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Tribute bands cover Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
The Hollywood Stones pay tribute to the Rolling Stones Friday, March 7 at Belly Up Aspen. (Contributed photo)
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ASPEN Jerry, Johnny and Freddy are gone. Axls promise to get the band back together has entered its second decade, with no actual reunion in sight. Mick and Keith and the boys are certain to make the rounds again, whenever Mick decides his bank account needs to be topped off however, with the second mortgage market in collapse, good luck affording tickets. The Beatles last official gig was more than four decades ago. And no, you and several million others didnt get tickets for the Zep show last December. (Though if you want to see Robert Plant, he is coming to Red Rocks this summer playing acoustic music with his new duet partner, Alison Krauss.)And even if the Dead, Queen, Guns n Roses, et al., were still in business, the Roaring Fork Valley wouldnt be on their itinerary. Neil Diamond, on the other hand, not only remains active, he has a home in the valley none of which has resulted yet in an appearance at Belly Up Aspen.Instead, we have the fake Fab Four, the copycat Cash, the ersatz Queen, stand-ins for the Stones, and a Neil knock-off. We are in the time of the tribute band, an era in which fans from the height of the classic-rock era still have a desire to hear the music live and loud but the musicians are either too old, too feuding or too dead to deliver the goods with sufficient regularity.Tribute bands step in where the originals no longer tread. They play small clubs and theaters, for relatively tiny ticket prices. Their shows tend to focus on all the old hits, which they play meticulously. Most of the acts add another layer camp, costumes, a gender theme, or otherworldly precision that cranks up the entertainment value of their shows.

Aspen is about to get hit with a barrage of wannabes, in a variety of locations. Over the next few weeks, Belly Up will host tributes to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead (this after last weeks appearance by the Guns n Roses tribute band Appetite for Destruction; Januarys performance by Hells Belles, an all-female tribute to AC/DC; and recent shows by Shakedown Street, a long-running Dead tribute band from Colorado). The Wheeler Opera House features upcoming acts covering the music of the early Beatles and of Queen. Even the streets arent safe; Super Diamond, the Neil Diamond tribute show, plays a free show in downtown Aspen as part of the Aspen Skiing Co.s Core Party later this month. (See sidebar for full schedule of acts, dates and locations.)This is just the tip of the iceberg of whats out there in cover-band land. Belly Up has in the past featured the Atomic Punks, a tribute to Van Halen. Dread Zeppelin, which did reggae versions of the Zeppelin catalogue and was led by an Elvis impersonator, and Kiss Army, a Kiss cover band in full, fire-breathing glory, played the old Double Diamond. Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg is looking at booking the Abba tribute act Bjorn Again and a Police cover band; he has turned down solicitations from Aerosmith, Queen and Led Zeppelin knock-offs. Goldberg is also trying to figure out a way to stage an outdoor performance by Australian Pink Floyd, one of the most ambitious tribute acts.Slightly removed from these single-artist tributes are theme bands like Danger Kitty, which plays all hair metal hits, and Anthem (classic rock), who have been consistently big draws at Belly Up. (Ill let you in on a secret: Danger Kitty and Anthem and disco act Grooveline and New Wave group the Spazmatics are all formed from the same core group of musicians. When Danger Kitty and the Spazmatics shared a bill at Belly Up last Halloween, it was the same players in different costumes.)Billboard outside Las Vegas hotel: Tonight: Knights in White Satin, a Tribute to the Moody BluesOpening act: The Moody Blues

Tribute bands come in a variety of forms. The Hollywood Stones, a Los Angeles-based act that recently changed its name from Sticky Fingers, are largely a weekend phenomenon. The band members all have day jobs during the week; the lead singer, who goes by Dick Swagger, is a contractor for the telephone company. Most, though, have made more or less a full-time job of sonic impersonation. Lez Zeppelin, an all-female, New York quartet, played over 100 shows, in nine countries, last year. Dark Star Orchestra, a Chicago-centered tribute to the Grateful Dead, has been on the road for 11 years, and racked up 139 shows in 2007.And there are different approaches to the task. Some aim to recreate, as closely as possible, not only the sound but the look and vibe of the original. The Hollywood Stones; 1964-The Tribute, which resurrects the mop-top-era Beatles; and One Night of Queen dress and sound the part. On the aural end, no band has taken it further than Dark Star Orchestra, which began its own long, strange trip by duplicating set lists from past Grateful Dead shows, and switching up the equipment, and even the membership, depending on the year the set list came from. (More recently, they have also been playing shows with original set lists.) Fans often remark that Dark Star Orchestra is a more note-perfect band than the Dead ever were.Other groups look to put a spin of their own on the experience. Lez Zeppelin uses the fact of the members gender to separate themselves from Page, Plant & Company. Sarah McLellan cant sound like Robert Plant, so she doesnt try, but gives a slightly womanly twist to Zeppelins songs. Super Diamond is led by singer Randy Cordeiro, who goes by the name the Surreal Neil, and the band gives a stylized interpretation of the Real Neils mannerisms and dress.One thing most of the acts have in common is a desire to play for big, enthusiastic crowds and a realization that there are easier ways to do so than playing original music. A year and a half ago, McLellan returned from Las Vegas, where she had been singing and dancing in the Queen musical We Will Rock You, to New York, with the intention of putting together a band to play her own songs. That idea was dropped when she was invited to join the already existing Lez Zeppelin. Swagger, the Mick Jagger impersonator, had an original band, Mugsy, but he found it hard to keep musicians together. Then he saw bands who paid tribute to the Doors and Queen, and figured there must be a niche for a Rolling Stones cover band.I thought, if they were getting shows, we could get shows as well, said the 50-year-old Swagger. Theres a huge contingent of faithful fans who dont get to see the band play all that often. Keeping musicians around ceased to be a problem; Swagger, who founded the band in the mid-90s, has had the same lineup intact for 12 years.



The essential fact of tribute bands is that they are largely driven by fans, who have a tremendous desire to see their favorite band play their favorite songs, preferably from up close rather than from the back of an arena but cant. So they have no problem paying a relatively modest ticket price (from $20 for Cashd Out, which makes its Aspen debut next month, to $30 for Super Diamond, which has been selling out shows here for nearly a decade) to hear talented, dedicated musicians duplicate the experience in a club. An added benefit seems to be the bar itself: Most of these acts are known to bring in a partying crowd, who like the idea of a cocktail being a few steps away, rather than a warm, stadium beer that might cause them to miss Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline.If your favorite band is one of those acts well, Johnny Cash isnt touring anymore. And well do whatever song people scream for, said Swagger, who maintains a repertoire of some 80 songs, mostly dating to the 60s and 70s. You can go to a Stones concert and yell out, Monkey Man all you want theyre just not going to play it.That is, if you can see the Stones at all. I dont know if I can afford to see them anymore, said Swagger, who saw two shows not long ago in Vegas. It was $370 a ticket, and I was not all that close.At least Stones fans get a chance to see the band if they can come up with the bucks. Over the last 28 years, since the 1980 death of drummer John Henry Bonham, devotees of Led Zeppelin have had exactly three chances to see the three surviving members perform together. The most recent one, and the only full-concert appearance, was in December in London, for a benefit in memory of Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun. Some one million people entered the lottery for 20,000 tickets.For so many years, there was no venue for people to hear the music live, said McLellan, whose bandmate, guitarist Steph Paynes, was in attendance for the London show. People want to have another experience of what they saw and heard in the 70s, of that excitement they first experienced.

Of all the tribute acts, Lez Zeppelin might be taking the concept the farthest. Noted for their musicianship as well as their stage presence, they aim to get inside the music and reinterpret it with their own subtle twists. The band has received perhaps the ultimate praise by being included at last summers Download Festival outside of London, and this summers Bonnaroo Festival. In both cases, they are the first tribute band on the bill.It almost feels like its our music, in a way, said McLellan, a native of Queensland, Australia. Theres so much freedom and room for improvisation and doing our own thing that comes into it.McLellan was not a particularly rabid Zeppelin fan when she joined Lez Zeppelin. The group was started by Paynes, who did have an overwhelming desire to shred, Jimmy Page-style. But now, McLellan has raised her affection to an obsession.We still, all of us, listen to Zeppelin, she said. On the bus after a show, at least a couple of us are listening to Zeppelin on our iPods. Theres so much in the music to discover and rediscover.But even McLellan is puzzled by at least one segment of the tribute band phenomenon. The thing that intrigues us is that there are tribute bands for bands that are still out there playing, she said.stewart@aspentimes.com

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