It’s a perfect Saturday night in Saratoga Springs at the halfway point of racing season. The sidewalks swell with sightseers and high-rollers. Everyone seems to be on their way to have a cocktail somewhere. Johnny Clifford—Tom Petty lookalike, soundalike and leader of the tribute band, The BrokenHearted—is part of the frenetic Broadway milieu, walking—no, strutting—all hair and late-era-Petty beard, mirrored shades and cowboy boots. Clifford moseys to The Adelphi Hotel and heads turn. As he walks back out, the behatted jazz musicians in the lobby do double-takes.
“Hey, Johnny,” a guy in a seersucker suit shouts down from The Adelphi’s second-floor porch. He holds a Pieroni can and may have more than a few empties where that came from. “Where’s the show tonight? You guys were great last time!”
“There’s a benefit in Gloversville tomorrow,” Clifford shouts up to Seersucker Guy. “We’ll be back in October.” Today, he explains, “I just wanted to spend the day at the track.”
“Win anything?” Seersucker Guy asks.
“Nope,” Clifford answers. “Nothing came my way today.”
I couldn’t resist but chime in with a Petty lyric. “Well, Johnny,” handing him back the Starbucks iced coffee I’d been holding for him, “even the losers get lucky sometimes.”
A few years back, I profiled Judas Priestess, an all-female tribute band to heavy metal giants Judas Priest. The novelty angle got me the assignment; I envisioned an intersectional spectacle of leather-clad amazons who lampooned macho postures. Boy was I ever wrong. The band rocked so seriously hard on its own terms that I still don’t understand how Bogie’s, Albany’s now-defunct rock club, still exists as a physical structure. I walked away not only a bigger fan of Judas Priest, but with a new appreciation for tribute bands.
In a world of a gazillion rock-is-dead hot takes, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice that the lineups at rock clubs and halls are still loaded with innumerable tribute bands that pay homage to big-name artists. Equal parts cabaret and fan fulfillment, tributes have existed since Bill Haney, the first true Elvis impersonator, took the stage as The King in the 1960s. You’d also be forgiven if you didn’t, at least scratch your head a little bit and wonder why tribute bands dedicated to single artists—not to be confused with cover bands, which cover music by a variety of artists—are such big business. “Concert tickets are just too expensive for most people, and, in general, tribute shows are a better bang for the buck,” says Jason Sherry, president of Tribute Promotions, which produces the Lake George Tribute Festival and Images of the King—i.e. Elvis impersonation—world championships each year. There’s also the nostalgia factor. Many tributes, Sherry says, “take people back to a time in their life when things were a bit simpler.”
Back in 1990, you could say that things were a hell of a lot simpler. That’s when Albany native Matt Balin responded to an open audition call by Ohio booking agents looking to put together a tribute to classic Boston rock band Aerosmith. Midwesterners wanted to hear “Dream On” and “Walk This Way,” and the real band wasn’t meeting the demand. “I tried out for [the band’s guitarist] Joe Perry,” Balin says. “I got Steven Tyler instead.” Since then, Balin has been the lead singer for Toys in the Attic, the country’s longest-running Aerosmith tribute band, in a number of local venues, including Putnam Place in Saratoga (owned by saratoga living Chair Anthony Ianniello,) and larger venues across the country, such as the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, on Long Island; the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, SC and Orlando; and Sioux Falls Stadium (a.k.a. The Bird Cage), home of the Sioux Falls Canaries. Balin’s got the Little Richard-meets-Mick Jagger pipes, the scarves on the mic stand. It’s pretty uncanny. “It’s fun as hell,” Balin says, “but I’m also scared to death. You can get picked apart real quick. The band’s got to be right and tight, and we are.” He can’t help but use Aerosmithian phrases to describe what it’s like channeling a rock star. “It’s like, well, ‘livin’ on the edge.’”
The trick to creating the perfect tribute band goes beyond simply being able to ape the original in look and sound. At their best, tribute bands can help us fans reinterpret music we long took for granted. Take Badfish, for example, a tribute to ’90s ska-punk trio Sublime, a band whose star didn’t even begin to rise until after its lead singer’s death and the band dissolved in ’96. (If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the band’s posthumous hit singles, which include “What I Got” and “Santeria,” songs that are still[!] played regularly on local stations.) Formed in 2001, Badfish largely tours the eastern half of the US, while other Sublime tributes work out west. To be honest, I’ve never liked Sublime—but at a packed-to-the-gills gig at the aforementioned Putnam Place this past August, I danced in a sea of Puka shells and Penguin shirts, singing along to “What I Got.” The line between original and tribute blurred, and suddenly I morphed into the preppy undergrad I never was. That’s what tribute acts can do: transport you to a place that never existed—even turn you into a person you never were!
You know how they say dogs and their owners have similar personalities? That same rule applies to tribute band members and the artists they portray. I caught myself thinking about this when I met Schenectady native Bob Donahue to talk about Given To Fly, the Pearl Jam tribute band he’s in. We sit in the front seat of his black Malibu, while Lithium, SiriusXM’s grunge station, plays R.E.M. and Alice in Chains. Donahue takes his job seriously. “We don’t wear wigs,” he tells me. “We’re not doing the whole look. We throw on flannel and we get up on stage.” He doesn’t want to be Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s deep-voiced frontman. “I don’t need to be,” he says. “I’m a baritone, he’s a baritone, so that works out well.” With short-cropped gray hair and a square jaw, Donahue may not look like Eddie Vedder, but he sure sounds like him. Like, a lot. He inhabits “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam’s dark, mid-tempo hit from 1992, just like Vedder does on the band’s debut, Ten. Nowadays, Pearl Jam may play their songs at different tempos or in different keys, depending on the notes Vedder’s still able to hit, but Given To Fly sticks to how they sound on CD. We talk about the biggest gig Given To Fly has played thus far, an event sponsored by the real-deal Pearl Jam in 2017, before a screening of a concert documentary. Donahue shows me a photo of the band’s performance, held outside at the Twin Drive-In in Mendon, MA, depicting the band playing to a sea of grunge aficionados. Donahue smiles thinking of it. “Six hundred people just rocking out,” he says. “It was beautiful.”
While most professional tribute bands embrace the fact that they’re basically getting paid to be someone they’re not, some tributes have a bit of an existential crisis before realizing they are, in fact, tributes. Take Troy native Ralph Renna, for instance, who sings and plays acoustic guitar in The Otherside: Performing the Music of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Renna pushed back at the term initially. “I think back to the first time I saw KISS Army,” he says. (Founded in 1985, the longest-running KISS tribute recreates the band’s kabuki makeup to a T—not to mention Gene Simmons’ fake blood-spitting.) The Otherside, on the other hand, wear baseball caps, Bang Tango and Meat Puppets shirts and cargo shorts—a far cry from rocking onstage, sans clothes or sporting socks on their John Thomases, a Chili Peppers signature. “It’s been a whole new ballgame, coming out of the metal and hardcore and punk scene,” Renna explains. The Otherside focuses on the musicianship. On a drizzly Wednesday night in Troy, members of the band set up on Dinosaur Bar-B-Que’s small stage. A local music impresario for decades, Renna announces the winner of a drawing for tickets to an upcoming Korn and Alice in Chains concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, then counts the band in to “Scar Tissue,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1999 hit from their album, Californication. It’s a faithful version, down to Matt Malone’s competent lead guitar playing. A couple ladies start to dance by the bar. A waitress refills napkin dispensers at a station in front of stage left.
The Otherside gig was booked as sort of an encore to Troy’s Rockin’ on the River, where Kiss The Sky, a Jimi Hendrix tribute band, was set to close out the popular summer series on the Hudson. Bad thunderstorms forced the series’ organizers to cancel. But the after-show must go on. “Jimi Hendrix may be afraid of the rain, but we’re not,” Renna jokes before leading the band into “Soul To Squeeze,” the Chili Peppers’ 1993 ballad. A guy with a shaved head and white shorts moshes in place with himself. “Yeah, bro, now that was a guitar solo!” someone shouts. Malone smiles. At one point during “By The Way,” his glasses fall off his face.
Toward the end of “Suck My Kiss,” bassist Zach Leffler adds metal groan backing vocals to the chorus. It fits the song, but it’s most definitely not on the original track. Renna smiles, mischievously. “Sorry if you felt like you were at a hardcore show there for a minute,” he says.
When I sit down at Starbucks to talk to Johnny Clifford about his love for all things Tom Petty, he begins with a familiar story, common to tribute band members. Whenever he played a Tom Petty cover near his home in Glens Falls, folks ran up to tell him: you’re too good at this. So he let his hair and beard grow out, and before he knew it, Clifford was a Petty doppelgänger. He insists on bringing 7 guitars for full band shows, from the pricey 6- and 12-string Rickenbackers to a cheap Gibson “for the slide stuff.” Says Clifford: “I use ’em all. I have to.” I realize, later than I’d like to admit it, that not only does Clifford play Tom Petty, he also plays the part of Mike Campbell, Petty’s longtime lead guitarist, who is currently touring as part of Fleetwood Mac. Such tribute double-duty is remarkable, if you ask me. It’s like playing U2’s Bono and The Edge at the same time. “I’m not trying to convince anybody I’m Tom Petty,” Clifford says. “I know I’m not.”
Later, walking past the front of the bar 9 Maple Ave., Clifford and I notice a table of well-heeled women, who give him flirty smiles and raised cocktail glasses through the glass. Clifford issues a Petty-like grin: “No use pretending to be famous if you can’t enjoy it.”
That’s what I like to call “runnin’ down a dream.”
The Best (Local) Tribute Bands
Given that the biggest draws at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center each summer are the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, it makes sense that our homegrown tribute bands tend to skew more rootsy—I’m looking at you, awkwardly named The THE BAND Band—but we still have a range of choices coming to our towns to help us party down. Here’s saratoga living’s top-five local tribute acts, in descending order of tributary excellence.
The Deadbeats faithfully fly their freak flag at venues such as The Low Beat in Albany and on open-air trains to Cooperstown (really). “They deliver the bouncy sound of The Grateful Dead with a stripped-down lineup,” my Deadhead friend Matthew Klein says.
Seconds Of Pleasure pays tribute to Rockpile, the British pub rock combo featuring Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, which produced a single perfect album in 1980—which is where the tribute gets its name. “In this band, I feel like I’m contributing to the public good,” Jerry Lee, singer and guitarist, tells me. He is. They are.
Dave Plummer’s The All Paul Show preaches the Gospel of Paul (McCartney), playing all the hits, including The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” and Wings/solo-era nuggets such as “Live And Let Die.” Plummer has Sir Paul’s voice, sports a solo-Macca mullet and plays a left-handed Höfner bass. Sold!
The BrokenHearted Tom Petty Tribute is the brainchild of Johnny Clifford, whose uncanny, heartfelt takes on the Petty oeuvre range from “American Girl” to “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” And if Clifford’s ethereal “Wildflowers” doesn’t leave you verklempt, stop dragging your heart around.
Given To Fly: The Pearl Jam Experience doesn’t dress the part, other than the 1990s outfit du jour: flannels and jeans. But listen to Bob Donahue’s pitch-perfect Eddie Vedder and Steven Feliciano and Rob Burnell’s dual guitar attack—carbon copies of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, respectively—and you’d swear you were in a Seattle club in the early ’90s.