The Art of the Tribute Band: What It Means to Play Somebody Else

by | Apr 1, 2014 | MUSIC

“I used to be nasty about it. I used to be like: it’s a tribute band,” said Kelli Strawbridge, leader and James Brown role-player in The Big Payback, when asked the obtuse question, “What is it like to be in a cover band?”


“I used to be nasty about it. I used to be like: it’s a tribute band,” said Kelli Strawbridge, leader and James Brown role-player in The Big Payback, when asked the obtuse question, “What is it like to be in a cover band?”

To be clear: cover bands play everybody’s music; tribute bands are dedicated to one artist. Six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other, right? Eh, not quite. Thinking about it, the term “cover band” implies a certain triviality, an idea understandably irksome to musicians who spend a significant amount of time dedicating their practice to bands they love.

“I would think you’re officially a tribute band when you find yourself watching YouTube videos of the bands and then trying to mimic the way they move,” said Travis Tucker, the Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin tribute band Zep Replica.

I’m sitting outside the Camel with six musicians: Travis Tucker and Charlie Glenn are the frontman and guitarist of Zep Replica, which formed in 2010. Zep will be calling it quits next month. Nate and Chrissie Griffith are the frontman and bassist of Talking Heads tribute Fear of Music, which formed in October of last year. Finally, Kelli Strawbridge and Todd Herrington are the frontman and bassist of The Big Payback, an homage to James Brown that is now in its seventh year of existence.

I didn’t really know what to expect from a meeting with tribute band members. In my mind, I’d decided they’d all be super similar in appearance and demeanor to the people they emulated. This was my second dim assumption. I also decided they’d be super serious about their bands. Wrong again! There was no level of pretension, no weird snobbishness about the bands to whom these artists sing praise. Nate didn’t move around in weird ways like David Byrne, Travis certainly bears no resemblance to Robert Plant, and Kelli wasn’t a super wasted, mean-ass freak like James Brown.

So who are these people and what compelled them to start these bands?

Travis and Charlie met at CroweFest, where Charlie started playing Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” on Travis’ guitar. Someone jumped in on drums and Travis began singing. They then decided to start a tribute band. Boom, done. “It was meant to just be one show on Halloween,” said Travis, but here they are, still at it four years later.

The Big Payback began after Kelli subbed on drums for a gig Todd’s band was playing. “[At an after party,] around 4 am, Kelli started doing the splits,” said Todd. “Then, we just ended up talking and decided we should start a James Brown tribute band, just based on the fact that he can do the splits. I didn’t even know if he could sing.”

When the guys finally got to practicing, they played “Super Bad,” and the Big Payback took off.

“[Chrissie and I] got married, and we got a bunch of stuff, and somebody had given us Stop Making Sense, the movie,” said Nate. “We started watching it, and we were like ‘hey man! This is really cool. Girl bass player, weird lookin’ skinny dude, we could be these people.’”

Chrissie explained that she’s always paid attention and responded to bands with female bass players, the Talking Heads being no exception. Once the couple decided to do the tribute band, Chrissie learned all the albums, and a month or so later Fear of Music was born.

A lot of the conversation drifts from the interview questions and into Led Zeppelin, the Talking Heads, and James Brown. Listening to these six musicians talk about the bands they emulate exposes the real reasoning behind their projects: they truly honor the acts they are portraying.

“We started doing this because we love this music so much, we were moved to play it. We didn’t have any aspirations to play live gigs,” said Todd. “We were like, ‘I want to be in a room with like-minded people with the same love for this music and the same obsession, and I want to play it.’”

And these tribute bands are certainly not the center of any of their lives. Every person I’m speaking to has at least one other project going on. Nate and Chrissie are in Hypercolor, Todd just released a solo record and plays with Kelli in Mekong Xpress, Charlie is in The Trillions, and Travis laughed about how he’s newly available, since both his bands have recently split.

So when asked the awkward question of whether or not they initially thought being in a tribute band was, erm, lame-ish, they all explain that they’re involved in these particular bands for fun.

“I did struggle a little bit with the idea of it at first,” said Chrissie. “I thought, ‘Is this ethically something I want to do? Gee, how square could it be to play somebody else’s music. I’m not really sure if this is what I want to be doing.’ But, to play to a roomful of people who are losing their minds, it’s really rewarding in ways I didn’t expect it to be.”

Todd explained that for him, paying tribute to a band presents a different type of difficulty, versus writing original music. “Because you’re paying tribute to somebody, [you’re given] the framework,” he said. “And there’s a little bit of movement in that you can do a little bit of this instead of that, but you still have to keep it true to what you’re paying tribute to… Whereas, with original stuff, if I wanna zig instead of zag, I’ll zig.”

Travis said that once you have the music down, the shows are super easy because the audience – for the most part – goes bananas. “At a tribute show, people are connecting with you as the character you are, and they are fully into it. They’re giving everything they’ve got to you.”

Paying tribute also allows musicians to feel larger than life, a sensation they don’t necessarily experience when playing original stuff.

“It’s something you think about doing as a kid,” said Kelli. “You think about getting on stage and showing off… but by the time you start trying to get gigs, trying to make it, you forget about the fun aspect of [performing.] And doing this, it’s so much fun.”

To some at the table, the concept of a tribute band dates back long before music was as established and cemented in the collective consciousness.

“A symphony orchestra is also a tribute band,” said Nate. “You learn your instrument, you learn music by a composer who’s not in the band, and you perform it in the idea of playing tribute. And if a symphony isn’t paying tribute to Mozart or whoever, then they’re doing it wrong.”

You can catch all three of these local cover heavyweights, including Zep Replica’s final show, at the Canal Club on April 4th.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com




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