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Shania Twin, Skinny Lynard

The startling rise of tribute bands
Starved fans turn to facsimiles

Jan. 14, 2006. 01:58 PM


Access Entertainment DJ Toronto Niagara

Simon Wilson for the Toronto Star
“Shania Twain” a.k.a. Donna Huber started with a curling iron as her microphone.

The 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.”

On 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.

Oakwood 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.”

But 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.”

Of 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.”

But 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?

“This 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 classifieds 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 Twain.”

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.”

Huber 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.”

Richer 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.”

Tragically 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.

The only 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 week.”

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.

But 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.”

Richer, who 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 mortgages.”

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.

“I 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.”

“Hello 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.

After the 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?”