Tribute bands: Not the real thing, an incredible simulation

From USA Today:

All goes quiet and dark inside the old Regency Ballroom, where, in the ’60s, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin once ruled the night. A spotlight suddenly illuminates four faces onstage. As one, they sing a cappella: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

These are the opening lines to the Queen classic Bohemian Rhapsody, and indeed, this is all just fantasy.
Onstage aren’t the surviving members of that still-touring British quartet, but rather the nine members of Queen Extravaganza, perhaps one of the most rigorously drilled tribute bands to ever hit the circuit. Its existence is due to none other than Queen drummer Roger Taylor.

The Extravaganza may not be the real thing, but you can’t tell from the way Jessica Garcia stares straight ahead, slack-jawed. “Imitator groups can be cheesy, but some manage to take things to another level,” says Garcia, 29, of Oakland, flashing a Queen tattoo. “I guess the bottom line is this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to seeing the real band.”

Legions of tribute acts on the road this summer are banking on that very sentiment. Their pitch is simple: Come see us, and we’ll conjure up the past in a small venue and at a fraction of the cost of our A-list alter egos.

Tribute bands seem to be booming as the groups they emulate succumb to frayed vocal cords, blown eardrums and the Grim Reaper. An online search pulls up a staggering array of groups that sound — and often look — like every classic rock act, from Air Supply to Frank Zappa.

If you’ve always pined for the return of hair-metal rockers Cinderella, there’s always Gypsy Rose to soothe your soul. If The Monkees were your thing, try the look-alike band The Missing Links. Or maybe you miss those renegade Dixie Chicks? Check out the Dixie Chicklets or, ahem, the transvestite group Chicks With Dixie.

“It’s gotten to the point where if there isn’t a clone band out there of you, you really aren’t successful,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which tracks the concert industry. He says the first Elvis impersonators were catalysts of the tribute band phenomenon, as were pop-culture sensations such as the late ’70s musical Beatlemania, which lives on as the show Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles.
“Some of these tribute bands do a very good job of re-creating what that original band used to be,” Bongiovanni says, adding that for many fans, the powerful tug of nostalgia is tough to resist. “If you’re going out to a bar, often it’s simply more fun to see a tribute group than some band you’ve never heard of.”

And while legally, tribute bands tread that thin line between fair use and infringement (and legal skirmishes have occasionally flared up), generally the stars are big enough, and the bands small enough, to coexist peacefully. Such bands say they help keep the music alive and add that the originals have from time to time been spotted in the audience at their tributes.

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