Alfred Silva looks nothing like Layne Staley, but close your eyes and you’d easily think the late Alice in Chains singer was standing right in front of you.
Performing at Dixie’s on a Friday night, Silva, sans Staley’s blonde hair and wearing a chained wallet and black sneaks, steps up to the mic and offers his rendition of “Would?”, a track from Alice in Chains’ 1992 Dirt.
A member of the San Antonio-based Alice in Chains tribute band Jar of Flies - named after a studio EP released by the Seattle hard rockers in 1994 - Silva seems to have misplaced the pair of dark shades Staley often wore onstage. But Silva and his bandmates couldn’t care less whether they exude the trademark grunge style of Chains.
Twenty years ago, most tribute bands required musicians to also be impersonators. They went to great lengths to dress like their heroes and mimic their every stage mannerism. But Jar of Flies are part of a contemporary tribute-band approach that focuses exclusively on the music and avoids any suggestion that they’re pretending to be their heroes. They see their performances as celebrations of bands that have influenced them their entire lives.
“We try to get the music as accurate as we can,” says Roman Surman, lead guitarist for Flies, which formed in 2005. “I remember our very first show. I was worried about all the solos I had to learn. I thought I was going to piss off some dude in an Alice in Chains shirt. But those were the guys grabbing the mic at the end of the night singing along with us.”
Despite the pressure to play at the same level as the bands they are honoring, Surman, formally of Medicine Tongue, says there is always room to take some creative license. After all, even Jerry Cantrell wouldn’t play every concert exactly the same.
“We never leave anything out, but with the guitar solos, sometimes I just add my own stuff to it,” Surman says. “Alice in Chains would change their own songs up on stage all the time. I thought, ‘Why am I busting my ass to learn `Cantrell’s` style and get it just right when he’s changing it up, too?’”
For lead singer Nathan Alvarado and Third Eye, a local Tool tribute band, the last thing the group wanted to do was mimic their favorite hard-rock band. When Third Eye surfaced last October, Alvarado says, it was immediately about capturing the mood behind the music and giving the songs their own flavor.
“We don’t do their music lick for lick, but do give the energy and raw intensity of their original recordings,” says Alvarado, who also sings with Papa Wood. “Tool’s music is deeply meaningful and spiritual at times. They’re not just rock songs, they’re masterful compositions and we felt we needed to put in the effort and get it right.”
Tribute bands have always tapped into a hunger for a live experience that is rare or no longer available. Doors tribute bands became big in the early ’80s, because Jim Morrison was experiencing a popular resurgence, and seeing a tribute band was the closest that any Doors fan could ever come to witnessing the real thing. Even with still-thriving groups, a tribute band can take on parts of the song catalog that tend to be ignored.
With a band like Tool, which tours rarely, Alvarado wanted to spotlight some of the group’s earlier music, which usually fails to make their set list. Alvarado admits he didn’t become a Tool fan until their Lateralus album in 2001. He never got to hear them play anything in concert from Undertow, Ænima, or Opiate.
“They don’t play their old stuff when they tour,” Alvarado said. “We want to bring it back to life. People are going to get to hear stuff that they would never get to hear live when we play.”
Like Alvarado, Joe Gonzalez, lead guitarist for Sad Wings of Destiny, a local Judas Priest tribute band created in 2005, wanted to concentrate on learning the classics of his favorite band. A devotee of the English heavy-metal warhorse even before he knew what a riff actually was, Gonzalez and his three friends - all products of the South Side - were influenced by albums such as Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith.
“Back in junior high, that’s all I used to listen to,” says Gonzalez, who jokes that Sad Wings puts a “major twist” on the Priest since they are four Latinos interpreting music by a British band. “Before I could even play the guitar I would air guitar and imagine I was K.K. `Downing`. Now, we’re playing all the songs that Judas Priest doesn’t even do anymore, like ‘Dreamer Deceiver.’ I think we’re really doing the band justice.”
After Pitbull Daycare parted ways last July, lead singer Steven Bishop and the rest of the industrial/hard-rock hybrid decided to maintain what was once only a side project as their primary musical venture. Now, Bishop devotes his time to perfecting the vocals of Ozzy Osbourne and Joey Ramone in Gabba Gabba Sabba, a local band that plays the songs of Black Sabbath and the Ramones.
Their punk-metal sylistic mashup is particularly inspired because the Ramones were initially reviled by metal fans, and even found themselves mercilessly booed at a late-’70s Black Sabbath show.
“We thought it would be cool to pick two bands that are basically polar opposites,” Bishop says. “We wanted to take it seriously and didn’t want to go in and do it half-ass. I don’t think there is anything worse than a band who says they’re a tribute band that goes out there and hacks up an artist’s music.”
For Gabba, Black Sabbath and the Ramones presented wildly divergent challenges: slow versus fast, fat riffs versus sleek barre chords, and dark epics versus short shots of pop perfection. Because of the timbre of Bishop’s voice, the band had to transpose all of the Ramones’ music down a half-step; up a half-step for Black Sabbath’s. The extra effort, Bishop says, has paid dividends as Gabba’s showmanship picks up right where Pitbull left off.
“It’s just like a juke box,” he adds. “Whenever you mix alcohol and good live music that everybody knows and loves, then it’s always going to be a blast.” •