It’s Friday night at the North Side rock club Fitzgerald’s and the band Riff Raff is barnstorming through a note-perfect version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
The guitarist duckwalks across the stage in a schoolboy outfit inspired by AC/DC guitarist Angus Young, replete with a leather book satchel. During the solo, he thrusts his picking hand into the air while unleashing a volley of pull-offs with the other — a signature Young move.
The singer, in her fishnet stockings and thigh high boots, looks nothing like AC/DC’s Bon Scott, but that doesn’t seem to bother the crowd, which claps with aplomb after every number. In fact, close your eyes, and her raspy squeal is virtually indistinguishable from the real deal.
“After school, we used to spend hours in my friend’s garage jamming out to AC/DC and playing pool,” she breathlessly tells the crowd after a song’s finale. “How many of you know what I’m talking about?”
The largely middle-aged audience gives up a raucous cheer. Because they know exactly what she’s talking about.
Riff Raff is one of a few dozen tribute bands serving piping hot slices of nostalgia to San Antonio rock fans who may never again see the acts that were their teenage obsessions. It’s a trend that began percolating in the mid-aughts — and despite its detractors — shows no sign of slowing down.
And if you think it’s limited to rock radio mainstays like the AC/DC, the Beatles or Led Zep, you clearly haven’t been keeping up with club calendars. Recently, tributes to anything from MTV-friendly rap-rockers Linkin Park to ’80s hair metal band Dokken have been sweating to the oldies.
“All of these great bands aren’t around anymore, or they aren’t playing as much,” explains Riff Raff guitarist Stan Martinez. “But people still love the music. This is as close as they’re going to get.”
Courtesy of Texas Pink Floyd
Not to mention, industry observers point out, audiences love familiarity. And if they’re going to fork over a cover charge and buy a few $7 drinks, many will flat-out demand it.
So, is this what we’ve come to as a culture? That we’d rather see facsimiles of music icons recreated in slavish detail instead of supporting hard-working musicians toiling to create something new and original right now?
That’s certainly the charge some purists level against tribute acts. And it’s easy to understand. Even relatively successful original acts in the Alamo City play hit-and-miss gigs for paltry pay while some of the region’s better-known tribute acts can pack clubs or even mid-sized theaters like the Aztec.
But academics who study the phenomenon (and, yes, there are several) say that misses the point. In virtually every other musical genre, repertory groups — from jazz’s Count Basie Orchestra to virtually every symphony orchestra — reproduce someone else’s music to keep it alive for an interested audience.
After 60 years, rock has finally caught up with the game.
“Entertainment is about the willing suspension of disbelief,” said John Kovach, a University of Rochester music professor who also plays guitar in a Yes tribute band. “It’s like the way we keep going to see Romeo and Juliet, hoping right up until the end that we’ll see the two kids end up together. In the case of tribute bands, we’re suspending that disbelief for a celebration of fandom for that particular artist.”
Living the Experience
Starting with the CD boom of the ’90s, rock fans have had access to obsession-inducing archives of material from their favorite artists. Box sets compile not just obscurities and B-sides but outtakes that should have stayed on the studio floor. Meanwhile, books and websites provide intimate glimpses of the performers’ lives on- and offstage.
That left one missing puzzle piece for hardcore fans: the live show, said John Paul Meyers, an ethnomusicology prof at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“If tribute bands are just reproducing what they already know from recordings, then why aren’t these audiences willing to sit at home and listen to it on the stereo?” Meyers asks rhetorically. “It’s because they want a communal experience of being in the same room with other people who like the same bands they do.”
In addition to the artists who died or bands that split up, some acts are just too old to perform with their early intensity, Meyers points out. Plus, a lot of fans simply can’t afford the real deal’s steep ticket prices or live in towns passed over by their touring schedules.
While it’s tempting to write off tribute acts’ success as pure nostalgia, musicians who play in them say they are also filling a need for fans who want to support live music but feel disconnected from the current pop scene.
“The bottom line is people our age want to see actual musicians onstage,” said Bex Duran, who sings for Dream Warriors, the aforementioned Dokken tribute band. “The new music isn’t like that. It’s all electronic. There’s no warmth to it. No sweat.”
To be sure, rock is largely absent from the mainstream, replaced by hip-hop and teen-idol fare. While die-hard fans are willing to spend the time and cash to ferret out new bands to follow, a lot of casual listeners will take an easier route.
“There’s not a lot of exciting stuff going on in rock music right now,” said Nathan Alvarado, singer for Third Eye, a local Tool tribute band. “You could say audiences just aren’t paying attention to it, or there’s a lack of media exposure. But if people can’t find new music to get excited about, they’ll go back to what they know.”
That can be a dispiriting reality for artists creating original music, but James Woodard, guitarist for experimental heavy rockers Grasshopper Lies Heavy, said he’s done worrying whether the tribute band trend is hurting the local scene.
“If you’re going to see a Tool or Rush or Metallica tribute, I just assume you’re not going to be the same guy who wants to go see a stacked bill of local bands,” Woodard said. “It’s really a different audience.”
Pay for Play
Not to mention, sometimes those struggling local musicians are also the ones playing in tribute acts. Many see the trend as a lucrative side hustle. For Austin Zettner, guitarist in both Iron Maiden tribute Seventh Son and original metal band Æternal Requiem, the former is a fun way to help support the latter.
“Rock is all about authenticity, so if you’re playing someone else’s music, people are tempted to say you’re not being very authentic,” said Zettner, who also teaches guitar lessons. “But, remember, we’re musicians and we have bills to pay. I could make money working at a gas station or being onstage playing Maiden. Which am I going to choose?”
And tribute projects have even helped more established musicians weather the market’s fickle tastes.
After ’90s audiences traded in heavy metal for grunge, James Rivera of Houston’s long-running Helstar formed a tribute act called Sabbath Judas Sabbath, which focused on — you guessed it — Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Leveraging Helstar’s cult following, the singer located headbangers across the U.S. and Europe to form franchise versions of the tribute, so he could fly in for weekend performances.
Even after the current metal resurgence made Helstar a bankable commodity again, Rivera tacked an extra two weeks onto a recent European tour so he could play Sabbath and Priest tunes across the mainland.
“At some of those gigs I had more people than showed up to see Helstar,” he said, laughing. “You wanted to go, ‘Wait a minute! Where the hell were you when Helstar came through and played 20 miles from here?”
Just as Rivera’s cult fame in the metal scene helped fuel interest in Sabbath Judas Sabbath, tribute bands that break out of the local or regional circuit typically find ways to differentiate themselves. Most often, that’s been through celebrity connections or an all-the-bells-and-whistles stage show — often including a band costumed like the original.
At least one San Antonio act — the newly formed Texas Pink Floyd — is pursuing both routes.
The recently launched band includes saxophonist Scott Page and vocalist Machan Taylor who recorded with the original Floyd on its later albums. Plus, it’s amassed an appropriately trippy light and video show to go with the music.
“Our production is up there with other Floyd tribute greats such as Australian and Brit Floyd,” vocalist Dexter Haskins said. “Then add our live performance, which is something to watch in itself, coupled with our big Texas attitude.”
Still, for a lot of tribute bands, the idea of investing in a major stage show or replicating a band’s look, down to wigs and their same guitar and amp models, is just too much.
Alvarado of Third Eye mimics Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s lurking-in-the-shadows stage presence, but the band stops short of trying to become lookalikes.
Miguel Morales, drummer of the Megadeth tribute Rust in Peace, said he’d rather focus on playing a good show than obsessing over gimmicks like stage attire. Not to mention, there’s not much to distinguish the real Megadeth from other thrash metal bands other than singer Dave Mustaine’s ginger locks.
“For us, it’s all about the music,” Morales said. “Plus, it’s kind of hard for any of us to be a redhead when you’ve got a bunch of Mexicans onstage.”
Meyers, the University of Illinois professor, points out that quibbles over how far to take a tribute band’s look and onstage theatrics are as old as the trend itself. Some bands maintain the use of wigs and even fake accents is the ultimate in authenticity because it allows fans to feel like they’re actually experiencing the band they long to see. Others dismiss the dress-up game as a detraction from the music.
“Authenticity is a powerful word in culture, and people claim it for what appear to be opposite reasons,” Meyers said.
But for many tribute bands, like San Antonio’s Riff Raff, just carrying the flame and keeping the music of a beloved artist alive is authentic as it gets.
“That sound may be lost from the mainstream, but we’re making sure it’s not forgotten,” guitarist Martinez said.
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