By Caroline Fontein
In Vegas, ’80s hair metal never died. Prince is still partying like it’s “1999.” The Bee Gees are still letting audiences know that they “should be dancing,” and songs from bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen are still played live.
This music is the product of tribute and cover bands. From legendary classic rock anthems to heav y metal, tribute and cover bands ensure that no matter when you come to Vegas, you’ll be able to hear your favorite music performed live with a panache reminiscent of the original.
Tribute bands vs. cover bands
While both perform the music of famous artists, there’s a distinction between tribute and cover bands in Vegas. Tribute bands wear costumes and alter their appearance to imitate the look of a specific band.
They also only perform music from that band. One example of this is “Purple Reign – the Ultimate Prince Tribute Show.” Led by frontman Jason Tenner, the group puts on a full-scale show emulating Prince and other characters from the movie “Purple Rain.” They’ve been in Vegas since 1997 and currently perform at Hooters.
Cover bands may or may not wear costumes and they typically perform music from more than one performer.
Steel Panther is one such act. They’ve been performing in Vegas since 1996 and today appear at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay and Green Valley Ranch. Donning spandex, black eyeliner and teased out hair, the group performs songs from acts including Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard.
“We’re not a tribute band…A tribute band is a band that’s trying to emulate and to be this particular band to the ‘T’, and we’re not doing that. We’re paying homage to a genre and encompassing many bands from that era,” said Steel Panther lead singer Ralph Saenz, who answered questions as his onstage persona Michael Starr.
Why be in a tribute or cover band?
Performers say the main reasons they start a tribute or cover band is because they love the music. As a performer, it allows you to play the music you love to audiences who are just as enthusiastic about the repertoire as you are.
“We all feel very lucky to be working as consistently as we do and playing exactly the type of music that we love,” said Yellow Brick Road bass player Dave St. John, who has been playing with the group since 2002.
Yellow Brick Road is a classic rock cover band committed to re-creating music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It started in 1997 as an Elton John tribute band and branched out to doing a wide repertoire of classic rock music including bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and AC/DC.
“It always goes back to the material. These are the kind of songs that people can’t seem to get enough of. They’re just legendary songs,” said St. John.
Steel Panther was inspired to do covers based on their love of ’80s hair metal, and they wanted to honor an era of decadence that faded away with the onset of grunge rock music.
“We want to bring back a time when you can f****** party, have a good time, enjoy yourself,” said Starr. “It’s about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”
For them, performing covers has also been a way for them to gain recognition as an original act. The group has always had original music, but it wasn’t until recently that record labels would take a look at their work.
“Being able to do cover stuff has enabled us to sell our original s*** now to a record label. They see the following that we have, and yeah, we’re pursuing a full onslaught of original heavy metal,” said Starr.
Another advantage of being in a tribute band or performing covers in Vegas is that some performers get an opportunity to play with the real artists when they come to town.
“To see the look of approval on their face is a good feeling, knowing that they feel you’re doing their material justice,” said St. John. “We’ve just been lucky enough to meet a lot of our idols.” Yellow Brick Road has been joined by various artists on stage including Journey guitarist Neal Schon, Sammy Hagar and Eddie Money.
Emulating a legend
They may not be playing original songs, but audiences still have high expectations for tribute and cover bands.
Mastering the look, sound and feel of international superstars is an art that can take years to perfect – just ask Michael Clift who portrays Barry Gibb in “The Australian Bee Gees Show” at the Excalibur. Re-creating Gibb’s falsetto voice was no easy task.
“I’m a baritone so it was definitely anything but natural,” said Clift.
“The Australian Bee Gees Show” started as an original band in Australia that also did covers on the side for corporate gigs. After realizing that no one was doing covers of Bee Gees songs, Clift and his band decided to take on that challenge.
“The solo voices are hard enough, but it’s really getting that brotherly blend and the preciseness of that. The Bee Gees spent a lot of time making sure their harmonies were a certain way. That’s probably the hardest to reproduce live,” said Clift.
What they didn’t have to work as hard on was their looks. Clift and his other band members bear an innate likeness to the real Bee Gees.
“People often say that you guys look like them and you sound like them. How did you guys come together? But, it was all by accident. I was a guitarist, and Wayne [Hosking], who does Maurice [Gibb], was a piano player so we picked our roles just based on the instruments that we played. Then we figured out whether or not we could do it,” said Clift.
They could. Since the band’s format ion in 1996 “T he Australian Bee Gees Show” has become the most successful Bee Gees tribute act today.
Before their current show opened at Excalibur, the group performed for five years, first at the Suncoast and later at the South Point.
“We have to make people forget that they’re watching a tribute band, just for an hour and a half and just get into the experience of it even though they always know what they’re seeing,” said Clift.
These bands continue to be successful because they give fans an opportunity to hear familiar music performed live with all the Vegas elements that people expect when they come to Sin City.
“I think the great thing about Vegas is that a lot of these casinos have spared no expense as far as their showroom and the quality of their sound and lighting. All the crews we’ve worked with are just top notch.
In other cities you might be lucky to find one great bar in town that has a decent sound system and a decent stage,” said St. John.
In addition to this, bands perform music that fans may not have the opportunity to hear live. Such is the case with the Prince tribute show.
“People don’t realize that [Prince] is still putting out music because of the big hits that he had back in the ’80s,” said Tenner.
When Prince does perform he’s usually supporting the album that he puts out, and songs like “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999” are seldom included in the set list. Tenner’s show is a rare opportunity for fans to hear those songs performed live and with the pizzazz that Prince is known for.
Yellow Brick Road offers fans a similar opportunity. They perform songs from some bands that are no longer around. They’re also committed to re-creating the songs as they sounded on the record or on the radio.
“I think people appreciate that. We don’t take liberties. The material is good enough as recorded originally, so we don’t feel the need to expand on that,” said St. John.
Along with the music, the bands continue to be popular because of the performers. These acts have become a staple in the city’s entertainment landscape.
“I think that groups like Purple Reign and Yellow Brick Road and Steel Panther, groups like that, they put on a show. There’s actually something in common there… We do more than just stand there and sing the songs with a little bit of choreography. They’re actually shows. They’re engaging, and I think only in
Vegas you’re going to see that,” said Tenner.