Don't mistake tribute bands for cover bands, which cover songs from a wide range of artists to appeal to the widest audience. Tribute bands focus exclusively on a specific artist, band or musical genre -- usually performing in costume, with replica musical equipment, copying stage moves and mannerisms and striving to mirror the music of the real McCoy, note-for-note, solo-for-solo, tone-for-tone.
Across the country and internationally, tributes run the gamut, from knockoffs of ABBA and AC/DC to Zappa and ZZ Top.
Successful tributes require a lot of homework, selflessness and attention to detail. There's little place for individuality, and longtime tribute musicians often struggle to reclaim their own identities. Audience expectations are high, but so are potential rewards.
Where bands can push their own music to the masses for years in half-empty clubs, tributes have instant audience bases. U2 fans, the theory goes, will gladly pay to hear an evening of live U2 music from "the next best thing," as tribute bands are apt to bill themselves. Established tributes can perform for hundreds of people, even thousands in a night, and even newer groups can command far more money than most cover or original bands dream of pocketing. Some tour internationally. Many have stamps of approval of the artists being paid tribute. A few even have their own fan clubs.
For all, tributes are labors of love, where musicians and fans share one icon of affection and, for a few hours, suspend reality.
We've only just begun
Young formed his Carpenters tribute on the side a few months ago, with his girlfriend, Sarah Anderson, as Karen Carpenter. Both are in their mid- 20s and, on this night, are surrounded by cheap beer, bright lights and barflies at a dive on St. Paul's University Avenue.
Anderson has pulled her brown hair back with a barrette, encased her body in a black dress with an empire waist and Peter Pan collar and slipped into dark boots stretching halfway up her calves. Young has brown pants and a matching velvet vest over a white, long-sleeved shirt.
Outside of an Internet-only concert, this is their public debut as the Larpenteurs, on the bottom end of a three-band Thursday-night bill.
"The guys in my other band were like, "You better go through with this,' so it's kind of a dare right now," Young says. "But we have genuine affection for the Carpenters. This is serious homage. And we already have three gigs, so who knows?"
Young and Anderson prepared by listening over and over again to a compilation CD of the Carpenters' top singles. They studied a VH1 "Behind the Music" episode about the Carpenters and sought tips from a Carpenters tribute group in London. Young rearranged the piano parts for acoustic guitar.
"Karen's voice is so warm and creepy, which Sarah can pull off really well," Young says. "It's not that much of a stretch for me, this indie rock guy, to do this. But there are times I've been stumped with the music. I'll sit there for an hour working on a song and just not get it, and I'm not used to that, especially with pop."
Young and Anderson take the stage under the eyes of a few friends and the glammy guys in a band performing after them. They open with "Close to You" spilling into "We've Only Just Begun," and the tunes catch the ears of people on barstools at the opposite end of the hall. A bar-hag in a flower print top and green pants is dancing alone, muttering along with a beer bottle in her hand.
Every sha-la-la, every whoa-oh-oh . . .
"Oh, I like this song," a guy sitting at the bar says during "Yesterday Once More."
The solo dancer loses balance and plops on her butt during "Top of the World." After each song, Young and Anderson fall into choreographed bows, holding the dip for two or three seconds before rising in tandem. The Larpenteurs close with "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "I Love You." Everyone in the bar applauds.
"We're not na 1/3ve; I know this is dumb," Young says afterward. "I'm still not really sure what level I want this to go, but it's great that there's potential for this to become bigger and creepier."
The prince of tributes
Tony Valdez is 34, about 6-foot-3 and close to 300 pounds, with long dark hair, dark features and a penchant for all-black stage attire -- the literal image of large and in charge. He's better known locally by the stage name Maurice Stubbs, and he owes his career to the music of others.
He started in a cover band called Renaissance 13, co-founded popular disco-era tribute Boogie Wonderland and '80s variety tribute Saved by Zero and now heads up two fledgling tributes -- Controversy, a nod to the "Minneapolis Sound," built on a heavy foundation of Prince songs, and the Afronauts, dedicated to old-school funk.
Ideas for other tributes percolate in Valdez's head, and he's become an impresario of sorts, forming and nurturing other broad-concept, hit-focused tributes and keeping small financial interests in them once they leave his nest.
"The hardcore original music fanatics might turn their noses up at it, but they're playing to three people somewhere on a Wednesday night," Valdez says. "Tribute bands, whatever they're paying tribute to, already have a following."
Controversy sports a hodgepodge of a look -- a biker diva, a keyboardist in a surgeon's smock, a Jesus figure lead guitarist -- and songs with even remote connections to Minnesota make their way into the set list (Janet Jackson's "Black Cat," for instance, was recorded here with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis).
Like other tributes, Controversy can dig deeper into a given artist's catalog than mere cover bands dare. There are close to two dozen Prince songs in Controversy's growing set list and, beneath streams of breath from a fog machine, the band kicks out clean, tight, by-the-book renditions of popular and obscure tunes few other local bands, if any, are performing. Controversy is attracting loyal audiences to a standing Sunday night gig at the Fine Line Music Caf.
"Prince doesn't play out much anymore, so people can hear his hits with us," Valdez says. "It keeps his material in the public eye and we're certainly playing it well. I'm fairly certain, at some point, he'll come to see us."
In North America and abroad, there are dozens of tributes to Kiss, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. One Internet list counts 42 bows to the Grateful Dead. There's an all-girl Beatles tribute called the Beatlettes and an all-girl nod to the Backstreet Boys called the Backdoor Boys. There are tributes to Ricky Martin (Ricky Loca), Britney Spears (Britney . . . One More Time) and Christina Aguilera (Christina a la Diva). A Bee Gees tribute, called the Three Bees, has its own fan club. A long running ZZ Top Tribute / Coverband in Europe acts as a one-man show.
Relatively obscure artists inspire musical dedications. There are several bands playing the music of Canada's the Tragically Hip. The Donnas, an all-girl band of 21-year-olds from California's Bay Area, has given birth to an all-male tribute called the Donalds. There are even tributes to Spinal Tap and the Partridge Family.
Les Smith, a 33-year-old who lives just outside Toronto, has one of the most highly regarded Garth Brooks tributes anywhere. He's toured throughout Canada and, in one concert, performed for close to 10,000 people. Last year, he appeared at Black Bear Casino, near Duluth. Smith pays a small royalty to Brooks for his blessing.
"Hardcore Garth fans will come up and tell me what I'm doing wrong, and it's mostly middle-aged women," Smith says. "They'll say I gotta get the Wranglers, or my jeans aren't tight enough, or I'm not walking pigeon-toed enough. Fans want to be part of the masquerade, and I want people going home feeling they went to a Garth concert."
In the process, Smith says, it's easy to lose his own goals and identity.
"Your ego can become swelled really fast. I've seen tributes get prepared backstage, look in the mirror and say, "You're Tina Turner,' " Smith says. "I even found myself for a while saying, "Wow, I'm at the top,' but then I realized I'm riding on somebody else's coattails."
Smith has temporarily shelved Fresh Horses to record and perform his own music. Not surprisingly, he's gone from mid-sized venues with hundreds of screaming women to performing for a lot of empty space in small clubs.
"It's definitely not going to be a cakewalk to get my stuff going," he says. "But at least I'm doing my own thing, and that's such a reward on its own."
Getting down with a dream
Jason Sqwier played drums in Saved by Zero and took a spark of inspiration from former tribute mate Tony Valdez to start his own tribute, this one for '80s glam metal. He then found guitarist Wally Toney and singer Dave Hajney, named the band Down Boyz (after a Warrant song) and recently placed a want ad for a bassist.
"I've been in a couple of original bands, and it just doesn't go anywhere, at least not in this town," Hajney said of original music. "It's hard to get decent gigs, and I got bored with it. These gigs are going to be better, and people will be more into what we're doing."
For a song list, Sqwier combed through Billboard charts from 1980 to 1993 and picked out any glam-metal songs that reached the top 20.
"A tribute band has to be better than the actual band," Sqwier says. "The real band can get away with blowing notes or not playing good one night, because their image is so big nobody cares. But with a tribute, you want to hear what you're used to."
The Down Boyz hope to re-create the spectacle of an arena show, complete with flash pots, flame-throwers, silly string, confetti and logo-embossed condoms to toss to the crowd. Even in street clothes, the Boyz already sport the staples of any respectable glam band -- tank tops; printed silk, open-buttoned shirts; shredded jeans; and zebra-striped spandex.
"Instead of Dave being like Axl Rose and Wally being like C.C. Deville and me being like Tommy Lee, we'll put it all in a blender and spit it out in a bar," Sqwier says.
"Other bands try to throw in a c--- rock song and can't pull it off, but I get to be on stage and do the show I dreamed about doing 15 years ago," Toney says. "I don't have to worry about record deals. I can just have fun and put on a show. It's like a tribute to my own history."
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