Can musicians find new audiences through tribute nights?

Dec 15, 2011 at 4:00 am

This upcoming holiday season, a few thousand music fans will celebrate an annual tradition, and it has nothing to do with Christmas carols or jingling bells. The Pink Floyd tribute show put on by El Monstero has already sold out the Pageant's 2,000 seats five times over. This will be the thirteenth year that the local supergroup has paid tribute to the pysch-prog legends, and the continued success of the show serves as a reliable windfall for the musicians and the venue during a traditionally dry season.

And while few other local outfits have had the success of El Monstero, 2011 found St. Louis' original artists paying tribute to their musical heroes more than ever before. An Under Cover Weekend, a two-night stand in which local bands inhabit the songs of their idols, celebrated its fifth birthday with some memorable sets at the Firebird. KDHX (88.1 FM) continued its series in honor of American songwriters with multiband tributes to both Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. And just last month, during the week of Thanksgiving, Off Broadway was home to four different tribute nights — the Band, Guided by Voices, Harry Nilsson and George Harrison were all feted by old and young performers.

For the show organizers, it's a chance to celebrate personal heroes, especially those who often fly under the radar. Guitarist Dave Anderson, who plays with Tenement Ruth, May Day Orchestra and others, was the force behind the Nilsson night, which featured a dramatic reading of Nilsson's musical fable The Point! alongside more straight-ahead covers. Anderson credits Off Broadway's Steve Pohlman for championing the cause and prodding Anderson to put the show together. From there, interested musicians helped fill in the lineup.

"I started getting e-mails from bands with songs they wanted to do, so I knew there was a definite interest from the local music community," writes Anderson in an e-mail. "Nilsson is such a musician's musician. I thought he would be a great choice to pay tribute to, and I knew all the bands would try hard to do a great job representing the songs, and they did."

The Nilsson tribute was a one-off event, but events like An Under Cover Weekend have become an integral part of the local calendar. Mike Tomko has organized the event from the start and watched it grow from an experiment to a proving ground for St. Louis bands. He sees a difference between so-called "tribute acts" like El Monstero that try to, as he says, "emulate the band" and performers at AUCW that treat the 30-minute set as a love letter to an idol or key influence. "You get these kind of magical moments — when it works it really, really works," says Tomko. "We've somehow been able to capture so many of those moments."

He cites one of this year's standouts, Union Tree Review covering Marvin Gaye, as one such moment. The band's original material — low-slung, often moody indie rock — doesn't hint at Gaye's percolating, sensual soul music. But, in Tomko's eyes, it gave another view of the band's talents. "Tawaine [Noah, UTR's singer] just went out and did that. It just was something that resonated deep inside of him, and he went, and he did it," Tomko says.

Few can deny the fun of a great cover set or the thrill of sharing a musical touchstone with a local band. But what does it do to the music community when a band can give a spirited performance to a sold-out crowd at AUCW or a KDHX tribute night and then struggle to get 30 people through the door on a night of original music? St. Louis has long been a city where cover bands can make a living but songwriters struggle to be heard — are the covers a distraction from a band's artistic calling?

According to Via Dove's Andy Shadburne, the musical make-believe is one way to strengthen his band. Via Dove has been a dependable closing act for AUCW the past few years, covering the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam and, this year, AC/DC. "We learn those songs from the ground up. It's a learning process and a crash course," he says. "It's really benefited us because we come back refreshed. It's like, how can we take what we learn and use it our advantage, even though we're nowhere near as hard as AC/DC and Pearl Jam."

But Shadburne's love of what he calls "musical acting" has led to the formation of Street Fighting Band, a tribute to the Rolling Stones that was sprung from Via Dove's AUCW performance. The band features a wrecking crew of local players and hopes to play a full-scale tribute a few times a year.

"I used to do Mick Jagger for my family just to make them laugh," says Shadburne. "But playing with other people and playing other people's music, you see people get really excited."