They're the next best thing

Tribute bands draw large followings and find success performing other people's music

Dedicated to the bands fans love

April 13, 2006|By MICHAEL BARNETT AND SAM SESSA | MICHAEL BARNETT AND SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTERS

Almost 1,000 people mill around inside Rams Head Live waiting for the show to start. They're young, either fresh into or just out of college, and dressed like faux hippies and pseudo punk-rockers.

A night of Sublime is on the way, though the California reggae/punk trio broke up almost 10 years ago after lead singer and guitarist Brad Nowell overdosed on heroin. Instead, the headliner is Badfish, a four-piece Sublime tribute band that will crank out 30 or 35 covers in an hour or two. And the crowd, most of whom never saw Sublime live, will eat it up.

Badfish is one of hundreds of tribute bands touring the country playing another group's music. Some, like Badfish, just perform the songs. Others, like Cold Gin, a Baltimore-based KISS tribute band, get into full regalia. A good deal of them have albums, but most earn a living reproducing the live experience of a popular group.

"The difference between playing your own songs and playing someone else's songs is not a huge difference, as long as you really love what you're doing," said Badfish bassist Joel Hanks.

"It's really just entertainment for the crowd. No matter how big a band is, whether it's Dave Matthews or Metallica or just any band, you have to entertain the crowd. People are there to have fun - have a good time. That's really what this is - for everyone."

Minutes before the show starts, Chad Leckert, a 27-year-old who lives in Towson, sits at a table along a wall with friends. He's a Sublime fan who saw the band at the Capital Ballroom, now Nation, in Washington in the mid-'90s. Many touring bands play the occasional Sublime cover, but few devote every concert entirely to the group.

"I'd like to hear somebody who does all Sublime," Leckert said of why he came to the Badfish show. "Maybe close your eyes and pretend."

Musicians have covered songs since recorded history, using outside influences to shape their own unique sound. Even the biggest names touring the country have a few cover songs up their sleeves, giving the crowd original and unique takes on classic songs. Dave Matthews, for example, intertwines new versions of classic songs into his repertoire, including "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, "The Maker," by Daniel Lanois and, most recently, "Time of the Season," by the Zombies.

Most types of musicianship begin with cover bands or covering other people's music, said Dr. Joseph C. Morin, a music historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"My sense is that it's a natural thing, something that has been around forever," he said. "Every kid in the '60s who picked up a guitar played `Louie Louie.'"

Tribute bands take it one step further. Instead of hooking the audience with a song they can sing along to and then reeling them in with their own tunes, they opt for emulation of their musical heroes, offering crowds the next best thing to the real bands.

The members of Badfish are all Sublime junkies who played in separate bands and started performing together in 2001. At the time, they were in their last years of college in Rhode Island. After they graduated, they decided to play full time. Now, Badfish is one of, if not the only nationally touring Sublime tribute bands.

One of the main reasons for their success is the universal appeal of Sublime's music.

"When I was a freshman in college, every dorm room that you went into, every college party that you went to was playing Sublime, Sublime," Hanks said. "It was just everywhere, and no one ever got to see them play, so we just thought it would be fun, if not anything else."

Another reason Badfish attracts such a large audience is because Sublime no longer exists. But other tribute bands make a living even though the group they emulate still tours. Randy Alexander, a former publicist for the Dave Matthews tribute group Tripping Billies, among others, said he emphasized the cheap tickets and intimate atmosphere tribute bands offer.

"Why pay all that money to go see the Dave Matthews Band when you can spend a fraction of that to experience them up close and personal in a club setting where they haven't even been for 10 to 25 years?" Alexander said.

Some tribute bands go to great lengths to duplicate the live experience of the band they cover. Cold Gin does more than just perform KISS tracks to a T. The group has spent thousands of dollars on costumes, props and lighting, said Charles Parker, the Paul Stanley of the group. It pays off at their shows, he said.

"Canada's crazy," Parker said. "They come out, and they think you are KISS. We've signed autographs, taken pictures. ... It's ridiculous. Don't you realize we're not KISS?"

Artists like KISS or the Dave Matthews Band have little control over tribute bands. They can keep tribute acts from using trademarks like logos and album art, but not from performing live. Venues, not bands, are liable for live shows and must register and pay royalties to performance rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

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