Paying Musical Homage To The Greats

Tribute Bands
Anthony Mason reports on tribute bands.

Fans at the sold-out Hilton in Atlantic City could hardly believe their ears: Forty years after their last official concert, the Beatles, it seemed, were back.

But of course, it wasn't John, Paul, George and Ringo onstage a few weeks ago. It was Steve, Joey, Joe and Ralph (and a fifth fake Beatle, Mark). They are the members of Rain, one of the world's premiere tribute bands.

"I liken it to the authors of Beatles books," Steve told CBS News correspondent Antony Mason. "They write out their stories to try to explain to the world what the Beatles were like at that time. We do the same thing, only on stage using their music."

Song after song, note for note, Rain tries to "become" the Beatles, from "Sgt. Pepper" through the "White Album" and beyond. And it seems to work.

"Close your eyes and just listen to these guys and you're listening to the Beatles," a father who went to the show with his daughter said.

"I love it because it's almost like being able to go back and see the real Beatles on tour. It's like stepping back in time," a woman said.

If you thought tribute bands were nothing but cheesy wanna-bes in sequined Elvis costumes, think again. Rain will sell 100,000 tickets this year, and the competition among rock legend imitators is fierce. There are no fewer than 50 Beatles tribute bands in this country alone, with names like 1964, Get Back, and the Bootleg Beatles. There's the Fab 4, the Fab 5 and even the Fab Faux. They are first-rate musicians who make a living playing second-hand music.

"I think the potential is gigantic," said concert promoter Jeff Parry. "The audience satisfaction is so cool. Because you see people coming out and they're just blown away. They've had so much fun."

For Parry, who has been promoting concerts for 30 years, his fastest-growing product is three tribute bands: Rain, The Led Zeppelin Experience, and The Pink Floyd Experience.

"The music's, as they say, 'classic,' right?" he said. "I mean, people are still going to hear Beethoven and Hayden, etc. If this is the same sort of thing, it's classic music, it's survived the ages. And so people wanna see it. They can buy the records, download it, but the inevitable experience is seeing something live."

If you can't afford $200 bucks for a ticket to the Stones, go see the band Satisfaction. Need a dose of Aerosmith? A fix of Hendrix? Partial to Kiss? Name the band; there are a dozen clones out there playing their music. Led Zeppelin bands are everywhere. There's even an all-female band called Lez Zeppelin.

"Once the name arrived there was no not doing it," lead guitarist Steph Paynes said. "I have to say I think it's one of the best band names ever. There's a complete skepticism, and really what it is is sexism, which exists. That sort of works in our favor. They don't really expect to see the real thing and then you can see it on their faces as we begin to play."

The name is intentionally irreverent, which lead singer Sara McLellan says fits the music.

"We're not trying to be gimmicky. I'm not wearing a blond, curly wig and trying to be like Robert (Plant)," she said. "We're keeping the truth and integrity of what they were doing so people who are fans of Led Zeppelin, and are real passionate honest-to-God fans, can come and see us and feel like they have that same experience, you know?"

Who wouldn't want to experience Bruce Springsteen up close and personal in a small New Jersey bar? While the Boss has moved on to stadiums, Matt Ryan gladly fills in. Springsteen was born in the U.S.A. and Ryan was born in Toronto, but even at an early age, his friends saw a resemblance.

"It was very frustrating for me, because ever since I was 17, maybe 16 years old, been nicknamed 'Boss,' 'Boss,' from high school on, and I didn't like it. We all want to be individuals," he said.

An accomplished musician, he tried to make it as Matt Ryan, but could not escape the Bruce comparisons.

"Everything I seemed to do in my life came down to, 'Yeah, when you start singing when it's all coming together, you really look like Bruce,'" he said.

So he "became" Bruce and his career took off. The key to success, he says, is not taking it too seriously.

"We've managed to get the idea across that we have a sense of humor about this thing, about what we're doing and we're up here partying and enjoying these tunes as much as they are," Ryan said. "It's really just performance art with a slant of comedy, and good hearted kick-up-your-heels fun."

So much fun even Clarence Clemmons, the real saxophonist in the real Springsteen's E. Street Band, caught the act and posed with Ryan after the show. And as for Springsteen himself?

"He knows what we're doing," Ryan said. "He's seen the Web site. He knows all about us, his management does, and the fact that he's left us alone, just making jokes about me on stage every now and then, is perfect. It's like, 'Okay, he got you,' I hope."

Tribute bands must pay licensing fees for the songs they borrow, but don't otherwise share the profits, and while the original artists rarely endorse their imitators, they don't discourage them, either.

"Let's face it - having all these tribute/experience acts, whatever out there, it just increases their brand," Ryan said. "They're gonna sell more records, T-shirts, etc. It's almost free advertising for them. We're spreading their brand continually, so it's good for them."

The golden age of rock 'n' roll may be fading and many of the legends are gone, but the music will live on as long as people want to hear it. There will always be someone willing to play it.