“I’m a nobody,” Jeff Larsen says with a laugh. Most weekdays, the West San Jose resident works as a real estate agent. On weekends, he spends time with his family and friends. On occasion, he boards a commercial aircraft for some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, where he dons a long-haired wig with bangs, a leopard-print shirt, tight jeans and a blazer and belts out “Don’t Stop Believin’” for a crowd of American and allied troops.
On days like these, Larson isn’t entirely himself. He is Perry Stevens—frontman for Journey Unauthorized, a tribute to one of the biggest bands to ever come out of the Bay Area.
Aside from playing the normal tribute band gigs—casinos, private parties and fairs (his band plays the Santa Clara County Fair on Aug. 4)—Larson has forged a relationship with a booking agent handling overseas entertainment for service members.
“We’re his favorite Journey tribute band,” Larson says. “He just works with us.”
It’s not exactly a normal gig for a tribute group, Larson says, but it is definitely exciting and the pay is pretty good. Plus, when he and his band aren’t playing in regions where they have to worry about enemy fire, they get to do some sightseeing. Six months back Journey Unauthorized played at a base in Jordan, and he and the guys took a trip to Israel.
“It’s a rush,” he says, “especially for a guy who never made it. This is icing on the cake.”
Since the earliest days of the Elvis Presley impersonator, tribute bands have found a place in the music scene as a way for audiences to hear their favorite songs from their favorite artists in a more accessible setting. Tribute bands also allow casual music fans to attend a concert and know exactly what they are getting for their ticket.
While tribute bands have long been seen as a niche in music, they’ve exploded in popularity in the last 20 years as classic rock icons have retired or passed on. Now, for many fans, venues and musicians, tribute bands have increasingly become the bread and butter in the live music business.
In the South Bay, venues both large and small regularly turn to tribute acts to draw crowds. The Ritz in downtown San Jose has two tribute shows scheduled for the second half of July alone. This Charming Band, a Smiths and Morrissey act, plays the club on Jul. 20; Temptation, which specializes in New Order, headlines the following weekend, Jul. 20.
Just last week a group called Brit Floyd played at the Mountain Winery, bringing spot-on Pink Floyd covers and a serious light show to the Saratoga open-air theater.
While Brit Floyd is based out of the UK and regularly tours the world, many tribute acts keep things local. Aside from the armed forces shows, Journey Unauthorized tends to stay on the West Coast. The same goes for The Killer Queens (Queen), Maroon Vibes (Maroon 5), Petty Theft (Tom Petty), Zeparella (Led Zeppelin) and the Sun Kings (The Beatles)—all of whom are based locally.
“I saw The Cure in 1989,” says Mark Sharp, bassist for This Charming Band as well as Bloodflowers, a tribute to The Cure. He remembers that show—and the time he saw Morrissey, in 1992—fondly. When he first began playing his own music, he was attempting to emulate groups like The Smiths and U2. “That’s what shaped me as a musician.”
He’s worked in many bands, including The Trims, that write original material, and has always enjoyed that process. But, he says, playing in a tribute band is something entirely different. “The appeal for me is trying to recapture what those shows meant to me and what those records meant to me so many years ago.”
As for Morgan Hill resident Joe Urbano, his striking resemblance to Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine led him to front Maroon Vibes.
A family man with a career in the semiconductor industry, on weekends Urban slips on nylon tattoo sleeves and runs through the Maroon 5 catalog with his band at parties and community events. They’ll be playing the Gilroy Garlic Festival at the end of July.
Urbano, who has always written and performed his own music, says playing in a tribute is a way for him to keep up with a hobby that he loves while making a little cash on the side.
“I never thought I’d be in a tribute band, honestly,” he shrugs. “But if you just love music and performing, why not?”
For Nina Noir, a big part of the appeal is the energy and appreciation she feels when she is on stage. The San Jose native fronts the Killer Queens, an all female Queen tribute.
While she’s written and continues to write original tunes, she says her own music has never taken her far. “It’s very difficult to be a female rock vocalist,” she says. “Bands typically want men”—especially in the genres that she’s always gravitated toward, namely hard rock and metal.
In the Killer Queens she doesn’t worry about those kinds of politics. “Freddie Mercury is probably the perfect front person to gender-bend,” she says. And judging by her success, she’s got a point.
The Killer Queens have a packed summer schedule that takes them up and down the West Coast, to Las Vegas and even to Miami. They’ll be playing the Santa Clara County Fair on Aug. 2 and they have a few Facebook corporate parties on in their datebook as well.
Looking back, Noir doesn’t regret going this route. “This opened a lot of doors for me,” she says.
Veteran hard-rock drummer Clementine first fell in love with Led Zeppelin as a youngster listening to KMET radio in Southern California, and when she began to hit the skins herself, she realized just how much influence Zeppelin drummer John Bonham had on her musical aspirations.
In 2004, Clementine was looking to better learn those Zeppelin songs and the drum parts she loved. She hooked up with guitarist Gretchen Menn, who admired Jimmy Page as much as Clementine admired Bonham, and the two formed the Bay Area’s all-female tribute band Zepparella.
“When we started it, we looked at it being a practice project,” says Clementine. “Shortly after, we started talking about, ‘Why not do it onstage?’”
For Clementine, it was and still is all about the music.
“I wanted to get better as a drummer, and why not go to the source of how I got into playing drums?” she says. “I feel like I came into this through the back way. It wasn’t that I set out to start a tribute band; it was that I wanted to learn this stuff and see what happens.”
Even 15 years into the band, Clementine notes that she’s still learning from Bonham. “We just keep going forward because it’s so musically exciting,” she says. “Led Zeppelin is maybe the only band that I could continue to play for 15 years, and a lot of that is because we take parts of the songs and develop them through improvisation onstage, and Led Zeppelin gives us that freedom because they were so improvisational in the way they presented the music. It enables us to create new parts of songs, new ways to approach songs. It’s always changing.”
In addition to the musical explorations afforded to her in Zepparella, Clementine appreciates that the band can act as a steady source of income and help her develop an audience for her other singer-songwriter projects.
“The creative process as far as being able to write something from scratch with other musicians is a beautiful thing, and I have that in the other projects I do,” she says. “I value it all. I feel like one feeds the other, what I learn from Zeppelin is what I take to my original writing, and parts of my original writing I put into the drumming with Zepparella.”
This year, Zepparella is offering fans a way to learn the songs themselves, with the newly launched Zepparella Learning Channel on YouTube, a series of videos in which the members teach the audiences their parts to a Led Zeppelin tune. So far, the series has featured “When the Levee Breaks” and “Immigrant Song.”
“It’s been a remarkable learning experience for us to teach these songs,” says Clementine. “For 15 years we’ve been learning all these little things that you learn playing this music onstage, and to be able to share that freely with people, it feels like we’re able to give a little back from what we’ve gained playing the music.”
Obviously, Led Zeppelin will never play together in concert again. And even if classic rock acts like the Rolling Stones or AC/DC are still touring, they’re not playing in venues with four walls; they’re in stadiums that often don’t offer the intimacy that a club can provide. Clementine sees Zepparella as a way for audiences to experience the classic rock of yesterday in an intimate setting. “To be able to get swallowed up by theses songs in a smaller venue is where the power is,” she says.
Zepparella continues to thrive because of the power of those Led Zeppelin songs, and Clementine says the tribute band has lasted so long because of the musicians she’s been able to share that power with. “I value the people I’ve played with in the past and now,” she says. “It’s a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it.”
Tribute bands come in many forms. Not to be confused with cover bands, which play a variety of different songs by well known pop artists, tribute acts tend stick exclusively to a single group’s repertoire. Some make an effort to approximate the look and feel of the bands to which they are paying homage. Others go all out, springing for custom costumes, special effects and even purchasing the same gear used by the bands they are aping. It’s practically like a Broadway show.
In fact, while it’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the tribute act as a distinct type of live musical entertainment, some point to Beatlemania, the Broadway musical revue, as the start of it all. Debuting in 1977 and running through 1979, the show was billed as “Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation.”
Monroe Grisman, the guitarist and vocalist for the Marin- and San Francisco-based Petty Theft, says he’s seen some very convincing simulations in his day. “I just saw a Genesis tribute band with set designs and period-specific gear,” Grisman says. “And there’s certain value for that, like for me that was the closest thing I’ll ever get to seeing Peter Gabriel-era Genesis in 1973.”
Forgoing the costumes themselves, Petty Theft focuses on performing the music and honoring the sound, while also adding their own flourishes and taking liberties that keep the concerts fresh for fans.
“I think it’s why we’ve built up a pretty amazing following now: People like that we are not trying to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; rather, we always pay tribute and we always give it up to the real deal.”
And the real deal has given it up back at them, with Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone meeting the band through a mutual friend and sitting in with Petty Theft three times over the years. “It’s been an amazing honor,” says Grisman.
Noir has also earned the blessing of original Queen members Roger Taylor and Brian May. Taylor gave her the OK in person, when she and her band attended the premiere of the recent Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
“They 100 percent thought it was wonderful.”
Things don’t always go so well for tribute acts.
Paul B. Ungar, Esq. is a New Jersey-based entertainment lawyer concentrating in intellectual property and contracts. He has advised Noir on how to best avoid legal blowback with her Killer Queens endeavor.
It’s not the performance of any given song or string of songs that is the issue, Ungar explains. If a tribute band is playing at a club that is on the up-and-up—that is, a venue that is in good standing with the major music licensing organizations BMI, ASCAP and SESAC—the tribute act is covered.
However, things get trickier as a tribute band gets larger, begins to market itself, creates promotional material featuring its own performances of other artists’ material and endeavors to take on the likeness of a celebrity.
The kind of satire and parody that a show like Saturday Night Live engages in is recognized as free speech and is protected. But when someone is using an artist’s likeness and performing their music in the way that tribute acts do, the waters are far murkier.
“It really comes down to how the famous band reacts,” Ungar says. “Technically, it is violating all sorts of laws.”
In the past, Ungar says, Apple Corps—The Beatles’ recording label—has gone after successful Beatles tribute acts and won. And the late Prince was known for having a serious distaste for tribute acts that sought to profit from his catalog and image. In 2008, the Purple One sued a group of Norwegian artists who had recorded an album of covers intended to honor the artist for his 50th birthday.
Still, most of the bands interviewed for this story weren’t too concerned with getting slapped with a lawsuit—even Larson, who says he has dealt with “cease and desist” letters from Journey in the past.
“They came after us in the beginning,” Larson recalls, adding that there are now so many Journey tribute bands that it’s probably hard for the band’s label and lawyers to keep up. “I’m just not on their radar anymore.”
Practically speaking, Ungar says, even though the tribute acts often “don’t have a leg to stand on,” the original bands simply allow them to do their thing. As Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich learned in the aftermath of Napster, it never looks good when a massive band goes after the little guy.
Plus, Ungar adds, “What happens in real life is that some bands are more than happy to let tribute bands co-exist. That just increases the value of their brand.”