Tribute Bands Are Huge in St. Louis — and That's Great News for Working Musicians 

Jason Nelson gained fame as the vocalist for MU330. Now his many, many tribute bands keep him busy.

PHOTO BY THEO WELLING

Jason Nelson gained fame as the vocalist for MU330. Now his many, many tribute bands keep him busy.

Superjam is not a tribute to a specific band so much as, in the words of its guitarist, "a tribute to a time period, from about '75 to '85." The band's name is a direct nod to the stadium shows that filled the Astroturf-era Busch Stadium of the 1970s. Its playlist nods to specific St. Louis tastes; a song like Loverboy's "Turn Me Loose" might get a spin by an '80s band elsewhere, but few are throwing down pitch-perfect versions of Head East's "Never Been Any Reason." Whether performing the hits (the Who's "Eminence Front") or more obscure, KSHE Klassic-style tracks (Angel's "Tower"), the band's hallmark is a degree of versatility.

As Superjam plays a set at Schmitty's on Memorial Day, the classic rock playlist matches perfectly with the audience — guitarist Eric Lysaght calls them "lots of nice people with lots of nice motorcycles." With fans gobbling up pork steaks and drinking Busch underneath the bar's massive, roofed patio, Superjam's takes on Uriah Heep and Kansas bring dancers out to the floor, as Jeff Gallo's bass and Lee Skyles' drums thunder through the dusk of li'l Smithton, Illinois, on a picture-perfect holiday weekend. It's what this band does, every time out, on stages at bars, street festivals and casinos: It brings a very specific kind of party soundtrack, filling a niche that St. Louis rock fans didn't know they needed. Until they were offered just that.

For the musicians in them, tribute bands provide regular paychecks — and typically much better ones than if they were playing original material. Not surprisingly, the musicians in Superjam don't limit their membership to just one band.

In addition to vocalist Dave Farver's work as a children's music act called Mr. Saxophone, he's also an auxiliary member of the biggest tribute band in town, the Pink Floyd sensation El Monstero, playing the group's sold-out gigs as the band's sax player. He was previously in another rock & roll cover band called Kingpin and plays Sting in a tribute to the Police called King of Pain. More recently, after David Bowie's passing, he and some friends formed a tribute called Ashes to Stardust.

Lysaght's path is equally dotted by projects. Though he tells a fan at Schmitty's that he's only in "two or three bands," he shares membership in Ashes to Stardust and has a cover duo called Rainbyrds.

He also plays solo shows at restaurants throughout town, and has sung and written for a deeply personal originals project named Salisbury, gigging and recording occasionally with that group. But cover/tribute work remains his bread and butter. Some bands have come and gone, like Nothing Shocking, a Jane's Addiction tribute, while others, like Superjam, have stuck around to make the house payment.

"This is what we do to make money," he says. "Playing out with friends."

click to enlarge Eric Lysaght is the guitarist for late '70s-themed Superjam. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Eric Lysaght is the guitarist for late '70s-themed Superjam.

While Superjam has been holding down a certain niche in the local tribute scene for a half-decade, a huge number of acts have sprung up in recent years, covering the music of acts great and small, including everyone from Styx (Grand Allusion) to Radiohead (Exit Music). No less than three local tribute bands pay homage to the Grateful Dead.

While cover bands — like Farver's former band Kingpin, which has a playlist of rock songs from the '60s to today — might perform a wide swath of music by a huge number of acts, tributes are more single-minded, tackling a single artist or musical movement. Some do it for the passion, playing only an occasional gig. Others do it for money: El Monstero, the Pink Floyd tribute that dominates The Pageant's live calendar in December, earns its members five-figure salaries for their week of performances. El Monstero is so successful, it's even engendered a side project, the Led Zeppelin-inspired Celebration Day.

"It is genuinely amazing to me how many good tribute acts there are in St. Louis," singer/songwriter Kevin Renick observes. "For people who never had a chance to see the originals and in many cases can't anymore, the varied and exciting tribute bands around here at least give you a chance to approximate the experience."

And that's a good thing for local musicians who can master both skills. An original band without a big body of work or fan base might not even crack $100 in cover charges and tips by playing at a local bar, if it can net the gig in the first place. A tribute act might well command $1,000 for a weeknight club date and roughly double that for a street festival or special event, with organizers typically shelling out another $250 to $500 for lighting, sound and staging.

Renick acknowledges that his Neil Young tribute, Shakey Deal, exists to make a dollar. But it also pays, yes, tribute to an act that he's been tied to for a while.

"Doing a Neil Young tribute evolved absolutely in a natural way for me, not only because people kept telling me I sounded like Neil Young, but because he was a big influence on my own music, and I found that I had a real feel for his songs and his entire approach to things," he explains in an email. "I play with some fantastic musicians who get it — meaning both the raw, primal Crazy Horse stuff and the delicate, melancholy acoustic songs."

Joshua "Loyal" Grigaitis, who now books his family bar, Pop's Blue Moon, says that there's an undercurrent that's very St. Louis when it comes to tribute acts. It goes way beyond music.

"There seems to be a lot of support for all things 'comfortable' in this town," he believes, "from the music to the food to the clothing; we hold close what we know and grew up on. Strong roots in tradition is a nice way to put it, perhaps because so many never leave permanently. 'Where did you go to high school?' exists because most people here actually went to high school here."

From there, he believes, bands that pay homage to the songs you hear on the radio are a natural extension. "The Show Me State has been a difficult one to introduce new ideas/music/food/fashion to, but I have noticed this changing, so it seems to be opening up its mind a little more these days."

click to enlarge The Sean Canan Band keeps Broadway Oyster Bar rocking on Wednesdays with weekly tributes to various blues or rock legends. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • The Sean Canan Band keeps Broadway Oyster Bar rocking on Wednesdays with weekly tributes to various blues or rock legends.

Michael Allen agrees that St. Louis is more susceptible to the charms of tribute acts, but he sees that as a good thing.

"Yeah, there's something about this town that just seems conducive to it," says Allen, who plays Morrissey in Miserable Now and Thom Yorke in Exit Music, which debuts at 2720 this weekend. "I think it has something to do with the KSHE crowd, which I absolutely love. It's so refreshing to go to a classic rock show and see everyone wearing the shirt of the band they're going to see. Nobody gives a shit about being cool; they're just there because they love the music and they couldn't care less about making the scene. They're over it."

He adds, "You can't harbor any delusions of being hip when you're listening to Bob Seger, and you will totally pay ten bucks to see some dude with shaggy hair and a beard crank out the hits while you pump your fist in the air. There's a real camaraderie among the classic rock fans in this town, and as the alternative nation edges into that demographic — as you start to hear Blind Melon and Beck on the oldies station — I'm starting to see it there, too. The buzz around our Radiohead show is unreal. People are just as stoked about it as we are."

And while there's real joy in discovering original material, the appeal of hearing a classic song live cannot be overstated — even if that classic is being played, as in one recent unusual tribute night, with a heaping dose of irony.

Says Allen, "Even after having seen some stellar shows by big name acts as of late — Roger Waters chief among them, my god — the best time I've had all year was at Matt Basler's tribute to 'Smooth' at Off Broadway, in which he and his band played the exact same song twelve times in a row."

The show, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Rob Thomas/Carlos Santana hit, took the tribute band idea to its extreme by covering just one song (and yeah, offering smoothies alongside "Smooth"). But the idea, Allen says, was the same: the joy of the familiar.

"It was hilarious, it was heartfelt, and it brought the whole room to a frenzy," he says. "People were losing their minds over it, and rightfully so: It was high-concept silliness at its peak, delivered by a band that was having a blast and loving every second of it. And when the inevitable backlash occurred online, it elicited the biggest of eye rolls. Get the fuck over it, people. I'm sorry no one came to your slam poetry reading in your friend's basement, but some of us were too busy screaming along to Rob Thomas."

click to enlarge Jason Nelson gets the crowd at the Chase Club onto the dance floor. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Jason Nelson gets the crowd at the Chase Club onto the dance floor.

Jason Nelson has had many, many jobs over the years. It's not only about quantity: Nelson's got some real variety on the résumé. Lightly laughing, as he often does, Nelson ticks off what's only a partial list, noting stints as "a chemical processor, loan officer, debt collector, patient advocate, health care administrator, roofer. Now I'm climbing cell phone towers. Whatever I find find interesting, I try."

Professional ska vocalist is also on the list, too, as Nelson owned the mic for MU330 during the mid-'90s, a period of time when the band was known for steady studio appearances and even more intense roadwork. Within a far-flung community, its members were stars.

"I was touring form the spring of '93 all the way to the fall of '96," he recalls. "I learned a lot from those early years."

These days, road work with his bands might mean "two or three days, a weekender-kind of thing." It's a far different life from his days fronting MU330. And yet as other musicians segue into middle age with only memories of their time on stage, Nelson has crafted a reputation as one of the hardest-working musicians in St. Louis, riding the wave of local tribute shows into a part-time job and 'round-the-clock passion.

Ticking off the names of his acts, he notes his role with one original project, the Moon Bandits, itself an all-star assemblage of veteran players from St. Louis' third-wave ska heyday in the 1990s. But the cover bands? That's the list that takes him a minute to walk through.

There's the Wackness, a '90s tribute. There's also his newer, decade-themed act, the '80s-centric RetroNerds. His namesake Jason Nelson Band handles a wide array of hit music, an act in which he shares vocals with frequent collaborator Jessica Butler. And then he fronts and co-leads a variety of tribute bands that only play once or twice a year, including groups dedicated to Queen, Bad Brains, Fishbone, a newly-minted INXS act called Kick X and a Tower of Power tribute band that's emerging from the basement this summer.

In a lot of those acts, Nelson's not only the vocalist, he's the shaper of ... well, a little of everything. He handles the rehearsal schedules and keeps the internal email groups updated. At some venues, he rolls in and gives a performance, then heads back home to Lake St. Louis. At others, he loads in his own PA system before the gig, then hauls it back out afterwards. In short, he's That Guy.

"As far as being the principal in a band, I do it all in a professional manner and I don't take that role lightly," he says. "It's a responsibility that I had struggled with in my early years. I deferred a lot of the decision-making to people that didn't necessarily have the heart or passion or vision with my projects, so I stepped up and made a lot of mistakes throughout the years. But I feel that I have a lot to give and to create things that are exciting not only for the musicians I've played with, but for people who pay money to see those acts.

"I have a dynamic roster with everyone but the Moon Bandits, the lineup that never changes," he says. "It's four guys, not including myself. But between my cover and tribute acts, I play with 40-plus people in town and that's not including production and promotions people. Those are just the musicians."

Working with players who do it both full- and part-time, often in overlapping acts, can be hard.

"A lot of these are busy people with families, so I try to lay it out months in advance," Nelson notes. "I tell them, here's the material, here are instructions on the tunes. Two months out: Here's the rehearsal schedule. Here's the itinerary. The venue's booked, the production shows up on the day of the show and it's 'boom, boom, boom.' Everything's aligned on the earliest possible day and as questions come to me, they're addressed right away."

That a man comfortably tries on the roles of vocalists as diverse as Freddie Mercury, H.R. and Michael Hutchence is strange enough. That he does so driving in from the outer suburbs, with a wife of two decades and four children, ranging in age from twenty to six, makes it at least a little bit more interesting.

"My wife is very accommodating," he says. "With almost 21 years of marriage, she's been the victim of my ambition a lot, but I regularly discuss this with her and say, 'Here's my Google calendar, here's what I'll be doing, are you okay with this?' It's a push and pull sometimes; there are occasions when I have to back down a bit and readjust. But the for the most part she's been super-supportive. She met me at the old Cicero's, when I was performing there, so she knows I come from that background."

He does it all because he loves being onstage, "that moment of chaos that's surrounded by a lot of rehearsing, coordination, waiting, set-up, soundcheck, breakdown, promotion, just talking to people.

"When I came off of the road with MU," he adds, "we were making a decent living. When I stayed home, music became a great hobby for me; like, I played in a band and some guys played college football. My payoff has always been nothing more than having a great time performing for people.

"I love how I can stand in front of a group of people and see them dancing, smiling, engaging with each other and having a great time. That's worth something. I want more of it. The entertainment business is fun and it pays a little money, too, which, of course, helps."

click to enlarge The Voodoo Players bring the party at Broadway Oyster Bar. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • The Voodoo Players bring the party at Broadway Oyster Bar.

Bill Drennan is a contemporary of Nelson's, having grown up in some of the same clubs. Instead of ska, though, Drennan was a power-pop guy, a founding member and lead guitarist of the Finn Brothers. Its members were small-town kids from Jefferson County who slowly emigrated to St. Louis in search of gigs, management and, eventually, touring. They went through several iterations and band names.

Drennan left the band relatively early on instead of hitting the regional touring circuit. But he's been playing music ever since, as well as teaching music at the city's Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

For the past couple of years, he's also been a guitarist in one of two King Crimson tribute bands in the entire world; for good or bad, both acts are named after an album from the band's extensive canon: Thrak.

"If you'd have told me a few years ago that I would be in a King Crimson band — in St. Louis! — I'd have said 'no way,'" Drennan muses. "That would've been just too weird."

At first, Drennan wasn't even sure he'd join up, preferring to wait until the end of his school year before committing. He assumed someone else would have taken his slot by that point, but there weren't any takers, and the other members of the group (guitarist/vocalist Karl Dodson, bassist Mike Killian; and a percussionist simply known as Q) were ready for action. Dodson is Drennan's cousin, so Drennan was on the hook and knew it. He joined Thrak.

To engage in extreme overstatement: The progressive/art rock of King Crimson is extremely complicated, full of time signature shifts and moments of bombastic virtuosity. That only two bands in the world cover this music exclusively speaks to that complexity, but for Drennan it also provided a musical kick. The guitar parts played in the original band by Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew are nothing if not a workout.

"I've never played in something with so much to remember and do," he says. "Likewise, that's true for everyone else in the band, too. If we don't play a song over a month's time, that shows really quick."

But with a July 8 show slated for Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, he says, "we're cleaning it up, getting ready to take it out. When it comes around, it could be assumed shows would be nerve-wracking, but I've done this so many years now that I know how to just go for it. You know the fans are watching closely, you know they can pick out certain pieces when we start them, and the fans that really know these songs are thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe they're doing that one.' They're looking forward to the songs being right and we want to make sure we do them right."

Still, the intent isn't to slavishly mimic the original performance.

"I've seen cover bands do that," Drennan says. "They'll play every note perfectly, more perfect than the original players. And you still fall short.

"I look at it like an acting role: you have a script and you might be doing the part similarly to somebody who's done it before," he continues. "But you can't do it exactly the same as they did, or else it'll fall flat. The same way I can never be you, exactly: I can pick up your essence. And if notes are the essence of a group, that's what matters more."

Because King Crimson is a niche act, Thrak will only play a handful of shows in a year. (That said, each show is played to fans who really, really want to be there.) That schedule allows Drennan a degree of freedom.

"It's such a specialty thing that we're not going to take up too much time to play gigs," Drennan says, adding, "It serves as a great musical challenge as well."

In his four decades making music in St. Louis, Drennan has crossed paths with a host of other players, many of them doubling up in both original music and cover/tribute projects. As an example: When Drennan left the Finn Brothers, he was replaced by another young JeffCo guitarist, Matt Meyer, who now plays in the Rush tribute band Thunderhead, among other projects. This kind of thing seems more the norm than the exception, with St. Louis' original music acts of the '80s and '90s now dotting the rosters of tributes of every stripe.

An example: Sean Canan.

click to enlarge Sean Canan. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Sean Canan.

If members of Superjam are the ultimate weekend warriors, with home bases in every county throughout the region, Sean Allen Canan has developed an ambitious, multi-musician experience inside a single room, creating his own sound laboratory/rock school in the process.

Every Wednesday, Canan's Voodoo Players set up shop at the Broadway Oyster Bar, raiding the catalog of a specific artist. And even as the band will slot some acts (like Phish or the Allman Brothers) into its rotation over the course of a year, there's a need to remain flexible. As artists have died, for example, Canan has put together tributes in hyper-speed, readying a band with only a rehearsal, or two, under their belts. And he does this every week.

In the course of three-and-a-half years, Canan says, "I've played with 100 different musicians. I've got a core of 20, maybe 25, that I use all the time. Yeah, man, what started was sort of an idea of it being an open mic jam and then it developed into our doing this thing, essentially playing a different songbook every week. It's almost like a rock & roll class, with a full bar and PA. At least, that's the idea. Now, it's grown an audience. It's become a vehicle for both the music community and the fans."

As Canan explains it, the appeal is nakedly commercial. He quickly realized that a night devoted to one musician or group would draw much more than a hodge-podge.

"At first it was 'blues night,' and no one would show up," he says. "But if you did 'BB King night,' a bunch of people would come. You draw on the hardcore fans of that band. The Talking Heads aren't the most mainstream band, yet when we do that show, everyone comes out. They've got such a passionate fan base."

click to enlarge Sean Canan: The man with the band. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Sean Canan: The man with the band.

Canan came to prominence as a guitarist in the group Bockman and spent several years as a touring musician with the Grateful Dead Experience, better known as the Schwag. He still plays with that group on occasion, but he's moved into the second-chair guitar role after he and his wife had a pair of children.

Even when he was with the Schwag, he tended to a growing weekly stint at McGurk's, where Falling Fences plays every Sunday night, blending Irish and American songs. Adding a Wednesday night staple to his calendar allowed him a chance to scale back from what had been an ambitious road schedule, while getting him much deeper into a wide selection of music.

The Voodoo Players will rehearse a couple times before a show; Canan's recent Prince shows required his eleven-piece band to work for marathon, five-to-six hour stretches. Even with experienced hands joining him, he's had to develop tricks to make it work.

"The other kicker about our gig," he says, "is that we do two-set shows; each is 75 to 90 minutes and it's often longer than the artist would play. Tom Petty just did a couple-hour set and we're doing three hours of his music. Essentially, part of my approach is to be able to extend the arrangements to fill the time. It's the same amount of songs as his two hours, but you add a funky trumpet solo here, a longer guitar solo there, you let the horn section go off." That means instead of doing 45 songs, he says, they can get away with just fifteen or twenty longer versions.

When it comes to the accuracy versus feeling, Canan falls comfortably in the middle.

"I like the balance of the two," he says. "We recreate the material and we also reinterpret the material. It becomes a half-and-half. It makes it a little more thrilling for the audience: You know these songs, but they'll be played in a way you've never heard before. So many tribute bands in the area can play it absolutely note-for-note and there are good bands that do that. Celebration Day can nail Led Zeppelin exactly.

"When the Voodoo Players do Zeppelin, there's a little more interpretation of the material, our coming up with our thing. People grasp what we're all about. First of all, it's about joyously celebrating the material, but putting our own, creative spin on it."

click to enlarge The Jason Nelson Band's playlist features some true crowd-pleasers. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • The Jason Nelson Band's playlist features some true crowd-pleasers.

Dwight Carter got into music through fashion. Through his Brainchild Events umbrella, he put together a series at the Gramophone paying tribute to fashion icons and the musicians who created certain trends. "All three shows did so well, I decided to do more shows," he says. He's now created tributes to Queen, Prince, the Beastie Boys, the Native Tongues and Joan Jett, among others. Currently, he's working on putting together an MTV series, including Headbanger's Ball, 120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps.

Carter has largely hung up his bass, making him less a musician himself than one who's around lots of musicians on a regular basis. His role in creating tributes is an interesting one: As the demand has grown, he's been able to match musicians with clubs, forming venue-specific shows that may happen only once, or a handful of times. While a Superjam may play out dozens of sets a year, a band like the 120 Minutes tribute crew will pull together a set of R.E.M., Pixies and the Cure, with enough material for one night's entertainment. As the ringleader, Carter's doing everything from song curation to marketing.

Jason Nelson's chameleon abilities mean that he is often Carter's first call. Of his friend, Carter says, "Jason can transform himself into any genre of music and any vocalist. His vocals range from soulful to punk in a matter of minutes. It's amazing how he recreated the songs of Queen perfectly and hits the vocal range of Angelo Moore in Ghetto Soundwave. I don't know how he learns so many songs in a short period."

The answer? At the gym. Nelson says he has a regimen he follows, learning the lyrics on the treadmill in chronological set order.

"It's just brain training," he says. "And I'm not gonna lie. Sometimes I do have a cheat sheet next to the drums, but for the most part, I try to show up to rehearsals and the performance with lyrics fully ingrained. It really is just muscle memory so that at the show it's go-go-go."

One thing Nelson has learned in his many years fronting tribute acts? St. Louis might be shy about dancing, but it still really wants to. It's up to Nelson to find the band, the tribute and the song that will, he says, "compel people to the dance floor."

That differs by location, even inside the city. "At the Chase Club, you'll be able to play 'Uptown Funk' for the next 50 years and it'll always pull people in. Out in St. Charles, you can play 'Don't Stop Believin' and that will get people's attention. ... Over in Illinois, they're big into hair metal and the '80s. It's their American lexicon.

"We played Decatur last weekend," Nelson says, "and we played 'Africa' by Toto. That was their jam. We went on break and the crowd played it on the jukebox twice more. Then we came out and played 'Roseanna.' Those were huge Toto fans."

For a split second, the gregarious Nelson pauses. The idea comes that quickly: "Maybe my next tribute will be Toto."

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