Cloning With the Devil

If you build them a replica, they will come. Van Halen, AC/DC, Rush and Mötley Crüe tribute bands have more than just their members wigging out.

You're playing music full-time and actually getting paid for it. You've got lucrative gigs in and out of state with a guarantee of up to $2,000 per show. And when you return home, it's always to a packed house. People sing along when you point a mike in their direction. They even line up to buy your tee shirts and get your autograph when you're done.

What's wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing, if you're willing to make certain minor adjustments. Everybody loves you, but it's someone else's name they scream out. When you banter with the audience, you got to do it in a Scottish brogue. Or a northern California whine. Who cares? After a few free beers, whose speech pattern isn't a little whacked out? The crowds are top-heavy in 30- and 40-somethings? Hey, nobody's getting any younger.

Last, those songs you've spent years writing and recording? Well, you'll have to leave those at home.

Brian Young of Atomic Punks sports the look Valerie Bertinelli endures one day at a time.
Brian Young of Atomic Punks sports the look Valerie Bertinelli endures one day at a time.
Brian Young of Atomic Punks sports the look Valerie Bertinelli endures one day at a time.
Paolo Vescia
Brian Young of Atomic Punks sports the look Valerie Bertinelli endures one day at a time.

Here's the point where most ego-driven musicians scream, "Faustian bargain" and put all thoughts of joining a dreaded "tribute band" out of their minds. Play somebody else's tunes exclusively? Sublimate your individuality in the persona of a world-famous band? Listen, crybaby, nothing spells ego death like traveling cross-country in a smelly van, playing original tunes to 40 people (if you're lucky) and haggling for a percentage of the door.

The four tribute bands you are about to meet are proving the opposite of what used to be true. These musicians slogged around for years paying dues in original projects before ascending into the more financially rewarding tribute-band status. One KISS tribute band reportedly grossed $1 million last year, about the same amount of money most signed bands owe their record labels just for putting out a CD.

Log onto www.tributebands.com and you'll see "601 artists pay tribute to 197 bands." While tribute bands exist for all genres of music (Backstreet Boys, anyone?), the group is predominantly composed of rock icons. There are 47 Beatles, 21 Pink Floyds, two Nirvanas and a Partridge Family tribute. Yes, really. There's even a tribute to The Commitments, itself a pretend cover band.

Why? With every passing year, the demographic for people who can no longer tolerate new music expands. There's a whole section of the listening public from ages 25 to 45 that still wants to be entertained by rock stars, and no one's signing up. At least no one like David Lee Roth, the last guy who made the job look like one long spring break.

Zirconium Dave or David Lee Ralph?

"I don't understand Blink 182 and Smashmouth. That's the last music anyone would wanna fuck to."

-- Ralph Saenz as David Lee Roth in concert

If you want to know what's suddenly got a lot of Valley bands window-shopping for wigs, it's the recent success of Atomic Punks, an incredible "early" Van Halen tribute band from northern California that's made Scottsdale's Cajun House its monthly pad to "go ahead and jump."

In the fluorescent lighting backstage at the Cajun House, Ralph Saenz, the Atomic Punks' lead singer, looks more like a peroxide-maned Matt Dillon than David Lee Roth, and he is quick to point out in interviews and in concert that he doesn't think he is Diamond Dave. The complete absence of midgets and strippers backstage seems to bear that out. He doesn't call the Atomic Punks' lead guitarist "Edward" -- as in Van Halen -- onstage, and begs off doing Roth's aerial acrobatics. "That guy does three hours of karate a day. I don't have that dedication," Saenz confesses.

What Saenz does do is eerily re-create the energy and mirthful party atmosphere of early Van Halen. For starters, he has every surprised David Lee expression catalogued. The "I caught you doing something you shouldn't be doing" look. The "Do you believe this guitar solo?" look. The "Look how much fun we're having, Sparky" look. And if guitarist Brian Young's Eddie Van Halen wig sometimes looks as if a poodle is taking a nap on his head, his flying fingers are all the resemblance you'll ever need. His extended solo on "Spanish Fly" is so uncanny it almost elicits nervous laughter.

As for the solid rhythm section, no attempt whatsoever was made to get a portly bass player or a drummer who captures Alex Van Halen's Francis the Talking Mule mug. With the ying and yang of Dave and Eddie so precisely parroted, bassist Mike Andrews and drummer Scott Paterson could be the Cellophane Twins for all the difference it makes to the show.

Nine months ago, the real David Lee Roth sold out the Cajun House with an attendance of roughly 1,000 heads paying $25 a pop. Tonight's Atomic Punks show at the Cajun House is nearly a sellout at only $8 a head. Both acts drew pretty much the identical crowd, except these people have a surplus $17 to reinvest in booze. Pour three Guinness stouts into any diehard fan, and the differences between Roth and Ralph become even more inconsequential.

The best endorsement any tribute band can hope for is when the band it's saluting takes notice. Van Halen bassist Mark Anthony joined the Atomic Punks for a set in Pasadena; David Lee Roth wrote in his book, Crazy From the Heat, that the Atomic Punks are "the best tribute to Van Halen ever." To further blur the line between fantasy and reality, Roth poached Atomic Punks' original lead guitarist for that last, ultimately short-lived, lineup of the DLR band.

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