Since the earliest days of the Elvis Presley impersonator, tribute bands have found a place in the music scene as a way for audiences to hear their favorite songs from their favorite artists in more accessible settings. Tribute bands also allow casual music fans to attend a concert and know exactly what they’re getting for their ticket.
“Sometimes we have conversations about tribute bands being sort of the dirty little secret of the music industry,” says Aaron Kayce, manager and talent booker for Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. “I don’t think it’s really that dirty, and I don’t think it’s that much of a secret.”
While tribute bands have long been seen as secondary in the industry, they’ve exploded in popularity in the last 20 years, as classic rock icons retire or pass on. Now, for many fans, venues and musicians, tribute bands are becoming the bread and butter of the live music business.
“Everybody likes to sing along, everybody likes to know the songs, and that’s what you get,” says Kayce. “The bands that do it well are really good, take it really seriously and sell a lot of tickets.”
In the Bay Area, tribute bands run the gamut from recreating songs to recreating entire concert sets from decades past, and classic rock tribute acts such as Petty Theft, Zeparella and the Sun Kings are some of the busiest bands working today.
Since 2003, Marin- and San Francisco-based tribute band Petty Theft has toured the Western United States, performing the songs of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in the spirit of the band’s live shows. For the past two years, Petty Theft was voted ‘Best Cover Band’ in the Pacific Sun’s annual readers poll.
For Marin native and Petty Theft guitarist and vocalist Monroe Grisman, Petty Theft is more than a band; it’s a community.
“For the longest time I was only in original music bands and even at a certain point kind of frowned on cover bands, because I was so into my own thing,” Grisman says.
“But there came a point in my life where I didn’t have as much time (for original music), and I got invited to join this band, and I thought out of all the bands I could think of playing their songbook, Tom Petty struck a chord with me. It’s great rock and roll music, great songs, something I could have fun with.”
With live sets that regularly include more than two dozen songs each show, Petty Theft pulls from over a hundred Petty songs and performs the late artist’s biggest hits as well as the deeper album cuts that true fans will recognize.
Within the tribute band genre, there are different varieties of tributes. There are bands whose members dress up in costumes and try to look like the band, and there are bands whose members take performance to a high level, like that of a Broadway show.
“I just saw a Genesis tribute band with set designs and period-specific gear,” Grisman says. “And there’s a certain value for that, like for me that was the closest thing I’ll ever get to seeing Peter Gabriel-era Genesis in 1973.”
Forgoing the costumes themselves, Petty Theft focuses on performing the music and honoring the sound, while also adding their own touches and taking liberties that keep the concerts fresh for fans.
“I think it’s why we’ve built up a pretty amazing following now; people like that we’re not trying to be Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, rather we always pay tribute and we always give it up to the real deal,” Grisman says.
And the real deal has given it up back to them, with Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone meeting the band through a mutual friend and sitting in with Petty Theft three times over the years. “It’s been an amazing honor,” says Grisman.
While Grisman says the band never imagined the project would gather such a following, they’re happy to share Petty’s music as long as people want to hear it.
“It’s the funny thing with the tribute band, I’ve always considered what we do more of a celebration rather than a tribute,” Grisman says. “Although with Tom’s passing in the last two years, the tribute thing takes on a new meaning. It was definitely a heavy period after Tom’s passing—it was really emotional for fans and for us, and it still is. But, what we’ve found is that the heaviness has lightened and people are embracing that the music lives on, and to celebrate it is a great thing.”
Veteran hard-rock drummer Clementine first fell in love with Led Zeppelin as a youngster listening to KMET radio in Southern California, and when she began to hit the skins herself, she realized just how much influence Zeppelin drummer John Bonham had on her musical aspirations.
In 2004, looking to better-learn those Zeppelin songs and the drum parts she loved, Clementine hooked up with guitarist Gretchen Menn—who admired Jimmy Page as much as she admired Bonham—and the two formed the Bay Area’s all-female tribute band Zepparella.
“When we started it, we looked at it being a practice project,” Clementine says. “Shortly after, we started talking about, ‘Why not do it onstage?'”
For Clementine it was, and still is, all about the music.
“I wanted to get better as a drummer, and why not go to the source of how I got into playing drums,” Clementine says. “I feel like I came into this through the back way. It wasn’t that I set out to start a tribute band, it was that I wanted to learn this stuff and see what happens.”
Even 15 years into the band, Clementine notes she’s still learning from Bonham. “We just keep going forward because it’s so musically exciting,” she says. “Led Zeppelin is maybe the only band that I could continue to play for 15 years, and a lot of that is because we take parts of the songs and develop them through improvisation onstage, and Led Zeppelin gives us that freedom because they were so improvisational in the way they presented the music. It enables us to create new parts of songs, new ways to approach songs. It’s always changing.”
In addition to the musical explorations afforded to her in Zepparella, Clementine appreciates how the band acts as a steady source of income and helps her develop an audience for her other singer-songwriter projects.
“The creative process as far as being able to write something from scratch with other musicians is a beautiful thing, and I have that in the other projects I do,” she says. “I value it all. I feel like one feeds the other; what I learn from Zeppelin is what I take to my original writing, and parts of my original writing I put into the drumming with Zepparella.”
With the recent return of lead singer Anna Kristina, a vocal powerhouse who first showed her talents as a member of the Santa Rosa High School Chamber Singers back in the day, Zeparella is rocking stage on both the West and East coasts this summer. In addition to their live shows, Zepparella is offering fans a way to learn the songs themselves, with the newly launched Zepparella Learning Channel on YouTube, a series of videos in which the members teach audiences their parts to a Led Zeppelin tune. So far, the series has featured “When the Levee Breaks” and “Immigrant Song.”
“It’s been a remarkable learning experience for us to teach these songs,” Clementine says. “For 15 years we’ve been learning all these little things that you learn playing this music onstage, and to be able to share that freely with people, it feels like we’re able to give a little back from what we’ve gained playing the music.”
Obviously, Led Zeppelin will never play together in concert again. And classic rock acts like the Rolling Stones or AC/DC that do still tour play in stadiums that don’t offer the intimacy clubs provide. Clementine sees Zepparella as a way for audiences to experience the classic rock of yesterday in an intimate setting. “To be able to get swallowed up by these songs in a smaller venue is where the power is,” she says.
Zepparella continues to thrive because of the power of those Led Zeppelin songs, and Clementine says the tribute band has lasted so long because of the musicians she’s been able to share that power with. “I value the people I’ve played with in the past and now,” she says. “It’s a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it.”
The Sun Kings
The Sun Kings have performed the music of The Beatles for over 18 years now. Forgoing mop top wigs and Sgt. Pepper’s clothes, the group instead pays tribute by delivering note-for-note recreations of the Fab Four’s entire catalogue.
“I might have to write to Guinness about this,” says guitarist and John Lennon-tribute-vocalist Drew Harrison. “By the end of this year, I will have played every Beatles song ever released, live. The Beatles never did that.”
The 58-year-old Harrison says he should’ve been a brain surgeon, but got bit by rock and roll, “much to me parents’ chagrin.” As a musician, he’s spent more than three decades performing original music and covers, and like most other baby boomers, is a lifelong Beatles fan. He’s even more of a John Lennon fan, though he stumbled into The Sun Kings accidentally.
“I didn’t set out to do Beatles’ tribute with the Sun Kings, but you know how life goes, you just end up in these places,” Harrison says.
In the 1990s, after the Berlin Wall came down, Harrison found himself living in Eastern Europe and he joined up with a band in the Czech Republic.
“I was the token English singer, and they said, ‘Play Beatles,’ because they couldn’t have the Beatles or the Stones or anybody out there during the communist era,” he says. “I played this show for about 6,000 people in this town, Karlovy Vary, and the people went nuts for ‘Ticket to Ride,’ literally nuts, they screamed bloody murder. It was crazy.”
When he got back to the States six months later, Harrison recruited a band and joined the ranks of Beatles tribute bands with the Sun Kings.
“We’re not costumes and we’re not caricatures,” Harrison says. “Not to take anything away from bands that do that, but we’ve found our niche in that we play the concert the Beatles never gave.”
The Sun Kings play both hits and deep album cuts from across the Beatles’ entire career, using Rickenbacker guitars, Ringo Starr-appropriate drum kits and classic amps.
“There’s a pleasant obsession about trying to get it right,” Harrison says. “We’re all fans of the music, so when we get kind of close, we all get this feeling and people love it. That’s the nostalgia that everybody in the tribute world is pining for; a piece of our past.”
That nostalgia is driving the tribute market to new heights in the 21st century, as a generation looks to recapture the classic rock of their youth.
“It’s gotten much bigger in the 20 years since we started,” Harrison says. “And there’s tributes for everything. There’s a certain amount of competition for a Beatles band, for example. It becomes like any business—our product is this music and we are fulfilling the need.”
Part of that business means staying aware of rights issues, though most tribute bands avoid major publishing problems by not selling albums and ensuring that the songwriters are given credit where it’s due.
“I know the new media licensing is such that ASCAP found us and other tribute bands and said, ‘You’re going to have to pay licensing just for having snippets of the songs on your website,'” says Harrison. “And that’s fair, that’s fair.”
While the Sun Kings take the business of tribute bands seriously, they don’t forget to enjoy the music.
“I’m the fan I have to impress,” Harrison says. “I love the music, and getting it right is like building a kit-car—it’s made me a better musician, certainly a better singer.”
In addition to their own instrumentation, the five-man outfit also brings in horns and strings for full-album shows. The band also invites schools to bring in music students to play with them from time to time.
“It’s a lot of fun, it introduces kids to the music,” Harrison says. “This music has a long shelf life, and as long as we’re around we’re going to have a gig.”