At Chop Suey before a rambunctious capacity crowd last October, a Led Zeppelin tribute band called Dongs tear through "Dazed and Confused," "Ramble On," and, most formidably, "Whole Lotta Love" in the final round of a Black Sabbath vs. Led Zeppelin showdown. Ex–XVIII Eyes singer Irene Barbaric, in the role of Robert Plant, has stuffed a sock in the crotch of her trousers to get into character. It must've helped. She owned those Zep songs with a fierceness that would straighten Plant's hair. Dongs won the battle, but it was tight. Every band on the bill played with a tenacity that showed there was no shame in replicating more famous musicians' material and stage moves.
While people in "real" bands typically sneer at cover and tribute bands—which have been staples of the music industry for many decades—they often envy their draws and payouts. With rock music suffering from a decline in totemic bands and a general sense of creative exhaustion, many listeners naturally flock to classic entities that deliver surefire thrills. Tribute acts will likely be with us as long as humans have ears, though, because if there's one thing talent buyers and venue owners understand, it's that nostalgia breeds profits.
Lately, however, the idea has taken a turn for the competitive: If one cover or tribute band brings in the punters, how about several that interpret the repertoires of two popular artists in a friendly battle? That's the gist of Showdown, a tribute-band night at Chop Suey that's become an instant-classic concept, as evidenced by three such events in 2015: David Bowie vs. the Velvet Underground, Heart vs. Fleetwood Mac, and Black Sabbath vs. Led Zeppelin. Showdown's recent fourth edition pitted brainy 1980s/'90s post-punk icons Fugazi vs. SST Records' finest pop-punk purveyors Descendents.
Showdown arose early last year out of a conversation between Chop Suey booker Jodi Ecklund and ex-Fastbacks bassist/vocalist Kim Warnick. "I had mentioned to Kim that I was frustrated that other venues started hosting tribute nights on the same nights as ours," Ecklund recalls. "Kim suggested that I pay tribute to two bands. Kim and I would message each other different ideas."
Ecklund says that attendance for Showdown has been great. "The best part is that attendees show up right at doors, so there really is no crappy slot," Ecklund says. Part of Showdown's success stems from the familiarity factor; Ecklund obviously strives to appeal to a wide audience. "I want to do several different genres, so there is something for everyone," she says. She often relies on crowdsourcing ideas on Facebook to gauge what matchups people are clamoring to see. "It's also important not to pick bands that are too terribly complicated." Sorry, Yes and ELP fans. However, you may very well see local bands assuming the roles of the Beatles vs. the Stones, Blondie vs. X, Brian Eno vs. Bryan Ferry, the Stooges vs. the MC5, Siouxsie and the Banshees vs. Bauhaus, TLC vs. Salt-N-Pepa, Pink Floyd vs. Hawkwind, and other dream pairings.
In addition to Showdown, other similar nights fill the local nightlife schedule. School of Rock is a prolific source of conceptually cohesive covers battles, including a recent goth-blessed match between Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure. Lo-Fi will hold a shoegaze-rock buffet January 21 with My Bloody Valentine acolytes going effects pedal to effects pedal with Slowdive worshippers. This event isn't a competition, per se, but rather a fundraiser to benefit Popnoise PNW, a shoegaze/dream-pop festival slated to debut this summer. According to members of two bands participating in the show, there are rewarding reasons to mute one's ego and submit to other musicians' artistry.
Blackpool Astronomy's Jeff McCollough—who's co-organized many Black Monday cover nights at the Sunset and is helming Popnoise PNW with bandmate Mandy McGee—says: "There is a lot to be said for writing your own music, and it's a beautiful process. At the same time, when you play a cover of a band, you are admitting that what they created cannot be topped as far as writing, presentation, and performance of that song. While you're putting your own interpretation on the song, you're also paying the musicians who played the original version the highest compliment by saying, 'I cannot rewrite your song and make it better.'"
Stephen Jones, keyboardist/guitarist in Red Martian, a group renowned for their precision-tooled emulations of Kraftwerk, doesn't consider Red Martian to be a tribute band. "But," he says, "I would say we're in a group that enjoys playing the music of the bands we like, and performs their music with their feeling and style the best way we can. We seldom try to interpret or reimagine another band's music, but instead perform it in an authentic, honest, and real way."
Jones's bandmate Paul Groth says, "My main reason for doing tribute nights is I like to make like-minded music fans happy." As someone who learned to play guitar and synth from playing along to albums or the radio, Groth "realized when I was 'writing' songs, I was stealing from the stuff I had learned from the bands' songs I had figured out." Thus, the tribute band route seems natural to him.
Astra Elane—guitarist/vocalist for the Gods Themselves and former frontwoman for Shocking Blue tribute band the Daemon Lovers, offers the most straightforward rationale for doing this. "To pay tribute to the band! Shocking Blue... are original, underappreciated, and amazing. Because I somewhat resemble [the group's singer] Mariska Veres, I felt especially good about sharing their music. I wanted to turn people on to the full package. So many souls don't know what they've missed."
Kimberly Morrison—who's been in countless bands and just left SSDD and retired from Universe People—also praises the fun and camaraderie inherent to tribute bands: "[Showdown brings] together a wide variety of musicians who might otherwise never share a stage. I participate whenever possible because I enjoy the challenge and appreciate the time constraint. Sometimes it's a lot of work to be an actual band that practices, records, and tours regularly. Tribute nights are like musical vacations."
Playing "Keith Richards" in "The Rolling Stones," Devin Welch notes, "The impetus for playing in a tribute band was initially to have an outlet for a late-onset Stones obsession that I didn't want to channel too directly into my own music. I think for all of us it is an excuse to get together a great group of friends and players to do some music that we all love without the creative or careerist pressures of being in a serious band. Surprisingly, it occasionally has proven to be lucrative, but most importantly it's always been satisfying to delve deep into the intricacies of another band's music. Also, the shows always go off because... there is no need to sell them on the concept as long as the execution is on point."
What's the most important thing these musicians have learned from being in tribute bands? "Never play anything you don't have respect for, otherwise you disrespect yourself by playing a subpar version of something that may have meant a lot to a lot of people," McCollough says. "Also, never say your cover is better than the original."
Jones says covering music he loves is a genuinely fulfilling activity that enables him to perform before a diverse group of people who "would probably never go out to see a local band play their own music. There isn't anything wrong with that, but because we always (now going on 17 years) give away our DIY cassettes, CDs, and records at shows, we have a good chance of making them a fan of our music, too. Maybe they'll come to the next Red Martian show."
Groth has found that that "people like to see/hear things they already know. It makes me think about what I can do to write original stuff that would make people respond the same way. Playing covers of the Cure, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, or whatever makes me a better musician." Astra Elane concurs: "Diving into the intricacies of another writer's style is like going to an art gallery," she says. "You need art to make art."
Welch derives enjoyment from nerding out on the minutiae of the Stones' songs, "but ultimately it is the energy of the performance that people latch on to most directly. Also, most great songs are simpler than you think."
There is one dissenting voice amid this lovefest. Ex–Universe People drummer and Dreamsalon bassist Min Yee hates tribute shows. "But I'm just jealous that people turn out to see cover bands instead of real bands." He admits that playing covers is fun, "but doing your own songs is light years better. Covers are best when you can interpret them in your own way (as part of your own band's sound), and tribute bands are meant for regurgitation, especially if they're ad-hoc bands put together for a night's performance. I won't do a tribute again. It's not creative."
Shortly after receiving this assignment, I overheard a young man on his cell say, "It's a cover-band night. One band will be doing Jawbreaker covers, the other Thin Lizzy covers." Apparently, no concept is too arcane or seemingly random for the phenomenon of cover-band nights.
Serious musicians who pride themselves on originality may grumble at the rise of tribute nights, but perhaps they should view this development as a challenge to raise their own art to totemic levels. Or failing that, maybe form a tribute act to an artist that's never been given that treatment before.