Not Quite The Real Thing but Stars Just the Same

By DAVID BERNSTEIN
New York Times
Septamber 30th, 2003


If there weren't enough Elvis impersonators out there, now there are plenty of Bonos, Bruces and Blondies, not to mention Madonnas, Meatloafs and Marilyns (as in Manson).

They're all part of a growing tribute-band scene, which provides some consolation (or not) for musicians who dream of being rock stars but can't and for fans who can see carbon copies of their favorite artists — especially some defunct older acts — usually at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

Overlooked for years in rock-music circles and most often dismissed by critics as schlocky Las Vegas lounge acts, tribute bands are increasingly becoming headliners at nightclubs, concert halls and state fairs, all of which see them as lucrative draws. They span the musical alphabet, from Abba to ZZ Top. There are dozens of Beatles tribute bands alone.

Of course like their first cousins, cover bands — which perform the songs of many artists without trying to impersonate them — most tribute bands languish in bar-band anonymity. But a handful, like Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond tribute band that tours nationally, have become enormously successful and have achieved pseudo-stardom in their own right.

Super Diamond, a San Francisco-based sextet, was formed 10 years ago as a novelty act fronted by Randy Cordero, better known as Surreal Neil, a 38-year-old singer-songwriter whose uncanny impersonation of Mr. Diamond's throaty, baritone voice is, well, surreal. The band regularly fills midsize concert halls around the country, including Irving Plaza in Manhattan and the House of Blues in Hollywood, and commands fees of up to $20,000 a performance and ticket prices as high as $30 apiece, said Daniel Swan, the band's agent.

For such bands there is no radio time or royalties from album sales (although some bands sell CD's of their live performances at concerts), so they rely solely on touring. Super Diamond plays about 120 shows a year around the country — from nightclub concerts to corporate parties and weddings. The band is scheduled to play two nights at Irving Plaza on Oct. 17 and 18.

The tribute phenomenon has even had an offshoot on television. The Fox network just concluded a short run of the reality talent show "Performing As," an amateur karaoke competition where celebrity impersonators mimicked stars like Britney Spears and Elton John and competed for a $200,000 grand prize.

Tribute bands are also featured at state fairs and summer festivals. No less than a dozen Beatles look-alike tribute and cover bands performed in Cleveland last month during "Abbey Road on the River," an annual festival held along the banks of the Cuyahoga River in the city's Flats neighborhood.

On any given night in most cities, fans are likely to find tribute bands headlining nightclub shows. Randy Fibiger, a talent buyer for the House of Blues clubs in Hollywood and Las Vegas, said that "Super Diamond is definitely topping the list of tribute bands right now."

The onus is not on the tribute bands' to worry about the use of other people's music. Establishments like the House of Blues or any business that uses licensed music must pay yearly fees to music performing-rights organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (Ascap) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) for the right to perform copyrighted music. These groups represent songwriters, composers and lyricists.

Lenny Mann, a computer programmer and musician from Ventura, Calif., who created a popular tribute band resource Web site, Tribute City (www.tributecity.com), said nearly 1,100 bands had registered on his site since he started it two years ago.

"I don't see a week that goes by that a new band isn't registering," said the 44-year-old guitarist, who doubles for Jimmy Page, the famed guitarist from Led Zeppelin, in his tribute band, Led Zepagain.

Despite his success with Super Diamond, Mr. Cordero, whose true passion is his original music band, Tijuana Strip Club, admitted he had mixed feelings out the genre he helped popularize.

"Even though I'm in a cover band, it hurts me to see so many cover bands popping up all the time," he said. "People just go and support cover bands and not original bands. It's sad. I guess I just have myself to blame."

Rod Leissle, a founding member of Bjorn Again, an Abba-inspired group that tours internationally, says there are about 150 Abba tribute bands in England alone.

"There are so many tribute bands," Mr. Leissle said by phone from London, where he lives. "I think everybody is tripping each other up." What's worse, he added, "we've been blighted by people going: `This is easy money. Who are we going to imitate? Oh, the Rolling Stones? O.K.' '`

Bjorn Again is among the most successful groups on the tribute circuit today. Founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 1988, the act is now a widely popular franchise with five touring companies in England, Europe, Australia and North America. All of the bands combined have played more than 3,000 shows in about 50 countries, Mr. Leissle said.

Mr. Cordero and the members of Super Diamond say they stand out above the clutter of tribute bands because they do not merely try to be a facsimile of their muse; instead, they say, they use Mr. Diamond's songs to create their "own" music.

Calling its act "Neil Diamond on steroids," Super Diamond interprets Mr. Diamond's pop tunes with heavier guitars, mixing in contemporary riffs by Guns N' Roses, Kiss and AC/DC, and with an alterative-rock tone.

"We've taken the rock aspect of Neil Diamond and pushed that to the extreme," said Rama Kolesnikow, Super Diamond's keyboardist. "I think we're even more original than some original bands."

Among the Neil Diamond — and indirectly, Super Diamond — devotees at the House of Blues in Chicago one night last month was Erich Muller, the Chicago-based, nationally syndicated disc jockey. For Mr. Muller, 37, the show was a nostalgic trip; his first live concert, he said, was Mr. Diamond's "Headed for the Future" tour during the mid-1980's.

One Super Diamond fan is Mr. Diamond himself. The 62-year-old Grammy Award-winning pop singer has twice appeared onstage with his impersonators, the first time a few years ago when he surprised them before their show one night at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.

"It was amazing," Mr. Cordero said. "I remember he said to us, `Thank you for doing what you're doing,' and I said, `Thank you for not suing us.' " Then onstage Mr. Diamond and the band of pretenders played "I Am . . . I Said."

"I felt a little more validated, somehow," Mr. Cordero said of the experience. Despite their success, the members of Super Diamond and other tribute musicians interviewed said they were still regarded by many in the music world as a maligned underclass, although in recent years the lines between original musicians and tribute players has become more blurred.

Tim Owens, a part-time office supplies salesman near Akron, Ohio, and lead singer of a Judas Priest tribute band, broke the music genre's barrier in 1997 when he replaced the real heavy metal band's original lead singer, Rob Halford, after he had quit to pursue a solo career.

Mr. Owens's rags-to-rock-star story inspired the 2001 film "Rock Star," with Mark Wahlberg. But in July Mr. Owens was replaced by Mr. Halford, who rejoined the heavy metal band for its upcoming 30-year anniversary concert tour and a new album planned for next year.

Eric Michaels, a Paul McCartney impersonator in American English, a Chicago-based Beatles look-alike band, said critics of the genre were missing the point. "It's all about entertaining people," Mr. Michaels said. "People need to have the Beatles in their lives; they have a longing to see them. We help them get that thrill."

As for anyone who mocks tribute bands, Mr. Michaels said, imitating Paul McCartney's thick Liverpudlian accent, "Fooey on them, you know?"