Back in 2004, Steve Zukowsky, guitarist for the tribute band Led Zepagain, was into the third or fourth song of an opening set at the House of Blues in Los Angeles when a member of the crew tossed him a note:
“Page in the house.”
That would be Jimmy Page, the hammer of the gods wielder himself, lead guitarist for the real Led Zeppelin. For any Zeppelin fan, knowing that one of the members of the band was within a 25-mile radius is enough to elicit a Robert Plant-like wail of ecstasy. But when you’re a guitar player, and you’re doing Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Page walks in, it can mess with the head.
Fortunately, Zukowsky survived. “I just kinda shoved that to the side of my brain and tried to concentrate on what I was doing,” he explained.
And even more fortunately, Page — who had been in town for the NAMM show that year and took in the Led Zepagain performance at the prodding of a friend — loved the show so much that he hung around until the end and greeted the members of Led Zepagain in their dressing room, hugging each one. That kind of validation is almost as hard to obtain as a ticket to a Led Zeppelin reunion gig.
And a footnote: Led Zepagain (zepagain.com) went to the December 2007, Led Zeppelin reunion gig in London, as guests of Page.
Not all tribute bands are granted an audience with an iconic member of the audience. Some have brushes with the celebrities they impersonate, while others merely plug along, with only the musical bond to connect them with their artists of honor.
Yet tribute bands are not only satisfying to their members, they can also be financially rewarding.
Randy Cordeiro is “Surreal Neil,” lead singer of Super Diamond (superdiamond.com). You can probably guess the act.
When he was a youngster, his parents gave him an eight-track tape of Neil Diamond’s greatest hits, but he stopped listening around the ninth or 10th grade, he said. “Peer pressure. I just remember I wasn’t supposed to listen to music that my parents gave me,” he said.
Cordeiro, too, had an encounter with the real thing. But whereas Page politely declined Led Zepagain’s invitation to perform with the band, Diamond took Cordeiro up on it, also at the L.A. House of Blues.
“It was insanity,” Cordeiro said of Diamond’s appearance on stage at the December, 2000 show, which had been planned and expected. “All you could see were these hands reaching out to the stage.”
And then there is Prince. Notoriously media shy, the Purple One did meet Jason Tenner, who performs a Prince tribute (purplereign.net) in Las Vegas. But Tenner said he couldn’t tell one way or another if Prince approved of his act, and he characterized the meeting as “different.”
“He doesn’t seem to mind me,” Tenner said. “He doesn’t try to shut me down.”
Like most tribute bands, Tenner’s Prince came about slowly. In 1996, he went out for Halloween dressed as Prince. “People were following me around, going, ‘Oh, my God! It’s Prince!’” he said. Eventually it grew from a few songs to an entire performance.
Tenner’s act covers the “Purple Rain” era of 1984 through 1994 or so. His act even includes a Morris Day and the Time component. “My bass player said, ‘Man, there’s a guy down at Macy’s shoe department who looks just like Morris,’” Tenner recalled. “As it turned out, he wasn’t lying. And he was a singer and an entertainer.”
Finding musicians for a tribute band isn’t always easy, especially when they keep getting pilfered by the likes of David Lee Roth.
Drummer Scott Patterson is the last remaining member of The Atomic Punks (theatomicpunks.com), a Van Halen tribute band based in Los Angeles. Again, the Punks developed by starting as a cover band in late 1993. One night at a club, the lead singer didn’t show up for a gig, as band members occasionally are wont to do. So Patterson asked some musicians he knew in the audience to come up and help out, just to get through that evening’s show.
They had one more scheduled show after that, and decided to slip in some Van Halen songs because the guitar player at the time knew a guy who looked and sounded like David Lee Roth. The rest is tribute band history.
“For the first two years, we just played. We weren’t thinking it was anything long-term,” he said. “Then David Lee Roth wanted the bass player and me and the guitar player to go on the road with him. The guitar player wound up going. A guy replaced him. A year, two years later, Roth came and took that guy.”
Pink Floyd is a particularly challenging band to pay tribute to, because as any fans of the original group can attest, a Floyd show is an experience that goes beyond music. Joe Pascarell is in his 21st year running The Machine (themachinelive.com), a New York-based Floyd tribute group, along with the other original member, drummer Todd Cohen.
When the real Pink Floyd toured — and let’s face it, Floydies, they probably won’t again, unless David Gilmour has a stunning change of heart — they would put on gargantuan theatrical displays complete with mesmerizing light shows. And they would do so in the largest venues possible.
“We bring a different level of intimacy,” said Pascarell, who noted they still do the lights, just not as many of them.
In the case of The Machine, the music is comprehensive, covering most if not all of Pink Floyd’s vast catalog. The band not only does songs from the early Syd Barrett years, it also does Barrett solo material.
The ladies of AC/DShe (acdshe.com) take an entirely different approach. They not only fill a niche as an all-female tribute band — “We were really the first,” noted bass player Riff Williams, one of the co-founders along with singer Bonny Scott. “I feel we spawned the whole female tribute band phenomenon” — but they only do AC/DC music from the days when Bon Scott fronted the band. He died in February, 1980.
Like most tribute bands, AC/DShe has an ardent following. “We have some fans who have been to close to 100 shows,” she said, mentioning two brothers from Sacramento, David and Terry Thurman, as well as another fan named Dion, as particularly devoted members of the flock. “If not for people like that, we probably wouldn’t be doing this.
“It’s great to find people who share the same enthusiasm for the band that we do.”