I was discussing the concept of tribute bands with some people at work (inspired by this link – I had no idea there were so many of them).
The discussion was limited, though, due to the fact that I have never gone to see a tribute band, and neither had any of the others in the conversation.
The question came up – what do you expect when you go to see a tribute band? Obviously, you want the band to sound like the original band and play that band’s hits, but assuming they do that reasonably well, what else would you judge them on?
Do the audiences get mad if the songs aren’t note-for-note recreations of the original, or do they permit the band some leeway for improvisation, so long as it is consistent with the overall aesthetic of the band?
Does the set consist entirely of songs that the original band was known to play, or can they introduce cover songs (played in the original band’s style) that were never actually recorded or played by the band? I would think it might be fun, for example, to hear an AC/DC tribute band throw in a cover, of, say, Green Day. Does anything like that ever happen?
I think of a “tribute” band as one that is more or less scrupulously devoted to recreating their chosen act. There are various levels of this; at the extreme, the guys in the Beatles tribute 1964 pretend to be John Paul George Ringo on stage, wearing moptop wigs and Beatle boots, calling each other by the Beatles’ names, and saying things like “Here’s one from our latest LP–that’s ‘record album’ for you Americans.” (They are Americans.)
A “cover” band can be far looser. They might play different people’s songs, a few originals, whatever, but they’re mainly getting gigs on the basis of being able to competently play a bunch of well-known tunes–not necessarily in slavish imitation of the originals.
There were a couple winking moments. “Paul’s going to sing one now…an oldie…they’re all oldies.” The festival crowd, ranging from little kids to people who in fact saw the Beatles in 1964, seemed to all have a genuinely good time. Everybody singing along to “Eight Days a Week”… well, you’d have to be pretty cynical to have resisted it.
Aside from them, I’ve seen several bands that don’t act the roles, but they do concentrate on musically emulating the particular members of their model. Dark Star Orchestra do this for the Grateful Dead, and add the twist that their specific set lists are copied from set lists of actual Dead concerts. For me, though, that kind of focused recreation is a bit contrary to the spirit of the Dead (who typically didn’t plan out their own sets so much). I like looser cover bands for that music.
I suppose in general adherence to an overall aesthetic is more important than slavish recreations or physical details of a stage presentation–but a lot of them work in a few details of presentation too, and audiences seem to like that.
Actual capacity to sing and dance is kind of a given. A genuine liking for the music (even if they don’t take it terribly seriously) helps. Bjorn Again do Abba pretty well. They wear the clothes, call each other by sound-alike mock names, and do all the hits, but there is a break in the middle part where one of the guys, in character, breaks into a huge stadium rock hair-band style guitar solo, which was very competently done.
I am no great Abba fan - I got dragged along for shits and giggles, and enjoyed myself. They have to play to multiple audience types. There are the crazed zealot fans who insist on the note-for-note replay, but they need a wider audience than that, so they also entertain casuals like me. It’s not hard, given that tribute bands have a proven product, but they kind of oscillate between reverence, and giving a broad wink to the silliness of what they are doing. Good comedy schtick revolving around the act seems to be a part of it.