended period was not a good idea. It was horrific, it bled throughout the night, and I ended up in the ER the next day. Rock and roll!”
The Iron Maidens — an all-female Iron Maiden tribute — experienced their own horror show a while back, according to drummer Linda McDonald. “The owner of the Rainbow Bar in Juárez, Mexico, locked us, the promoter, and the sound crew in the building,” she says. “We were doing a swing through Texas and did the Juárez show the night before our El Paso gig. The show went great, the fans came out in droves, and everything was fine. Until at about 2:00 a.m., when we heard a lot of yelling in Spanish.
“The promoter came up to us and said, ‘Get all your stuff and move it all outside as fast as you can.’ We did so, and on about our third trip out, with about four more trips’ worth of stuff to go, the double-doors slammed shut on us. We tried to open them and found they were chained and padlocked from the outside. All the sound guys, the band, and the crew were locked inside. The promoter had to scramble to find $1500 [U.S.] on a Sunday morning at 2:30 a.m., or the building owner would not let anyone out. We were all in there for about 45 minutes, until the promoter came up with the extra money, and we all beat a hasty retreat.”
On a more positive note, McDonald says, “The guys in Maiden have heard of us and invited us backstage at a show to meet them. We played a couple shows with Michael Kenney, bass tech for Maiden keyboardist Steve Harris, and [drummer] Nico McBrain once got up on stage and played three songs with us. Steve Harris and [singer] Bruce Dickinson came to see us at the Hard Rock Live show in Mexico City and stayed for the whole show. Steve came backstage afterward and said that they enjoyed our show a lot.”
The Maidens are all in their 30s, unmarried, with no children, and all play music full-time. “We do about 200 shows a year,” says McDonald. “We’re lucky to have played all over the U.S. and Canada, Greece, Korea, Japan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Turkey. Oh, and Mexico, which totally rocked. Other than Juárez.”
McDonald and fellow Maiden Sara Marsh also play in an all-female Ozzy tribute, the Little Dolls, while bassist Steph Harris — aka Wanda — performs with several classical ensembles.
Piece of Mind pays tribute to Maiden as well, but only the versions fronted by Bruce Dickinson. After their August 1999 debut, they became regulars at clubs like Canes in Pacific Beach, where lead guitarist Anthony Ciullo played his first-ever gig with the group.
“I was 17 years old and popped a string on the first song. I didn’t have an extra guitar and ended up missing three songs…the manager of Canes lectured me after the show. I was so disappointed and embarrassed, but I have never gone to a show without backup guitars since.”
Ciullo reports that band members — most of them single — see their fair share of groupies. “One time,” he says, “a female fan grabbed [lead singer] Ron’s dick while we were playing. He quickly removed her hand from his crotch, and she instantly grabbed me. She pulled me down and licked my face and almost yanked me clear off stage.
“L.A. is a better venue for hooking up after a show. Everyone at our shows in San Diego always seems to have a husband or boyfriend.”
Van Halen tribute OU812 eschews the David Lee Roth years. “We do Sammy Hagar–era stuff, because we really love what he brought to that band,” says bassist John Osmon.
The group dresses and coifs like their counterparts, as well as using corresponding instruments, like a Michael Anthony custom flame bass (“exactly like he used on the last Van Halen tour”), Hagar’s signature Cabo Wabo Yamaha (“We have his Les Pauls for Montrose songs”), and a $2600 replica of Eddie Van Halen’s striped “Frankenstein” model (“identical to Eddie’s, minus the puke stains”).
“We played down in Cabo Wabo during Sammy Hagar’s birthday week in October  and have met the whole [Van Halen] band at various times, so they know what we’re doing and dig it,” says Osmon.
OU812 guitarist Angel Llanos attended a party thrown at Eddie Van Halen’s house for the X-rated film The Sacred Sin (which includes two Van Halen songs).
“There were adult film industry folks all over the place and strippers and a bevy of naked women,” according to Osmon. “Eddie was the host, playing with a band he had hired and walking around pouring wine and giving tours and bragging about his son. Meanwhile, naked women are hanging from acrobat things from the ceiling and in the pool.… His house was really nice but had the appearance of having been gutted by the divorce and never really put back together, sort of beat up, as if a drunk hermit was living there by himself.”
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash are a country-rock band that plays Cash music, as well as releasing several CDs of their own original songs. The band first earned notice when they opened for Merle Haggard at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, after which they recorded their own six-song EP.
In 1998, the Bastards received an invitation to perform for over 20,000 attendees at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic in Luckenbach, Texas, the first San Diego band ever invited to the three-decade-old institution showcasing cutting-edge artists in country music.
“We aren’t really a tribute band,” says front man Marc Stuart. “We’re more an ‘inspired-by’ band.” The group was officially endorsed several years ago by the Man in Black himself, Mr. Middle Finger, the late Johnny Cash.
“We were playing a club called the Exit-Inn in Nashville,” explains Stuart. “The people at the bar came up to me, all serious, and said, ‘Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, he’s here and he’s waiting to talk to you backstage.’ I’m sure some people thought he was there to try and intimidate me or something, because he’s Johnny’s real son and here we are, the Bastard Sons. I didn’t think he was there to beat me up or anything. At least I hoped not!
“So I went out back, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He told me how he and his dad had defended our band against a lot of people who had negative things to say about the name, and he said, ‘I really love the group. I’d love to record you guys the next time you’re in the area.’
“Well, a couple of months later…we were out on tour in Memphis, Tennessee, and we had a few days off. I called him up and said, ‘We’re in Memphis, we’re within trucking distance, so how’re you looking at the studio?’ He said, ‘Great, my dad’s working in there in the morning, so you guys can come in about noon and have the studio for the rest of the day.“ ‘
At a recording studio on the Cash property called the Cash Cabin, Stuart says, “We spent three days recording ‘Spanish Eyes’ and ‘Nowhere Town.’ Being right there in Johnny’s back yard was amazing. It’s about 20 miles outside of Nashville, in the middle of the woods. The studio is a little wood cabin on 50 acres. There’s wild animals all over, deer and goats and pigs, and peacocks just wandering around. They’ve even got their own fully stocked bass lake within walking distance, so John Carter and I would go out with fishing rods and catch a few big-mouth bass between takes.
“The studio itself is like a history museum, full of Cash and Carter memorabilia, but it’s also fully modern and functional for recording. I was singing into the same microphone Johnny Cash was using just a half hour before! The lyric sheets for his new songs were spread around the studio, and I got to look at those. We even got to hear some of his new tracks.
“He [Johnny Cash] called the studio from the house, but he wasn’t feeling well enough to come out, so we didn’t get the chance to meet him there. But he said the same thing as his son, that he likes our music and doesn’t mind that we’re called the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. ’Cause he made fun of that kind of thing way back when…he’s the guy who sang about ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ after all.”
The Band in Black is a more traditional Cash tribute, formed in 2003 and fronted by “Cowboy Jack” Johnson. “We dress in black and play vintage gear,” says Johnson, “like an upright bass. The lead guitarist uses a Telecaster, and I have my Martin guitar [Cash owned several Martins]. We cover the late ’50s through early ’60s, all presented based on research and authentic down to the last detail.”
The longtime San Diegan (since 1968) is also the originator and lead performer of the Hank Show, which he founded in 1999. “It’s a re-creation, not a tribute, of the music of Hank Williams Sr. We’ve been doing hits from the breadth of his career. He recorded from ’47 to ’53, and we play the songs in chronological order. The band wears vintage smile-pocket Western shirts with hats and ties, and we all play instruments accurate to that era.”
Johnson’s guitars are identical to those favored by Williams, while his bandmates use the same style hollow-body electric guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, and upright bass used by their Sr. inspirations. “My Hank suit was made for me by one of the same guys who tailored Hank’s clothes,” Johnson says. “He was one of the guys at Nudies Rodeo Tailors [who dressed ZZ Top, among others], and he made me a replica of Hank’s suit…the white suit with black musical notes.”
Fleetwood Max was formed in 2006 by Todd Hidden (as Lindsay Buckingham) and Annie Heller (ersatz Christine McVie). “Everyone seems to love Fleetwood Mac,” says Heller. “Visually, we try to emulate the look of The Dance years, which is mostly black and white. Our Stevie, Kim Enering, buys special clothing custom-made to look like Stevie Nicks’ best-known outfits, and she does a great job with the Stevie-isms.”
As for musicality, “We try to get close to note-for-note recreations of the studio or the live versions of the songs. We only have five members playing four instruments, however, and we don’t use any sequencers or karaoke tracks.” Who knew tribute bands were using karaoke tracks?
Heller isn’t married, but the 50-year-old grade-school teacher is dating the band’s other McVie impersonator (John McVie), bassist Doug Walker (47), a remodeling contractor by day. “My two daughters think it’s cool that their mom is in a band,” says Heller. “When my youngest came to see us at the San Diego Fair this year, she was very impressed…she wondered how I was able to get up in front of people and sing and play without being nervous.”
Drummer Hector Toro (50) works as an appraiser in coastal North County and is married with two children. “My kids have grown up with me in bands,” he says. “They like our shows when they end up on YouTube. What they can see on the computer, that’s what impresses them.”
Guitarist Todd Hidden (54) is a full-time musician who also plays with Dave Humphries, StreetHeart, and the Cool Rays. The group’s youngest member, singer and shawl-bearer Kim Enering (mid-’30s), is unmarried, with two young children; by day, she works as an inland North County real-estate agent.
Nobody in Max has met their Mac, though Heller says, “We hear they show up once in a while to catch a tribute band. If I ever met Christie McVie, I would tell her how much I admire her songwriting and what a beautiful voice she has.”
Says Todd Hidden, “I’d ask Lindsey Buckingham if he needs a guitar tech. And could I take a few lessons?”
The Cured impersonates — who else? — the Cure. One of the city’s busiest tribute acts, they can be found playing wherever men wear makeup, women wear corsets over their clothes, and flat-heeled shoes are little more than urban legend.
Formed in 2004, singer Zippy Twombly says, “I decided on starting a tribute band after seeing the popularity of Dead Man’s Party, an Oingo Boingo tribute. I knew I wanted to do an ’80s new wave sort of thing, and the band we covered would need enough recognizable songs to entertain an audience for two hours. I also wanted to do a band that had some definite ‘characters’ in it, so I narrowed it down to INXS, Duran Duran, and the Cure.
“INXS did that awful TV show and came off dorky, so they were eliminated. We realized that we probably aren’t good-looking enough to pull off Duran Duran so, by process of elimination, we settled on the Cure.” An internet business consultant and web designer by day, Twombly prides himself on looking like his Cure counterpart. “I spend a lot of time tracking down items from the ’80s that are similar to the look Robert Smith is known for.”
Others in the band may or may not follow his visual lead, depending on who’s in the group at any given time. “Just like the Cure,” says Twombly, “we’ve had more than a few keyboard players, and three more drummers than Spinal Tap.”
Current drummer Greg Karlo works by day as a drum-line instructor at Grossmont High School. “That’s pretty lucky,” says Twombly, “because we get to set up in the marching band’s area and practice there. It’s great, because rental studios are expensive and crowded.”
What’s the hardest song on the band’s set list? “For me,” says Twombly, “it’s ‘Why Can’t I Be You,’ because of the extremely high vocals. The rest of the band are all pretty good musicians, so I can’t say they have any difficulty issues.”
In June 2008, Cure founding member Lol Tolhurst sat in with the Cured during their set at L.A.’s Gibson Amphitheatre. “It was a really great experience,” says Twombly. “He couldn’t have been nicer, and he was very generous with the stories from the old days. I got to ask him about the inspirations and meaning of some of the big Cure hits.”
The Cured have spun off a second tribute, Still Ill, performing the music of Morrissey and the Smiths. Singer Virgil Simpelo (aka Voz) is a Morrissey look-alike who also works as a martial arts instructor and wrestling referee. “I think I have somewhat the same skull structure as Moz,” says Voz, “and the same eyebrows that help me produce a similar sound…yes, eyebrows play a key role.”
Tony Montegu, bassist for both the Cured and Still Ill, says, “I knew the Cure and the Smiths would be a great match for gigs. Most venues are willing to book both groups on a single bill.” Each band averages $1000 per show.
Though only recently formed, Still Ill — whose members are in their early 30s — has already seen lineup changes. “The lead guitarist was too young and inexperienced,” says Montegu, “so he moved behind the drums. But then he had too much conflict with Voz and was let go…I asked another friend to play drums, and here we are.”
Still Ill can frequently be seen raising eyebrows (and Moz-like unibrows and omnibrows) at the downtown House of Blues, which has been hosting tribute-themed events on a regular basis since opening in 2005.
The Dave Matthews tribute Stepping Feet is fronted by singer-guitarist Mike Myrdal. Ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 30s, none of the members are married, none have children, and none have nine-to-five jobs.
“I worked in sales at the Active Network for close to five years,” says Myrdal, “but in June 2007, I opted to attempt music as a full-time career. All of us support ourselves through music, whether it’s with Stepping Feet or as a hired gun for different bands. Some of us also teach lessons, or provide sound and recording services for other musicians.”
Half of the band recently got a big surprise, when the group played a private San Francisco party at the Lodge in the Presidio. “One of the party organizers had a connection with John Popper, the harmonica player from Blues Traveler, and arranged for him to be the surprise guest,” says Myrdal. “For half the band, we kept it a surprise, so we could see the excitement in their eyes when John came out.”
According to Myrdal, “John played guitar and sang a few songs by himself at first, but he didn’t appear all that comfortable playing guitar. We weren’t sure how many songs he wanted to sit in with us for, so we figured we’d perform ‘What Would You Say’ by Dave Matthews, since John played a nice solo on the song for DMB’s first album. He ripped it up, and it was hard to keep from smiling as he played his solo note-for-note, just like the album version.”
Myrdal says the highlight of the evening was performing the Blues Traveler hit “Runaround,” to an increasingly enthusiastic crowd. “To our surprise, John was excited to jam with us…he said, ‘You’ve got me all night.’ After the show, he was very humble, and he even passed out a number of harmonicas to some of the children that were there.”
A video of the Popper jam is posted at myspace.com/tributetodavematthews.
The Steely Damned are, as you’d expect, a Steely Dan tribute. Founded in 1993 by Bob Tedde of Rockola, Rolling Stone magazine once anointed them “San Diego’s Best Cover Band” (September 1994).
“When I made the decision to actually start rounding up musicians,” says Tedde, “the real Steely Dan hadn’t been playing live since 1974. I saw an opportunity for us to hold a semi-unique status, since Dan fans were pretty much convinced the real Steely were never going to tour again. The day we booked our first show, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker announced Steely Dan’s first tour in almost 20 years. I figured that meant TSD would get a year or two run.” That was 15 years ago.
Fagen and Becker are definitely aware of those Damned San Diegans. “They were interviewed locally by Madison on KPRI,” says Tedde, “and we came up in conversation. To which they replied they liked the concept of maybe having us go out on tour [standing in] for them, or the idea of a Steely Dan Mania franchise…both Becker and Fagen also mention us during an interview with Pete Fogel, in their live DVD for the Two Against Nature tour.”
Like the Cured and Stepping Feet, the Steely Damned have been fortunate enough to perform with actual players from Steely Dan recordings. “We played at Le Bar Bat, a Manhattan club that has since disappeared,” says Bob Tedde. “Bernard Purdie came in and played drums on three or four of the songs he originally ‘purdied up,’ stuff from The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho. It was beyond awesome!”
Steely Damned guitarist Hank Easton says, “I’ve been enamored with their music since I first heard them at age 13. Especially the guitar parts, and specifically the guitar solos. They really opened my eyes up to the possibilities of electric guitar, mixing the intensity of rock with the melodicism of jazz. Of course, the songs themselves are works of art as well.”
Steely Dan being a mathematically precise recording unit, Easton concedes that there’s little room for improvisation. “I play most of the solos note-for-note like the originals, as I consider them the points of highest intensity in the songs. In some cases, I feel the solos are even more important than the melody. That being said, when I get a chance to enhance the song with little riffs or personal nuances, I’ll often take that opportunity, always being mindful not to overdo it or clutter up the sound.”
The Steely Damned also performs unreleased material. “ ‘The Second Arrangement’ was to be the title track of Steely Dan’s Gaucho album,” says Bob Tedde. “Almost completed, the multitrack tape was compromised when an assistant engineer accidentally wiped a large section of the rhythm section out of the song’s middle. Donald Fagen thought it was a magical recording and refused to attempt a rerecording.” Using a bootleg of the pre-corrupted track, and some undisclosed “inside information,” the Damned even worked up a horn arrangement for the tune, provided by local Zappa alum Mike Keneally.
Another unofficial track, “Mobile Home,” was Steely Dan’s set-closer for many 1974 concerts. “The Steely Damned’s version is an amalgam of three different live renditions,” says Tedde, “including the Live at the Record Plant version. We also added horns. Gently.”
Not so gentle is Brother Love, which takes its name from the 1968 Neil Diamond hit “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” Refusing to settle for the aging singer’s aging fan demographic, songs are powered up with heavy metal arrangements, creating music that tends to be more Dimebag than Diamond.
This isn’t as unlikely as it sounds, if one considers contemporary hit remakes of classic Diamond cuts like “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill. “One of the toughest things I’ve ever done was to convince hard-rock musicians to do Neil Diamond music,” says Brother Love singer Gary Day. “It’s a continuous sales effort to actually keep them in the band.”
Prior to May 2000, Day had never been in a tribute band. “Brother Love’s first performance was aired on national television and in 13 other countries,” says Day, who sang “Sweet Caroline” disguised as Neil Diamond on Dick Clark’s short-lived ABC show Your Big Break, circa December 2000. Day was chosen from among 4000 hopeful entrants, to sing for the live audience of around 300.
“I’ve always admired Neil’s writing,” says Day, “and I like the energy of driving rock and roll. I swear, when I was a teenager, I used to have daydreams imagining Neil Diamond doing an album with Van Halen.”
Unlike most tribute acts, Brother Love doesn’t strive to reproduce Diamond’s studio or live concert recordings. “Everything we do is improvised,” says Day. “The material had to be completely rearranged, going from a 20-piece band plus orchestra to a three-plus-one [group].”
Day says he’s still surprised at how obsessively devotional Diamond fans can be. “Some audience members can scare the hell out of you. It’s like they fool themselves into thinking they can somehow channel through to the real Neil, through me.” Not all show attendees react so worshipfully. “Our older audience has occasionally mentioned that the hard-rock music is too loud for the vocals.”
As for the band’s most disappointing gig, Day says, “We were booked at a new Indian casino about a hundred miles away. They made us play at background level for four sets. It drove us crazy, because there were about ten people in the whole place. We should have just cranked up anyway, because the next day our agent told us we weren’t getting invited back.”
If Day ever found himself face to face with Real Neil, what would he want to say? “I’d probably forget how to talk and then be consumed with guilt.”
Another local Diamond tribute, Diamond Is Forever, was founded by David J. Sherry in 2005. Sherry works on the side as a video editor, while backup singer Ce Ce Taylor is a retired California attorney who also serves as the band’s manager. Band members live all over the county, including Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Encinitas, El Cajon, Escondido, and La Jolla.
Asked what distinguishes his neo-Neil from others doing the Diamond, Sherry says, “First and foremost, it’s our passion for getting the music and performance right, unlike other tributes like Super Diamond, who do more of a Diamond-meets-Bon Jovi metal sound.”
“We re-create the popular late-’70s and early-’80s Jazz Singer Diamond,” says Sherry, who was 13 when he purchased his very first album in 1969, Diamond’s Live at the Troubadour. “[We use] costumes, smoke and mirrors, and a huge American flag that unfurls during ‘America,’ à la Diamond’s own concerts. We work hard to capture the feel and the excitement of Neil’s Hot August Night and Love at the Greek concerts, using dialogue taken directly from these concerts, as well as [telling] stories behind the songs.”
According to Sherry, “We sometimes mix the best studio versions of his songs along with the best live concert tempos. For example, we perform ‘Shilo’ very much like the live concert version from Hot August Night, along with a mandolin part not present on the original Uni Records single and also layering in Diamond’s original signature horn lines taken from his Bang Records single.”
All this Diamond detailing is, quite frankly, (Love at the) Greek to me, but Sherry seems authoritative about such minutiae.
Sometimes, Sherry says, his Diamond finds itself in the rough, as in February ’08 when they played an aging theater in Encinitas. “The moment we took the stage, things started going wrong. During the first song, someone flipped a switch in the projection room to rewind a movie reel and blew out the fuses, not once but three times, knocking out all the sound.”
In addition, “San Diego was experiencing one of its coldest spells in history, and the theater, being 80 years old, had no heat. Players were blowing on their fingers to keep them from going numb. Not only did the fog machine compete with the frozen breath of the band members and audience, but the big American flag refused to unfurl.”
During the performance, “A dog ran up and down the aisles and rows of seats, startling people and scavenging all the edibles…We found out later the dog was a local celebrity, having made an unexpected appearance onstage the prior weekend with Leon Russell.”
Roundabout, a tribute to Yes, often shares the bill with fellow surrogate bands like Pink Froyd and Led Zepagain. Founding bassist Kevin Dennis launched Roundabout after seeing his friend Kevin Krohn earn wall-to-wall gigs with his own tribute band, Pink Froyd.
Though Yes has recorded hundreds of songs, Dennis says Roundabout mainly sticks to recognizable radio hits rather than obscure cuts from albums like Relayer or Tales from Topographic Oceans. “We actually learned some other songs that we like but are not as well known, and some of them went over like a lead balloon, so we kind of dropped them.”
Asked the most common complaint from Yes fans, he says, “Probably that our guitarist played too much like Trevor Rabin trying to imitate Steve Howe. But most people think we were doing a really good job. We didn’t really try for the look, except that our lead singer looked a bit like Jon Anderson and usually wore white like Jon does. And on bass, I tried to dance around and smile a lot, like Chris Squire did and does.”
Onetime Roundabout drummer Tom Schlesinger notes, “There were over two dozen Yes members…It’s difficult enough finding musicians who can play the material, much less who look like their respective band members.”
Roundabout has seen almost as many lineup changes as their contentious counterparts. Founder Kevin Dennis was replaced on bass by Bryan Patterson. Keyboardist John Cox was replaced by Dave Smart, who later gave up the position now held by Tim Quon. Guitarist Steve Coon was supplanted by Johnny Bruhns, who also plays with the aforementioned Diamond Is Forever. The drummer’s seat once occupied by Tom Schlesinger is currently warmed by Dave Rivanis.
Former guitarist Coon says, “I was probably the least Yes-like player in the band, so I often took liberties with the parts a bit to fit them to my style. The main critique I personally heard is that I am not [Steve] Howe-like enough, but what can I say? I am what I am. He wasn’t an influence on my playing. Trevor [Rabin, who replaced Howe and wrote the hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart”] was, however…that was more my era.”
In 2006, Roundabout opened for Chris Squire and Alan White from Yes, at Acoustic Music San Diego in Normal Heights. The Yes-member side project actually borrowed one of Roundabout’s guitars for the occasion. In fall 2007, Roundabout was joined onstage at the House of Blues San Diego by founder and former bassist Kevin Dennis and the band’s original lead vocalist, Dave Horn, for a reunion set.
In summer 2008, Roundabout essentially merged with another tribute, Yes Story. According to current bandleader Johnny Bruhns, “Roundabout is now the longest-running Yes tribute band in America.”
Pink Froyd and the Pink Floyd Experience are both fronted by 53-year-old guitarist Tom Quinn, with each band usually featuring the same local players. “Almost all the members are full-time musicians,” says Quinn. “The Pink Floyd Experience does three to five tours per year, for up to seven weeks at a time, all over North America and Canada, while Pink Froyd mainly plays locally, including our annual performance of the entire Wall album.” Members John Staten and Jesse Molloy also play in the band On the One.
“Our first gig was in 1995,” says Quinn, who was inspired to form the groups after seeing the real Pink Floyd at Jack Murphy Stadium in April ’94. “If I wasn’t playing Pink Floyd covers, I can’t imagine me doing any other tribute.”
Musically, Quinn says, “We start with re-creation and always play the ‘signature’ licks. Fans, musicians, and even nonmusicians know these songs inside and out. If we take a diversion, it’s based on something that Floyd themselves played during their 40-year concert career.”
Now among SoCal’s busiest tribute acts, Quinn says the band didn’t always Shine On. “In the early days of Pink Froyd, we played one night at a sleazy joint in L.A. called FM Station Live, with four other bands. We made $44 for the entire band, played a 22-minute set, and the curtain came down right in the middle of my solo in ‘Pigs.’ Gig over, NEXT!”
Asked whether he’s ever met his Floydian twin, the surrogate bandleader says, “Not exactly, but back in April 2006, I got eight feet away from David Gilmour at the Jay Leno show in Burbank.”
Alan Iglesias began playing guitar professionally in 1970, performing at VFW dances while still in high school. After graduation, he toured New England for 15 years with blues-rock groups like Touch and Relayer, before moving to Escondido and forming Crossfire. Says Iglesias, “We’re a tribute band that strives to capture the essence of a Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble concert with authenticity, respect, and yes, love.”
Iglesias first heard Vaughan in 1983, on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance LP, and then the guitarist’s first album, Texas Flood, with Double Trouble. “The initial effect didn’t completely blow me away at first,” he admits. “I remember saying to myself that, yeah, they call this guy a blues player, but listen to all the Hendrix influence and the way he turns it up!”
A dedicated blues enthusiast, Iglesias considered Vaughan just another rocker, until hearing recordings like Live Alive, a concert album given to him by his brother. “Before long, I considered [Vaughan] a contemporary who, although [he] went down a slightly different road, was still speaking the same language I was.”
After relocating to the left coast, Iglesias says, “I desperately needed to play great music, with great players, for folks who wanted to hear that music. I figured it would take me four to six years to build up the reputation needed to do what I wanted to do here in San Diego. At 46, I just didn’t feel I had that sort of time, so I started looking at alternatives that I would never have considered before.
“The tribute idea just came to me around 2000, as I was learning some Stevie songs as part of my Stratocaster set,” says Iglesias. “ ‘Sheesh,’ I whispered to myself, ‘I don’t look unlike the guy. I can sing pretty much like him. I can, if I work on it real hard, play pretty much like him. Would I actually dare to put that hat on and go out there in front of people?’
“A few years ago, I saw Ralph Saenz with the Atomic Punks, a Van Halen tribute from L.A. Certainly the fact that Ralph did Dave [Lee Roth] better than Dave helped, but it also struck me that if Van Halen is all but completely gone, why would it be such a bad thing to recreate the wonderful energy that they brought to the world of arena rock? Especially when there are plenty of people out there who still want to hear it. Stevie has been gone for a long time now, and there are still so many that loved what he did.”
At 53, Iglesias says most of his backup players are at least ten years younger. “Some members have been married with kids,” he says, “and there’s nothing cooler than to see a young person watching his dad playing onstage, for an appreciative crowd. I don’t think it matters to the kids whether the group is a tribute…it’s just cool to see their dad in a rock band. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with my granddaughter in the audience, and it was an incredible experience! I would never have considered that a possibility back in the ’70s.”
Cover Me Badd is known for their comically accurate tribute performances. “Our mission is to make fun of tribute bands,” says bandleader Adam Gimbel, best known as the front man for Rookie Card. CMB’s many incarnations have included the Fookin’ Wankers (spoofing Oasis), Wookie Card (Star Wars characters), Rabbi Gimbel’s Jews Explosion (Hebrew rock history), Rookie Ricardo (El Vez’s onetime one-song wedding band), and Geezer (old men wheezing Weezer songs).
Geezer recently enjoyed every tribute group’s dream-come-true. “We actually got to play onstage with the band whose songs we steal,” says Gimbel. The octogenarian incarnation of Cover Me Badd performed with Weezer at Cox Arena on October 17, as part of the headliners’ Hootenanny contest, bringing local musicians onstage at each tour stop. Other locals in the Weezer jam included Kelsea Little and Joseph Lorge (the Wrong Trousers), Sean O’Donnell (Fevercrotch), and Matt Gorney (Bad Credit).
“On we pranced, as the crowd roared for us,” says Gimbel, who — in his old-man gear — passed out cookies while Weezer and the others set up for the jam. Weezer’s singer-guitarist Brian Bell took a cookie, as Gimbel patted his cheek and announced, “Such a nice boy!”
After a bite, Bell declared, “Delicious. Cookie’s gonna inspire me on this next track, I can feel it.”
The jam encompassed two songs. “Us Hootenanners sounded great on ‘Island in the Sun,’ ” says Gimbel, “especially the flute solo, [which] made their biggest hit sound better than it ever has.” The other song was “Beverly Hills.” “The crowd gave us a huge sendoff, and the band loved us so much that they decided to come back and do an encore in our honor. As we hobbled outside to play for the exiting masses, the band crooned, ‘Grandma, take me home,’ just for us.”
Also on the bill were Angels and Airwaves, whom the 37-year-old Gimbel refers to as “that Blink 182 lad that sounds like he’s got something stuck in his nose.”
And then there’s Dan Lederman, aka ShatMan, the One-Man Bill Shatner Tribute Band. ShatMan got his start at karaoke shows, performing to discs of music that Shatner has covered (“Lucy in the Sky…,” “Rocket Man,” etc.). Says ShatMan, “I look a little like John Belushi doing Shatner.”
ShatMan still cruises local karaoke nights. “When I announce that I’ll be doing my song ‘in the style of the great William Shatner,’ a lot of people in the audience groan or even start booing…But I have a theory that almost every person in the world can find something to love about [Shatner’s] way of reciting songs, whether as beat poetry, as a sci-fi or Star Trek fan, for its rhythmic cadence, or simply because it’s so kitschy and campy.”
Photo by Jay Allen Sanford
Lederman says he looked into talent agencies specializing in celebrity impersonators, but “most of them aren’t looking for strictly musical acts…I got asked if I do Denny Crane [Shatner’s former Boston Legal role], but I need my CDs. There has to be music behind me. I can only impersonate him when I’m singing.”