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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Almost famous: Tribute acts bring big hits — and bygone eras — to smaller venues

A trio of tribute artists in the burgeoning scene describe what it's like to embody a cultural icon in front of a packed house.

(CN) — Dressed in a feathered hat, suede bell bottoms and fantastically oversized glasses, Craig A. Meyer hops on his piano bench, plants a foot on his Steinway lid and belts out the final line to Elton John’s survival anthem “I’m Still Standing.”

When he returns to his seat amid hearty applause, he takes a breath and, in his best British accent, talks about "his" hits.

“Some of you don’t know all the lyrics to my songs,” he says.

Still in cheeky character, he performs a line from John’s hit “Bennie and the Jets,” but replaces “electric boots” with “electric boobs,” drawing laughter from the crowd.

“Speaking of boots,” he adds before he rises from his bench and hoists a foot onto his piano keys, displaying his glittery platform footwear and prompting more laughter.

Seeing Meyer portray John doesn’t compete with the sublime moment when a few hundred fans first witnessed a mostly unknown 23-year-old musical prodigy at the Troubadour in 1970, nor the one a few years later when 55,000 screamed as the rock and roll superstar appeared on the stage at Dodger Stadium. But for the 620 patrons who packed the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande, California, Meyer’s performance offered music lovers a nostalgic journey — and a joyous “Crocodile Rock” singalong.  

“From the moment I step out on the stage, I am Elton John,” Meyer said a few days before the show. “The accent, the wardrobe, the glasses, the hair, the teeth — the whole nine yards.”

While there has long been work for good Elvis impersonators both thick and thin, tribute acts had mostly been a novelty until the past decade, when venues began booking scores of tributes for classic bands from the 70s, 80s and beyond.

The increasing popularity of tribute acts might be attributed to several factors, including the exorbitant cost to see the still-active original acts (The Eagles), rock star retirements (Elton John) and mortality (George Michael).

Shannon Rae performs with her Linda Ronstadt tribute, Ronstadt Revival. Since Ronstadt can no longer perform her songs, Rae said she hopes to keep the music alive for fans. (Barbie Bates)

But perhaps more than anything, it’s the music.

“It’s a great alternative, and a lot of times people just want to hear the music that they love,” said Shannon Rae, who belts out Linda Ronstadt tunes with Ronstadt Revival.

At the Clark Center, where Rae will perform in September, tribute acts are now in regular rotation. Past shows offered homages to Whitney Houston, Queen, Tina Turner and Electric Light Orchestra. If those weren’t appealing, nearby venues offered tributes to Journey, the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac and — keeping it current — Taylor Swift.

If you missed Meyer’s Arroyo Grande show in June or Kenny Metcalf’s Elton John tribute at the Chumash Casino in January, there’s still time to catch Tom Cridland’s Elton John tribute at the nearby Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo this July. 

In short, there are a lot of tributes. So many that they've actually formed a community and often share a stage, socialize and attend each other’s shows. “We all see each other and talk to each other and try to help,” Rae said.

Tribute acts typically can avoid legal trouble by not using the original acts' trademarked logos or images and making it clear they are a tribute. Venues can pay licensing fees that allow tributes to play cover material. Many tribute bands feature seasoned pros with music degrees and resumes that include session work, soundtracks and musical theater. These aren’t just cover bands, and ticket prices, which can range from $40 to $75, reflect that.

Rae herself gained national exposure with a country rock band named Shannon Rae and 100 Proof. As her fanbase grew, she said, her manager offered her a chance to tour the country as an opening act for well-known recording artists, forcing her to choose between her career and her 10-year-old daughter.

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“I would be gone for anywhere from three to six months,” she said. “And I was, like, ‘I can’t leave my daughter.’ You know, your daughter needs you at 10.”

But while she was performing as an original act, she noticed the power of tributes. Her band shared the stage with Eagles tribute TLR (as in "The Long Run"), which packed venues.

When she learned a group of musicians were forming a Ronstadt tribute band, she donned a white blouse, stuck a rose in her hair and auditioned. For their first show, in February of 2020, Rae walked on stage and spotted a full house.

The show was a hit — and the phone was ringing off the hook, she said.

While Rae shares stories about Ronstadt during shows, she does not perform in character, like Meyer does. But Meyer is a trained actor who has appeared in theater, TV and film, with credits that include  “Will & Grace,” “General Hospital” and “Leatherheads.”

His Elton John has provided steady work for 15 years. “As an actor, that’s what we do," he said. "We continue to play different roles."

He was encouraged to pursue tribute acts by a friend who herself performs a Dolly Parton tribute, but his musical roots extend to childhood.

“I taught myself how to play piano probably when I was in about second grade or so,” Meyer said. “Music was always part of our household, and dancing was really the beginning of the performing side.”

Eagles tribute band TLR performs live. Many of the band members have also performed with other tribute acts. (Hilary Peters)

While Rae and Meyer perform as popular solo acts, TLR is a group effort, channeling the Eagles with multiple singers who capture the intricate harmonies that formed their trademark sound.

When the band formed in 1999, it set out ambitiously to hone the bulk of the Eagles' catalogue. “We were rehearsing three, sometimes four nights a week,” TLR co-founder Gary Grantham said. “We would multi-track every rehearsal and then dissect it.”

While he never considered himself a “high-end cover act,” Grantham admitted there’s financial incentive to being in a tribute band. The Eagles' 1976 greatest hits album is the top-selling album of all time because of its harmonies, intricate guitar licks, and blend of country and California rock. But if you want to see the Eagles live, your best bet is to be near a big city because the Eagles play stadiums — and charge considerably.

“The Eagles are not going to play a 600-seat venue,” Grantham said.

TLR has. And fans show up because they love the songs, which TLR has fine-tuned over the past quarter-century.

But it was inevitable that a new kid would come along.

Today there are multiple Eagles tribute bands — many named after the band’s greatest hits — including Hotel California, Heartache Tonight and Desperado. When Grantham and his band started, there were no other tribute acts named The Long Run, so they named their band after the 1979 hit.

"So, of course, as time goes on, we see more Long Runs coming up,” he said. “And don’t get me started on the marketing and promotional snafus that happen.”

After venues posted photos promoting the wrong Long Run, the band abbreviated to TLR.

Officially licensed by the Eagles management, TLR was one of several bands featured on the AXS show “The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.” During one show in Southern California, the band spotted a familiar face in the crowd: former Eagles bassist Randy Meisner.

“He had never seen an Eagles tribute show before,” Grantham said. “It was really a wonderful moment.”

The Ronstadt Revival acknowledges the audience. Many of Shannon Rae's outfits, which closely resemble Ronstadt's attire from the 70s, were made by her neighbor's mother. a seamstress who lives in Russia. (Photo/Desert Dragon Photography)

While some tribute acts seek to mimic a band's sound as authentically as possible, most are content with capturing the essence of the originals.

Rae, already an accomplished singer, took vocal lessons so she could holds notes longer. But she doesn’t try to replicate Ronstadt’s multiple-octave range. “I sound similar to Linda, but no one’s ever going to sound exactly like her,” she said.

Since Ronstadt’s singing was halted by Parkinson’s disease, Rae continues to perform songs like “Blue Bayou,” “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” live in ways Ronstadt can’t.

“We’re just trying to entertain you and share the music that you can’t go see any more,” Rae said.

On stage, Meyer looks the part, though his vocals aren’t quite as crisp as a young Elton John’s. But fans happily sing along to the famous “Crocodile Rock” la-la-la la-la’s. And as he and his band perform one hit after another — “Your Song,” “Yellow Brick Road,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” — fans are immersed in the sheer abundance of John’s catalogue.

So many hits.

“It is nostalgia, to a certain extent,” Meyer said. “But it’s also just great music.”

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