“I try to explain to people all the time that we’re really not a tribute band,” Steph Paynes, the lead guitarist for the “all girls, all Zeppelin” group Lez Zeppelin told me recently. “We’re really just a band.”
We’ve all had a few too many and found ourselves singing along riotously in a local dive bar to the strains of The Beatles, the Stones, The Doors or Led Zeppelin, then watched the videos on YouTube the next day at home after we’d sobered up and cringed at the obvious awfulness of what had seemed like an awesome musical moment. Perhaps the kind of music that tribute bands usually play is so much a part of our cultural DNA that we want them to be better than they are, but the sad truth is that most tribute bands are barely even pretenders.
A lucky few, however, pack them in at theaters and even arenas, and even rock some of the worlds’ biggest festivals, like Bonnaroo and the Isle of Wight.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Carlo Cantamessa, who has played John Lennon in The Cast of Beatlemania—an offshoot of the original 1970s Broadway show—for more than 30 years. “Originally we’d get people, and especially fellow musicians, asking why we weren’t doing our own music.”
“But once they saw how successful we’d become they all wanted to get in on the act, so to speak,” says Cantamessa. “It’s gotten to the point now that local promoters know that they can get an area tribute act for a fraction of the cost of bringing us in. But if they know our reputation, and especially if they have seen our show in comparison, I’m usually pretty confident they will choose us. It just isn’t as easy as it looks.”
Brit Floyd, a Pink Floyd tribute band, has become so popular that they’re following up the massive world tour the band undertook in 2013 and 2014 with another this year. Brit Floyd lead singer Damian Darlington was even asked to provide the music at David Gilmour’s birthday party in 1996, when the guitarist of the real Pink Floyd turned 50. At the lavish shindig, Darlington even shared the stage with Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright on a few songs.
“I think there’s some soul in there and that’s what sets Brit Floyd apart,” says Darlington. “It’s not enough to regurgitate the notes in an automatic fashion. To really connect with audiences, and to get them to keep coming back and telling their friends about you, you have to be a real band in every sense.”
More than a dash of production value helps, too. Brit Floyd, for example, offers a stunning state-of-the-art show, with high-tech lights and video and note-for-note recreations of Pink Floyd’s best-loved songs.
While the band’s shows are wildly successful in sheer economic terms, and remarkable in their musicianship as well, such big operations aren’t without the same pitfalls that effect all bands. “I don’t mind what they do,” Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason told me not long ago of his former band’s many imitators. “But I do find it endlessly amusing that they have to deal with members leaving and joining other (tribute) bands, just like we did.”
Then there are the one-in-a-million bands, like New York City’s Lez Zeppelin, who so inhabit the music of their heroes that they rise above mere “tribute band” status.
After slogging it out in clubs for years, Lez Zeppelin has hit on a line-up and sound that developed into something all its own. After 10 years of ups and downs, fans of the original Led Zeppelin will be shocked at not just the proficiency of the women who make up Lez Zeppelin, but the remarkable interplay between lead singer Shannon Conley and lead guitarist Steph Paynes. Taking a page from the onstage relationship between Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the two have exploded it for the modern day.
Lez Zeppelin are not note-for-note practitioners, unlike Brit Floyd, The Cast and so many others. Instead they capture the emotion of not just a Led Zeppelin concert, but a great rock and roll show, with extended jams, virtuoso improvisational sections and a healthy dash of sex appeal, exhibiting a passion and skill missing from most tribute acts and even many bands that play original music.
“There was something in Bob Dylan’s pursuit of Woody Guthrie that freed his own voice and I feel like that’s what has happened to me with Jimmy Page and the music of Led Zeppelin,” Paynes, Lez Zeppelin’s founder and lead guitarist, tells me. “As time passed, and we developed as a band, we found that the roots of the music came from a place that we identified with and that we felt we could take someplace new and special.”
Playing to thousands at Bonnaroo and the Isle of Wight—with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in the house, no less—hasn’t hurt either. “They’re extraordinary, very sensual,” Jimmy Page told me last year of his band’s doppelgangers. “They’ve got energy and enthusiasm and they’re superb musicians.”
“I told him, ‘Jimmy, it’s really hard being you,’” Paynes says of her own encounter with Page in London a few years ago. “He laughed and said, ‘I know’.”
“I recently went to see [another] Led Zeppelin tribute band,” Paynes goes on, in a sort of confession. “Of course they were guys and they’d put on wigs and they played every single note. I know because I’ve studied that music; I know it inside and out. But it had not an ounce of feeling, even when they were copying what were improvised passages from the original Led Zeppelin shows…If I’m going to improvise – the same way Jimmy Page did during, say, “No Quarter”—then it had better be pretty good. Not a note-for-note recreation, but with emotion and feeling and soul, and I don’t think that’s the business most tribute bands are in.”