The sincerest form of flattery

In an era of $100 concert tickets, fans turn to the next best thing -- tribute bands, offering the same look and songs as the stars.

Pop Music

November 25, 2001|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,Special to the Sun

The Johns, the Pauls and the Georges have come and gone through the years, but Rolo Sandoval, beneath his mop-top wig, has kept a steady beat for all of them. He's warbled "Yellow Submarine" in dingy casinos and at a Rose Bowl benefit. He's been heckled as a fraud and cheered as a living reminder of a lost era.

Rolo Sandoval, you see, is a Ringo.

Sandoval has played the drums in a dozen Beatles tribute bands over the last two decades, and now he is in one of the most successful, the Fab Four. Ask him about the peculiar life of a specialized mimic and he gives a shrug that seems to say, "yeah, yeah, yeah."

"It can be strange," he says, "but it is a gig, a good gig."

And, these days, a surprisingly fashionable gig. The tribute band, an oddball offshoot of celebrity culture that resides somewhere between glitzy Las Vegas revues and amateur karaoke contests, is enjoying a surge of recognition.

There was the recent Hollywood film Rock Star, with Mark Wahlberg, that offered the rags-to-Spandex tale of a tribute band singer who finds his own voice. Then, last week, a new documentary, Tribute, debuted at the AFI FilmFest in Los Angeles with stories of, well, the real fake singers. There's also the popular Web site, which celebrates and catalogs the vast ranks of the quirky community (by some accounts, there are tens of thousands of tribute acts in the world).

Mix of kitsch and necessity

The roots of the scene go back to the king of the copied, Elvis Presley, and his legion of impersonators and to such stage productions as Beatlemania. The breadth of the tribute world is surprising -- Doors and Rolling Stones impersonators are expected, but who would expect performing mimics devoted to Wings, Thin Lizzy, Mike and the Mechanics or Deep Purple?

The allure of tribute acts is a mix of kitsch and, in some measure, necessity. Classic rock remains a dominant radio format, especially in the nation's heartland, but many of its biggest bands are defunct or touring with lineups that have barely any connection to their glory days. Worse, concert ticket prices have skyrocketed. As one concert industry insider put it, when Rod Stewart is charging $100 a seat, "That Rod Stewart impersonator for $10 at the local bar sounds better all the time."

There's also the subtle, collective effect of years of celebrity docudramas, lip-sync contests, karaoke and other fakery rituals that make it perfectly natural for audiences to watch a paid performer wear someone else's clothes and sing someone else's songs.

Without a doubt, the life of Lennon-McCartney songs provides a living for Sandoval and his mates in the Fab Four, and it's a living that gives them a quirky mix of quasi-celebrity and struggling bar-band anonymity.

The members met at Beatles fan conventions and on the tribute band circuit. Their impersonation (they don't use taped music to buttress their sound as many tribute acts do) is so polished it has taken them to gigs in Brazil, Japan, Argentina and beyond. They performed close to 200 shows last year and, at major bookings, can make a few thousand dollars each.

The group has been talking to Las Vegas hotels about becoming a standing act, a five-night-a-week fixture. Sandoval has already been fitted for a $300 plastic nose that will make him more Ringo-like for the exacting illusion standards of Vegas. "A fake nose," he muses. "But I'm not going to get surgery. We're not Michael Jackson impersonators."

Tributes and royalties

Tribute bands not only pay homage, in a sense they also help pay the bills for the original music creators. Promoters and venues pay annual licensing fees that go into a large pool of money that compensates songwriters and music publishers for public performance of their copyrighted songs. The system is arcane and difficult to track, but, for example, it means a Bruce Springsteen tribute act is in theory making money for the Boss.

The community of tribute bands is wildly diverse, with enough room for the acts that take their cloning effort very seriously to the more frivolous fun of Hell's Belles (an all-female AC / DC tribute band) and Nudist Priest (a Judas Priest group that plays in the buff). Some play for what amounts to their bar tab, but a few can make careers that pay for houses in the suburbs. The common links among them are passion for the music they channel and a struggle for respect, says Kris Curry, who co-produced and co-directed Tribute.

"I didn't meet any members of tribute bands that, at some level, didn't have a fundamental understanding of the irony or paradox of this weirdness of having people adore you for not being you," she says.

Geoff Butcher writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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