Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, courtesy of Cover Me staffer Jordan Becker: What was the best/worst experience you have had seeing a “tribute” band?
Many years ago, a PR client of mine was playing a show at the Lower East Side venue Piano’s. I don’t remember who the artist was or how the show went. All I remember is what came after: a Weezer tribute band. Now, I typically go out of my way to avoid tribute bands. Though I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys them live, their approach to cover songs goes against every reason I started this site. I want to hear artists do something different with the songs; the mark of a good tribute band is doing the songs the same. But, as a huge Weezer fan in high school, this band hit me right in my nostalgia bone. They ignored pretty much every song after Pinkerton, only playing the early classics that made me fall in love with the band in the first place. I don’t remember their name, and Google searching proves inconclusive (my best guess is “Surf Wax America,” who YouTube confirms did play Piano’s at one point, though the date wouldn’t have been the show I saw). The show didn’t make me discover any new love of tribute bands – though I just signed on to see a Frank Zappa tribute called The Furious Bongos, which if nothing else seems more promising than his hologram tour – but hollering along to “My Name Is Jonas” in a tiny club beats rolling your eyes to “The Girl Got Hot” in an amphitheater. With a band with as checkered a discography as Weezer, sometimes a facsimile can be even better than the real thing.
I don’t go to enough concerts, but I recently got the chance to see Pink Droyd at the Sweetwater Pavilion in my town. They are currently touring The Wall in its entirety along with some extra material that Floyd would perform 40 years ago. The sound was excellent, and the light show was phenomenal. Probably my favorite highlight was during “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” a group of kids in masks walked out on stage to sing the “We don’t need no education …” chorus. The band enlisted the kids from the audience, and it was exciting to see their proud parents in the crowd.
The other highlight is this video I took. “In the Flesh” is–in my opinion–the quintessence of The Wall in which Pink has become his alter-ego, a neo-fascist whose celebrity gave him a grandstand from which to whip up a frenzy and stoke fear and hatred. At the time, it was something of a parody for Pink Floyd to perform it. It was the absurdum infitium of Roger Waters’s emotional alienation from his fans, from his band, and from himself. But it held within it a tinge of apprehension for a conservative resurgence within England and the United States. Set within our current backdrop of 2019, it felt eerily too relevant to me. And this parallel was not lost on the crowd when during “Mother,” the line “Mother, should I trust the government?” was met with shouts from the audience about the current state of American politics.
I’d say this is the second or third cover band or tribute band that I’ve seen. And they were far and away the best of that small bunch. If you get a chance to see them, I highly recommend it.
Throughout my life I’ve learned about new music from a variety of sources, including radio, film, MTV, streaming audio, posters, Rolling Stone, promo CDs, etc. But Steal Your Peach is the only band I first heard about while on the playground. The group is a Philadelphia-area tribute band that specializes in playing the music of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. I met the lead singer/guitarist one fall afternoon as our kids roamed the jungle gyms. I’ve since seen them perform three times, and, in true jam-band fashion each show felt like a different experience.
The first concert was in the fall of 2017, when the band teamed up with singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Neel, who served a brief stint with the Allman Brothers in the late ‘80s. Together he and Steal Your Peach were able to recreate many of the Allman’s classics. Though I saw the actual Allman Brothers twice, the music never did much for me. But after hearing it played in such an intimate venue, I decided to relisten to the group’s back catalog. It was about this time that I started writing for Cover Me. It’s no coincidence that one of the first articles I wrote was about Gregg Allman’s cover of the Dead’s “Black Muddy River.”
I next saw Steal Your Peach perform as part of a concert series called The Rock N’ Roll Playhouse. The franchise, which appears at various rock clubs nationwide, is meant to introduce kids to the joys of their parents’ music. This particular show featured the sounds of the Grateful Dead. While Steal Your Peach played, the staff threw streamers and brought out a giant multi-colored parachute to keep the young ones moving along throughout the extended jams. The whole scene felt dreamlike, as if I’d stepped into a giant kids party organized by Ken Kesey — without the need for mind-altering substances.
I finally saw them play both sides of its repertoire at a free outdoor show this summer. The highlight was a 20-minute smash-up of the Allmans’ instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” with the Dead’s R&B-flavored “Help on the Way.” The group shifted back and forth between the tracks almost seamlessly, as if they were written to be played together. Though the term “tribute band” is often used in a negative context (think Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star), hearing Steal Your Peach play these two songs together, it sounded like something completely original. You can watch a video of that show in the embedded clip above; the cover begins at the 50-minute mark.
I didn’t need any convincing to go see Bjorn Again when I heard they were coming to town. The ultimate ABBA tribute band? Who’d opened for Nirvana? Sign me up! I dragged my brother along; he’d never heard of them, but was game for a good time.
I doubt the band would consider the show a high point. The venue was a little seedy, “Frida”‘s mike stand was giving her all kinds of trouble, and the crowd was small and not as rabid in their fandom as they could have been. But the band were super troupers. They put on a good show, complete with stage patter in a faux Swedish accent (“I say DIS haff of da room ees lauder!”). Not only that, but at one point the ladies went to change costumes, leaving “Bjorn” and “Benny” to do a note-perfect cover of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. My brother threw the devil’s-horns gesture at Benny, who threw them right back, leading my brother to excitedly say, “Pat, Benny’s a rocker!”
But for me, the high point was “Dancing Queen.” See that clip above, how much the crowd are enjoying the song and singing along to it? Well, at the show I went to, a fight started. Two guys were hunched over like crabs, muckled onto each other’s shirts, whaling on each other’s backs. As security took care of them, the band soldiered on, never missing a beat. At the end, Benny raised his hands, gave us a beatific smile, and said, “Dere iss no need to fight over uss! We luff ALL of you!”
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to see the Illeagles, anointed “the Bay Area’s Premier Eagles tribute band.” It was a tentative crowd at first, but by the time “Life in the Fast Lane” was played, audience members were getting braver. Beers, or tequila sunrises, were kicking in and people were moving closer to the stage. The next transition point came around “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Life’s Been Good.” Audience members had made the jump from the head-bobbing “dad dance” to full-on dancing, couples twirling around, gal pals vamping.
The Illeagles is a fairly large group, but their setlist is designed to let each band member have a chance to take charge of a song. Many members sing lead at some point during the show, and all are talented musicians. The sheer joy they get when they play is apparent, and there is something so pure about a cover band that commits to the legacy of one group. From the rocking songs to the slow ballads, this band played them all.
What I loved most about the performance is that a tribute band lets us all say, unabashedly, “I love this.” When “Hotel California” starts, no one cares that this isn’t the Eagles themselves. We’re all in it together, appreciating the hits of the past, played well and with fervency. “Welcome to the Hotel California, such a lovely place.”
I got turned on to Genesis in 1976 or 1977 by my friend Chris, and we fell in love with the first two albums that Phil Collins fronted, A Trick of the Tale and Wind and Wuthering. But we quickly investigated and became enthralled by the Peter Gabriel-era band. And although I saw the band in 1981 at the now-demolished Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey, with Collins out front, and have seen Peter Gabriel a few times, I knew that I was unlikely to ever see the classic early/mid-70s era Genesis, and even if they overcame all of the obstacles and reunited, it wouldn’t be the same (and would probably be out of my price range).
Confession: I’ve never had much respect for tribute bands. I’ve considered them to be generally pale imitations of the originals, consisting of talented musicians who couldn’t figure out their own thing or who lacked ambition, and I never thought that I’d see one. Sure, I could appreciate a good cover band, but I considered that different from an act that tried to recreate the experience of a no-longer-touring act. I’ve despaired that my beloved Tarrytown Music Hall has been increasingly booking tribute acts, although I acknowledge that they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make them money.
When I saw that The Musical Box, a Genesis tribute band, was playing at the Music Hall in 2014, my initial reaction was skepticism, but there was a nagging curiosity. Somewhat embarrassed, I did a little research, and found out a few things. First, they would be performing songs from Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, and Selling England By The Pound, three amazing albums. Second, I discovered that the members of the band had done an enormous amount of work to recreate the experience of that era’s Genesis. Third, I read rave reviews of their performances. Then I found out that the members of Genesis supported the band, some of whom have sat in with The Musical Box at shows, and that they had been given access to Genesis’ archives, and have therefore been able to recreate the original costumes, makeup and slide shows with remarkable accuracy. Peter Gabriel has even taken his kids to see The Musical Box, reportedly so that they could see what their father used to do.
So, I quietly bought a ticket and slunk into the theater alone (my wife might be willing to see actual Genesis—maybe—but definitely not faux-Genesis). I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell anyone that I was going.
They were flat-out amazing. The performances, the arrangements, the stage business-everything was on point. I can’t tell you that it was exactly like seeing Genesis in the ’70s, because I never did, but that’s the point. I think that I now know what it would have been like (and based on a few old videos that I have seen, they seemed pretty damn close). And if it is good enough for Peter Gabriel, and Phil Collins, and Steve Hackett, all of whom have seen The Musical Box, then it is good enough for me.
By 1976, something weird was brewing in Beatle world. Thanks to the consistent radio plays, latter-day exposure to the Beatle movies, and the influence of millions of older siblings, cousins, and babysitters, a new generation of fans were starting to discover them. And so began the first pop music perfect storm. These newbies were kids who’d been born in the late ’60s and beyond and hadn’t experienced the band in real time. They were sometimes referred to as “Secondhand Beatle Fans”, a short-lived, semi-official moniker that was both condescending and lovingly true. I was one of those kids.
One of the best parts about becoming a Beatle fan in the mid-’70s was not only was there all this old stuff to consume, but a constant stream of new releases to add to your birthday list. Paul McCartney was still scoring enormous hits with Wings and releasing gatefold albums with posters (as crucial to me as the actual vinyl). Capitol Records were regularly kicking out confusedly curated, money-grab compilations like Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Love Songs, and The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl. An actual big-budget Hollywood movie based on Sgt. Pepper, starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, was being readied and would soon desecrate theaters everywhere. In 1977, The Beatles were as big as they’d ever been. Bigger. The renewed popularity hit its boiling point that same year, with the opening of a Beatle-themed Broadway show called “Beatlemania” at the legendary Winter Garden Theatre.
At that point, I was not old enough to go to actual concerts and so when Paul McCartney toured in 1976, I was forced to cry in my blue shag carpeted bedroom about the unfairness of it all. But a Broadway Show was another story. There would be no overt weed-smoking or unruly teenagers. It would all take place in a respectable theater with seats and presumably well-behaved grown ups. These “facts” meant minimal arm twisting was required to persuade my Mom to get tickets, which she did (Go Mom).
The official tagline of the show was “Not The Beatles But An Incredible Simulation.” It basically consisted of four lookalikes playing Beatles songs in chronological order and sporting the specific looks that matched the timeline. Wigs, fake mustaches, wigs. To drive the point home, an assortment of 60’s news footage and images flashed on large screens behind them throughout. That was it, but for me it was more than enough.
Now if you’d have asked me what a cover band was at that stage of my life, I wouldn’t have known what the hell you were talking about. Of course as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that’s what we were seeing. A freakin’ cover band. Headlining in a Broadway theater. Okay, to be fair, they had some production values, but still. Beatlemania, the Broadway show, was a cover band.
Here’s what the official NY Times review said back in 1977 followed by what I would have said if anyone had wanted the opinion of a small female child at that time:
NY Times: “An unobjectionable diversion, the mostly young audience on the night I saw had a wonderful time.”
Me: “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Additional comment from me: “Mom, I want to see it again. Please can we.”
NY Times: “The Paul McCartney especially, Mitch Weissman, is downright creepy in his accuracy.”
Me: “Mitch Weissman is creepy HOT.”
Oh yes, I LOVED it. Got a tee-shirt with the logo at the theater concession stand afterward, which I subsequently sported everywhere. Got a souvenir book. Posed for a photo under the theatre marquee on that fateful night with my cousins, all of us wearing disturbingly huge grins. My cousin gave the photo an actual title, which she wrote out in neat script on the back: “Beatlemaniacs!”
The Winter Garden Theatre went on to house two of the most popular shows in the history of Broadway, “Cats” and “Mamma Mia.” But to this very day, no lie, every time I pass that place, only one word comes to mind – Beatlemania. As incredible simulations and unobjectionable diversions go, it remains forever in my heart.
I invite you to watch Mitch Weissman fully committing as Paul, on Kids are People Too (the offshoot of east coast ’70s kid TV show Wonderama). Yes, it’s creepy hot.
It was my junior year in college, and the Replacements came to Savannah, Georgia for their farewell tour. The band was down to Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg by then, and even they were fighting. “We hate this town,” Stinson snarled to us in the crowd. Westerberg tried to be the statesman and save face—“No, that’s not true”—but the band was all but over. At least for the next 20 years and a heartbeat.
Speed up to some weeks later, and a hot parody band was in town. Dread Zeppelin is fronted by a late-Elvis impersonator (John Tortell, i.e. “Tortelvis”) who perform Led Zeppelin covers in the reggae/Elvis style. As you do.They were touring to support their latest album, 5,000,000* (*Tortelvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong) which included one of the best covers of “Stairway to Heaven” ever. Really.
Although my roommate and I were stoked, a fellow art school friend, John, was not going to cash in his Led Zeppelin membership card for some supposed party performance art. We went without him. But when we got our tickets, I noticed that the club was giving torn Replacement tickets from the show a few weeks back instead of Dread Zeppelin ones, and they were letting people go outside to smoke. I called John (on a landline, natch) to let him know that our apartment was unlocked and to get my Replacements ticket stub off my dresser to get into the show.
He got in for free, but while we were up at the front of the stage, he was in the back of the club with his arms crossed. No fat, sweaty Elvis in a reggae cover band was going to change his mind.
Although Tortelvis often got a lot of the glory (and the laughs), the big talent of Dread Zeppelin was this guitarist Carl Haasis, who went by the name Carl Jah. From the start, his guitar solos were just blistering fire, and the crowd was going nuts, so much that John ended up coming to the front and right there became a converted fan. When Jah beautifully nailed the solo to “Stairway,” while kind of making fun of everything along the way, the front of the crowd was just slack-jawed and reverent.
Robert Plant would soon announce his love for the band himself, and although the gimmick lost its way over the next few albums, their early live shows still live in the hearts of fans who went for the pure fun of it all.
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