The Duffers’ Guide to Watching Tribute Acts

East of the M60’s cut-out-and-keep guide on how to watch your favourite group or singer immortalised by another one.

Saturday 21st July 1990, in the living room of East of the M60 Towers (well it would have been East of the A627 back then as the M60 wasn’t finished till October 2000), one of Granada Television’s most fondly remembered light entertainment shows began. The first person to sing among five others was a Kylie Minogue soundalike. A former Crackerjack presenter anchored each half hourly episode.

I am referring to Stars In Their Eyes, and one would be wondering why on earth I’m rabbiting about Leslie Crowther. The whole point is without Stars In Their Eyes, there probably wouldn’t have been a tribute act cottage industry like there is today. Provincial theatres and public houses would have closed earlier, and fans of long defunct groups would have otherwise been denied the opportunity of listening to their favourite songs in the best possible. Live. In a theatre or pub of course, rather than on recorded forms.

About Tribute Acts

TributeActVennDiagram

Somewhere within the Venn Diagram of Stars In Their Eyes and similar shows, Cover Bands and Karaoke Nights is the Tribute Act. During the time when Leslie Crowther’s show was first transmitted, pubs up and down the country opted for karaoke machines, either as an alternative to, or complementing, live acts. In the former case a cheap alternative to hiring a local band (cover versions or original material), in the same way hiring a DJ would have been instead of a quintet of rock musicians. Today, karaoke is just as likely to coexist with live music in a number of public houses.

Returning to the early 1990s, Granada Television’s programme and the rise in popularity in Karaoke was a continuation of a Do-It-Yourself spirit. Albeit one with backing tapes. Soon, amateurs would try to sound like Elvis Presley and those who made it from 20 people in The Newmarket to 20 million after teatime before Blind Date.

Some people went on to much bigger things and earned money being Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley, Madonna or Diana Ross for two hours at a time. Cue the professional tribute act. As well as television exposure, word of mouth and the internet have helped each act rise to fame.

Why Watch A Tribute Act?

My main reasons for watching a tribute act:

  1. Entertainment, along with other fans of your favourite group being immortalised in your home town or surrounding area;
  2. The music, how well the tribute act perform their songs and their likeness to the group which inspired them;
  3. Line up changes in your favourite group may have ruined your continued enjoyment of their music;
  4. There is no way of seeing the original line up of your favourite group owing to members moving to other groups or passing away;
  5. The ticket price of the tribute act is far less than the price of your favourite group (sometimes, the latter’s booking fee might equal the price of the tribute act’s ticket prices);
  6. The very principle of supporting live music: that – as per the Musicians’ Union – ‘Keep Music Live’ – most important of all, whether their muse is AC/DC, Supertramp or Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

I curse the people who think tribute acts are a lower form of entertainment than other genres. I think nothing of listening to a The Who tribute act at The Witchwood, after enjoying Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells album on YouTube before seeing Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band or a local singer. It is part of a balanced musical diet.

In the last twenty years I have seen some excellent tribute acts which sound every bit as good as the original artistes they immortalise. I have seen artistes on the first ladder to national stardom in local theatres and pubs. Many moons ago I saw Mercury, a Queen tribute act as you may imagine, at the Plaza Super Cinema and Theatre in Stockport and they sounded good then. On a later visit, they improved. Little did we know that Mercury would become the UK’s Best Tribute Act for 2013.

For many, it is a cheaper way of enjoying the music of your favourite group. Booking fees can be exorbitant and venues may be less accessible on public transport if you wish to see the genuine article. Before you choose to see your tribute act, you may prefer to see how good they are on YouTube before booking tickets or calling in your local pub. Or you could ask friends and family. It is through the latter I found out about Mercury and an excellent Elvis Presley tribute act by the name of Chris Connor.

More than anything, it is the principle of supporting live performance. Whether your favoured group is singing A Kind of Magic or an original composition, music was meant to be enjoyed communally first and foremost, and at a personal level, secondly through headphones or speakers.

Recommended Tribute Acts

  • The ELO Experience: an excellent tribute to Jeff Lynne’s group. I had the joy of seeing them at the Plaza Super Cinema and theatre in Stockport. The person who did Kelly Groucutt’s part was faultless;
  • Chris Connor: if you live in Oldham or Tameside, there’s every chance you would have come across this fellow in the Shaw Playhouse 2 theatre. In the last three years he has consolidated himself as a fantastic Elvis Presley tribute act. Definitely one to watch as Mr. Connor has played to good audiences in larger theatres;
  • Mercury: probably the best Queen tribute act at this very moment! I have seen them a few times and they’ve improved with each performance. One could close their eyes and imagine hearing the real Brian May on guitar;
  • Ed Hintze: if you’re ever in Weymouth, Poole, Swanage or around that way, he is an unmissable Elton John tribute act. In 2009, I saw him in the Number 6 pub in Weymouth, his vocal delivery and piano playing was brilliant. He now comes under the name of Ed Zelton.

Tribute Act Myths Debunked

  • They’re playing somebody else’s song, they can’t be that good: to play guitar note perfect to Brian May’s standards, or hit Elton John’s high notes isn’t something to be underestimated. We never judge the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra along those lines for playing classical pieces;
  • It’s not like seeing the original group, so they’ll never be as good as Queen/Pink Floyd/Supertramp/Insane Clown Posse: obviously not because one member of Logical Tramp looks nothing like Rick Davies nor Roger Hodgson! They replicate as closely as possible the group(s) or artistes which inspired them;
  • It’s nearly all cover versions: obviously – that is why you’ve come to see a tribute act! However, some have secondary roles as other groups performing original material. The tribute act could be a profitable sideline which enables their second group to flourish;
  • You only see musical tribute acts: increasingly we also see tribute acts in comedy. For example, we now have a Peter Kay tribute act touring pubs, clubs and theatres;
  • They only do rock and pop music: we’ve come a long way from the stereotypical tribute act paying homage to Elvis, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Michael Bublé has also inspired a few tribute acts. Some, more akin to cover groups, pay homage to a certain label like Motown or Stax. There’s even a Half Man Half Biscuit tribute act called It Aint Half Man, Mum;
  • They all tend to have cheesy names like AC/DO or Are You Experienced?: not always. Take for example Chris Connor, he uses his own name though known for his Elvis Presley tribute act. Sometimes, artistes tend to have a name linked with the act they are immortalising. ‘Are You Experienced?’ for example is a Jimi Hendrix tribute act with the name from an album title;
  • They never do the big cities: not necessarily true, sometimes they do once they’ve outgrown the provincial venues. Local theatres such as the Mowlem in Swanage and the Billingham Forum are often starting grounds where they could gain local recognition and further exposure in the local press or online;
  • They only do theatres, pubs and clubs: don’t forget restaurants, cruise ships, gala dinners, shareholders’ meetings, holiday camps, hotels or open air festivals! There’s even a rock festival devoted to tribute acts entitled Glastonbudget.

Whether they play original material or otherwise, they are ultimately artistes. Musicians. Members of a popular music group regardless of genre from progressive rock to skiffle. Luckily for those who made it onto television, the boards of the Palace Theatre in Manchester or a Blackpool cabaret club, it’s a living. A livelihood. A labour of love.

Like the artistes they are inspired by, they too need your support all the same as countless other groups did in their formative years. They’ll appreciate it if you buy their merchandise, join their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, purchase their albums and better still, support them at a nearby venue.

Further Reading:

  • Glastonbudget: official website of the music festival devoted to tribute acts;
  • Mercury: the greatest Queen tribute act? Don’t just take our word for it, see the official website of the National UK Tribute Award Winners for 2013;
  • Elvis The Ultimate Performance: the official website of Chris Connor, Elvis Presley tribute act extraordinaire and Royton’s finest.
  • The Fillers: if you’re human, there’s no prizes for guessing whom they are a tribute act for?
  • Legends Blackpool: now at The Sands adjacent to North Pier, Trevor Chance’s Legends show is a long running fixture featuring a select few of the UK’s greatest tribute acts. It also features Tom Bright, familiar to some television fanatics and children of the 1970s as the man who sang the theme tune for TISWAS;
  • The Witchwood: legendary Ashton-under-Lyne pub with a mix of tribute acts and original groups, including unsigned groups. Also famed for its real ale.

S.V., 05 November 2013.

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