Tribute band brings rock back to life


SW Londoner’s James Pozzi delves into the British love affair with the powerful entity of nostalgia.


By James Pozzi

“Are there any bands or artists dead or alive that you would have loved to have seen in the flesh?” is a question I often hear floating around in social circles.

Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain are just some of the names I would love to have witnessed in their pomp.

But being before this 25-year-old’s time, they now sadly play their stuff away from this mortal coil.

Back on earth, however, we are occasionally presented with unlikely second chances when acts reform.

Groups such as The Sex Pistols, The Police and Led Zeppelin have all got back together in recent times, with The Stone Roses following suit last October by reuniting for their first live dates since 1996.

On a cold Friday evening in November, I am in attendance at perhaps the most eagerly awaited reformation to date: Manchester’s finest, The Smiths, darlings of 1980s British guitar music, reforming live from a pub in West London!

Even though the sounds emanating from the stage as I enter the Half Moon in Putney are familiar, it’s not quite the indie icons regaling the world once again with their angst-ridden lyrics about unrequited love, Oscar Wilde and totalitarian headmasters.

In front of me are the Smyths, who as their slightly altered name suggests, are a tribute band.

And what is immediately apparent, even to a cynic like myself, is that these guys look and sound excellent, just like the real thing.

Proclaimed as being ‘The Smiths band of Smiths fans for Smiths fans’ on the poster adorning the venue’s exterior, The Smyths are one of many tribute acts currently benefiting from the British love affair with the powerful entity of nostalgia.

The band’s answer to singer Morrissey – known as Graham Sampson by day – believes the popularity of tribute acts is the fact they can provide the live experience of music at a lower price than the genuine acts.

He said: “Like actors passionate about the parts they play, these are our stage parts and we are close to the songs and live a life that engages with the songs and with the people the songs touch.”

The sheer devotion of the audience – all of a certain age and girth – to suspend disbelief for a few hours and forget it’s not the genuine article they are watching is infectious.

Such enthusiasm from fans at the sold out gig is testament to the fact that playing the game of impersonations has become a lucrative business.

Just last week the world’s biggest tribute festival Tribfest, held in Yorkshire every August, announced its line-up after seeing a 100% increase in ticket sales for 2011’s festival.

The credibility of tribute acts – once pejoratively compared to pantomime performers by the late NME writer Steven Wells – has grown to such an extent that bands have found it a way of obtaining a good level of income.

Christian Pitcher, a 24-year-old car salesman who plays guitar in a Lynard Skynard tribute band, says he can pick up £100 a show at larger venues across the country, and his band hopes they can make more by playing at festivals next summer.

He said: “The public still want their live fix of bands whose members have died or split up – and we represent the next best thing and the closest they will get to that.”

Mr Pitcher, who plays with six others, believes such bands offer talented musicians an outlet to perform in an ever-decreasing music industry.

“If you look around right now music is pretty much shows like the X-Factor with the charts reflecting this and no one is signing rock bands anymore,” he added.

Actor Ralph Brown, who plays in the Brighton Beach Boys, a tribute to the legendary Californian pop group, believes tribute acts are legitimate art forms that can be likened to classical composers.

“To me there are two types: one’s who do costumes and wigs, and those who do music like us,” he said.

“We’re more like the LA Philharmonic, which means we’re keeping the classic stuff alive, just the same as Chopin or Bach, rather than pretending to be the Beach Boys.

“But the Beach Boys are present whenever we do a show, no doubt, between us and the audience.”

Whether it’s for the songs being authentically performed live, or for the sheer spectacle of average Joe’s emulating their heroes, the enjoyment factor is undeniable.

As the chances of The Smiths having another stab at glory remain slim, and you would be hard pushed to see the Springsteens and Bowies of this world for anything less than a small fortune, music fans could do a lot worse than to go along and see a tribute act perform at an intimate venue.

Even this professional cynic recommends it.

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