Why I Should Like Tribute Bands Is Precisely Why I Don’t

tribute bands

On this episode Todd and Tony take a look at tribute bands, which are a particular phenomenon here at the beach.

Just about a decade ago a friend took me to a heavy metal show. It was one of those “Monsters of Rock” kind of events with a bunch of great, if aging, heavy metal acts. We saw Judas Priest and Black Sabbath (featuring Ronnie James Dio and going under the name “Heaven and Hell”) and I feel like maybe one more.

The thing was, I attended ironically, willing to have a good time but primarily just to enjoy the spectacle of (mostly) 30-50 year old white guys pretending they were teenagers.

Much of the evening has escaped my memory, but the thing that sticks with me the most was that I went from making a snarky mental note about being the only person not wearing a black tee shirt (I wore a red Polo) to shouting along to every song and head-banging as best as I could. I completely was caught up in the moment and stayed caught up for the entire six or so hours we were there.

It’s important to understand that perspective when I say that I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would enjoy a tribute band in the same way.

If you’re not familiar, tribute bands are different from cover bands. Cover bands play other people’s music; tribute bands inhabit another band’s personality. Look- and soundalikes take the stage and perform as if they were the actual band. In most cases the crowd does the same. Chuck Klosterman did a great story on the movement and its conceits.


The Argument for Tribute Bands

In case you didn’t read the article, the biggest upside for a tribute band is that it gets to perform during a snapshot in time, a world where it is (say) always 1986. That is super appealing. It’s not really nostalgia. Instead, it is more like a weird time machine experiment.

You’re not just seeing Ratt (or whomever) but you’re seeing the band in a small club with a few hundred other people. Nostalgia is pretending the past was different than it was, this is more like creating a false past where your small town is really a big city and your favorite bar is some indie club where you can catch the hottest new acts. It’s in some way like a cosplay event where some people dress as rock stars and other people dress as the fans of those rock stars.

So you’re not going as a person in their 40s, you’re going as a young person, whatever you you were during the snapshot. You get to dress up as yourself and slide into the best version of that life. Not how you could barely afford tickets or had a geometry exam hanging over your head. You’re the you at the concert, a you where and when three hours at a rock show separated you from all the shittiness and drama you went to the show to escape.

In a lot of ways it’s like a resurrection.

The Argument Against Old People Singing

I heard Paul McCartney’s voice crack during a performance of Maybe I’m Amazed in 1991 or so. I’ve heard he since has performed it fine but that’s not the point. The point is everyone in Madison Square Garden tasted death in that second.

There’s a real danger in watching aging performers. If Metallica’s rage seems manufactured, or Steven Tyler’s lasciviousness feels forced, or Elton John looks as if he’s trying too hard to be outrageous, it might take some of the steam out.

Tribute bands mean there are younger models out there for whom that never will be an issue.

There’s a really specific frailty that comes through when icons age. Sure it’s our own forced look at mortality, but caught up in that is who we thought we were then and who we know we are now. We can see a little of ourselves in their own missing youth and vigor. And paying $20 for a tribute band to make you forget yourself seems a much better return on investment than paying $200 (maybe a week’s 1980 wages) to be reminded you’re old.

In the end that’s what speaks most in favor of tribute bands. They’re less expensive and more accessible and the best of them are indistinguishable from the genuine (nostalgically remembered) article.

Show a Little Faith, There’s Magic in the Night

I don’t love being or getting old, but I’m not afraid of it. I may be a little less apt to surrender to the pure joy of a moment, but when I do it has a depth I never could have imagined. I expect that only will get truer.

When people get dressed up to go see tribute bands, they’re mustering energy, conjuring a good time that they started having the second they decided to go. There’s something wonderful about it and I don’t deny their good time for a second. I am skeptical that there’s joy to be had there, though, or magic.

After all we know it’s a trick, essentially an evening of role-playing where you pretend to be a Kiss fan and Mr. Speed pretends to be Kiss. Everyone knows where everyone stands. Nothing transformative or even real is going to happen to the pretend 20-year-old-you and the ersatz Kiss. It’s sex and pizza and there’s nothing wrong with either.

I used to be a party DJ playing weddings, birthday parties and the like. After witnessing enough 50th birthday parties, I promised myself then that when I had my 50th I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself by pretending to be young. Increasingly I’ve realized that a lot of people aren’t pretending. Rather, seeing their old friends rekindles their genuine youth. It strips away that things that make them “old” without them making a conscious effort.

That’s the kind of magic that can happen at a genuine show. You can get caught up in celebrating the purity of your connection with everyone else and when that happens you and the band are not pretending to still be young or even accepting the fact that you’ve gotten older. Instead, you’re timeless. You’re all the yous forever, even if it’s just for a few hours.

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