Bands on Rewind : Performers find success, and paychecks, re-creating rock acts from Rush to Kiss for fans who shun gangsta and grunge.
The man in the leather pants, with the bandannas wrapped around his wrists, was shouting and singing and jumping like Diamond Dave himself. And the crowd was screaming back, singing along to songs like “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher,” pausing only for some solos from that guitarist in the black leather vest.
This was not the band Van Halen (circa 1984) on stage, or singer David Lee Roth or guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Those days are long gone. But for this crowd of 300 on the floor of Pelican’s Retreat, the original lineup of Van Halen had miraculously returned, without that Sammy Hagar guy who replaced Roth in 1986, or any other evidence of time having passed.
That singing acrobat in the long blond hair was actually Ralph Saenz, who is only in the early stages of his own musical career, fronting this band called the Atomic Punks in tribute to the hard rock act he idolized while growing up. By the third song of the night, Saenz assures the crowd that the Atomic Punks don’t actually believe they are Van Halen, or suffer from any other identity crises. “We’re just here to have a good time,” he says.
The 90-minute Atomic Punks concert last week was just the first of a monthlong series of performances by a variety of acts paying tribute to popular rock groups at the Calabasas nightclub. It continues Saturday with Sheer Heart Attack, a tribute to Queen; followed by a Rush tribute called Caress of Steel on Sept. 9; Parasite, a re-creation of Kiss in all its high-heeled, heavy-makeup glory, on Sept. 17, and the self-explanatory Led Zepagain on Sept. 23.
“People were really into it,” says Dave Hewitt, who books talent at Pelican’s. “They were yelling and singing like they were at the Forum or something.”
But he’s hardly surprised. The regular Pelican’s crowd has already demonstrated a willingness to look back. The club’s regular Thursday night re-creation of the disco era via the Boogie Knights band is already one of the week’s busiest nights. Hewitt also has plans to bring in a band that plays nothing but KROQ-FM (106.7)-style ‘80s pop later this month.
On a broader scale, tribute albums featuring major recording artists singing the songs of Curtis Mayfield, Kiss, Neil Young, even the Carpenters, among others, is a trend that has accelerated in the ‘90s.
So reflecting on older music, Hewitt suggests, is an alternative for those unable to identify with some newer forms of pop, whether it is the roar of grunge rock or the seething aggression of gangsta rap.
“What we do is something you can’t see anymore,” says Atomic Punks guitarist Bart Walsh, referring to Van Halen’s original lineup, which influenced a generation of hard rock acts. “And it’s a very viable form of music that’s no longer being made. I’m like a kid in a candy store when I’m doing this.”
The Atomic Punks were born just eight months ago when Walsh’s band found itself without a singer for a fast-approaching club gig. He invited Saenz to sing with the band that night, and spent it playing mostly Van Halen songs, since all the players were fans and already knew the material. While each of the band’s members continue to pursue more traditional rock careers in other acts, they’ve discovered a huge demand for resurrecting the old Van Halen.
“Anywhere we play everybody already knows the words. We play all their hits and everybody goes crazy,” says Saenz, who was enough of a fan to attend five Van Halen concerts before Roth left the band. “David Lee Roth was an exceptional entertainer, and that’s what the Atomic Punks try to capture.”
Along the way, Walsh says he has enjoyed the aid of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar technician in re-creating some of the guitarist’s unique sounds, though none of the original band has yet to witness any of their performances. “First of all, we love Van Halen,” says Walsh, who lives in Burbank. “They were a big influence on all our lives. It’s out of respect that we try to make it as authentic as possible.”
Hewitt says he chose the five acts for his “Rock Tribute Month” series out of a large, growing field of tribute bands of varying quality. The built-in popularity of the material being performed has made the tribute-band racket a profitable career move for many musicians. “It’s kind of a bandwagon,” says Walsh. “A lot of guys are jumping on it now to make money” because the music is already popular.
For rock players who have spent years struggling, or have even paid promoters for the opportunity to perform, the growing demand for tribute acts is an irresistible new sensation. Sheer Heart Attack guitarist Steve Zukowsky has watched as demand for his band’s performances as Queen takes them to clubs across California.
“The difference is we can get paid for doing this,” Zukowsky says, comparing Sheer Heart Attack to his other experiences as a working musician. “It’s nice because we’re playing to an audience that knows all the music. And there are no ego problems within the band because no one writes the music. We just have to decide what music we’re going to play in each set.”
The members of Sheer Heart Attack (which also includes drummer Jeffrey Maxwell, singer Enrique Segura, bassist Peter McGowan, and keyboardist Steve Ramada) were already heavy Queen fans. But it still took several months of practicing the group’s operatic pop before they felt comfortable enough to face audiences, and other Queen fanatics. The tribute band performs music from throughout Queen’s career.
“All of us are really big Queen fans,” says Zukowsky. “I don’t think we could pull it off if we weren’t. People come up to us and ask obscure questions about the history of the band.
“For the most part they’ve accepted us. They had to make sure we were doing it justice.”
At Pelican’s, says Hewitt, “The first criteria is that you’ve got to sound exactly like these bands. Any variation and you get shot down.
“They’ve got to take on the persona of whatever band they are doing. That’s half the show. With Kiss it’s the fireballs and the whole thing. Without that, it would be like an Elvis impersonator who didn’t dress like Elvis.”
Not that many of these bands are seeking the same sort of campy persona common to Elvis impersonators. “Most people,” says Walsh, “when they hear about a Van Halen tribute, they go, ‘Yeah, right .’ ” He says if a tribute act is “done with integrity I respect it.”
As for the Atomic Punks, “We could do it for a couple years, or even longer. . . . But it’s not a career.” But Zukowsky of Sheer Heart Attack says it doesn’t necessarily have to end. “We can’t all do original music,” he says. “That’s a real tough thing, and takes a lot of dedication. But we have so much fun doing this I don’t care.”
WHERE AND WHEN
What: “Rock Tribute Month,” with performances by Sheer Heart Attack, Saturday; Caress of Steel, Sept. 9; Parasite, Sept. 17; Led Zepagain, Sept. 23.
Location: Pelican’s Retreat, 24454 Calabasas Road, Calabasas.
Price: $5, except Parasite, which is $7 at the door, $5 in advance.
Call: (818) 222-1155.