All Fillers, No Killers: A Novice’s Guide to Tribute Bands

We blame Elvis. The inimitable King was, well, imitated thousands of times, creating a cottage industry of Elvis  impersonators who paved the way for faux Marilyn Monroes, fake Barbra Streisands, etc. ad infinitum. Now we can add the Killers to the list of musicians deemed worthy of mimicry. That’s right, folks… coming to Jesus College in sunny Cambridge U.K., we present you with … the Fillers! These simu-Killers have actually recorded Brandon Flowers and Co.’s songs in the studio, creating what may well be the least original demo tape ever. Still, there is an art to the practice of aping other people’s music.

First, a distinction must be made between a “covers” band and a “tribute” band. A covers band is an outfit that is, in general, responsible for filling your local tavern with the sweet strains of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” every Friday night. It has one job: to play other bands’ songs and keep the party going. Quality is not the primary consideration here. There are some cover bands that break the mold, like Nouvelle Vague and lounge lizard Richard Cheese, but in general, cover bands tend to entertain delusions of grandeur, relying on the tried-and-true musical stylings of Foreigner and the like to break into the music biz.Then there are the tribute bands. In essence, tribute bands have the utmost respect for the groups they decide to cover and believe faithful renderings of their chosen artists’ catalogues to be the most reverential form of worship. These bands think that bringing the music of, say, Dokken, to a small venue in towns like Urbandale, Iowa is tantamount to a public service. Sure, there may be some hidden dreams of fame and fortune buried beneath the barrell chests of these grizzled brave hearts, but that certainly isn’t their goal.

And then there’s a sub-set of tribute band that aims to interpret the music of its forerunners with an infusion of panache and downright kitsch, thereby earning a following all its own. Throughout the years, these particular types of tribute bands have multiplied like Tribbles. Among our favorites:

THE MACHINE — This Pink Floyd tribute band earned the right to use all caps when spelling out its name, and in the tribute band netherworld, that means something, dammit! These guys take the true PF live sound (which has been extinct for 25 years) and reinterprets it, often improvising lengthy soundscapes in trademark Floyd style. Even The Wall producer Bob Ezrin has said, “These guys are great.”

Mini Kiss — True to their name, the members of this KISS tribute band are comprised entirely of “little people.” So they don’t play their own instruments and they perform over pre-recorded tracks. But who cares? Like the band that inspired it, Mini Kiss is more about the spectacle than the music itself.

Mandonna and Lez Zeppelin — Break out your Women’s Studies notes. The basic idea here is that members of the tribute band reverse the sex of the original performers to give the music a perspective from the opposite gender. Other bands worth mentioning are Cheap Chick (Cheap Trick), AC/DShe (AC/DC), and that band that plays “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in the film Old School. They rock.

Gabba — This band merges the melodies of ABBA with the garage aesthetics of the Ramones. Their approach to ABBA’s music is so unique, they’ve actually cut three studio albums that capture their live offerings.

The Dark Star Orchestra — Quite possibly the most talented and accomplished tribute band out there, these Grateful Dead fanatics take actual Dead set lists from any given year and perform the exact set onstage, but with their own improvisation and technique. They’re so good, half of Phish performed with them for a show in 1998. DSO plays roughly 200 shows a year, so they’ve definitely mastered their inspiration’s vagabond nature.

There are hundreds more, so tell us which one you guys love. While you’re at it, let us know about the bands that haven’t yet been covered (or, uh, tributed), but deserve to be. If you ask us, we’d love to see a Little Feat cover band with all the members over seven feet tall, or Ryan Adams playing the Strokes. Oh wait…

- Daniel Kreps