Tribute acts are more prevalent than ever on the concert calendar

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Arrival From Sweden, an ABBA tribute band, will perform Aug. 9 at Conner Prairie. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

Tribute acts encounter cheers or sneers as a polarizing segment of the music industry, but the singers and bands who replicate performances of chart-topping artists are having no problem finding work.

Central Indiana venues The Vogue, Clowes Hall, Old National Centre, Hi-Fi Annex, Nickel Plate District Amphitheater and Plainfield’s new Hendricks Live! theater will showcase tribute acts this year.

Symphony on the Prairie, the summer concert series at Conner Prairie presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has nine tribute shows on deck for August. Carmel’s Palladium announced its 2024-2025 season on Monday, and the roster includes tribute acts inspired by the careers of the Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Chicago.

While Fishers resident Erik Ives frequently catches original artists in concert at Ruoff Music Center and other venues, he’s also purchased tickets for a Led Zeppelin tribute show. Ives said he doesn’t begrudge working musicians who adopt the look and sound of mainstream stars.

“They keep the music alive, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin, for instance, haven’t performed together in public since 2007, and there’s no indication any reunion gigs are on the horizon. Bowie and Cash aren’t alive to even entertain the idea of concert performances.

But songs written and recorded by these iconic artists endure.

“We go to live shows for the communal experience,” Ives said, explaining his support for tribute acts. “It’s like a church of rock ’n’ roll, as Springsteen says. There’s an elevated enjoyment of those songs in the presence of other people who also love them.”

If you’d like to check out the approximation of a Bruce Springsteen show, tribute act The Springsteen Experience is headed to Plainfield for a Nov. 8 performance at Hendricks Live! Springsteen, meanwhile, hasn’t appeared locally since a 2008 show at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

An upcoming run of three shows at Lucas Oil Stadium is making 2024 the year of Taylor Swift in Indianapolis. Before the “Blank Space” singer comes to town in November, Clowes Hall and Conner Prairie will host Taylor Swift tribute acts on July 25 and Aug. 17, respectively.

“We all understand there’s nothing that’s going to replace Taylor Swift at Lucas Oil Stadium,” Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra CEO James Johnson said. “But our tickets are going to be much more affordable. Honestly, maybe you’ve already got your tickets for the November extravaganza, and you want to come out and have a fun warmup. That’s what this is about.”

Symphony on the Prairie at Conner Prairie doesn’t always include an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance. This summer’s schedule has nine tribute acts. (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

The Symphony on the Prairie series is made up of nights when the ISO performs and nights when non-orchestral acts take the stage. A 2006 performance by an ABBA tribute act served as an early experiment in tribute shows at Conner Prairie.

This summer’s schedule includes Arrival from Sweden, an ABBA tribute act and a Symphony on the Prairie veteran.

“They take this music incredibly seriously,” Johnson said. “They have authentic outfits from ABBA’s heyday, and obviously they bring the Swedish accent to the performance.”

ABBA’s founders presently oversee “ABBA Voyage,” a virtual concert residency in London that features digital avatars of the musicians as they appeared in 1979.

The local tribute scene isn’t confined to touring musicians who visit here. Indianapolis is home to Hyryder, a high-profile Grateful Dead tribute band; Crush, a Bon Jovi tribute band; and singer Jason Bambery, who portrays David Bowie in a tribute known as BowieLive.

Hyryder drummer Nick Neureiter said his group has a repertoire of 300 songs played by the Grateful Dead between the California band’s founding in 1965 and the 1995 death of vocalist-guitarist Jerry Garcia.

“There are so many people who did not get to see the Grateful Dead,” Neureiter said. “They didn’t get to see Jerry Garcia. We have a lot of young people who come to see us and a lot of older Deadheads who have become our fan base and our family.”

Fake but realistic

SG Entertainment founder Steve Gerardi is the independent talent buyer who assists the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in building the Symphony on the Prairie schedule.

Steve Gerardi

Gerardi—a former production manager for Ruoff Music Center, including during the venue’s debut season as Deer Creek Music Center in 1989—said popular songs are the lifeblood of tribute acts.

“I think people like the tributes because they love the music,” Gerardi said. “And they especially want to hear the music the way it was recorded on the record.”

The history of modern tribute acts dates to the 1950s, when the earliest Elvis Presley “impersonators” played shows for paying customers.

Since 1984, an Ohio-based Beatles tribute act known as 1964 The Tribute has been a leader in the field. Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Performance Pavilion will host a Sept. 15 appearance by 1964 The Tribute.

Gerardi said tribute acts have a bright future because popular artists from the classic rock era won’t be around forever, and many artists from the recent past don’t have song catalogs to sustain touring careers.

He recalled hiring a 1990s rock band to play a recent corporate gig.

“Until they got to their one hit, nobody knew their music,” Gerardi said.

Bambery, who’s led tribute acts inspired by Prince, the Cure and Guns ’N Roses in addition to his Bowie work, said some tribute acts are better than others.

“I really respect the ones that put the time in to hone it, and they sound just like the album,” Bambery said.

ISO leader Johnson said he appreciates Gerardi’s skills as a talent scout.

“One of the things we look for as we engage these acts is, are they truly top notch?” Johnson said. “Can they deliver these songs authentically, musically? And would we be proud to present them on our stage? We try to be discerning about who we engage for this. In the industry, there are 1,000 different groups that play Beatles songs. But how many of them are actually any good?”

Gerardi said Unforgettable Fire, a New York-based tribute band inspired by U2, made an impressive Symphony on the Prairie debut in 2023.

“That blew our minds,” he said.

When comparing tribute acts to original artists, Gerardi makes a wry observation about the former’s ability to keep a show moving.

“One thing about a tribute band is, you never have to worry about them saying, ‘We have a new album, and we’re going to play some new music from it,’” Gerardi said.

Hyryder (from left, Kirby Hammel, Blair Ping, Charlie Morgan, Nick Neureiter and Eric Thompson) will perform July 6 at Fountain Square’s Hi-Fi Annex. (Photo courtesy of Hyryder)

Reliable audiences

Hyryder, a quintet made up of vocalist-guitarist Charlie Morgan, keyboard player Kirby Hammel, bass player Blair Ping, guitarist Eric Thompson and drummer Neureiter, formed in 2008 as a band that played songs popularized by the Grateful Dead, Phish and the Allman Brothers Band.

Neureiter said the band refined its focus to the Dead around 2015, when Fare Thee Well concerts in Chicago and San Francisco served as the final shows in which bass player Phil Lesh performed with fellow surviving members of the Grateful Dead.

Beyond Indiana, Hyryder plays shows in Ohio, Michigan and California. The band’s annual festival, Lazy Summer Home, is scheduled for Aug. 15-17 in rural Henry County.

“I make original music,” Neureiter said. “But the fact is that it’s really hard to get people to come to see you if you’re an original band. And we have an audience that comes out every time.”

Neureiter said an improvisational style pioneered by the Grateful Dead allows the musicians of Hyryder to express their originality.

“For a lot of these songs, the song is three minutes long and then there’s a 15-minute jam afterward,” he said. “Part of what’s really helped us is that we have our own sound. People come to hear us. Yes, we play the Grateful Dead, but maybe only 30% of the show is the Grateful Dead’s songs, and the rest of it is our improvisation and weaving things into one song from the other.”

Bambery initially met the members of Pittsburgh-based BowieLive at Broad Ripple’s Vogue venue in 2019, when Bambery’s Goblin King (a tribute act focused on Bowie’s work in 1986 film “Labyrinth”) shared a bill with BowieLive.

After being invited to join BowieLive, Bambery learned 30 Bowie songs in two weeks. Onstage, he wears Ziggy Stardust-era clothes associated with the early 1970s and Thin White Duke-era clothes associated with the mid-1970s.

“My first shows were in Florida,” Bambery said. “I felt like a rock star. They flew me to Florida and put me in a hotel. We played opera houses and a couple of outdoor events where there were thousands of people. I’m not used to that. I’m used to little punk clubs here that have a capacity of 200 or 300.”

Indianapolis-based singer Jason Bambery pays tribute to “Ziggy Stardust”-era David Bowie as a member of the band BowieLive. (Photo courtesy of Jason Bambery)

Crowd pleasers

Johnson said the number of tribute acts on the Symphony on the Prairie schedule has increased because crowds come out to the shows.

“Frequently, we open up a dance floor, and it gets flooded with people who are enjoying their favorite music,” Johnson said. “It just provides an atmosphere that is celebratory and fun and relaxing. … We love offering audiences what they love to hear.”

Gerardi said he likes to work with Canada-based Booking House Inc. and New Jersey-based Blue Raven Entertainment when hiring tribute acts.

Booking House represents more than 200 tribute acts, ranging from salutes to ABBA (four different groups) to ZZ Top. Blue Raven represents more than 40 tribute acts, including the Bob Seger-inspired Hollywood Nights that will perform Aug. 16 at Conner Prairie.

“On a national basis, we’re seeing more and more booking agencies take on tribute bands,” Gerardi said. “Why leave the money on the table?”

On the topic of money, tribute acts can be hired for a fraction of the performance fees paid to original artists.

According to public records related to the 2022 Indiana State Fair, tribute acts inspired by Foo Fighters, John Mellencamp and Jimmy Buffett earned $3,500 to $4,500 each to perform. The top-paid fair performer that year, Pat Benatar & Neal Giraldo, collected $125,000.

Live-music fan Ives plans to attend an Oct. 30 performance by Beat—a quartet of Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Tony Levin and Danny Carey playing 1980s material by King Crimson—at Old National Centre. Although Belew and Levin are former members of King Crimson, Ives said he’s viewing the show as a tribute.

“You’re not going to say, ‘I can find four people I would put together to be a better performer of this music,’” Ives said. “You’re going to say, ‘Oh, this is going to be good.’ These guys all care about what they’re doing, and it’s going to be a great show.”•

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5 thoughts on “Tribute acts are more prevalent than ever on the concert calendar

    1. It is not considered a tribute act if original members are still in the band.

    2. I think Megan may have missed your “tongue-in-cheek” intent. Personally, I thought it was hilarious.

  1. Having lived in many larger cities, I have observed tribute acts to be a phenomenon of smaller cities like Indy that the original acts have passed on. They’re rarely seen in the larger cities other than playing in bars.

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