Jan. 14, 2006. 01:58 PM
bouncer, who looks like a robust version of Johnny Depp, is frisking
the customers — standard procedure these days at rock clubs — as they
enter Hamilton's Oakwood Place on a Saturday night. But what catches my
eye is the wall of posters to the bouncer's right:
"North America's Number One Tribute to AC/DC."
"The Only Metallica Tribute that Matters."
"The Ultimate Tribute to The Eagles."
"The Ultimate Tribute to The Rolling Stones."
and on it goes. Tribute bands imitating Creedence Clearwater Revival,
and Bon Jovi, and Bruce Springsteen, and Aerosmith, and Def Leppard,
and Shania Twain, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It's a parallel universe of rock
stars, a world of Keith Richards look-alikes, peering out from this
wall of posters. And it's a world that has progressed from being a
curiosity to a dominant mode of live entertainment in towns and cities
across North America. For a variety of reasons, linked mainly to the
economics of live entertainment, tribute artistry is where more and
more professional musicians now earn their livelihoods.
Place, and similar venues across North America, is where these
musicians come to play. It's a cold winter night, and a tough
neighbourhood — there are at least three cheque-cashing money marts
across the street — but 350 customers file into the club, which has a
capacity of about 400.
A woman, who looks like she's had a few hard times in life, explains its appeal: "The bouncers are nice to you."
the main attraction, of course, is the entertainment. On stage, a
parallel-universe Gordon Downie, his head shaved, his arms and legs in
spastic contortions, is singing "Couououououourage, it couldn't come at a worse time
"Sometimes if you have the look, it's more important than if you do the
sound exactly," says Daniel Dube, president of Continental
Entertainment, a Burlington agency that deals almost entirely with
tribute artists. Dean Hughes, 41, has The Look. He could easily be
mistaken, at a distance, for Downie, The Tragically Hip front man.
course, if you can look like it and sound like it, you're in business,"
Dube adds. Fortunately, Dean also has the Downie voice down pat, which
is not easy. "His (Downie's) voice has gotten a lot stronger over the
years," Dean says.
"It gets to be a little taxing sometimes — with his new stuff, he's hitting some notes I find difficult."
he and his four bandmates, Trent Richer, Mark Cavarzan, Glen Booth and
John McKinnon, carry on. They call themselves The Practically Hip. They
are probably the best Tragically Hip tribute band on the planet. (And
there have been a few over the years.)
They almost fill Oakwood
Place, on the first Saturday after New Year's, which is something. An
onlooker might wonder, however: How did they get to be a successful
band playing other people's music? And are they happy there?
will be good for Mother's Day," Oakwood Place owner Albert Cortez says,
pointing to a poster of Donna Huber, a.k.a. "Shania Twin." Donna Huber
is a 40-year-old Toronto woman who is the best Shania Twain tribute
artist on the planet. (The real Shania has publicly confirmed this.) On
Mother's Day, she'll be at Oakwood Place.
"People were telling
me, `Oh, you look like Shania Twain,'" Huber says, in a phone
interview, of the events that transformed her from a waitress to a
tribute artist who is a frequent performer in American and Canadian
casinos, has toured Europe, and is slated for a China gig in the near
future. "I had no idea what they were talking about. I just smiled and
said, `Thank you.'"
Eventually, Huber caught Twain's act on the
country music channel. "Somebody said I should do a Shania Twain
tribute," she recalls. "I thought, `I'm going to try this out and see
if I can do it.' It just kind of happened."
That was in 1996. She contacted a friend in the music business, and they put an ad in the Toronto Star
for musicians for a Twain tribute act. "We got some really heavy guys
who had played for Prairie Oyster and David Wilcox and the real Shania
The amazing thing was that Huber had never performed
before. "I used to sing in my bedroom, probably almost every day, and
nobody knew it," she recalls. "Just me and the curling iron I pretended
was a microphone."
She had terrible stage fright when she first
appeared as Shania Twin, but overcame it. "We would go out there and we
would have a lot of energy and a lot of fun," she says.
"I didn't think it was going to take off as quickly as it did. It went crazy."
won't say how much money she makes but it puts her into the class known
as "high-end tribute," encompassing bands such as Rain, a Beatles
tribute that filled the Hummingbird Centre for eight nights last year,
and the top-ranking ABBA tributes.
The Hamilton-based members of
Practically Hip, on the other hand, all have day jobs. Richer does
portrait and wedding photography, Hughes is a house painter, Booth and
Cavarzan are manufacturers' representatives for a line of musical
instruments, and McKinnon teaches music and writes commercial jingles.
At one point, Richer, 49, spent a decade away from the music business.
"It was in my blood," he says. "I just had to get back into it."
and Hughes started Practically Hip nine or 10 years ago. "I was in a
band, and I noticed that our set list was beginning to have a lot more
Tragically Hip songs," Hughes recalls. "And my voice fell into
(Downie's) tone range. It just seemed almost natural to me."
"When I hear the original songs (of the Tragically Hip), they don't sound right to me."George Parnaras, fan of the Practically Hip
Trent adds, "Tragically Hip is sort of like good-time
Canadian campfire music. It's that simple." Pay tribute to a band like
Pink Floyd, and the customers will tend to sit back and appreciate the
music and not buy enough beer to keep the bar owner happy; do
Metallica, and you can expect plenty of beer but a lot more fights.
Hip sells beer, it packs clubs with both guys and girls, it's gender
friendly," Trent says. The odd fight breaks out, because a bar is a
bar, but such occurrences are minimal.
drawback to Tragically Hip, if it is one, is that the band has never
been a big hit in the U.S. There's no demand for appearances in
Lincoln, Neb. or Hot Springs, Ark. — but that's fine. Members of the
band are past the age when long tours are fun.
"From the moment we started Practically Hip, it kind of exploded," Richer comments. "We had club owners banging on our door."
Why the demand for tribute bands? "There's nothing I hate more than
cover bands," says Toronto talent agent Richard Flohil. "Without
question, there's nothing as bad — but they exist because there's a
demand for the originals that can't be met."
Flohil has met
Donna Huber, whom he calls "absolutely charming," and concedes she
fills a need. "Shania Twain is not going to tour for another two or
three years," he says. "Meanwhile, here's this girl, she has the moves,
she has a voice that approximates Shania's, she has a flat tummy and
cute bellybutton — what more do you need? She's not making Shania's
money, but I will bet you she's putting away four to five thousand a
Factors such as the rise of deejay culture, karaoke and
the collapse of the musicians' union have made it very difficult for
live bands to make a living unless they can convince bar owners they
can pull in the crowds. Top 40 bands that play a variety of material
can rarely do that. But good tribute acts can, because bar patrons know
beforehand exactly what they're getting.
"We see people in the
audience singing along word for word, and that's great," Richer says.
"But it would really be a thrill if we had written the material
ourselves. It would be a thrill to be
Tragically Hip." No doubt about it. Any musician would rather be an original than a tribute to an original.
I don't get a feeling of bitter resentment from Trent and his fellow
band members. They are very good at what they do, and they clearly have
a great time on stage.
"There's a lot of musicians who are
wonderful musicians that can't write their own material to save their
lives, but they want to play music," Richer says. "We get people asking
us, `Why are you guys wasting your time doing other people's material?'
Or another question we get is, `Are you going to spend the rest of your
career doing other people's material?' You know what? Quite frankly, if
that's the way it works out, I'm quite happy."
At one point in
his career, John McKinnon, 36, did put out a CD. "It went plastic,"
McKinnon says with a smile. "It's a lot of work to put out a CD like
that. It's huge. So now I just write for fun."
leads four bands — Practically Hip; Day Tripper, a Beatles tribute; a
'50s and '60s band called Johnny and the Cruizers; and a Top 40 band —
comments, "I'd love to be in an original group, but I'm getting too old
to try that. Now I have to have a guaranteed income. Everybody has
Being a member of a good tribute band means not
only help with the mortgage but a chance, at least, to keep playing
music, weekend after weekend, in front of appreciative crowds.
know there are some people who look down on tribute bands for not doing
original music," says Toronto-based Shawn Brady of Elevation, one of
the top U2 tribute bands.
"We've tried that in the past, but
basically we all have day jobs as well. I'm a physiotherapist and I
enjoy working as a physiotherapist — so this ... allows us to hold down
day jobs, 9 to 5, and then play rock star on the weekend. We take it
very seriously in terms of our stage presentation, but we don't take
ourselves seriously. We know we'll never sell out the Air Canada
Centre. We recognize our limitations."
Hamilton!" Dean Hughes shouts to the crowd at the Oakwood Place, like
Mick Jagger shouting "Hello Toronto!" at Downsview Park. It's a joke,
of course, because Hughes lives in Hamilton.
intermission, I talk with Booth about his experiences in Las Vegas, the
world epicentre of tribute acts. "Some acts get into it to the point
where they think they're bigger than the original, especially in
Vegas," he says. "These guys think they are the rock stars. I call them
the mock stars. We just kind of have fun with this — five guys who
enjoy playing together."
At times, however, the Practically Hip
might be forgiven for thinking they are the Tragically Hip. In the
audience, George Parnaras has come from Buffalo, where he first saw the
Practically Hip in a place called Mister Goodbar. When he walked into
that bar four years ago, he had no idea who the Tragically Hip were —
but he loved their tribute band. Now he says frankly that he prefers
the tribute to the original. "When I hear the original songs, they
don't sound right to me," he says.
Admittedly Parnaras is
exceptional. More common are fans who are so starved for exposure to
their idols they blur the line between fantasy and reality when the
tribute act hits town. Donna Huber tells of fans asking her to
autograph Shania Twain posters.
"I say to them, `I have to tell
you this is a tribute to Shania,'" she says. "They all just kind of
look at me funny, and then they'll say, `I love your music,' or `I have
all your records.' It happens so often I don't understand. If you're a
real Shania Twain fan, wouldn't you know the difference?"