A tribute to tribute acts

Tanyel Gumushan /
Sep 7, 2017 / Music

For some, unknown reason I can’t seem to shake a very specific memory.

When I was about eight, I very vividly remember getting all dressed up in a new dress and going out. My mum had told me that we were going to see some live music, and I had felt very adult and excited. We pulled up in the car, ran into a dingy looking venue to avoid the sudden rainfall, and I remember sniffing and smelling roast beef and gravy. We ate a roast dinner, and then we watched an ABBA tribute band.

I danced off the lardy potatoes with my sister, and drank a pint of coca cola that night. And gained a love for flared sleeves and very unrealistic expectations of what exactly ‘live music’ is. But, I remember having an absolute ball of a night.

I sang catchy songs that I would grow to love. Don’t pretend that you don’t. I gained an appreciation and thrill from sharing that experience with so many other people, who all enjoyed the same carefree night.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown conflicted about the idea of tribute artists.

Often, they’re formed of talented singers and bands that have to perhaps restrict themselves to mimicking icons past and present. They may live in shoebox rooms on cruise ships, or travel around caravan parks, they play the pubs and clubs and clearly pore over the artists they act as. Whether it’s by choice, or by lack of choice, tribute artists can have it tough. When they’re not world renowned and respected like say, The Bootleg Beatles, who sell out tours in big venues, the acts are still cutting their teeth like every other artist and the competition is tough and the industry fierce. ABBA even sued some of them for infringing copyright by calling themselves ABBA.

Perhaps, there’s more expectation when you see a tribute artist, than when you see the more conventional concert. There’s a strange promise of the act, as though they’re the next best thing to the original. Tribute artists are actors, who are expected to give almost dramatised performances whilst also looking the part. It’s a kick in the teeth, isn’t it? Having a talent but nobody ever knowing that it’s you. I imagine this to be frustrating, to have little to no freedom to pay respect to the person you must adore by adding your own touch, but by having to simply satisfy expectation.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that tribute acts are disrespectful, though I can see why people might have that view. They stand on stages – be them huge in the following of the artists they mimic, or raised platforms in social clubs – and capitalise on the loss and/or the successes of artists. Often overdoing the ridged hand movements or the toppling in the heels, eyeliner and tattoos; they know which songs to sing to get karaoke reactions. When to put a hand on the hip. When to flick the hair or drawl their voice. But, tribute acts, when done tastefully, can often be a way to honour memory and keep the music alive.

Seaside holidays and in my mum’s case, dodgy newspaper advertisements, that lead us to be in the audience have passed down the music for generations and keep up the image of ‘icons’ through reinforcing that image. Even as a caricature. And that’s why we keep going back, to taste that nostalgia.

Without summer holidays to family resorts in Spain, would I know as many Rod Stewart songs as I do? Definitely not.

Just last weekend, I found myself in a ‘funky music café’, holding a rum and coke and waiting for an Amy Winehouse tribute band. An avid and dedicated Amy fan, I feel apprehension whenever I see somebody impersonating her. There’s a fierce, lioness in me that pounces to want to defend her. Amy’s songs are Amy, and nobody else can even come close to the emotion she gave when writing them.

However, the promise of a full band convinced me. It started pleasantly, eight musicians crammed on the stage, playing the wonderful sounds of jazz. They were bloody good. It was going well. Then one declared, ‘I welcome, miss Amy Winehouse.’ and I swear, I almost crushed that glass of rum and coke. Baring my teeth, I saw a lady walk onto the stage wearing the typical black wig and high waisted pencil skirt. The hypocrite in me rising and biting my tongue.

And then she took off the wig, placed it on the floor, and told us that this wasn’t a tribute show, it was instead a homage and a celebration of Amy.

Cheers filled the room, glasses were raised – including mine – and suddenly, the atmosphere completely changed. Between songs, we spoke about Amy. The band played the ska that influenced the record, and we were skanking until the early hours. The singer, who was as equally wonderful as her band, put a twist on the lyrics to make them relevant to her love interest and shared stories about what Amy means to her.

Tribute acts can be tacky. They can be cabaret and X-Factor ‘overs’ category audition worthy. They can be cringeworthy and a little sad, but that’s the word – sad. When you remember that usually behind them is a person who truly loves an artist and wants to pay their respect. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to provide entertainment to suit the British taste. Tribute acts, I pay tribute to you.



Words by Tanyel Gumushan

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