In Defense of Tribute Bands
The Song Remains the Same, a Phoenix Led Zeppelin tribute band
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in the world of music no one appreciates a copycat, especially those working for months and years to bring something new and original into the world. Tribute bands -- that is, bands whose sole purpose is to cover the songs of one particular artist -- draw the ire of those who work in the vein of originality because not only are the imitators not doing anything new or innovative, they are merely riding the coattails of those who do. But do they bring anything to the table?
For one, the closest I've ever been to seeing Tool was in an event center in Mesa.
Maynard James Keenan wasn't there. Neither was Adam Jones, Danny Carey, or Justin Chancellor. It was simply four musicians in love with Keenan's most popular creation and putting it out there on the stage.
The lead singer was dressed in a karate outfit and had a spiked mohawk that increased his height by about a foot and a half. There was no mistaking that I was listening to four guys rip off one of the greatest rock bands of the 1990s, but the crowd didn't seem to notice. The audience moved to the front of the stage, banged their heads, and shouted when asked. They were listening to the musical equivalent of comfort food and they were shoveling their faces full of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Of the bands that were on the bill that evening, these emulators of '90s alternative progressive rock music overwhelmingly held the most attention from the audience. The other bands on the lineup were just as good, if not better, than this quartet who were simply Xeroxing their favorite songs from Undertow and Lateralus. They offered nothing new to the world. They didn't do anything different to the songs. They were essentially making money by imitating the music they obviously loved.
Say what you will about lack of originality, one thing could not be denied: these musicians put in a lot of time, effort, and practice to recreate the experience of seeing Keenan and company. They didn't add any flair to the music because they knew what the crowd wanted to hear. No angry outcry took place. After the set was over, the lead singer was glad-handing the fans, receiving pats on the backs and posing for pictures like a politician running for office.
And that's something to keep in mind: those in tribute bands are musicians. They want to make sure that they nail the guitar licks on "Schism" or get the drum part right during "Parabola." Obviously there is no recreating the charisma of the actual Maynard James Keenan onstage, but it doesn't mean the lead singer shouldn't at least make the attempt by practicing the moves, by spending an hour backstage making sure that two-foot coif won't collapse under the heat of the stage lights. He knows what he's getting himself into by imitating Keenan. He doesn't want to make it worse by looking like a fool.
A tribute band's audience is just as dedicated to the original band as the ones on stage are, and will spot an imitator's lack of effort in a heartbeat. Just because they aren't bringing anything new to the table doesn't mean they aren't working hard to pay respect to their source material. There is a reason why that mohawked lead singer was given hearty handshakes by the appreciative audience. He must have gotten something right.
On the flip side, there are many musicians who get the band they are covering wrong. Pay a visit to Las Vegas and listen to a lounge singer muck up an old standard. For every Tool tribute band that takes the stage in dive bars across the country, there is a Tony Clifton in a pink puffy shirt butchering Tony Orlando and wondering why the crowd isn't responding or four guys playing the least complicated songs from the KOOL-FM playlist. These imitators, the cover bands that phone it in; those are the musicians that tick off everyone. Original musicians despise them for stealing the audience. Hard-working tribute musicians loathe them because they're out there making them look bad. No one likes a glorified karaoke singer.
The members of a tribute band love their subject so much they want to show their love as best as they can. They're doing their best to recreate an experience for those who love a band as much as they do, or in my case, help give the uninitiated a chance to experience what they think makes the band so great in the first place. Obviously, some are in it for the money, not the art. It's not cool or flashy, but it affords them an opportunity to play in front of a crowd (and maybe eventually bring some new music into the world).
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