Tribute bands in Seattle are doing pretty darn well, playing venues like the Crocodile, Nectar and Tractor Tavern, and tapping into opportunities as the live music scene evolves.
On a recent Saturday night in Ballard, the boys in Tiger Tiger played to a sold-out crowd at the Sunset Tavern. Replete in vintage slim-cut sport coats, tuxedo shirts and headbands, they laid down Duran Duran hits and B-sides for a crowd of mostly 40-somethings who danced like they were young again. The band took a quick break, mopped off, changed outfits and returned as Whiplash Smile, a Billy Idol tribute band that kept booties shaking and drinks flowing till after midnight. A few weeks later, the same five guys appeared at the University Village Sounds of Summer concert series as Nite Wave, a third tribute band with a varied set list of New Wave songs. Nearly everywhere they went, they left a trail of ticket stubs and bar napkins in their wake. “We noticed there’s an audience that loves it,” lead singer Michael Henrichsen said. “People are coming out to our shows. We’re doing larger and larger shows. Last December we did two sold out shows at the Crocodile. For a cover band, 900 people, that’s stupid. Like, nobody should be doing that.” And yet Nite Wave is doing pretty darn well alongside a long list of local musicians who are following the same business model to tap into opportunities as the live music scene evolves.“We’re playing Nectar, we’re playing Tractor, we’re playing Crocodile,” guitar player Dave Dodge said. “Those places are for original music traditionally, and we’re killing it there.” “We sell out when a lot of the national touring bands don’t,” keyboardist Jim Simbe added. Tribute bands are nothing new. They’ve been around for decades, first evolving from the bar cover band tradition to take advantage of fans’ love for classic rock. There have been tribute bands for Led Zeppelin that have successfully toured the nation longer than the real Zeppelin did. And AC/DC has always been a hot target for tributes. Seattle’s Hell’s Belles, who earned an endorsement from the actual AC/DC, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. The all-female band plays more than 70 shows a year nationally and has traveled to Singapore, Jordan and Central America for gigs. “We didn’t think it would last this long,” Hell’s Belles guitarist Adrian Conner said. “How did we get here? It’s so cool, though. It’s really fun.”Lately, there’s been a blossoming of tribute bands in the area with dozens performing all over this summer. There’s so many, Conner fears the scene is “oversaturated.” Scan the Friday or Saturday concert listings and you’ll find a few every weekend. And the variety is impressive. There are tributes to Black Sabbath, The Cure, Green Day, Joy Division, New Order, Rage Against the Machine, The Drive-By Truckers, Alice Cooper, KISS, Depeche Mode, Prince, David Bowie, The Beastie Boys, Queensryche, John Prine, The Smiths, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and many more. The names are often hilarious. Johnny Cash alone has inspired both Petty Cash (Tom Petty and the Man in Black combined) and Cashed Out. And then there’s Mini-Van Morrison. And this being Seattle, of course there’s a wide range of groups celebrating the city’s grunge history with tributes to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone and many others. J.T. Phillips plays guitar in two of those bands, the Alice in Chains tribute Jar of Flies and the Soundgarden tribute Outshined. Both bands have been around for more than a decade and each has a different singer in front of the same four musicians. Their bookings are diverse. Jar of Flies will play an acoustic set at the Layne Staley Tribute Show on Aug. 22 at the Nectar Lounge and a full-band set Aug. 24 on Night 2 of the event at the Crocodile with part of the proceeds going to the late singer’s memorial fund to benefit Therapeutic Health Services. And Outshined will play a gig at the A Taste of Edmonds festival, with some of those proceeds going to the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation. “It is a true honor to do that music here in Seattle because people have such a very special relationship with it in a way that you might not for the other bands,” Phillips said. “Some of the best stories come from when we’re done playing and someone comes up and says, ‘Hey, that reminds me of …’ And I get to hear their story. Sometimes it’s like, ‘I remember seeing them at the Central in ’87.’ People have that intense connection, and thus attachment, to those bands that I don’t think necessarily you’d get with something like a Led Zeppelin tribute.” There’s a pretty simple reason for this outbreak of tribute bands. “They’re good money nights, let me put it that way,” said Dan Cowan, who owns the Tractor Tavern and helps book the Sunset Tavern as well. Cowan says he used to be more of a purist, preferring to book local and national bands that play originals. Locals playing original music can be a harder sell, though, and there are occasional gaps in touring acts. So he sometimes fills in those gaps with a tribute act. “Four out of five are like, wow, we can do 50 to 80% more bar business on nights like those,” Cowan said. “The crowd drinks and parties a bit more.” For many, the tribute-band gigs keep their dreams of a music career rolling. “How much do you want to beat your head against the wall for the age you’re at,” Nite Wave bassist Evan Galt said. “I was looking at 30-something and I was like, ‘We’re not going to be on posters in girls’ bedrooms.’ We thought, well, we want to play for lots of people and people like to listen to music they know.” Conner uses her share of Hell’s Belles’ profits to fund her eponymous rock trio. She credits the AC/DC band with not only contributing to the bottom line but with making her a better musician. Seventy-five shows a year is a trial by fire, one that has made her something she never imagined. “I realize that I’ve been able to grow as a person over time,” she said. “I was really shy before I got into this band. It was hard for me to be on stage and sing. Because of being able to do music, I was able to take singing lessons and grow as a person who gets up on stage and plays with this band. I’m an actor, a performer, an entertainer. I’ve become a different human being than when I joined this band.” The members of Other Truckers, made up of musicians from bands including All The Real Girls, Everson Pines and The Hasslers, discovered a shared admiration of Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers. They decided to team up to cover the music of songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley for sport, and a little cash.For Other Truckers singer-guitarist Trevor Lyon, the band is an expression of his love. He attended a DBT show in 2008 and it inspired him to pick up the guitar for the first time. He learned to play it by following along to DBT albums. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be a musician,” Lyon said. “Now it’s the only thing I wanna do. It’s all Patterson’s fault.” When he heard there was a Seattle-based tribute to the Truckers, the Portland-based Hood expressed bewilderment. “It’s very weird,” he said. “It’s surreal.” Hood says the Other Truckers are not alone. There’s another tribute band in Chattanooga, Tennessee, near where Hood and Cooley grew up in the Muscle Shoals area of north Alabama. And a lot of famous people got together and played a tribute show in Nashville a few years back. Some acts are dismissive of their shadow bands, but Hood is kind of into the idea. “It’s cool,” Hood said. “What I’d really like to see is a female one. I think a female Drive-By Truckers band, I would road trip to see that. Or if they had somebody doing Cooley’s songs in Spanish. Cooley would road trip for that. I’m pretty sure Cooley would get in the car and drive to go see that, and he doesn’t go see shows ever. Period.”