Mock Stars

Why tribute bands are getting almost famous in Vegas

Red Not Chili Peppers still dream of “Californication.” | Photo by Frank Rodrick

Red Not Chili Peppers still dream of “Californication.” | Photo by Frank Rodrick

Were you too young to catch Elvis? Ronnie James Dio? The Beastie Boys? Nostalgic for the disco era, whether you lived through it or not? Or are you just sorry that you missed the Foo Fighters on their recent tour?

All of the above are factors in the increasing popularity of tribute bands—especially in Las Vegas, where audiences seem particularly fond of known quantities. Many acts are committed to replicating the original, down to the set list and stage patter. Some bands pull from a wider range of material, basing themselves on a genre or time period. Others use the work of an artist or an era as a starting point to take the music in a different direction.

“The tribute band thing keeps getting bigger. We get more gigs all the time—more and more venues want tribute bands,” says Sean Mulvihill, lead singer of the AC/DC tribute, Bonfire.

As people get older, the nostalgia market gets wider: Once there were just faux-Beatles and pretend Neil Diamond, but now more recent acts such as Slayer, Depeche Mode and Pink are getting the tribute treatment.

“People love it. They get a kick out of anything they recognize,” says Mulvihill, whose band is one of almost a dozen tribute acts playing the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration on Fremont Street.

“These acts are not just live cover bands,” says Tom Bruny, director of marketing for the Fremont Street Experience, “They have the look and stage show emulating the bands they are paying tribute to.”

Mulvihill agrees: “It’s more of a performance piece. You’re playing a character.” He’s had 14 years to perfect his sound and look, even blacking out one of his teeth to better resemble AC/DC’s original lead singer, Bon Scott. “You have to really be committed to do a good tribute,” he says. “People can tell if you’re not committed. You go watch U2 bands, and if Bono isn’t 100 percent committed to being Bono, it falls apart.”

Don’t call Bonfire a “cover” band,

Don’t call Bonfire a “cover” band,

That commitment inspires the audience’s belief. “Our biggest thrill is having somebody walk up and say, ‘You took me back to 1982 when I saw them at this arena, I was with my first girlfriend,’” says Derek Fuller, whose Fan Halen has been doing Van Halen for more than a decade. The band’s stage show includes the mandatory VH confetti cannon, and Fuller plays a version of Eddie Van Halen’s distinctively striped guitar.

Like many tributers, Fuller had the songs at his fingertips before he had the band. “We started it from playing an annual party at my house,” he recalls. “One year I said, ‘Let’s just play Van Halen. It’s my favorite band.’ People were going nuts, and it gradually grew from there.” The band developed a set, added costumes and props and, as Fuller says, “Eleven years later we’re traveling the world as Fan Halen.”

Perhaps it’s not the rock ’n’ roll dream he imagined years ago on the Sunset Strip, but it does have its perks: “We have our daily lives, families, careers. But on weekends when other people mow the lawn and hit a round of golf, we get to go out and be kind of like a rock star.”

Most tribute musicians have honed their chops in a number of bands, playing both originals and cover tunes. “Everyone had a long history in music before starting the tribute band thing,” says Jonathan Savage, bass player for the Red Not Chili Peppers. The fandom that inspired him to found the band six years ago is something they share with their audiences.

“The best crowds we have are the ones who are die-hard fans of the music,” he says. “If you’re playing with passion for the music, it’s easy to connect with those people.”

But paying tribute isn’t always about replicating a single band. Spend a weekend in Las Vegas and you’ll become familiar with the plethora of acts that represent an era/genre—bands banging out funk hits of the ’70s, John Hughes soundtracks of the ’80s or grunge hits of the ’90s. It’s a safe bet for filling a bar, and you can always be assured that the demographic is almost exactly 20 years older than whatever former Top 40 hits they’re nodding their heads to.

However, some use the idea of a tribute as a point of departure for a less predictable musical journey. The gold standard is El Vez, who filters the songs of the King through his childhood assumption that Elvis was Mexican, so his white jumpsuit has a sequined Virgin of Guadalupe on the back, and “C.C. Rider” becomes “Si, I’m a Lowrider.” Las Vegans may be more familiar with Richard Cheese, who applied a swingin’ lounge-lizard style to tracks such as the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” and Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Fan Halen plays | Photo by Robert Reddy

Fan Halen plays Fremont Streets’ upcoming Tributepalooza | Photo by Robert Reddy

Meanwhile, Las Vegas’ Franks & Deans are one of the new-style bands that use tribute as just a part of the act. They’ve just celebrated their one-year anniversary of giving the slick sounds of the Rat Pack a rough-edged punk spin. Vocalist/bassist Rob DeTie and his bandmates share a love of “punk rock and the old crooner music. We can turn rock ’n’ roll into lounge,” he says, “As soon as we did it, it became a hit.”

Franks & Deans’ skewed take on Ol’ Blue Eyes and his buddies has brought gigs all over town, including opening slots for the likes of Reverend Horton Heat and the Toasters, as well as a monthly show—with guest stars and a weenie roast—at the Double Down Saloon.

Franks & Deans might occasionally sport those tuxedo T-shirts, but they have no interest in reproducing someone else’s original. “Yes, it is a tribute, but we’re playing songs we want to play in the fashion that we want to play them,” DeTie says, “We get to be creative about it and play them in a new style: It’s fun and different.”

Tributes not only fill concert venues, but play on TV (AXS network’s World’s Greatest Tribute Bands) and in theaters (“jukebox musicals” such as the Venetian’s Rock of Ages), both tributes to single acts and bands that span genres. And, as sampling and satirizing becomes more and more a part of how we consume culture, “different” tributes may become even more of a part of the musical landscape. So why not a hundred KISSes, a dozen homages to the sounds of Studio 54, as well as a goth take on Motown—and maybe some kind of Dolly Parton-David Bowie hybrid, too?

Bonfire, Fan Halen and Red Not Chili Peppers

will play Fremont Street’s Tributepalooza, Dec. 30-Jan. 3.

Franks & Deans

play the first Wednesday of every month at the Double Down Saloon.

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