What is the point of a tribute band? When I was young, a musician being inspired by a band led to one thing: wanting to form a band of your own, to do what your idols did. For example, I think it was Brian Eno who once quipped, “Only a couple dozen people actual heard the Velvet Underground when they first came out. But every one of those people started a band.” You hear it all the time in interviews with rock and roll legends: the first time they heard Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix, etc. they were inspired to pick up the guitar, bass or drums. They were NOT inspired to create a band that was a carbon copy of their inspirations – even if they started out by playing other people’s music (e.g., George Harrison got his slot in the Beatles by playing a mean version of “Twenty Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran), the goal was not to mimic, imitate or impersonate someone else. It was to find their own sound, create their own music, become equals with their heroes. Somewhere along the line, however, things got out of whack. Of course, it doesn’t help that the record companies (or media conglomerates, as the case is today) are always out looking for the next big “something”. How many artists were groomed by labels hoping they had found the next big Bob Dylan (someone who could influence record sales, churn out tunes, create their own image)? Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Forbert, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Jakob Dylan. The next Beatles? The Byrds, Hollies, Left Banke, Badfinger, Move, ELO, 10CC, Cheap Trick, The Knack, hell bands have even been manufactured to cash in – and don’t think it started with Destiny’s Child or American Idol.
Yes, there is a learning curve wherein, particularly if you’ve got no outside musical training but simply picked up an instrument after hearing a band, you mimic and imitate to get the notes under your fingers, the feel for a riff, the rhythm of a groove. But at some point, if you REALLY want to (or feel you must) use music as a vehicle of expression, of expressing who you are, you’ve got to remove the training wheels. At some point, it doesn’t matter whether or not you can play the solo from Stairway to Heaven note for note, right?
When did impersonation become tribute? They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not so sure. I think the Presley estate had similar doubts when it started suing Elvis impersonators, perhaps triggering the migration from impersonators to tribute artists in a attempt to avoid litigation from entities with significantly deeper pockets. But why bother? In the case of Elvis, I think that those running the King’s extremely lucrative post-mortem legacy wanted to emphasize their belief that the King was one of a kind, unable to be duplicated or even reasonably facsimiled. The ability to do an impersonation or impression introduces the idea that one’s mannerisms, delivery, etc., can be mimicked. Bad news for the unique legend business, I guess. My own case (because I was in fact involved in the Elvis business for a while, singing and speaking for Elvis weddings in Memphis for a couple of years, and in fact doing an Elvis-themed show at the world-famous Antenna Club in Memphis during Death Week 1994), is a little different. I never considered myself an impersonator or tribute artist – at least on a professional level, like some people I knew, like El Vez (or a couple of those guys from Honeymoon in Vegas). But I never wanted people to believe I was Elvis; and I never was really impersonating Elvis, either. I did Elvis songs like Elvis did them, and other songs like I thought Elvis might have interpreted them, from a slightly different perspective. I learned how to sing from Elvis records; at nine years old, I was absorbing his phrasing, tone, delivery, style (which of course, he borrowed in bits and pieces from a lot of others too). I could and still can sing a song with Elvis’ inflection, vowel shape and attitude, because that’s how I learned to sing those songs. I can’t really imagine them being sung any other way. Of course, as I’ve matured as a singer and performer, I add my own thing to them. But the underlying foundation is there. Is it a “tribute” to Elvis? No more than when Paul McCartney sings a song like Little Richard, Elvis or Chuck Berry. In either case, there’s something of yourself there, beyond a mere cookie cutter note-for-note copy of the original. If there isn’t, what’s the point?
Beyond the trials, tribulations and other assorted angst, trauma and self-flagellation involved in rock and roll (and tribute bands as well as finding your own “true” voice), pretty loosely described in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Rock Star”, tribute artists are like virtual reality. Sure, you can pretend you’re actually there, seeing your favorite (or your parent’s favorite) band in person (e.g., the Stones, the Beatles, Journey, ZZ Top, the Eagles). But you’re not. You haven’t seen them, and when you compare your experience to someone who actually HAS seen these bands, it’s a little insulting not to mention ignorant. Especially when the irony is so thick you can actually see it in the stage lights – like when a bunch of Americans put on fake English accents to sound like an English band who were trying to sound like American bluesmen in the first place – that’s what a Rolling Stones tribute band usually gets you.
Honestly, who wants to become the best copy in the world of someone else? Who really wants to become the world’s greatest cover band? You’re not really paying tribute to the artists you’re covering. You’re pandering to a crowd that wants an alternate reality – that wasn’t cool enough, old enough, in the right place, able to afford or for whatever reason unable to participate in an experience with an original artist. But you know what the funny thing is? If you were playing original music, doing your thing, presenting your interpretations and artistic achievement, they WOULD be participating in that original experience. And in that moment, you and they would be here and now, truly alive, and not tied to some sentimental, nostalgic bullshit about how today’s music sucks, how they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Because that’s what being cool is, really. It’s not about thinking you’re cool, or wondering who is and who isn’t, or measuring yourself against some imaginary and definitely illusory and transient standard of hip. It’s about making where you are important because you are there, and because it is right now – as if you could be anywhere else.