By MIKE CHAIKEN
On any given weekend across America, music fans will likely find a tribute band taking over the local nightclub.
And on many theater stages across the country, groups playing note for note renditions of Pink Floyd, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and ABBA also will step through the curtain.
There is a definite financial dimension to the proliferation of tribute bands.
For theaters and clubs, tribute bands put fannies in the seats.
And for musicians, tribute bands mean a steady paycheck.
Foxwoods Resort Casino is paying tribute to tribute bands all of this summer on Thursday nights at the Atrium.
The Palace Theater in Waterbury is taking the tribute route in the fall with Almost Queen on Oct. 11 and The Machine Performs Pink Floyd on Nov. 9.
Southington’s Crystal Bees continues to serve a prime location area fans looking to catch tribute bands from throughout the Northeast.
Although cash does play a role in the existence of tribute bands, guitarist Jimi Bell of Beyond Purple said people go to see a tribute act because they want to see the original acts in real life but for a variety of reasons (the band has broken up, key members have passed away, etc.), they can’t
Tribute bands also bring back good memories for people, said Bell. It brings them to a different place and time that makes them happy.
Although many of these musicians do record original music, they do find artistic satisfaction playing the music of other artists.
Gerard Brann plays the music of Elton John as a member of Yellow Brick Road, which recently performed at Crystal Bees. And he revels in the connection to the audience that John’s music provides him.
“When a musician loses themselves to a song, just surrenders to the music, an audience gets pulled in closer,” said Brann. “I give in to the music until there’s only me and the song. If the audience senses that and gets drawn in and I’m providing the imagery and nuances of Elton’s look and mannerisms then they can feel they’re participating in Elton’s personal musical journey.”
Groups like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Queen are pillars of the tribute scene. But other unexpected artists also find a voice through tribute acts.
When Back in Time’s Bob Weir was first asked if he would sing in a tribute band focusing on the music of Huey Lewis and the News, he said he was skeptical. When the News was at the height of their commercial power, he said he had not been a big fan. He was, and still is, more of a hard rock fan.
But, when he was asked to join Back in Time, Weir began to do some research on Huey Lewis and the News. He learned the band’s catalogue was quite deep. Additionally, as Weir listened to the band’s recorded output, he learned how intricate their arrangements were — filled with harmonies, keys, horns, and so on.
Jimi Bell is a guitar legend in Connecticut, going back to his days with Joined Forces, which was a powerhouse on the metal scene in the 1980s. He still makes original music as a member of House of Lords.
But Bell also is a cottage industry unto himself when it comes to tribute acts. He is a member of Straight Shooter, which plays Bad Co.; Wicked Gypsies, which pays tribute to all varieties of 1970s hard rock; and Bottoms UP, which salutes Van Halen.
Most notably, Bell is a member of Beyond Purple, which honors the many acts that are members of the Deep Purple family.
Beyond Purple was an extension of Bell’s earliest days of being a music fan. Bell said he has been fascinated for years by the guitar playing of Ritchie Blackmore. That fascination was key in how Bell developed his own guitar skills.
The idea for Beyond Purple, said Bell, arose when he was speaking to some other musicians about bands to cover.
“We like to work every weekend if possible,” said Bell.
Deep Purple came up during this discussion, said Bell. He and the other musicians realized there were all of these groups that were offshoots of Deep Purple such as Whitesnake, Rainbow, Dio, Joe Lynn Turner, and Graham Bonnet. And that’s where they decided to go with this idea for a cover band, said Bell.
“It goes over incredibly with people,” said Bell.
In a long career, a music act fit for a tribute will have hits. But these acts also tend to have quality tracks that might not have been released as a single.
Back in Time will play the big hits of Huey Lewis and the News, said Weir. But the tribute group also likes to reach into the deeper cuts of the News, “stuff that’s not on the radio.” “Bad is Bad” is one in particular, Weir likes.
“You need to deliver the hits but we do rotate in a deep track or two to throw a bone to the diehard fans— and frankly it’s for me too,” said Brann. “I’m playing the tunes but at my core I’m a fan.”
Many of the tribute acts that play at theaters tend to provide complete replicas of the bands they are channeling. Australian Pink Floyd, Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin), and Rain (Beatles) all try to re-create the experience of the originals.
Not all tribute acts, however, are content with a live transcription of their chosen artists.
When Bell performs the music of other artists, he doesn’t try note for note replications of the guitar parts on the record. And, in the case of Deep Purple, said Bell, he is following the template set by the original.
Ritchie Blackmore never played the same solo twice, said Bell. And he never played what was on the record.
“I grew up with that mindset,” said Bell.
For Bell, it’s about capturing the spirit of the songs.
“I very much do not believe in recreating every note of a studio recording or a particular performance,” said Brann. “Elton has seldom ever played a song the same way twice and that goes for all the other members of the band.”
“I believe in capturing the style of a musician and exploring the songs in the way that musician would explore them,” said Brann.
For Weir, when he steps up on stage, he doesn’t try to become Huey Lewis. When he was selected for Back in Time, Weir said he was chosen more because of his musical chops rather than any resemblance he may have to Lewis. Weir, who is now in his 50s, has been playing in bands on Long Island since he was kid. Along the way, he said he demonstrated his versatility by performing with many different cover acts.
The mission for Back in Time simply is to do justice to the original music, said Weir.
For the musicians in a tribute act, the audience reaction makes it worth the effort to learn the songs of another artist.
“It’s fuel for the fire (the reaction he gets when fans hear a song they know),” said Brann. “When I’m on stage, I’m on 10. When an audience responds, my adrenaline is just racing. In that sense, the audience is really driving the show.”
“I love it,” said Brann.
“It’s enjoyable to play music everyone knows,” said Weir. “When you perform music the audience knows, and knows well, there’s an instant connection.”
The schedule for Foxwoods Resort Casino’s Tribute Thursday at the Atrium in Mashantucket is:
July 18 – Brickyard Road: Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute.
July 25 – The Brothers of the Road: Allman Brothers tribute.
Aug. 1 – Back In Time: Huey Lewis tribute.
Aug. 8 – Sacred Fire: Santana tribute
Aug. 15 – New York State of Mind: Billy Joel tribute.
Aug. 22 – Pump: Aerosmith tribute.
Aug. 29 – The Cast of Beatlemania: Beatles tribute.
Crystal Bees, 240 Spring St., Southington, has the following tribute band dates:
Aug. 16 – Back in Black: AC/DC tribute.
Aug. 31 –Physical Graffiti: Led Zeppelin tribute.
Sept. 13 – Beyond Purple: Deep Purple tribute.
Sept. 28 – Wicked Gypsies with Jimi Bell: Hard rock tribute.
Oct. 12 – Straight Shooter (with Jimi Bell): Bad Co. tribute.
Oct. 18 –Ozzy America: Ozzy Osbourne tribute.
Oct. 26 – Halen: Van Halen tribute.
Nov. 16: Rock of Ages: Def Leppard tribute.