Tribute bands keep classic rock acts’ music live and alive

Randy Hansen lost his father when he was 10 years old. He was close to his dad, and the death hit him hard.

A friend’s father was quick to see Randy needed something to focus on. Randy was hanging out with his friend one day when the boy’s dad approached him.

“He grabbed me by the shirt and throws me in a chair and says, ‘Stay right there,’ ” Hansen said. “He comes back out of the bedroom with a Martin guitar and a Gibson acoustic, puts the Martin in my hands, forms my fingers into a chord, puts a pick in my hands and tells me to shake it like a thermometer. And I’m strumming my first E chord.”

Hansen was like a lot of kids growing up in the 1960s, with dreams of becoming a rock star like Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix.

Except that Hansen did grow up to be a rock star. And on stage, very much like Jimi Hendrix, the influential rock guitarist who died in 1970.

‘Are You Experienced?’

The Seattle native, if not the Northwest’s original big tribute act, certainly is among the first, forming his Hendrix tribute band, Machine Gun, in 1977. Nearly 40 years later, Hansen is still playing Hendrix’s music along with his own in that screaming guitar style at casino clubs, theaters and festivals in the Northwest, the U.S. and Europe.

Hansen has earned praise from fans and other musicians for his recreation of Hendrix.

Hansen strives for authenticity, to a fault.

“I’ve probably broke about 50 guitars. I do it every so often, if the mood hits me. And sometimes it hits when I’m holding a really nice guitar. A song will take me away,” Hansen said. “It’s just what the music does to me, since I was a kid. When I was learning guitar, I’d be diving around my front room, jumping on furniture and rolling over things.”

Hansen plays Hendrix among a who’s who of classic rock tributes in the region.

Name a rock act and you probably can find a tribute band playing on a stage near you. Neil Diamond fans have Cherry, Cherry. If you want to yell out “Free Bird!” at a concert, Whiskey River meets your Lynyrd Skynyrd needs. At least two Beatles bands — British Export and Creme Tangerine — bring back the Fab Four. Midnight Rambler provides “Satisfaction” to Rolling Stones enthusiasts.

Already this summer, the Historic Everett Theatre has hosted a John Denver tribute by Olympia’s Ted Vigil, and Elvis, in the form of Lynnwood’s Tracy Alan Moore, performs there Saturday. Tribute acts continue at the Historic Everett through the year. Tulalip Casino’s Canoes Cabaret offers a free tribute show every Sunday night. And several bands are playing at the Taste of Edmonds festival next weekend, including British Export, Cherry Cherry, Heart by Heart, Shambala (Three Dog Night) and Atomic Punks (Van Halen).

Elvis is in the Safeway

Cover bands, playing from the catalogs of famous musicians, have been around as long as rock music, playing high school dances, wedding receptions and the garage next door. But tribute bands build on the music. Along with playing the songs, sometimes note-for-note, the tributes attempt to inhabit the band’s persona, dressing in costume, playing the characters, recreating the moment.

For Lynnwood’s Tracy Alan Moore, who got his start 20 years ago performing as Elvis for Valentine’s Day at the Safeway where he worked, tribute acts allow fans of the music to see it performed live when the original bands or musicians are no longer on the road or, as with Elvis, long departed.

“With my show, people love to step back in time and hear the songs that were popular back in high school,” he said. “People want to see Van Halen and The Cars and (Tom) Petty, Heart, Ted Nugent, the Stones, ZZ Top, all those bands. It’s an appreciation for the music.”

For some, it’s their first chance to see the music performed live, Moore said.

“Maybe it’s a chance for people to see a concert that they didn’t have money to see when they were kids. I know I always wanted to see a Stones show,” he said.

Recipe for a Stone

Midnight Rambler puts on a Stones show.

Ciggy Cater doesn’t have to fake a British accent to perform as Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The Mountlake Terrace resident grew up in England, and bought his first 45 in ‘69, a purple label Decca of “Honky Tonk Woman” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with money he’d stolen from his dad’s pants pocket.

“Don’t tell me Dad,” he said.

“Classic rock acts are a dime a dozen. A lot of talented musicians can play the pop songs,” Cater said.

For musicians to make it as a tribute act, the fans expect a recreation of the band, their dress, stage presence and mannerisms.

“Those kind of tribute acts that go the full mile, they’re the ones that are going to stand the test of time. The guys that walk on with torn jeans and T-shirts doing CCR and Journey are not going to cut it,” he said.

For Cater, playing Richards demands attention to detail.

Cater bears some resemblance to Richards.

“That’s a two-edged sword,” Cater said, alluding to a rock star who wears every day of his life on his face.

“I haven’t been ridden hard and put away wet as often as he has, but my priority is to take his mannerisms and dress code, Keith’s animal prints and swagger and some of his violence towards Mick and then some eyeliner and a leopard print headband and let Jagger mess up me hair. That’s the recipe,” he said.

The illusion is crucial. Especially after a couple of drinks, Cater said, people want to play along that they’re really watching the Stones.

“I’ve had grown men, 55 to 65, yelling, ‘Keith, Keith, my wife loves you.’ They come as fans and just want some of the fairy dust to rub off on them,” he said.

‘Free Bird!’

Bill Majkut sees that, too.

Whiskey River, formed in 1982, five years after the plane crash that claimed the lives of three of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s nine members, may be second only to Hansen as the longest-running tribute act in the Northwest. The goal is the same.

“Our objective is to create a time machine, let the audience go back 35 years to their youth,” Majkut said, when Lynyrd Skynyrd pioneered its southern boogie rock sound.

Key to that for the band is authenticity. And practice.

“We rehearse every week for three hours,” Majkut said. “Note for note.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, nine of the band’s members packed themselves into the basement room of a south Everett split-level.

Amplifiers lined the walls, stacked one on top of the other. Set lists hang next to concert posters or litter the floor. Monitors occupied what little space in the middle of the room wasn’t taken up by the drum kit, the keyboards, cables, guitar pedals and the musicians themselves.

It’s a warm day, and the speakers are pushing out more air than the one fan.

The rehearsal is no-nonsense, with little comments between songs. Just measures into “Gimme Me Back My Bullets,” the music stops abruptly.

“All of a sudden it got a lot faster,” says one of the guitarists.

“I’m leading the band,” reminds drummer Don Hales. “It doesn’t matter.”

A couple beats and the band dives back in.

“What we hope for is a celebration, to see our audience, from 5-year-olds to 70, singing all the words. It’s universal music and I’m happy to play it for a new generation,” Majkut said.

Meet not The Beatles

Tribute bands have to strut a fine line, close enough to the originals to entertain fans, but not so close that they violate copyright laws.

Jim Martin, who moved his band, British Export, from Chicago to Seattle in 2009, is the band’s Paul McCartney. Martin had been the band’s Ringo Starr but quickly learned the left-handed bass when their Paul left, presumably not for a Wings tribute.

“Apple’s still in charge of the catalog and very protective of their music,” Martin said.

As long as it’s labeled as a tribute and performed live, the band doesn’t have to pay royalties to the copyright holder.

“Where we could get into trouble is if we sampled any of the songs in the catalog or use any of the images, the logo. We can’t say, ‘We’re The Beatles,’ or have The Beatles logo on the drum skin,” he said.

Other than that, British Export attempts to keep the illusion alive, playing through the catalog album by album, making costume changes for each era, from the suits and ties of the “Ed Sullivan Show” to Sgt. Pepper’s silk regalia.But the audience that Martin sees aren’t just older fans reliving their youth.

“Surprisingly enough, a number of people in the audience are baby boomers, but I would say a great portion is an amazing collection of kids who just love the music and bring their moms and days,” he said. “There will always be Beatles fans.”

The girls in the band

And sometimes a tribute act can introduce new fans to the original band.

An AC/DC tribute band, assuming its musicians have the musical chops, brings with it its own loyal following of hard rockers. Hell’s Belles sells itself as the “World Famous All-Female AC/DC Tribute.” The music is played with the same enthusiasm and stage antics as the original, said Adrian Conner, who grew up in Federal Way but now lives in Austin, Texas.

Conner is the Belles’ Angus Young. The guitar licks and the cap are the same, but rather than Young’s trademark schoolboy shorts, Conner wears a skirt.

After joining the band, Conner made herself a student of Angus, watching video tapes of his performances.

“I’ve seen other Anguses, guys trying to do the movements, but they just look tired, like the movements have control over them, rather than them having control over the music,” she said.

What an all-female act brings to the stage is the ability to involve new fans. Conner has seen women who never paid attention to the testosterone-driven AC/DC come to a concert and be won over by the music and the energy.

“It opens up the music to fans who haven’t heard it before,” she said.

And the band has branched out to reach even more fans. The same musicians in Hell’s Belles also perform a Judas Priest tribute dubbed Belles Bent for Leather.

By any other name

While you can’t judge a band by its name, a turn of phrase can help a band get attention, as Hell’s Belles and Belles Bent for Leather show.

Same for Petty Thief.

“I think it was our first bass player back in 2006, who came up with that,” said Andy Vollmer of Snohomish, who provides guitar work and lead vocals for a Tom Petty tribute.

“It just kind of stuck. At first we called ourselves Refugees, but that one kinda sounded corny,” said Andy Vollmer of Snohomish, who provides guitar work and lead vocals for a Tom Petty tribute band. “Petty Thief works because we’re kinda stealing the music.”

But you also have to pick the right act to emulate, Vollmer said.

“People love to sing along to Petty. We always get a good reaction,” he said. “Another reason I chose him is that very few of his songs are duds, and he’s got a huge catalog of songs.”

Unlike some of the other bands, Vollmer said, Petty Thief skips the costumes and theatrics, mostly because that isn’t part of Petty’s act to begin with, but also because Vollmer wants it to be about Petty’s music, all of it.

“We try to play as many of the popular hits that everybody knows, then try to put in some not-so-popular ones that we really like to keep it fresh,” he said.

Still, familiarity breeds a following.

“Tributes always do really well because the music is recognizable. People know the songs,” he said.

Randy Hansen agrees.

“Tribute bands are doing a great service by keeping the music going, playing it live,” he said. “ And people can experience, somewhat, what the band was like.”

In tribute

Among the tribute bands playing at the Historic Everett Theatre:

  • Tracey Alan Moore, 8 p.m. Aug. 9
  • Whiskey River, 8 p.m. Aug. 16
  • British Export, 8 p.m. Aug. 23
  • Petty Thief (with Silver, Blue and Gold and Main Street), 7 p.m. Sept. 20.
  • Midnight Rambler, 8 p.m. Sept. 27
  • Randy Hansen, 8 p.m. Oct. 4
  • Heart by Heart, 8 p.m. Dec. 20
  • Among tributes at Tulalip Casino Canoes Cabaret:
  • Randy Hansen, 8 p.m. Aug. 24
  • Hell’s Belles, 8 p.m. Sept. 21
  • British Export, 8 p.m. Nov. 2
  • Whiskey River, 8 p.m. Dec. 28

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