Mockstars are the new rockstars.
"I love the scrappiness of tribute bands," Kurutz says over the phone from his home in New York City. "The earnestness--they weren't being rewarded particularly well with accolades or respect for the work they were putting in, but they loved getting on-stage and playing these songs anyway."
In Like a Rolling Stone Kurutz theorizes that the essential notion of the tribute band, i.e., "something directly inspired by what has gone before," extends beyond tribute bands and into society. "Steven Colbert is, in a way, a tribute band to Bill O'Reilly," he writes. "Quentin Tarantino is a tribute band to 1970s blaxploitation and B movies ... Karaoke is based on the same premise as a tribute band, as is the popular video game Guitar Hero, in which players replicate, note for note, famous guitar solos."
Kurutz traces the short, odd history of the tribute act in his book, beginning with the hit 1970s Broadway musical Beatlemania. Beatlemania's creator, Steve Leber, started the show on the premise that tribute bands were no different than classical orchestras. But instead of playing Mozart and Bach, Handel and Chopin, they played the music of Jagger and Garcia, Plant and McCartney.
"The argument is at once convincing and also off-base," notes Kurutz, "because so much of rock 'n' roll relies on elements beyond the musical notes, like style and attitude."
Jill Stein, a Ph.D. at the UCLA Center for Sociology, takes a slightly different tack in Mockstars, a documentary about tribute bands. "Perhaps much like we're still doing Shakespeare plays, there will be recreations of famous concerts a hundred years from now," she says.
Which argument you buy is a matter of personal belief, but the most glaring omission in all three is this: The intrinsic belief that performing music written by other people is unavoidably, inherently, toxically and indubitably lame. In other words, the question shouldn't be, "Why do people form tribute bands?" so much as, "Should they?"
"Tribute bands were once marginalized; this strange oddity in the music world," says Kurutz. "Now they're totally legit. They aren't demeaned or made fun of the way they used to be."
Last November The Late Show With David Letterman had a tribute band on each night of the week. For "Tribute Bands Week," the show featured acts aping Prince, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Guns N' Roses. "That it wasn't presented as a freak show says a lot," says Kurutz, who posted the YouTube performances on his blog, likearollingstonethebook.blogspot.com
Established musicians are also getting in on the tribute circuit. Letterman's Late Show band bassist, Will Lee, is in a Beatles tribute that does bang-up business, the Fab Faux. Also a member of the Faux is Late Night With Conan O'Brien guitarist Jimmy Vivino.
"They command a certain level of respect," says Sinclair. "No one calls them a tribute band. They're just amazing musicians playing their favorite music. That's what we aspire to."
None of the debate about integrity or lameness is lost on the Pauls, Sinclair and Hammond, as they try to maximize the former while minimizing the latter. The members of Get the Led Out don't dress the part of Zeppelin. Sinclair doesn't employ a fake British accent when speaking to the crowd. When the group signs autographs after shows (and they do) they sign them with their own names, not the names of members of the band whose music they play, as some tributes do.
In fact, Sinclair and Hammond wince with pain at the very term tribute band. "It just reeks of impression to me," says Sinclair, dismissively waving a hand adorned with more rings than most men wear in a lifetime.
"When I'm onstage I don't think I'm Jimmy Page," agrees Hammond. "I'm Paul Hammond playing guitar parts by Jimmy Page. Paul Sinclair is Paul Sinclair singing the lyrics of Robert Plant."
"Every [Zeppelin tribute] band out there, their template is the [concert doc] Song Remains the Same. They mimic that '73 performance you see in the movie," says Sinclair. "That's what they emulate, down to the fact 'Dazed and Confused' is 20 minutes long. What we're doing is bringing you the songs just as you know them from the record."
To do so requires hours of meticulous listening to and studying of the music of Zeppelin. "We listen to it under a microscope," says Hammond, who has built electronics to help aid in capturing some of Zeppelin's more odd aural landscapes.
Sinclair even goes as far as to make his voice crack when Plant's does on record, and is well aware that their audiences know every word to every Zeppelin song, even exact Plant phrasing. "These songs have been played on the radio for 40 years," he says.
It's an intense exercise, and the Pauls are devoted to it completely, so much so that criticism of their earnest efforts by purists seems grossly misplaced. Fortunately, it's something they don't deal with that often.
The 50 greatest Philly pop songs