Can Sacramento area tribute bands save rock ’n’ roll?
Johnny Reno paced a storage room thick with dust, lit only through a single window. The full-haired 66-year-old had just done his Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash impressions. In a few minutes, he’d return to the stage as Elvis Presley.
Reno straightened his disco collar and adjusted his gold medallion, He was strapped in a replica of the King’s white jumpsuit, a relic of the 1970s after his rockabilly days and a decade of kitschy Hollywood musicals.
Reno had three gigs that weekend. One at a classic car show in Stockton, another in St. Helena and this one at a dinner party before a golf tournament at the Northridge Country Club in Fair Oaks.
“This is my life,” he said.
He got his start as an Elvis impersonator in 1979, which means Reno has been Elvis longer than Elvis. Formerly based in Las Vegas and Reno, he’s now known as the Sacramento King.
He’s not the only Elvis in town, nor the only local musician reincarnating the golden years of rock ’n’ roll.
But are tribute bands and artists keeping the old music alive? Or are they keeping new bands from getting their big break? Or is it both?
The closing of longtime venues and sparse crowds mean it’s hard to be an up-and-comer in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, bands resurrecting the live performances of old music giants such as Tom Petty and the Beatles, down to the note and bowl-hair wig, are selling out saloons, theaters and restaurant-bars.
Why pay for the sweat-drenched antics of the real AC/DC, or the sonic-love ritual of Fleetwood Mac, when the tickets are cheaper, the parking isn’t a headache and the feeling is good enough? With audiences hungry for a blast from the past, can Reno and other trib-adours give the people what they want?
It took Aaron Linkin three years to become Paul McCartney. The toe-tapping, head-bobbing bassist sports a rounded British cadence and an upright demeanor onstage. He studied live footage and interviews to hone the McCartney character in MANIA!, a Sacramento Beatles tribute band.
The wannabe British Invasion is everywhere, in Southern California, Las Vegas and New York City. Nationally, the Fab Four and Rain dominate the Beatles tribute market. “Wherever they are, you don’t want to be in the same city at the same time,” Linkin said.
The four ram through costume changes, donning monochrome suits from the Ed Sullivan Show era and the kaleidoscopic uniforms of the 1967 album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They swap through 11 different guitars, including McCartney’s Hofner violin-bass and George Harrison’s signature Gretsch.
“We try to make it how the live Beatles experience would have been, whereas as the other [Beatles tributes] feel a little more sticky … and they’re playing caricatures,” Linkin said.
For Bay Area-based Fleetwood Mask, it’s musical theater. Claudette Rodrigues, who plays Stevie Nicks, lights chakras backstage, waves her own homemade crystal wands, gets into character and does vocal warm-ups for 40 minutes, meditating on why hits such as “Landslide” were written in the first place. On stage, Fleetwood Mac’s iconic romantic tensions between Nicks, Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham play out.
“You’re taking the elements of sound, vision and gesture and you’re wrapping them into a ball so that, god forbid, when Fleetwood Mac dies off, at least our children and children’s children will be able to have that experience,” Rodrigues said.
In Riff/Raff, it’s all about Angus Young. Visually, the local AC/DC tribute band relies on the manic leaps and duck walks made famous by the Australian rock troupe’s school-boy guitarist, played by David Chapman.
“The casual fans, they love the energy,” says Chapman. “But doing the total aspect of the AC/DC show, I’m a 53-year-old man, I’m not taking my shirt off for anybody.”
And then there are the all-female tribute bands—such as The Iron Maidens, Krewella (Mötley Crüe), Zepparella (Led Zeppelin) and Flock of Seagirls. They bring a big show and an empowering presence in a music industry dominated by male performers.
Audiences flock to the gigs, held at casinos, theaters, fairgrounds and bars. An April 2018 show at the Crest Theatre for Steelin’ Dan, Sacramento’s Steely Dan tribute band, sold more than 800 tickets at $25 to $45 a pop. Tickets for the real Steely Dan’s upcoming Sept. 13 show at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln range from $84 to $377.
Some fans prefer the Steelin’ Dan version of the songs, said Dave Buehler, the band’s keyboardist and manager. The original band’s founders, Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker, were known for producing immaculate recordings backed by world-class session musicians.
For Steelin’ Dan, and other groups such as San Francisco’s Tom Petty tribute band Petty Theft, the approach isn’t to dress up, but simply to celebrate the original compositions.
“We hear this a lot: ’We went to see Steely Dan, they’re great musicians, but they don’t play the music like the original recordings,’” Buehler said. “A band like that, they want to grow and express themselves and do things differently, so a lot of times they’ll play the hits in a different way.”
In Fleetwood Mac’s case, Nicks, at 71, now has a lower vocal register, so songs such as “Rhiannon” are modified live. Plus, the chance of ever seeing the band with its original lineup (guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was fired in 2018) are slim to none.
“Those days are done. So your tribute bands are the only way you can see that five lineup anymore,” Rodrigues said.
But even with fan bases of their own, and some bands such as The Iron Maidens touring globally, the tribute genre doesn’t get a lot of respect as an art form.
“The musicians that I knew [growing up], they looked at other musicians who were playing cover music … as sellouts or as non-authentic musical entities,” Linkin said. “But you go back to some of these greats: The Beatles were a cover band for years, in Germany; they were the Safari Band. Bob Dylan was a Woody Guthrie cover player before he started playing his own stuff. There’s a lot to be learned from digging into what other people do.”
The criticism of cover bands might come down to the money. While tribute bands such as Riff/Raff claim to play for no less than $3,500 a night, Sacramento’s scene can look dire for bands playing original music.
Low attendance at shows is a common complaint among local musicians and promoters. With the longtime owners of venues Blue Lamp and Old Ironsides announcing their sale in the last three months, newer artists could be losing key places to be heard. Will the growing success of tributes take their spotlight away?
‘The venue is king’
In Technicolor suits that scream, “Lighten up, man,” Wonderbread 5 leads the Opera House Saloon crowd through an endless sing-along through “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” “California Love” and “Paul Revere.”
Eleven miles away is the Friday night competition at the Powerhouse Pub in Folsom, where Thunder Cover rocks to a younger crowd.
At both venues, the weekends are all about tribute and cover bands. The party rock groups and nostalgia troupes keep the crowds, beer and food sales moving. Both venues reserve their main stage for covers and tributes, touring acts and established locals that can fill a several-hundred capacity venue. While Powerhouse hosts 98 Rock’s Local Licks for new talent, Opera House tried booking up-and-coming artists, with little success.
“We had the worst night ever, and it’s not because the band is awful, but nobody knows them,” said Opera House co-owner Rebecca Ryan.
The venue that leans most heavily on covers and tributes is Swabbies on the River, a West Sacramento open-air restaurant-bar. While there’s a smaller stage in the pirate-cabo themed venue often for original music, co-owner Chris Barbino says tribute and cover bands account for as much as 70% of bookings.
Barbino and his wife took over the venue over a decade ago, and it has been trial and error to find a successful business model. The method is simple: A high-turnout show means the band will return.
Barbino admits that he doesn’t have a strong connection to the music. His passions lie in running a business. “I book bands here I don’t like all the time,” he said.
The sales of Blue Lamp and Old Ironsides, which were not blamed on decreasing revenue, could mean a negative shift for local, original music, said Mark Gonzales, the main booker at Old Ironsides. He says he believes that tribute and cover bands take away opportunities from rising talent.
Venues such as Old Ironsides have historically been a place to nurture those artists, he says. Its Wednesday open-mic night is where local rock group Band of Coyotes met and formed. Hobo Johnson, the Sacramento rapper who signed to Warner Bros. Records last year, also got his start playing at open-mics, including the one at Old I.
By contrast, other businesses such as Ace of Spades, which is owned by industry giant Livenation, see tribute bands as an opportunity. A growing trend for touring artists is to pre-book a supporting act, eliminating a slot often held for local musicians. Meanwhile, Ace’s tribute events are often locally curated.
“If the music is going to be a good fit on the show, it’s easier to get that approved than some of the more high-profile acts,” said Raychel Sabath, Live Nation’s senior marketing manager in Northern California.
When it comes to show attendance, Sacramento is a fickle city, said Mike Barnes, who plays singer Brian Johnson in Riff/Raff.
“In Phoenix, you invite one person and 50 people show up,” he said. “In Sacramento, you invite 50 people, and one shows up.”
But being in a tribute band doesn’t mean an automatic draw. The current lineup of Steelin’ Dan played Harlow’s 17 times before they grew out of the venue and played the Crest Theatre.
“At the entry level, I totally understand that it can be difficult to find places to play. It’s really all about building your audience overtime and paying some dues,” Buehler said. “We did a lot of low-paying gigs to build up a following, and we got lucky, and it caught on.”
Barbino’s philosophy: “The venue is king.”
Keeping the music alive
Inside Just Like Heaven’s hideout, everything lies everywhere: bicycles, couches, Greek pedestals topped with beer bottles, an old butter knife next to the amplifiers and mixer.
It’s a grain silo in middle-of-nowhere Davis, a furnace on summer nights lit by a few hanging lamps. It’s where the Sacramento tribute band perfects its Cure tunes. This night, they were prepping for a show at the Rickshaw Stop club in San Francisco, opening for Flock of Seagirls and Erasure-esque.
David Horning, its Robert Smtih, formed the band in 2013, soon after picking up his son’s guitar at 43.
“I jokingly say that this is sort of my expression of mid-life crisis,” he said. Through Just Like Heaven, Horning is living out his teenage rock star dreams. His first idol was David Bowie, but he was too shy to form a band.
Now he plays Smith for fans of The Cure, covering his silver hair with a black wig and channeling the frontman’s pigeon-toed stance and sincere, introverted emotion onstage.
Horning isn’t alone in loving the strange ride that the tribute genre offers: the out-of-body experiences, the crying fans after shows and the catharsis of playing someone other than yourself.
“The experience is almost ego-less,” Horning said. “I really just try to empty myself out and give myself to the performance. … On the best nights, it can feel like this really amazing dream that’s actually happening.”
For Katie Ijams, who plays keytar, guitar and vocals in Flock of Seagirls, being in an all-female band means making a mark in a male-dominated industry.
“I can’t tell you how many mostly older dudes come up to us after gigs and say they were surprised we were so good,” she said. “It’s 2019, but it still happens.”
The band started originally as a Go-Go’s tribute, and Ijam’s hoping that through playing the songs of the ’80s rock idols she grew up with—Joan Jett, Cydni Lauper, Madonna—she can show younger girls that conquering the stage is possible.
“Especially when we play festival gigs or all-ages shows … all the little girls want to hold my guitar,” she said. “I think it’s an example that we all want to set. … One little chip off the patriarchy, I guess.”
Rodrigues joined Fleetwood Mask in her late 40s. A trained opera singer who dabbled in theater in college, she eventually left opera when her instructor said a professional future wasn’t in the stars. Her vibrato, like Stevie Nicks’, was out of control.
“They tried to fix it,” Rodrigues said. “Try to fix it? It’s like asking a fish not to swim. It’s part of me.”
Rodrigues says she bares a striking resemblance to Nicks in more than one way. They’re the same height, at 5-foot-1-and-a-half. They both went to private schools and lived a Bohemian lifestyle at a young age. For a time, her ex-husband played Lindsey Buckingham, so the awkward stage dynamic was real.
“Our lives parallel in more ways, that I can tell you,” Rodrigues said. “I’ve had people literally come up to me and stop me on the street going into Trader Joe’s asking me for an autograph. … I had some lady come up crying to tell me how much she loves my music. And I was like, what? … It’s kinda crazy.”
Even the original band’s founder, Mick Fleetwood, approves of the performance. Each Fleetwood Mask show opens with a video of his endorsement.
For Rodrigues, the performances keep the music alive.
“The days of the ’70s and ’60s, those were those days that you had free love—’Make love, not war’—you had the hippies, you had all this other stuff going on,” Rodrigues said. “It was a different feel, and I think people want those days back. They want the Day on the Green.”
Back in the dining hall of the Northridge Country Club, Johnny Reno lands onstage to a pre-recorded track of “C.C. Rider,” the upbeat Las-Vegas-style blues show-tune that was Presley’s entrance music.
He opens with “Welcome To My World,” a love song that feels appropriate for the meal. The dance floor is barren. The crowd is still eating their dinner and chatting.
Eventually the show energizes, Reno delivering “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” welcoming a few club members to twist. Some run up to take selfies, while others hug Reno mid-song.
Does Reno live up to the King?
For the most part, yes. His versions of ballads, especially “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” ring true, while the faster songs can’t quite match the rockabilly rasp and operatic howls of the legend. And the pelvic gyrations seem weaker.
“He hits about 90 percent of the notes, but about 2 percent of the notes, I really think about Elvis,” a man at the bar said.
The show ends with a meet-and-greet and more photos.
The night also happened to be the 42nd anniversary of Presley’s death. Reno said he didn’t have time to reminisce backstage before the performance, but the moment was no less meaningful.
“You know, back in the day, there weren’t very many Elvis impersonators. In the late ’70s, there were maybe two impersonators that were out that people knew about, when Elvis was still alive. And after he passed, there were more Elvis impersonators, more Elvis impersonators. Now there’s probably thousands and thousands around the world,” Reno said. “So at this rate, by the exponentional growth, I’m estimating that within another 10 years, everybody in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”