Keeping the legends alive
Tribute artists and concerts satisfy fans’ hunger for their favorite music
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
The music of Carole King, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Chicago and Led Zeppelin will fill the largest venues in El Paso and Southern New Mexico this season, thanks to the growing popularity of tribute bands and concerts.
The original singers and bands may not be on stage in person, but they’re there in spirit thanks to the talent and passion of performers who keep these legends alive. The fans agree, as many of the shows make return engagements.
Tribute concerts have become staples of the entertainment lineup at places like Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, the Flickinger Center and the Spencer Theatre. They’re also season regulars for for presenting organizations such as Broadway in El Paso, Showtime! El Paso and even the El Paso Symphony, as well as popular summertime series such as Music Under the Stars and Alfresco! Fridays.
For musicians, playing in a tribute band or show can be a way of sharing their love of their personal musical inspirations with not just nostalgic fans of a particular group or singer, but also with new generations that never had the chance to hear the original performers. Local tribute artists have made a name for themselves paying musical homage to musicians ranging from Elvis Presley, to Juan Gabriel and Neil Diamond, or bands like Chicago.
Audiences might not be able to enjoy a live performance from Prince, David Bowie or The Beatles anymore, but thanks to tribute shows, they can come pretty close.
Reaching new audiences
This season’s Broadway in El Paso shows include two hit musicals based on the lives of music legends including its season opener Beautiful: The Carol King Musical Sept. 19-24, which also includes tribute-style performances by other influential bands of the ’50s and ’60s, like the Drifters and the Shirelles. The Broadway series also will present “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” coming April 2, as the add-on performance to the regular series multi-show packages.
With Broadway style performances, the artists’ lives both on and off stage, as well as their music are in the spotlight, so performers with relatable, fascinating life stories are featured, such as Elvis or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The same holds true for “Beautiful,” according to the show’s producer Paul Blake.
“Carole King might be a native New Yorker, but her story of struggle and triumph is as universal as they come – and her music is loved the world over,” Blake said. “We know that audiences throughout the country will embrace this show just as Broadway and London audiences have.”
El Paso Symphony Orchestra has included increasingly popular tribute performances to their offering each in addition to their regular season performances. EPSO Operations Manager Rosemary Flores said the audience response has been very enthusiastic, including for its recent tribute performance “Classical Mystery Tour, A Tribute to the Beatles” in August.
“We have sold out shows to the Classical Mystery Tour, A Tribute to the Beatles,” The music of Queen was a blast and also sold out,” she said. “The first show we did was the music of Led Zeppelin and that show was so well received that it inspired us to continue to do them.”
Flores said the inspiration to create these types of performances was introducing their musicians and symphony to a different audience.
“There is an audience that would go to a rock concert but not to a symphony concert,” she said. “These shows brings awareness to the symphony to a different segment of our community.”
Having done musical tributes to artists from The Beatles to Prince, Flores said they would like to do a tribute to David Bowie in the future, among other artists. So far, Flores said the tributes shows have been a treat for not just the audience, but also for the performers.
“The audience always gives the symphony a huge round of applause when the rock group mentions them,” Flores said. “The symphony musicians love it.”
Other recent hit shows have included tributes to Juan Gabriel, Selena and Johnny Cash.
One returning performance to the El Paso music scene this October will open the season for Showtime! El Paso, when “Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes” starring Jason Petty takes the stage at the Abraham Chavez Theatre. Petty does not impersonate Williams, but faithfully performs the music interspersed with stories of the country music pioneer.
The Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts in Alto, N.M. is another venue that often incorporates tribute performances in its seasons, and will conclude its 2017 summer season Sept. 8 with “The Everly Brothers Experience featuring The Zmed Brothers.”
Also on the Spencer season schedule April 14 is “Bookends: Simon & Garfunkel Through The Years.”
Spencer Theater publicist Kathleen McDonald said some of the past tribute events patrons have “gone nuts” over include tributes to the Rolling Stones, Bee Gees, ABBA, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Motown groups, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, The Rat Pack, Sinatra, Andrew Sisters, the Platters, big bands and the Beatles. Some tributes, she said, sell out every time.
“And, they sell faster here than ‘new’ artists,” McDonald said. “Booking such groups makes perfect business sense for a performance hall such as ours – and even larger venues.”
She said the requests are always coming for more artist tributes, including more Rolling Stones, Queen, Dolly Parton, as well as tributes to artists who themselves have performed at the Spencer, such as the late Glen Campbell, who performed in the late 1990s, and Ray Price, who performed in 2001. McDonald also feels a Jerry Garcia or Neil Young would do very well.
“People have asked again for Brass Transit, the Chicago tribute,” McDonald said. “We’ve also had people ask again for Fab Four which sells out every time. And Satisfaction, and Rat Pack.”
She said these bands “pay homage to the artists, music and usually the live concert experience of those that created the original sound; they do so with reverence. This includes artists who are able to use a group’s original name, even if the founding members aren’t still part of them.
“Even though they may not contain any of the ‘original’ or founding members of the band and don’t call themselves tribute bands, such groups as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Dukes of Dixieland, the Texas Playboys, the Kingston Trio, the Buckinghams, Limelighters, the Four Freshmen, the Lovin’ Spoonful, etc. are tribute groups and they offer spot-on sound with spirited delivery,” McDonald explained. “They’re allowed to use the group’s original name because they are licensed to do so. The name is a trademark licensed to that one group or touring company using the name.”
McDonald said these groups are truly devoted to that music and are exceedingly true to the original sound.
“They perfectly recreate the distinctive tenor, spirit and feeling of the band or artist’s music at the height of their fame, oftentimes with a delivery more true to the original sound than the artist could offer up today,” she said. “Groups like Zepparella, an all female tribute group to Led Zepplin gives a fabulous serving of Zepplin’s original sound, Satisfaction (tribute to Rolling Stones), Evolution: A Tribute to Journey, Bjorn Again, a tribute to ABBA, Oh What A Night! A tribute to Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Brass Transit: A tribute to Chicago, Elvis tributes, Jerry Lee Lewis, on and on – all done with respect and love of that band or artist’s music.”
Some performers, such as those re-creating the sound and look of David Bowie or Prince, are able to allow fans to take a trip back in time and celebrate the memory or artists who helped define an era.
“David Brighton’s Space Oddity (was) a tribute to David Bowie that was mind-blowing in his recreation of Bowie’s very sound, spirit, body angling and delivery movements, looks, phases, with numerous costume changes,” McDonald said.
Overall, successful tribute artists and experiences simply “give people what they want,” McDonald said.
“People will pay for what they already know and love. They want that music, they revere that artist, they love the sound, they treasure the memories and fully appreciate how the tribute brings back fond memories to the here and now,” McDonald said.
“The popularity of tribute bands continues to grow because the fabulous music created by the original musicians was innovative, brilliant, fresh, captivating the imagination of the culture at large and oftentimes the world,” she said. “The music became the soundtracks of people’s lives, and certain bands delivered a level of musical artistry that will never die, even if the originals do.”
‘It feels like the real thing’
One of the most active venues for touring tribute bands is Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, which hosts free performances of tribute artists and bands most Saturday nights.
“By bringing in some of the nation’s best tributes people get to live the experience of listening to their favorite songs from their favorite artist without having to spend a ton of money or travel far,” Speaking Rock Production Manager Scott Brown said. “Most of these bands are scary how close they sound to the real artist.”
Brown said the Speaking Rock performances are free, and open to everyone age 18 and older. The center maintains a state-of-the-art audio and lighting system, including high-powered lasers. This helps make the audience feel like their attending a show by the actual artists, or even taking a trip to another time when bands who may no longer be together or touring were still in their prime.
“For a lot of people, it feels like the real thing,” he said. “It’s always great to see people light up when the first few notes of their favorite songs start playing.”
Brown said Speaking Rock hosts more than 100 tribute shows a year, and there are definitely crowd favorites including tributes to Journey, Pink Floyd, Metallica and the Eagles, which have drawn crowds of around 2,000 for their shows, he said.
Free summertime music festivals such as Music Under the Stars and Alfresco! Fridays are also ideal settings for tributes. Ismael Acosta, Marketing and Production Coordinator for the city’s Museums and Cultural Affairs Department, said these bands are always a fun experience.
“This gives El Pasoans the opportunity to experience some of their favorite artists without having to spend a lot of money for the show,” he said. “The tribute bands we have hosted at Music Under the Stars have worked very hard to replicate the stage shows and performance styles of the bands they cover. This really makes the audience respond to the artists and creates an amazing atmosphere.”
Some of the tributes bands featured at Music Under the Stars have included “Como la Flor a Selena tribute”; “Santana Experience”; Neon Circus (a Brooks and Dunn tribute band); and Departure, the Journey tribute band.
Acosta said the schedule for next summer hasn’t been yet been set, but they do get requests from audiences saying they want more tribute bands. This isn’t a surprise, as Acosta said the ones who have come have been extremely successful.
“Our experience with each of these artists was great, and the audience loved the shows,” Acosta said. “This past season at Music Under the Stars, Departure had the crowd singing along with every song, and there was hardly space on the dance floor during Neon Circus’s performance.”
‘We all fell in love with their music’
Not only does El Paso welcome touring tribute bands year round, the area has a few of its own tribute artists and bands who have gained their own loyal followers.
One of the most prolific local tribute bands currently performing is El Paso’s “Windy City,” a tribute to Chicago.
Windy City member Junie Chavez feels Chicago is an ideal band for a tribute, because their music reaches out to various age groups.
“We have nine members in Windy City ranging in age from the mid 30s to the early 60s and yet, we all grew up listening to the music of Chicago,” he said. “Different eras but still, it was Chicago and we all fell in love with their music.”
In addition, he said there is now five decades of music to draw from, thanks to Chicago’s longevity as performers.
“Chicago’s music now spans 50 years this year 2017, has touched the lives of many generations, so no matter what song they play, members of their audience, both young and not so young, have heard and listened and bought those songs and have gotten to love them,” Chavez explained. “That is what makes them so special.”
Chavez said there is much more to being a tribute artist than just covering the music; it has to be done right, and in the style of the artist or band being celebrated through the tribute show.
“One of the hardest things about working as a tribute band is, you can’t get away with just covering the meat of the song because people that come to hear us perform expect us to play the songs the way Chicago plays them, and that’s what we strive for, which makes each rehearsal intense and each performance so satisfying,” he said. “If you ask the people that have heard us, they will tell you the same thing, play it like they do, so we work very hard at it.”
He said in the band’s attention to detail in recreating Chicago’s music, one of the standouts of their performance is the enthusiasm of the crowds.
“Without the fans of Chicago that come out to listen to Windy City, we would be nothing, we would not exist,” he said. “We go by the old saying, ‘imitation is the greatest form of flattery’ and we want to flatter Chicago every time we go out to perform.
“When people come up to us after our performances and tell us how much they enjoyed the music and how well we played it, well that means the world to us and makes all the effort we put into rehearsals worthwhile,” Chavez said. “The fans make it very rewarding.”
With so many Chicago selections to choose from, Windy City is currently working on new songs for their busy spring and summer concert series season next year. Chavez said they love playing in front of El Paso’s receptive and enthusiastic crowds, but are also looking to expanding their audience to other cities in the United States. They are in the process of working on a promotional package to send out to other cities who want to hear “Windy City: El Paso’s Tribute Band to Chicago.”
Other local notable tribute artists range from solo performers like Elvis Tribute artist Bud Sanders, and Ciudad Juarez’s Juan Gabriel tribute artist Hugo Cortez, “La JG de Juarez.” There is also the “Play Me” a Neil Diamond Tribute show led by Las Cruces’s Chris Waggoner, and El Paso’s Tribute to Steely Dan, Hypnosis, with whom members of Windy City have performed.
Some popular bands don’t fall into the strict “tribute artist” definition but have built loyalties for paying homage to an entire decade or generation or music including regional favorites like ’50s and ’60s nostalgia band Oldies But Goodies, ’70s band Fungi Mungle and ’80s band Prime 80’Z.
All of these performers and bands have built audiences based on not only their loyalty to the performers themselves, but to the era and artist they all love.
Chavez said one of the best advertisements for any band, including tribute bands is word of mouth, and said anyone who hasn’t attended a performance by them before should ask those who have what they think.
“We would say, ask the people who have heard us and see what they have to say about Windy City, then come out and listen for yourself,” Chavez said. “Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed.”
Follow that tribute
Have a favorite band, music genre or artist? There’s likely a tribute band or show out there for them. Here’s a quick look to some of the many upcoming tribute shows coming to the El Paso and Southern New Mexico:
• The Everly Brothers Experience — The Everly Brothers Tribute featuring The Zmed Brothers is Sept. 2, at The Spencer Theater in Alto, N.M.
• ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ — The Tony and Grammy Award winning true story of Carole King runs Sept. 19-24, at The Plaza Theatre.
• ‘Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes’ — Showtime! El Paso opens its season with the nostalgic look at Hank Williams starring Jason Petty Oct. 13 at the Abraham Chavez Theatre. .
• Get The Led Out — The American Led Zeppelin performs Oct. 14, at the Flickinger Center for Performing Arts in Alamogordo.
• Brass Transit: The Chicago Tribute — Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra presents its Pops concert Jan. 13-14, at NMSU’s Atkinson Recital Hall; and Jan. 18 at the Flickinger Center.
• ‘Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story’ — Broadway in El Paso presents the musical April 2 at the Plaza Theatre.
• ABBA Fab — Grant County Community Concert Association closes its season with the “Ultimate ABBA Tribute” April 21, at WNMU Fine Arts Auditorium in Silver City.
• Simon and Garfunkel Through The Years — Dan Haynes and Pete Richards perform as the legendary duo April 14, at the Spencer Theater.
Speaking Rock Entertainment Center Tribute bands perform at 8 p.m. most Saturday nights. Age 18 and older welcome. Information: 860-7777 or speakingrockentertainment.com.
• Aug. 31: George Strait Tribute
• Sept. 2: Stevie Ray Vaughn Tribute
• Sept. 9: Green Day Tribute
• Sept. 16: Mötley Crüe Tribute
• Sept. 23: Aerosmith Tribute
• Sept. 30: Linkin Park Tribute.
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications