Two of the first people we meet in An Incredible Simulation, a documentary about tribute bands, are a married couple. He's a sideburned, sequined crooner who does Neil Diamond impersonations; she's a pasty, slightly overweight chanteuse who puts on one-woman ABBA shows. Together, they're "Lightning and Thunder," and they've mastered the art of singing to prerecorded music. The rest of the performances in Simulation are haphazard enough to make the bands on CoverWars, VH1's tribute show, sound like virtuosos.
There's Giant Bay Village, the Guided by Voices cover band that's learned more GBV songs than the Dayton band itself knows. There's Adam and the Ants, a group that traveled the country, duplicating a tour by the real Adam and the Ants to the point that it even made posters like the ones the band used. And there's Strutter, a group that features blood spewing, flame breathing, and lots of carefully applied makeup in an attempt to become the best Kiss cover band in the world -- better than Kisss, Blackwell, and Kriss' Kiss, which also appear in the flick. The footage, taken by Chicago filmmakers Jeff Economy and Darren Hacker, is grainy, and the sound quality is poor. But the film depicts the plight of tribute bands everywhere, capturing performances at dingy bowling alleys and rough biker bars.
"They claim they didn't set out to make fun of the genre," says Matthew T., who was unsuccessful in his attempt to get the directors to film in Cleveland. "They set out to show it in its true form. The ones who are your neighborhood guys are easy to relate to, but the ones who take themselves seriously, like Strutter -- they're just over the top. The worst thing is that they're good musicians who could be going another route, but they're way more successful as a tribute band than they could be as a rock band. Now, that's the double-edged sword of being a good tribute band, because then you're stuck. Then you're a tribute band."
In honor of the screening of An Incredible Simulation at the 20,000 Leagues Under the Industry Film Festival on Saturday, organizer Matthew T. has put together a bill of local tribute acts, including Perfect Sex, Leantime, and the Ashton Bros. From Way Back When.
When he did a tribute to David Bowie's Spiders From Mars, Dave Petrovich, who sings and plays guitar in the Perfect Guy, shaved his eyebrows off and donned appropriately glittery outfits. For his performance with Perfect Sex, which will play the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks in its entirety, Petrovich will dye his hair "for the first time since the '80s." He's also read John Lydon's autobiography, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, watched old footage of Pistols concerts and interviews, and recruited Viva Caramel guitarist Brian Noga to join him.
"It's really cool songwriting, which I think a lot of people gloss over," Petrovich says. "[Lydon] wrote some really intelligent lyrics for an 18- or 19-year-old. Never Mind the Bollocks was the album that inspired Brian [Noga] to learn guitar, and it was for me, too. It introduced me to what I could do musically. Up until that time, I was in my bedroom, trying to learn 'Stairway to Heaven' and Night Ranger guitar solos. After hearing that album, I was like 'Oh my God.' I guess, in one way or another, I have been mimicking John Lydon's voice, phrasing, and attitude for so long, it's kinda unconscious."
If being in a tribute band is, as one band member interviewed in Simulation put it, "the worst thing you could do in high school," why are so many of Cleveland's best local acts getting involved? Members of Proletarian Art Threat and Keelhaul will play in Leantime, which will cover Helmet's Meantime, and members of the Chargers will play in the Ashton Bros. From Way Back When, which will pay tribute to the Stooges.
"Everyone who's doing it is really into the band that they're doing, so they're all concerned about the music being really good," Matthew T. says. "They're all musicians, so -- I dunno -- they have some standard they wanna hold themselves to. I like the fact that these aren't typical tribute acts."
Beachland owner Mark Leddy's own band, Satan's Satellites, originally was slated to do a Bachman Turner Overdrive tribute, but apparently the task of duplicating BTO staples such as "Taking Care of Business" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" proved too daunting. But for Leddy, who generally doesn't book the kind of classic rock tribute shows that seem to occur weekly at venues like the Odeon and the Revolution, a night of tributes is just an excuse to have fun -- not a way to exploit Cleveland's addiction to classic rock. He admits that he hasn't seen a lot of tribute bands, but says, if done right, they can be more than just "cash cows."
"I have heard of some bands that seem more interesting, like Super Diamond, this Neil Diamond tribute band," he says. "They had to do something more creative to make that work, and it was working on other levels and not just mimicry. I think that's more interesting than someone who's just doing Jethro Tull covers. People have suggested that I do that here, but . . . I don't know. You know we're pretty desperate, if we get to that point."