Are Tribute Bands Worth Seeing?

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The Musical Box performing at Celebrity Theatre

Commentary by Fred Kuhlman

What a loaded question.  Lately I have seen a lot of negative comments about cover/tribute bands mainly from so called experts on Facebook (Twitter is a total waste of time).  They say, “Why bother when the real thing is out there”, or “Tribute bands are only hacks that can’t come up with anything original”.  I would like to put in my 2 cents worth.  I am not an expert, but I have over 50 years of seeing concerts include original acts and tribute bands.

Let’s be honest, every band starts out as a cover band.  Bands and musician cover other people’s work to learn.  As a child I learned to play piano (very badly) by playing classic piano songs.  Musicians learn their instruments and hone their skills be mimicking another artist.  Once they are proficient, they attempt to write their own songs.  Some are successful while others simply don’t have the writer’s/composer’s talent.  That is OK.  A lot of those musicians go on to very successful careers are session or backup musicians.

So, in the first part we have cover bands.  These bands “cover” songs usually by a number of bands.  They are very popular at weddings, school dances when the musicians are just starting out.  If they become really good, they can find work at many casinos and lounges.

The next “cover” musicians are popular bands that play other musician’s music.  A couple of examples of great bands are Jimmy Buffett playing CSN’s “Southern Cross” and Van Halen playing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.  Even the Beatles and The Rolling Stones played covers of other artist’s music when they first started out.  I would be hard pressed to call these great groups “hacks” because they played another band’s song.

The next stage of “cover” are the session or backup musicians.  These are musicians that perform with Madonna, Pink, Billy Joel and even Alice Cooper.  These musicians have to learn not only the songs for the band they are performing with, but also have to be ready to learn and perform with other bands as the need arises.  Musicians like Nita Strauss and Chuck Garric from Alice Cooper’s touring band are fabulous musicians.  Alice is perfectionist and would not have “hacks” go on tour with him.

Lastly, we get to what is known as a pure Tribute band.  These bands focus on a single band and attempt to recreate the music and mannerisms of the original band.  I have seen the entire spectrum of Tribute bands, from a so-so U2 tribute band I saw in a small club in Brasil, to probably the ultimate tribute band, the Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box.

Well, some people say don’t waste your money on seeing a tribute band.  My response is, when are you ever going to see the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Supremes, The Rat Pack or a number of Motown bands live again.  If a tribute band charges almost the same amount as a currently touring band, then yeah, I would hold out for the original band.  But in most cases, you can see one of these tribute bands for little more than the cost of a couple of CDs.  Tribute bands kinda walk a knife’s edge.  Some can be ridiculous like a lot of the Elvis impersonators.  Others like The Musical Box are so good at recreating the sound and mannerisms of the original band, that if you were to close your eyes and just listen, you could actually believe you are listening to the real band again.

Personally, I plan on going and seeing tribute bands for the pure reason, I love to see live music.  There is and energy in live music that just can’t be experienced sitting at home and listing to studio music or even Live performances on the TV or home theater setups no matter how good the recording is.  Which brings me to my main point.  On Friday June 11th at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, AZ, there will be a number of Tribute bands performing.  The headline is the Iron Maidens.  I have only seen a few YouTube videos on their live songs and from what I have seen I am impressed.  I have seen Iron Maiden a number of times and this will be a good example of how well tribute bands can do.  So, if you get a chance, please come out to see the show and experience live music again.  We, the concert going public have had a hell-of-a long dry spell and we really need to find the light at the end of the tunnel.  I hope to see you all there.

So, finally, if you are a musician just starting out, don’t be afraid to cover other band’s music.  If you can learn how to play like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thai, Mike Portnoy, Carl Palmer, Keith Emerson or Billy Sheehan then the whole world could open up for you.  Also, there is pure joy of accomplishment when you finally get it right.  Don’t get discouraged and “ROCK ON”.

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