September 25, 2008

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The sincerest form of flattery
Tribute acts bring authentic imitations to a venue near you

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Whatever you do, don’t call them cover bands. At least, that’s a good rule of thumb, according to Tom Higgins, who portrays Ace Frehley in the Kiss tribute band called “ALIVE! (Kiss Tribute - New England).”

“I know some musicians that are sensitive about being called a cover band,” Higgins said. “I think because they don’t want to be seen as a group that just stands on stage and plays Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix songs.”

Whereas cover bands perform songs by other artists, the tribute band take things a few steps further, incorporating the artist’s dress, mannerisms and stage presence, striving to capture every nuance of the original performer.

Lately it seems like New England is being invaded by a slew of tribute acts. Venues like the Verizon Wireless Arena, Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Meadowbrook Pavilion and the Capitol Center for the Arts all have tribute shows paying homage to acts like Pink Floyd, U2, The Grateful Dead, Queen, Elton John and Jimi Hendrix in their upcoming schedule of events.

With three tribute shows in his venue’s lineup, Peter Lally, general manager for the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, says that venues understand the considerable appeal of these musical productions.

“There has definitely been a rise in popularity for them,” he said. “The shows that tend to be the most successful are ones that cover artists you can’t see anymore, whose production values are on par with the originals, like Pink Floyd and Queen.”

Tribute shows are drawing a diverse audience.

“The market for these bands is huge,” Higgins said. “People who grew up on the music bring their kids to the shows, and the kids are getting into bands they never would have heard before.”

Like many musicians who play in tribute acts, Higgins and his band mates started in regular rock groups, but the struggles of trying to make it with their own music started to wear on the members.

“Once we got into our 30s, we just felt like we were beating our heads against the wall,” Higgins said. “It just wasn’t working for us. We realized that Kiss was the common denominator for us and thought we could go out, do this as a band and be successful.”

Plus, Higgins says, being in a tribute band has its advantages.

“The frustration is instantly removed,” he said. “There’s no creative struggles over material and the fans are already there — they already love the songs.”

There are dozens of tribute bands in the Granite State alone, covering artists like Radiohead, Rush, and Billy Joel, and on Saturday, Sept. 27, ALIVE! (Kiss Tribute - New England) will join one of them, the Concord-based Van Halen tribute BalancE, at 9 p.m. at Milly’s Tavern in Manchester.

So what separates a good tribute act from an extraordinary one? For Higgins, it’s in the details.

“It’s about paying attention to all the pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “Some bands have the look down, but the sound isn’t there — some sound just like the band but don’t have the stage style. Believe me, fans notice those all those things.”

For arena-act tributes, production values are of particular importance. ALIVE! (Kiss Tribute – New England) stage shows incorporate an eight-foot lighted Kiss sign, fog machines, candelabras, a smoking guitar, full Kiss makeup with authentic costumes, and even blood-spitting. Lally explained that these factors draw in the audiences.

“They have just as much production, staging, lighting values as the originals,” he said. “Sometimes it’s even a level above, because they know they have an obligation to put on a big show — it’s like Broadway in that there are specific concepts and details involved.”

Audiences can be die-hard when it comes to authenticity, and tribute acts are diligent in recreating every mannerism of the original artist.

“The audience will go nuts at a certain point in the song, or at a particular guitar lick, or even when our bass player changes his stance,” Higgins said. “Because they recognize those small gestures. It’s almost like a game, trying to stay one step ahead. You don’t want them to say, ‘They were pretty close.’ You want them to say, ‘These guys have it down.’”

For the players themselves, perhaps the best part of being in a tribute act is having the visceral experience, for however brief a time, of stepping into the shoes of the performers that they grew up loving.

“We all have full-time jobs and mortgages,” Higgins said. “But when we play, we’re rock stars.”