Entertainment

Tribute bands portray their heroes, see a bigger payday

There is a man who dresses like another man, and that man dresses like a fire-breathing sex monster. This is not as uncommon as you might think.

In fact, there are a number of men, here in Kansas City, who dress up like other men, other sex monsters. And people pay good money to see them. Not as much money as they’d have to pay to see those original sex monsters, but then, that’s kind of the point.

Because, you see, the modern tribute band is born of the one-night stand of fantasy and economics.

Scott Jensen is 53 years old. He stands 6 feet 3 inches tall. He has worked as a maintenance man for the Mid-Continent Public Library system for 22 years. He has played music in cover bands his whole life. He has a tongue that’s weirdly long and oddly familiar.

On many weekends from spring to fall he and some other guys, some of whom he has been friends with since childhood, paint their faces and put on spandex and boots with 8-inch heels. They get onstage and perform as Almost Kiss, breathing fire and jumping around and singing songs about sex just like the original Kiss still does.

“I’m a 53-year-old man. My days of becoming a rock star are over,” he said. “But this is the next best thing for me.”

Almost Kiss is one of the most elaborate specimens from the musical genus the “tribute band,” of which Kansas City seems to have more than its share.

To sort this out: There are tribute bands and then there are cover bands. Cover bands play songs from a number of different artists, within genres or across time periods. These are the guys who dress normally and perform at a friend’s wedding.

Tribute bands adopt the style, mannerisms and music of a particular band, and their success depends on how well they can approximate the experience of seeing the original.

For Jensen, who performs as Almost Gene (as in Kiss frontman and reality-show fixture Gene Simmons), this process of becoming his musical hero is a part of the appeal of the whole thing. It’s about creating a fantasy for himself, his bandmates and the audience.

Which is why the band likes to have a lot of time to prepare before a show.

“Usually we can be ready in 90 minutes, sometimes less than that, but we always like to leave that little window of time to kind of transform into the character we’re gonna play,” Jensen said. “We’ve all got real lives, and to really do the tribute right — I know this sounds corny — but people want to see me acting like Gene. And that means that tongue’s gotta come out at least 20 times a song.”

Almost Gene inherited the prototype’s keen business sense. Almost Kiss sells T-shirts, thong underwear reading “Almost KISS” (for women), posters, key rings and refrigerator magnets.

“We’re kind of almost like the real Kiss,” Jensen said. “They’ve got 5,000 licensed items they sell. We’ve got 20.”

And why do they do all this?

“We work really hard to try to build up that connection between the band and the audience.”

There’s value in that connection, which simultaneously addresses the musician’s desire for the adoration of an audience, the audience’s desire for a certain kind of experience and the financial considerations that make the tribute band the smartest business model in the music industry today.

“I’ve played in cover bands my whole life, and we’re each lucky to make 50 bucks a night,” Jensen said. “But this whole tribute thing is a whole different world.”

Tribute city

The musicians and booking folk I talked to said Kansas City has a lot more good musicians than most places (and is underappreciated for it). They also told me that Kansas City has more tribute acts than most cities. It’s easy enough to see how the one begat the other.

There’s Poison Overdose (channeling Poison), Rattle and Hum KC (U2) and KC/DC (AC/DC). There’s Revelation (Journey), Paradise City (Guns N’ Roses), American Fool (John Mellencamp) and Silver Bullet (Bob Seger). There’s Looks That Kill (Motley Crue), Landslide (Fleetwood Mac) and Killer Queen (Queen with a female Freddie Mercury) and Four Fried Chickens and a Coke (Blues Brothers). There are also tributes to the Eagles, Tom Petty and Michael Jackson.

In fact, once you start to descend into the heart of the scene (there also is a Heart tribute band) and understand just how many tributes there are, a weird mix of paranoia and nostalgia sets in. First you begin to feel like everyone in the city straps on a long beard for a ZZ Top tribute (at least three different ones by my count), or fluffs out their hair in a Jersey way for one of a couple of Bon Jovi acts. But then you feel kind of glad that there are so many musicians in this town dedicated to preserving music you grew up with.

And it’s exactly the memories of those youthful yearnings that explain the popularity of tribute bands and why certain acts appear at certain times: Tributes are emerging on a generational schedule.

Larry Kips, one of the founders of KC tribute veterans Liverpool, said that nostalgia has been on about a 20-year cycle from original to tribute. When Kips and his bandmates first evolved their Beatles tribute from their cover band the Crayons in the late ’80s, the only tributes out there were for the Fab Four and Elvis. A quarter century later and look around. The tribute scene is dominated by baby boomer favorites from the ’70s and ’80s.

But we’re also starting to see the first bloom of Gen X wistfulness. Nirvana tributes are popping up all over, and here in KC look out for Facelift and Far Beyond Driven, tributes to Alice in Chains and Pantera, respectively, two of the biggest bands of the 1990s. (I’m not factoring Pantera’s 1980s glam period into this equation).

The acceleration of our culture affects our nostalgia, too, though, so be not surprised that Justin Bieber already has a tribute out there somewhere.

Are they all good? Certainly not.

It’s not just for indulging the yearnings of youth that so many tributes have appeared, though.

“Nowadays people are looking at tribute bands like, we can make more money,” Kips said.

Which might explain, according to Kips, why there were only a handful of Beatles tributes worldwide when Liverpool got started. Now there are hundreds.

Part of the reason is that, when the Crayons were playing, Kansas City and other towns had bar scenes where live music could run all week. Musicians could make a living playing out. One could make the argument that the combination of cheaper recorded music, changing values and the maturity of a certain postwar generation contributed to the decline of live music popularity.

The Crayons played a whole show as the Beatles one night in the late 1980s, wearing cheap costumes, and recognized the enthusiastic response meant a bigger audience and a bigger payday. Liverpool became one of the most popular and venerable Beatles tributes, a living museum with all the same model of instruments the original band used.

In the last five or 10 years, other musicians have come to the same conclusion as Kips.

“We’ve struggled with original music and anybody who’s been in an original band knows what it’s like to put your heart and soul into a song and get the polite golf clap,” said Gary Bertoncin, the Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 tribute Rattle and Hum KC.

They first got together to play a St. Patty’s Day party at RecordBar in 2006.

“The response from the show was so great that we immediately got flooded with requests from other venues to play.”

And slowly but surely they became the band. Singer Mike Jackson adopted the Bono glasses, Tony Trevino became more Edge-y. For an audience that may never see the original, this dedication is appreciated.

A cover band makes, musicians said, an average of $400 a night. But a tribute band can make $3,000-$5,000, up to $10,000 or more for a single night’s work. The tribute bands’ busy season is spring through fall, when fairs and festivals can attract big crowds to watch big shows.

Guys who played to sparsely crowded bars now stand before audiences numbering in the thousands. It makes good financial sense for those guys to put on those tights 40 or so times a year, and not just for the musicians but for the audience.

“To get Kiss to go there, we’re talking millions of dollars,” said Almost Gene Jensen. “To get us to go there — a lot less.”

Which passes savings on to the audience.

“They can’t afford to spend a hundred bucks to see Poison,” said Dan Tietjen, DT Seville (rather than C.C. DeVille) of Poison Overdose. “But they’ll spend 10 bucks to see us.”

The smartest guys on the stage

Tietjen also plays in Warrant tribute band Cheri Pie and will soon cover some guitar duties for a few shows with KC/DC. He’s a tribute to the closeness of the Kansas City music community.

“Kansas City’s like one big band, and if you’re a musician and you’re a nice guy, you’ll probably have other people call you,” he said.

Most tribute band musicians, like Almost Kiss’ Jensen, have day jobs. The tribute is a nice bit of supplemental income. Tietjen is one of a few who is a full-time musician. The ability to play in different bands helps.

And, it turns out, playing in multiple bands represents the next evolution in the tribute scene. The floundering economy has caught up with tribute bands too, and to make more money, some musicians are just becoming more characters.

Local original bands and even cover bands often sneer at the tribute concept, Tietjen said, “because it just makes them feel that they’re too good to do that, they’re too good to be somebody.” By which he means “somebody else.”

But as Frank Moyer, “president and janitor” of Kansas City booking agency AME Entertainment, said, being as many somebody elses as possible is the new way to go.

Moyer books bands for fairs and festivals nationwide; he says his 30-year-old company is the biggest producer of motorcycle festivals in the country. He has seen how events have tightened their purse strings in the last few years.

“These city fairs, county fairs, all this stuff, they’ve all had to do the same stuff,” he said, “You gotta figure out ways to trim your budget. The entertainment budget’s always the first to go.”

So tribute bands are a natural fit.

But why should a venue pay all the fees and costs to bring a bunch of bands around when one band can perform as many bands? Moyer points to outfits like the GNR tribute Paradise City, which is also Bob Seger tribute Silver Bullet, which is also Bon Jovi tribute Dead or Alive.

“There’s a reason why they’re a full-time group,” he said. “They do multiple tributes.”

Meaning they switch out costumes and songs and play different sets. They can open for themselves. For a three-day festival, Moyer can get three different headliners out of the same group of guys. It’s brilliant.

“It makes ’em worth more money. You don’t have to get an opening act,” he said. “It’s all in the advertising.”

The band makes more money. The festival gets a discount on multiple bands. And the audience? The audience sweats, blissfully ignorant in their riding chaps, never knowing that their Bob Seger is also their Bon Jovi.

This raises questions of authenticity, of course.

With this new species of tribute, we’ve come all the way back around to the cover band. But are these meta-tribute bands some kind of violation of the tribute band contract? Does an audience care that they’re seeing the same headliner over and over again? Do they want the real illusion, or is the illusion of the real illusion just fine?

Moyer is quick with an answer to that one, too. Consider Southern rockers Blackfoot, for example. They still tour, commanding $8,000 a show, he said. But there’s not a single member of the original band still performing; the current lineup was formed this year, younger than Almost Kiss or Poison Overdose or Rattle and Hum KC.

The boundary between “original” and “tribute” becomes something else entirely, something that each fan has to decide.

Shared dreams

John Henderson, KC/DC’s Brian Johnson, started out on karaoke. He was discovered by a fledgling tribute band that had been performing with a Bon Scott, AC/DC’s original lead singer who died early in the band’s career.

Needing someone to sing the other part of the AC/DC catalog, the band brought Henderson on. And now KC/DC does something that the original never could: Shows start with Bon Scott, who “dies” during the set and is replaced by Henderson’s Brian Johnson, coming in with “Hell’s Bells.”

Henderson doesn’t consider himself much of a musician.

“I have no talent other than I can smoke, drink and scream,” he said.

A fan himself, he understands the appeal of the tribute to an audience.

“You can sing two or three words and stick the mic out into the crowd and they’ll finish it. To me that’s the greatest thing about doing this,” he said. “It’s like a great big giant sing-along.”

“They’re living kind of a fantasy, really,” Poison Overdose’s Tietjen said.

“Even though it’s not Bret Michaels, they tell themselves that it is. It’s like a big pretend-fest.”

It’s easy to hear in talking to some of these musicians a bit of regret at not getting their own original music off the ground. The success they’ve found in being someone else must seem like a weird kind of accomplishment.

When they were young, listening to the very bands they’d grow up to become, they might have imagined making money and playing for huge crowds. And now, having made good money playing for a sea of fans screaming names not those of the band members, it’s easy to wonder if they feel like their youthful fantasies came true in a strange way. They are at the same time fans of a band and avatars for it.

“What’s real is the crowd and the fact that we’re having a good time and playing,” Tietjen said. “The dream is playing original music.”

Then again, there’s Scott Jensen — Almost Gene, the perennial cover-band musician.

“Where else can a 53-year-old man put on tights and get paid for it?” he said. “It’s just a dream of mine, and I’m living the dream.”

Coming up

A sampling of performances by Kansas City tribute bands:

• Almost Kiss performs June 15 at the Beaumont Club.

AlmostKiss.net

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• KC/DC plays at 9 p.m. June 9 at the Landing in Liberty.

KC/DC’s MySpace page

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• Rattle and Hum KC performs June 30 at Zona Rosa.

RattleAndHumKC.com

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• Liverpool performs Saturday at Summit Fair Shopping Center in Lee’s Summit.

LiverpoolBand.com.

• Killer Queen and Landslide will perform Saturday during Downtown Days in Lee’s Summit.

LeesSummitDowntownDays.com

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• Poison Overdose performs Aug. 18 at the Jobsite in Olathe.

PoisonOverdose.com

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• Looks That Kill will perform Saturday at RecordBar.

TheRecordBar.com

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