Springingtiger's Blog

Don’t Turn Up Your Nose at Tribute Bands!


I went to The Ferry in Glasgow with my wife and a couple of friends to have dinner and see the Full Nelson, a Willie Nelson tribute band. The support band was Raging Twilight who described themselves as billed as ‘Support’ because they were the tribute band to tribute bands. A few years ago I remember the Incredible String Band saying that as they had no tribute band they were their own tribute band. And so for many people tribute bands are a subject for amusement and they laugh at those who go to see them because they’re not the real thing and they look down on the bands as mere imitators.

I prefer to look at the tribute bands purely in terms of entertainment. There was a time when very few people saw musical stars or very rarely. However the songs sung by the stars in the big city could be heard in pubs and music halls around the country. People bought sheet music to play at home. Back then people understood the distinction between celebrity and entertainment and they valued entertainment for its own sake whoever provided it.

It used to be commonplace before we had our network of roads and railways for small towns and villages to have amateur dramatics, troupes of actors and musicians who were not considered good enough for the ‘West End’ toured the country entertaining people in local theatres, town hall, in tents and on village greens. And people were glad to be entertained.

Since the invention of the phonograph people at home have been able to hear recording artists in their own homes. The cinema made stars of actors and singers and enabled many more people to see them than would ever have been possible in person in theatres. Carey Grant or Bing Crosby may not have actually been in the hall, but people were entertained.

The Beatles gave up performing live when they realised they could not hear what they were playing over the screams of the fans. If people could not hear them were they being entertained? Obviously not, but there is an experiential part of live performance that can never be completely captured on celluloid or vinyl (or whatever it is they use these days). A tribute act may not be the artist to whom they are paying tribute, but they are live entertainment.

Sometime it is difficult for people to get to see their heroes. Elvis never performed outside the USA and now he is gone. However there are many tribute acts bringing something of the experience of an Elvis concert to people around the world, some in clubs and some, like Lee Memphis King, in larger venues. Perhaps they are channelling something of the performer, more certainly they are channelling their love and respect for them into their performance and so it is entertaining. It should also be remembered that at a fraction of the cost of seeing the original artist a tribute act still provides entertainment.

It is sometimes forgotten that tribute acts are serious artists, some very accomplished and talented artists. There are few short cuts to fame and success for a tribute act. They pay their dues playing in pubs and clubs, living from hand to mouth, working in offices and factories by day and performing at night and some few manage to quit the day job and earn a living from performing. They can do so because they build up a hard earned reputation for providing live entertainment.

Tribute acts earn their pennies from performing live. The people who go to see them have the records of the originals so for most tribute acts there is no second stream of income from recordings. Some can sell recordings and videos because, again like Lee Memphis King they provide something other than an imitation of the original. Their tribute extends beyond the confines of imitation to provide a unique experience taking the spirit of the original into areas into which they had not gone. Sometimes the tribute may even sing their own songs or covers never sung by Elvis or whoever, in the style of the original revealing whole unfulfilled possibilities. Glimpsing what might have been sometimes add a whole new layer of wonder to the entertainment.

I am sitting here listening to Willie Nelson on CD and reflecting on how well last night’s tribute by Full Nelson caught his sound. It doesn’t really matter because I like these songs and I would like them sung by whoever sung them well whether they sounded like the original or not. The important thing is ultimately not who is performing, but is the audience entertained. If you are entertained to your satisfaction whether by an understudy in a play or by a tribute artist in a local venue, if you enjoy yourself, you have fun, what more do you need? What matters is not the celebrity, but the entertainment.


6 Comments so far
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Great article. I play in an Eagles tribute band Hotel Caledonia (played the Renfrew Ferry a few times) and I think that it’s probably a harder gig for the tribute bands because were expected to sound exactly like the record whereas the original artists can basically do what they like live. We do it because we love the music and hopefully the majority of our audience appreciate our efforts.

Comment by Francis

I am afraid I have never heard Hotel Caledonia play, I really should remedy that. Thanks for your comment.

Comment by springingtiger

Same here! Our Willie Nelson Tribute aims to match many of the recorded versions, and we just love the catalogue of songs he either wrote or made his own. Playing them to appreciative crowds is a total pleasure.

Comment by John (Keyboard)

Thanks for your kind words. It was a great night.

Comment by springingtiger

Glad to have entertained. There is a greater story to be told as to the whys and wherefores of our being / becoming a tribute act, Maybe an interview would be in order for your blog when we return for Willies Birthday in the New Year
Joe Full Nelson (bass)

Comment by Joe Dunn

That would be good. I am already looking forward to April.

Comment by springingtiger

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