Does the phrase ‘tribute band’ makes you think of balding Meatloaf wannabes in bulging leathers playing to an empty bar on a Monday night? Think again. In Argentina a flush of talented musicians are bringing the music they love to an appreciative public and by all accounts their star is rising.
If rumours are to be believed Lionel Messi – poster boy of the Argentine football team and self-professed Oasis fan – performs incognito as Noel Gallagher on his days away from the pitch.
True or false, this has put a household name on a phenomenon that has been gathering momentum under the radar for the last ten years.
Supply & demand
Argentina has been neglected until quite recently by bands on world tours. Although Paul McCartney and Bon Jovi both played Buenos Aires in the last few weeks, few people can actually afford to go and tickets evaporate in a matter of hours.
Tickets for Regina Spektor’s recent show were first offered to Banco Francés clients and sold out before they were even made available to the public. If that doesn’t raise questions about the accessibility of music in this country, nothing does.
Alejandro Iglesias, 37, bassist in Ummagumma – a tribute to Pink Floyd – believes that tribute culture has blossomed because the groups supplied music where there was demand: “Tribute bands here fill a vacancy in live music culture. People like going out; watching live music, going to the theatre or the cinema.
“Their popularity in Argentina has something to do with people wanting to hear their favourite music live and the fact that the original bands never really came. Of the big bands only the Stones, U2 and Queen once in 1981, a long time ago.
Tickets for McCartney’s gig at the River Plate stadium last week cost between $200 and $6,400, with VIP passes reaching nearly $10,000 – for many it’s far too expensive.
According to Valerio Rinaldi, who created Bistek Musica two years ago and has just put on his first tribute night, prohibitive ticket prices and limited availability are adding fuel to the fire.
Having played in a U2 tribute called Mestizo for many years he is now in a good position to comment on the phenomenon looking from the outside in.
Speaking from a triple-header tribute night at Librario in Palermo, where Slang, Nightboat and Police Station played last week, he says: “The entrance fee is much more accessible than trying to see the original band and people come because they know what they’re letting themselves in for.”
Wilki Amieva, who plays keyboard in Queen tribute Bigot and the Yellow Campers – a reference to Freddie Mercury’s iconic facial hair, it transpires, agrees: “People are starting to perform here from all over the world now but for years nobody came so there are economic factors that are behind the emergence of cover band culture.
“The people here love that music, they like getting involved in the performance and singing along – they’re crazy for it!” he says.Fitting the bill
How do you even go about creating a tribute to a band as iconic as Queen? Imitation might be the highest form of praise but there must be more to it than finding a false moustache and hip-hugging trousers if people are going to pay to see you perform their favourite tracks.
There seem to be two schools of thought in cover band psychology: to visually replicate the original as faithfully as possible and synthesise the real thing on stage; or not to even attempt recreating the ‘look’ and to focus on re-creating the original sound.
Bigot’s César Barabino, who performs in Brian May’s long curly wig and black waist coat, describes the dichotomy the band faced in creating a tribute to Queen.
“At the beginning we had a discussion about how to do this properly and we decided that it involved not just creating the sound but also visually stimulating the crowd by adding a flavour of the Queen spectacle to our performance. So we put on some costumes…bought a wig and the catsuit – it’s fun!
“We never know exactly how many are going to turn up but the last few times there haven’t been enough seats so we’re starting to look for bigger places to play which can’t be a bad thing!” he adds.
Is it a credit to him that his playing is convincing enough not to need the costume but as he says, the wig and waistcoat are good visual aids during the performance – bringing a bit of Queen’s magic to the small smoky theatre where they performed in October.
Fitting the bill
Another important decision the bands have to make is which songs they play. It is perhaps a testament to the growing culture, and approval from lifelong fans that bands like Bigot are looking for bigger venues when they don’t play anything from Queen’s greatest hits.
Lead singer Mattias Figueroa, who performs wearing a harlequin spandex catsuit, says that they play the music they want to play for the joy of playing it and not to bring in ticket sales. They play for people that are real fans, like themselves.
“A huge amount of people like Queen; their music has filtered into popular culture so that a lot of people like their songs without realising that it’s them,” he says from a rehearsal session.
“Most tributes play number ones from their later work but we think that market’s a bit flooded so we’re doing something different. We’re just a group of friends in a band, sometimes we argue, sure, but the important thing is that we do it because we enjoy it and we enjoy the music.”
Catering to the public
Like any band, fans are crucial to success and survival. Tribute bands face the incisive criticism of lifelong fans of the original band who won’t be fooled by fancy dress and a few lasers.
Ummagumma initially started playing their own music but after playing a few Pink Floyd covers to live audiences to rapturous applause, they realised that this was what the public wanted and they haven’t looked back.
Alejandro says, “We have a lot of the things that they use in their shows, like the light show, the round screen, pyrotechnics, videos, the inflatable pig…although we can’t use it in every venue because it’s really big.
“What we play depends on where we play, now we’re going to La Plata – a place we’ve never played before – so we’ll play a mixture of classics and less well-known stuff.”
He says that when they go back to venues they’ve played in the past and where they’ve earned a name for themselves, they can do a more varied set playing less classics and more of the B-sides and older music that diehard fans really want to hear.
The fine line between reality and fantasy
Presumably to play like Dave Gilmour, you have to think like Dave Gilmour. But how far is too far? The Beats purportedly speak to each other in Liverpudlian accents and call each other Paul, Ringo, George and John in real life.
But other bands, like Nightboat, decide from the outset that they aren’t even going to attempt to recreate the original band’s image. Sergio Ferro has been the lead singer since the Duran Duran tribute was formed in 2006, in the wake of their 2005 tour to Buenos Aires. Having worked on Radio Aloha in Mar del Plata, he had sung in choirs but never played with a band before in his life.
They came together in a fan forum and practise together once a week. He says that the market is split into bands that go for image and those that go for sound: “In our case, the tribute is concerned with the music more than image. We’ve got two women so already the image is ‘wrong’.
“For us it’s more important to get the sound right and we focus on that, I mean if the two go together that’s amazing but for me the music is the most important thing,” he says.
Sergio says that the original fans are also coming out of the woodwork: “There’s a growing culture of fanaticas viejas; 80-year-olds that come with their children and grandchildren – we have a total spectrum of fans.”
Tribute band culture here is something of an amnesty between musicians that want to play and a public that wants to hear the music they love live.
Although tribute bands have surely existed world-wide for as long as fan culture, now is a particular moment in time when Argentina is the right place for them to thrive. Long may they continue with their cat suits and cover songs.