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Cloning With the Devil

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

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.

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.

"Dave used to come to the shows and check out the band," Saenz says matter-of-factly. "He was actually gonna take the whole band, but he ended up just taking the guitar player on tour. Then we found a replacement [guitarist] that was even better. Now Dave is back in Van Halen and the other guy is in Nashville writing country music."

". . . [N]othing is official," Saenz continues, "but what I hear in L.A. is that Roth and Van Halen are putting out a record in January."

People have wanted this reunion since 1986, and not even Eddie Van Halen's idiotic rehiring and firing of David Lee Roth in the same month only to settle for the charisma-free Gary Cerrone as front man has killed the dream. The Atomic Punks' staying power is proof of that. Even if seeing the old Van Halen lineup in the sagging flesh doesn't live up to expectations, it won't hurt the Punks' draw in the least.

"We've been doing Atomic Punks since 1994," Saenz says, "when metal kind of died and grunge took over. But people were kind of thirsty for metal and thirsty for some old Van Halen. The first Van Halen with David Lee Roth was hungry, hard-edged; they were playing those songs for four years before they recorded them. With Sammy [Hagar], they were still great, but they were a songwriting band as opposed to a hungry street band."

The Atomic Punks happened quite accidentally. Saenz was sitting in with a band called Lancia that had just lost its lead vocalist. Not knowing the group's original material, the band opted to just play Van Halen covers. They learned a powerful lesson: People will pay good money for the privilege of hearing music they've heard a million times before, if it's done the right way.

The exact same way.

"I went straight from doing an original band to doing a tribute because we started finally getting paid!" he exclaims. "In L.A., you had to pay to showcase your original band in a good venue. And now we're getting paid to play those clubs we had to pay to play at."

Except for a stint where Saenz sang lead in L.A. Guns in the late '90s, he's relegated his music writing to TV soundtracks and has stuck to performing in cover and tribute bands ever since. In addition to the Atomic Punks, Saenz sings in Groove Line and Metal Shop, two high-profile cover bands that are part of the Boogie Knights franchise.

But there'll be no mention of disco come showtime. If you want to do the hustle to "Dance the Night Away," that's your business, but if you're out front, you can expect Ralph as Roth to call you on it.

At this Friday evening's show at the Cajun House, he encouraged a chug-a-lugging goofball from Flagstaff to down four beers before his esophagus rebelled. And that diplomatic business about thinking Sammy Hagar is a great songwriter goes out the window once the spotlight's on.

"If anyone came thinking you're gonna hear Sammy Hagar, FUCK YOU!" Saenz yells to beer-bellowing roars.

There's a man who knows where his bread is buttered.

 

Mötley Hoopla or Crüe Intentions?

"I've known Eddie for 11 years. And the first thing I told him when we met was he looked like Nikki Sixx. He said, "You look like Vince Neil." Eleven years later, we got a clue."

-- Tim, lead singer of Shout at the Devil

If any group knows how to market itself, it's the Phoenix Mötley Crüe tribute band, Shout at the Devil. At the recent Mötley Crüe Desert Sky Pavilion concert, Shout at the Devil up dressed in full Crüe costume, was mobbed by Crüe fans after the show, was besieged with 50 photo requests by concertgoers, and got to make the devil sign standing next to Wilona Carson from Channel 10.  

"People knew we weren't Mötley Crüe and still wanted our autographs," says Tim, who only gives his first name, as did all the Shout at the Devil guys in a unified effort to seem more "mysterious" than they are.

Onstage, the real Mötley Crüe was considerably more down-to-earth, if you can call dressing in some Melrose approximation of street clothes down-to-earth. But it's the look from the band's heavily made up, high-heeled heyday that Shout at the Devil researched assiduously by poring over magazines from '83 and '84 to find pictures of the Crüe taken from every conceivable angle.

"We're doing the classic Shout at the Devil-era look and sound, the set and the attitude that went with it. 'Cause they acted like different people when they had those costumes on. It gives you the license to make faces and grit your teeth," grins bassist Eddie, whose hyper enthusiasm is the polar opposite of the dim wattage of the real Mötley bassist, Nikki Sixx.

"Between the four of us, we've spent a grand between the boots, backdrops and costumes. But it's a good investment since now we're able to command $1,100 a show. We didn't know what price range to give in the beginning. We started kind of low. Like, 'Is $400 okay?'"

Already, the group has shot past many other Arizona tribute bands, snagging immediate press coverage and high-paying gigs in Tucson, California and Las Vegas and opening for the Atomic Punks at the Cajun House. And it's only their second show in nearly as many weeks.

The notorious original project that sired Shout at the Devil has been a live Phoenix mainstay for 10 years. You know them, you love them, you hate them, you pay money just to heckle them.

They're . . . Psycho Gypsy! The Valley's lone glam holdout, even during those days of whine and flannel, Psycho Gypsy has generated lots of attention with monthly Glam Slam shows at the Mason Jar and a short-lived public access show popular with angry homophobes.

Yet Psycho Gypsy has taken a summer hiatus and almost broke up over burnout and dissatisfaction in the ranks, the main reasons most tribute bands start up.

"We lost our drummer and guitarist, and we got sick of relearning the same stuff we've been playing for 10 years," moans Tim. "We needed a break, and we figured we'd do this tribute-band thing for a couple of gigs to raise money for our CD. And then this just took off."

All it took was one gig at Mr. Bolo's, the tribute band mecca of Glendale, to convince them to keep Shout at the Devil going.

"A lot of people that hate Psycho Gypsy will pay seven to 10 bucks to come back and give us shit. That's cool. We had sweet revenge at Mr. Bolo's when the same people paid to see this new tribute band and found out it was us," chuckles Eddie. "But they have a new appreciation for us as musicians."

Why would Psycho Gypsy get newfound respect as Shout at the Devil? I offer that Arizona has a neighborhood-watch mentality, where they see a musician borrowing a riff from Houses of the Holy without permission and they want to make a citizen's arrest. But if you call yourself "Black Dog" or "Kashmir" and dress like Jimmy Page, they'll hold the door open for you.

The same goes with trying to pack an arena-size show into a club if you're an original band.

"It's kind of sad that some people can't appreciate going that extra step to entertain the audience in an original-band format," complains Eddie. "If you do, they call you a poseur. But as a tribute band, that's great. It's just another way of reinventing yourself."

Reinvention cuts both ways. It's a lot easier enjoying Crüe songs like "Kickstart My Heart" and "Looks That Kill" without the bad-karma baggage the real Mötley Crüe brings to every show. Tim's Vince Neil never killed the drummer of Hanoi Rocks while driving drunk. Drummer Johnny's Tommy Lee never beat up on Pamela Anderson. And, to date, Eddie's Nikki Sixx has left the security guards alone.

"We've made jokes about that bad-boy image stuff," grins Tim, who has to talk two octaves higher when approximating Mötley singer Vince Neil's squeal. "I'll turn to our drummer and say, 'Hey, Tommy, I think there's a girl that wants to make a video with you.' I'll make references to getting penicillin shots in my ass every week. Or I'll turn to Eddie and say, 'Nikki, if I catch you one more night with a needle hanging out of your arm . . .' We kind of poke fun at all of it."  

Eddie believes tribute bands are hot right now because people want to see new bands like Mötley Crüe or Van Halen, but none of them are getting signed by record companies.

I'm not as convinced as Eddie that tribute-band audiences are looking to hear any new original material, even if it is played in an old vein, or that people who enjoy note-perfect Mötley Crüe re-creations will laterally transfer attendance to Psycho Gypsy shows.

After all, these are the same Mötley Crüe fans who filled barely half the Tucson Civic Center for the tour after Vince Neil was ousted from the band and temporarily replaced with John Corabi.

"And even those people came with 'Where's Vince?' signs," says Tim. "They paid 20 bucks for that privilege."

But, he might have added, that's only 12 bucks more than people pay to heckle Psycho Gypsy.

Back in Black Carbon or For Those About to Salute?

"This is a huge AC/DC town, and I never realized that. Dude, I signed more autographs last week than I signed in my whole life. It's ridiculous. You're pretending to be a rock star."

-- Joey Lamia, drummer for AC/DC cover band TNT

If you couldn't pick AC/DC's drummer out of a police lineup, don't feel too bad. No earthling's expected to know that sort of minutia. Even Joey Lamia, a besotted AC/DC fan, had to cram before he could name all three drummers in AC/DC's 26-year history. Or know that the original, Phil Rudd, returned after a 10-year absence in 1995. And yet, Lamia sits atop his drum riser wearing empty wire-frame glasses like Phil Rudd and pledging to lose a couple of pounds, all for the sake of accuracy no one demands. Such dedication is worthy of a Mission Impossible cast member. Who cares if no one notices? Lamia will know!

If you doubt that tribute bands are spreading like a brush fire, consider that in the span of three months and four shows, TNT has added more than 300 names to its mailing list and is scheduled to play Pinke's in Las Vegas, the side stage at the Metallica show and two huge AC/DC preconcert shows before the real band comes in September.

"Elektra's trying to get us to meet with the band and do an autograph signing with the real band," sighs Lamia. "I'll just pass out on the floor at that. Dude, there's just so much shit going on."

Last weekend, TNT became the first tribute band in Phoenix to play a halftime show for the Arizona Rattlers at America West Arena. Although the event didn't quite come off the way everyone hoped, it looks as if they'll try it again at future sporting events. Particularly enthusiastic is Rob Hart, who works for America West Arena. He did the video feed on AC/DC's last tour and did a promotional video for the Rattlers using AC/DC's music.

"We cut the show short," says Lamia the day after the event. Alas, the planned pyrotechnics set to go off during "For Those About to Rock" were left undetonated. "I got a huge apology from the Rattlers organization. During the halftime portion, the only thing that was going out there was our PA. It wasn't promoted properly, and a lot of people saw two guys with a wireless guitar and a mike running along the sidelines and thought they were lip-synching to an AC/DC record."

That's a bummer, but it's also a testament to how accurately TNT mimics AC/DC's trademark sound. It's quite a shock to hear singer Donnie Malone's Chicago accent or learn that TNT's version of Angus Young is really a goombah from Staten Island named Sal Cartagine.

Up close, Cartagine's looks and rapid speech make him a ringer for Martin Scorsese -- if you could somehow convince the director to strap on a Gibson SG and hop around in a schoolboy outfit six sizes too small.

"The great thing about doing an AC/DC show is that it's presold," marvels Cartagine. "People are starved for this because the last time AC/DC was here was in '95. And everyone likes their music. Girls like it 'cause you can dance to it. Guys like it because it's heavy and simple. And corporate America loves it, which is why you hear it at so many sporting events. That's why we approached the Rattlers about what we do."

Two years ago, TNT was a 100 percent cover band called Prodigal Son that played a lot of big shows, including dates at NASCAR events, which required they know a good deal of Southern rock. Mr. Bolo's was their club home base until the band decided to sneak in their own material. Chuck Dunne, the club's owner, told them it was much heavier than his niche clientele preferred.  

"I've never had much of a heavy audience, and Prodigal Son's originals were pretty heavy," says Dunne, who has booked original bands like Frank Lloyd Vinyl and Glory Revival in the past six months but is now looking to exclusively book quality tribute bands.

"Suddenly we couldn't play in those bars anymore," laments Lamia. "That really hurt us. We had to go the original-band route for two years. Once, we opened up for Puya, a touring band with a recording contract, and there were like maybe 20 people. And this is with heavy radio promotion. My heart goes out to those bands."

Prodigal Son persevered, keeping a sideline cover band named Powerhouse to finance the original project.

"We went into the studio to record an album . . .," Lamia pauses, "and everything fell apart. We got so depressed. It wasn't where we wanted it to be and we'd gotten so burned out from playing, we felt it was getting stale. So I just looked at Sal and said, 'Fuck it. Let's just make some money have some fun.'"

Fun is more accessible when you remove all the anxiety, the second-guessing and the pressure to get your original band to the next level. It's like being in a high school band again, except you don't have to ask your dad for money to buy a lighting rig.

True to its name, Prodigal Son returned to Mr. Bolo's as a cover band. After a typical rendition of "You Shook Me All Night Long," the ensuing "You sound just like AC/DC -- you oughta do an AC/DC tribute band" reaction from the audience clinched it. Even though singer Donnie Malone has no problem approximating Brian Johnson's trademark pterodactyl shriek, no one could have predicted how much he looked like Johnson once he shed the long, bleached-white hair. "When he put the hat on the first time, it was scary," Cartagine says, shaking his head. "He stops traffic."

As for pulling off the Angus moves, Cartagine had to train for two months to get in shape for it. "But people buy into the character; there's respect. Respect for a grown man in short pants," he muses.

And unlike Van Halen and Mötley Crüe, there's no abhorrent change in musical styles, no warring Sammy vs. Dave factions. Comparing AC/DC albums is like comparing bottles of ketchup. Lamia maintains that AC/DC is "the only band to mine three chords and three chords only for 25 years," and he's right. Even the Ramones got tricky at one point, adding diminished chords and those pesky Phil Spector strings.

With Prodigal Son on a far-off back burner, TNT seems in for the long haul.

"We're the only band on this side of the universe that does AC/DC, because it's so damn hard. You can't find anybody to do Angus Young," Lamia says.

Indeed, there's only one other U.S. AC/DC tribute band listed at www.tributebands.com, but plenty of stupid ones in Australia. Like Fat Angus, which even had the balls to run a rotund photo.

Rush to Judgment or Geddy Lee Light?

"If you look at record sales, Rush are second in platinum sales to the Stones and the Beatles. Who the hell is buying all these Rush albums?"

-- Robert Kiphart, drummer for Freewill

Someone showed Kiphart those statistics in a book -- he doesn't remember its name. It probably refers to platinum sales in Canada, where Anne Murray CDs probably still fly out of stores without someone flinging them.

Ten years ago, you'd still see a lot of people in Rush shirts, usually bass players whose favorite words were, "C'mon, let's jam, man."

After the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea usurped Geddy Lee as the most annoying living thing for bassists to emulate, Rush returned to being one of those acts that continues to sell in silence.

Yet Freewill has been pulling in big crowds at places like Mr. Bolo's and the Power Plant, where the group recently did a show for 400 -- with minimal advertising.

Freewill's got the biggest production values of any Arizona tribute band: lights, videos, pyrotechnics and a massive amount of equipment. "So we don't like to play small shows," says Kiphart, "because it's a lot of work setting up, and we can't blow up stuff in a tiny room. People choke on the smoke."

I'm not a big Rush fan, but there are plenty of others who can hear the opening strains of "2112" and not begin searching for the fire exits.

In that sense, Freewill is a breed apart from the Atomic Punks and TNTs of this scene, which provide a more across-the-board kind of fun. Here's a band whose audience demanded that a reluctant Kiphart play the drum solo in "YYZ" just because it's on the Exit . . . Stage Left live album.  

"I think we put on a show every bit as good as the Atomic Punks," says Kiphart. "Granted, they have the big party thing going on with the chicks, and Rush can't compete with that. The Rush audience hangs around and claps, and sticks around to see the show and go, 'You guys are awesome.' People really get into it, and it's not predominantly guys, which is even more scary. I thought girls thought Rush was geek music. I've seen girls dancing while we play. I mean, how does a girl dance to Rush? . . . But give her a beer or two and make sure she's having fun and she'll find a way to do it!"

Freewill is not new to the tribute-band phenomenon, having made it its priority for six years.

"I spent the most time with it and it gets the most response," says Kiphart. "You wouldn't believe how much work it takes to learn 50 Rush songs, and then you have to remember them. But that's half the fun.

"I'm into the original-music scene, but at the same time it gets a bit frustrating," says Kiphart, whose numerous outside projects include playing with members of Flotsam and Jetsam in an outfit called Electric Pickles. "If people want to pay to go see a tribute band and I really like their music, I don't have a problem playing it. It's not like we're out there fulfilling a fantasy. Sure, we are to some extent, but mostly it's like a business. I'm a musician, and if I just go out and play some Rush, people actually show up and tell me, 'You're real cool,' and I get paid. Yeah, I can do this for a while."

The word of mouth on Freewill is that its lead singer, Dave Cornwall, possesses an imposing physical and vocal resemblance to Rush singer Geddy Lee. Although he doesn't do a full-bore Witchiepoo vocal impersonation, Dave's high-end falsetto singing in the material's built-in accentuations seems to do the trick for most people.

"The look thing is just a coincidence," Kiphart says with a laugh. "Dave can have his hair down and it's the old Geddy Lee. He can put his hair in a ponytail and throw on some geeky shades and he's the new Geddy Lee."

Plus, Dave's wearing Converse sneakers, another Geddyism. Malibu Barbie doesn't have this many accessory options. Admittedly, Rush band members weren't the clothes whores Mötley Crüe or Van Halen were, but the Canadian trio did sport some zany wizard wear in the '70s.

"We're working on the robes and the big-hair look," says Kiphart, who'll soon have to relearn how to play drums with a long, waxed Neil Peart mustache when Freewill unveils its different-stages show in October, which will chronicle the '70s, '80s and '90s Rush eras.

"We do everything from Anthem to the newest album. It's all good. The new Rush is still good. People seem to be particular about the middle era, 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Spirit of Radio,' and that. We've got the keyboard, percussion and moogs."

Know what really gets the Rush crowd going? Put up a slide of a big star with a naked man on it and they go berserk. And it's not even David Lee Roth.


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