Inside the Insanely Competitive World of L.A. Tribute Bands

Inside the Insanely Competitive World of L.A. Tribute Bands
Ryan Orange

"Anaheim, are you ready to rock & roll?" booms an announcer at City National Grove, a cavernous theater tucked into a corner of the parking lot of Angel Stadium. A crowd of about 1,400 responds with an alcohol-lubricated roar. It's 10 o'clock on a Saturday night and they're ready, all right.

In near total darkness, a band enters and begins playing a midtempo, smoldering blues jam. The lights slowly come up, and anyone wandering in off the street would swear they're seeing Led Zeppelin tear through "How Many More Times" off their 1969 debut.

It's not Led Zeppelin, of course. This isn't some secret warmup gig for Oldchella 2017. It's Led Zepagain, Southern California's top Zeppelin tribute band.

For the next two hours, they channel the British blues-rock icons with an accuracy that occasionally borders on the uncanny. Lead singer Swan Montgomery struts and shakes his leonine blond mane like Robert Plant, hitting high notes the actual Plant hasn't been able to reach in years. Guitarist Jimmy Sakurai plays with such casual virtuosity that you'd swear you're watching Jimmy Page circa 1975 and not a Japanese guy in flared dragon pants. Jim Wootten's bass lines are dead ringers for John Paul Jones', and Derek Smith pummels his green drum kit with a Bonzo-like sense of power and groove.

Much of the crowd responds as if witnessing the real thing. Men raise fists over their gray and balding heads to the opening riffs of "Kashmir." Women old enough to have kids in college dance with youthful abandon to the elastic grooves of "Bring It on Home." Nearly everyone goes apeshit when Sakurai breaks out a double-neck Gibson and plays the madrigal-like intro to "Stairway to Heaven."

Most are here mainly as fans of the original. But like all successful tributes, Led Zepagain, who have been around since 1988, have their own devoted fan base, many of whom weren't even born when Zeppelin called it quits in 1980. A few Zepagain T-shirts are being unironically worn amid the sea of vintage Zeppelin tees in the crowd.

"I was born in '77, so I never got to see Zeppelin," one fan says. "I figure this is the closest I'll get."

Once dismissed as a novelty, tribute bands now are an integral part of the concert industry — especially here in Los Angeles, where, thanks to an overabundance of skilled musicians in search of paying gigs, there are now hundreds of tributes plying their trade. The Facebook group So-Cal Tribute Band Scene has more than 3,100 members, who post dozens of shows each week for bands with names such as Queen Nation, the Black Sabbastards, Hollywood U2 and the Red Not Chili Peppers.

"L.A. is unequivocally the hub and originator of the tribute scene," says Dave Hewitt, who has been booking tribute bands since the early 1990s and currently books the Rose and Canyon Club, among others. "There's more tributes in Southern California than anywhere in the world."

Despite its success, the tribute scene continues to get a bad rap, in part because the vast majority of the acts are not very good — a reality tribute artists and promoters readily admit to. "About 95 percent of them range from hideous to horrific," says Jose Maldonado, the Moz-channeling frontman for Smiths/Morrissey tribute Sweet and Tender Hooligans.

But the best tributes, like Led Zepagain, are carefully constructed and choreographed replicas of the bands they emulate. The most authentic can even receive the imprimatur of the artists they're based on. A Montreal-based tribute called The Musical Box has received endorsements from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and other members of Genesis. Members of the real Pink Floyd have appeared onstage with a tribute called the Australian Pink Floyd. In Los Angeles, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger plucked Jim Morrison doppelgänger Dave Brock from the Doors tribute Wild Child and made him their singer for four years.

Looking the part is almost as important as having the right sound. When she joined The Contenders, a Pretenders tribute, singer-guitarist Tracy Niles "showed up to the audition in full costume," she says with a laugh. "I bought a wig and actually had my hairdresser style the wig to be more like Chrissie [Hynde's] shag cut." Niles, who is blond, now convincingly channels Hynde not only in her brassy vocals but in her black wig, tie and men's vest.

For established tributes, no visual detail is too small. From the front row, you can see that even the way Zepagain lead singer Montgomery purses his lips and holds his mic cord are perfect imitations of Plant. Drummer Smith owns four different kits, some complete with gong and kettle drum, each an era-appropriate replica of Bonham's. Sakurai's guitar strap and cables match Page's gear as accurately as his riffs. For the past 36 years, he says, "I only study Jimmy Page."

But as active as it is, the L.A. tribute scene has a problem: With so many bands competing for gigs, the market is oversaturated. There are, to give just one example, no fewer than five Doors tributes plying their trade in Los Angeles: Wild Child, Break on Through, Peace Frog, Strange Days and Light My Fire. There's a Cure tribute called The Cured and another called The Curse. There are even tributes to more recent artists such as The Killers and Deadmau5.

Because of this, says scene veteran Brent Meyer, many of L.A.'s best tribute acts seldom play local gigs. "If they want to play for money, they need to get out of town."

In addition to playing Martin Gore in the Depeche Mode tribute Strangelove, Meyer is the co-founder of Music Zirconia, a San Diego–based management and booking agency with an active roster of more than 1,300 bands, most of them tributes. He and his partner, Michael Twombly, who plays Robert Smith in The Cured, encourage their best bands to travel as often as possible. "In L.A., it may seem a bit played out," Meyer admits. "But elsewhere in the country and certainly elsewhere in the world, that's not the case."

Jose Maldonado is "Morrissey" in Moz/Smiths tribute band The Sweet & Tender Hooligans
Jose Maldonado is "Morrissey" in Moz/Smiths tribute band The Sweet & Tender Hooligans
Ryan Orange

Tribute acts have existed for decades, going all the way back to the Elvis impersonators who first became popular in the 1950s. Here in Southern California, the tribute scene can be traced to 1975, when a band from Orange County originally called Reign changed their name to Rain (after a semi-obscure Beatles song, the B-side to "Paperback Writer") and began playing all-Beatles sets on Monday nights at the Mine Shaft, a nightclub in Calabasas.

"When we started doing it, nobody knew what a tribute act was," says Mark Lewis, the band's original keyboardist. Audiences members would approach the band between songs and ask, "Don't you do anything besides Beatles?"

"No," they'd reply, in their brightly colored Sgt. Pepper costumes. "This is it."

Despite the confusion, Rain were an immediate hit. Lewis remembers the group earning about $800 from the door at their first gig, a small fortune for a local band in those days. "People went nuts," he says. "There was an emotional attachment to the music."

Rain's success soon inspired others. At first, Lewis says, it was mostly copycat bands doing other Beatles tributes. But by the late '80s, an embryonic scene had formed, led by Rain, Wild Child, Cubensis (Grateful Dead), a Hendrix emulator named Randy Hansen, and The White, an original band fronted by Robert Plant–like singer Michael White, which sometimes doubled as a Led Zeppelin tribute. It was the latter group that inspired a young band from Ventura called ECLPSE (without the "I") to reinvent itself as Led Zepagain in 1988.

"We all carpooled out to Magic Mountain to watch them play," says Tracy Longo, the band's original guitarist. "When we got there, we saw a photo of Robert Plant wearing a T-shirt of The White." Since everyone already said ECLPSE sounded like Zeppelin, they decided to give the tribute-band thing a shot.

"At the time it was a novelty," says Longo, who left Zepagain in 1999 and now runs a guitar-restoration business. "Tribute bands were not really taken seriously." But Longo and his then-bandmates — none of whom are in the current incarnation of Zepagain — saw the potential. "We were really trying to break new ground. We went for it full blast, the costumes, the full poser thing."

Initially, Zepagain didn't have much success — partly because they were in Ventura, partly because no real tribute scene yet existed. But when their first lead singer quit the band, they struck gold by replacing him with Swan Montgomery, an Irishman with a killer voice and, because he worked around town as a sound guy, lots of contacts in the L.A. concert scene.

Montgomery had moved to L.A. for a record deal that didn't pan out. "It just all fell through," he says, pronouncing it "t'ru" in an Irish accent he drops while playing Plant. "And it was a matter of like, well what do I do? Then I get this call from Led Zepagain. At the time, tribute bands were practically nonexistent. I didn't even know what a tribute band was myself. The attraction was, yeah, you'll actually get paid money."

Because he was still under his old label contract, Montgomery asked that the band keep his name off fliers. But right away he enjoyed both the pay and the chance to channel Plant's vocal theatrics.

"I love Led Zeppelin. Always loved Robert Plant," he says, still with obvious enthusiasm after 27 years. It's a common sentiment echoed among many tributes. Yes, there is money to be made in the tribute scene, but most get into it as fans first and foremost. It's almost like a form of cosplay, but with instruments.

Led Zepagain in concert at the now-closed House of Blues SunsetEXPAND
Led Zepagain in concert at the now-closed House of Blues Sunset
Diane Lynn

With the addition of Montgomery, Zepagain quickly joined the ranks of a growing list of successful L.A. tribute bands, including The Atomic Punks (Van Halen), Space Oddity (David Bowie), Sheer Heart Attack (Queen) and Sweet and Tender Hooligans (Smiths/Morrissey). A scene was forming — but even then, many tributes started more by accident than by design.

"We actually started off as an original band" called Sweet and Tender Hooligans, after a Smiths song, Maldonado says. In 1992, they began doing an all–Smiths/Morrissey live set at an annual fan convention, and by '96 it had evolved into the band's full-time job. "The tribute became everything we were getting asked to do."

Ralph Saenz, who fronted The Atomic Punks under the stage name David Lee Ralph, tells a similar story. In 1994, "There was a band called Lancia," he says. "And they had a singer that was missing shows a lot. I think he was partying too hard." When the singer was a no-show for a gig at North Hollywood rock club FM Station, Lancia asked Saenz to fill in — but he didn't know any of their original songs. "So they said, 'Well, why don't we just do all Van Halen?'"

By this time, the old Mine Shaft in Calabasas, where Rain got their start, had become a new venue called Pelican's Retreat. Dave Hewitt, who started booking bands there in 1991, was among the first promoters to recognize that the very concept of tributes could draw a curious audience. "I'd do an entire month on the weekends with tribute bands," called Rocktober, he says. "I'm pretty sure I even used Led Zepagain in the rotation."

Other clubs around town — FM Station, Gazzarri's, the Whisky, the House of Blues that opened on Sunset in 1994 — would occasionally book tributes, too. But the scene lacked a center, especially after Pelican's Retreat closed in 1996. It would find one in an unlikely place, a little club in Marina del Rey called Scruffy O'Shea's, where a promoter named Jim DeSoto would first start being referred to as "King of the Tributes."

Today, DeSoto — known universally as "Jimmy D" — books tribute bands at Paladino's, a nightclub in Tarzana that has been his home base since 2000. Though other longtime tribute promoters like Hewitt might disagree, DeSoto is almost without question the person most responsible for making the Los Angeles tribute scene what it is today.

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At his peak, in the mid-2000s, DeSoto was booking three or four tribute bands a night, six days a week. These days, he only does weekends. "I've got a computer business in my house. I book bands between downloads," he says. "I don't have to work so hard, and I like it that way."

On a recent Saturday at Paladino's, DeSoto stands outside, having a cigarette break and greeting the regulars who trickle in. He wears a gray hoodie over a Megadeth T-shirt; his mustache and wavy, shoulder-length hair are streaked with gray. It's a cold December night, and slower than usual. When the sound guy ducks his head outside to ask if the Judas Priest tribute Diamonds and Rust can play a few extra songs, DeSoto replies, "They can play as long as they want."

DeSoto declines to give his age but says he's been booking bands for more than 35 years, starting in the early '80s at an Italian restaurant called Mancini's Club M in Canoga Park, just down the street from where he grew up. After bouncing around for many years — including stints at FM Station and an "environmental bar" called Amazon, where bands played in a treehouse — he landed at Scruffy O'Shea's in 1995.

Gregory Finsley is the Freddie Mercury of Queen Nation.
Gregory Finsley is the Freddie Mercury of Queen Nation.
Ryan Orange

He never intended to make Scruffy's a hub for tributes, but after booking a few, "the next thing you know, the floodgates opened," he says. Many of the musicians he recognized from original bands he had booked in the late '80s, before the grunge explosion killed off L.A.'s glam-metal scene virtually overnight. "A lot of those hair-band people became tribute people. They got grief for it, but there's nothing wrong with making a living."

In early 2000, DeSoto jumped ship from Scruffy's to Paladino's, a bigger space that allowed him to continue booking his favorite bands as their followings grew. His timing could not have been better. In 2001, the tribute scene got its first wave of mainstream media attention thanks to the film Rock Star, loosely based on the true story of Ripper Owens, a singer from a Judas Priest tribute in Ohio (played by Mark Wahlberg) who was hired to replace Rob Halford in the real thing. That, combined with the simultaneous collapse of the traditional music industry, hastened by online piracy and file-sharing sites such as Napster, sent a fresh wave of skilled musicians flocking to the tribute scene.

In those days, DeSoto says, the most popular band by far at Paladino's was The Atomic Punks, still fronted by the charismatic Saenz. "I was paying them $2,500 every show, if you can believe that." DeSoto also gave a regular Wednesday night slot to Metal Skool, an '80s hair-metal tribute that featured Saenz (now calling himself Michael Starr) as well. That band would go on to become the original comedy metal act Steel Panther.

For a few years, DeSoto says he had cornered the market on tributes. "I was the only one that was doing it. The only one," he insists. But as the scene grew in popularity, "It seemed like everybody started copying me."

Today, L.A. tribute bands in search of a paying gig have a variety of options: the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, the Rose in Pasadena, M15 in Corona, the Gaslamp and Harvelle's in Long Beach, Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. Casinos and outdoor summer concert series frequently book tributes as well, and many bands say their biggest paydays now come from private parties and corporate events.

Though some successful tributes remain loyal to Paladino's — popular AC/DC tribute Bonfire recently headlined a night there, as did The Iron Maidens, widely regarded as the best all-female tribute in the business — many have moved on. "Now it's more of an incubator" for new bands, says Music Zirconia's Meyer.

But if Paladino's is no longer the hub it once was, it remains a kind of holy site for successful tributes who cut their teeth there. "We have a lot of history with Paladino's. I helped start that scene," says Led Zepagain's Montgomery, who was actually DeSoto's sound man at Scruffy O'Shea's and later, in the early days, at Paladino's. He adds with a laugh, "It's like the university of tribute bands. If you don't get past Paladino's, give it up."

Hammer of the Broads is a female Led Zeppelin tribute band.
Hammer of the Broads is a female Led Zeppelin tribute band.
Ryan Orange

In a purple-walled garage in Glendale, another Led Zeppelin tribute called Hammer of the Broads is rehearsing. As they come out of a simmering version of "Since I've Been Loving You," singer Dyna Shirasaki opens her eyes and smiles at her bandmates. "We go into a trance on that one," she says.

Hammer of the Broads are one of many all-female tributes to all-male bands. They've only been active since about 2010, but it's a phenomenon that goes back to at least 1999, when a Bay Area tribute called AC/DShe emerged, claiming to be the first of their kind. Since then, the L.A. scene has spawned bands with names like Lynette Skynyrd, Femme Halen and ThundHerStruck — the latter another AC/DC tribute, which features Shirasaki and Hammer of the Broads' guitarist Tina Wood.

No one can quite agree on what fueled the all-female tribute trend, but the unfortunate reality is that the classic-rock era from which the tribute scene heavily draws is overwhelmingly male. Prior to the advent of the all-female tribute, women who weren't fans of Heart, Fleetwood Mac or Pat Benatar were frozen out.

But there may be a simpler explanation. "It's a gimmick," Wood says flatly. "People want to see girls play. People come out of curiosity."

Both Wood and Shirasaki grinded away for years in various original bands before going the tribute route. In a story similar to Swan Montgomery's, Wood moved to L.A. from London when her band No Shame was signed by CBS/Columbia Records in 1989. They released an album, toured and got dropped. "Welcome to the music industry," she deadpans.

ThundHerStruck, which began as Whole Lotta Rosies in 2002, achieved some early success. But when their rhythm guitarist left and took the rights to the name with her, they were forced to rebrand themselves. (DeSoto confirms this; Wood and Shirasaki admit they began under a different name but decline to discuss it further.) Despite the name change, they continued to book high-profile gigs, including several tours of U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 2005 headlining slot at "The Big Ball," an AC/DC fan convention and tribute festival held in Wales.

"If we wanted to do this for a living, we could," Wood says. "But we choose not to, because we'd have to give up our jobs." She works as a high-end luthier and guitar-repair expert; Shirasaki is a criminalist and firearms analyst for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The most successful all-female tribute in Los Angeles, and possibly the world, are The Iron Maidens, who deliver the heavy, technically demanding anthems of British metal legends Iron Maiden with a power and precision most other tributes can't match. Even after their lead guitarist, Nita Strauss, was poached by Alice Cooper — making her the closest thing the L.A. scene currently has to a Ripper Owens — their popularity hasn't diminished.

Hammer of the Broads drummer Nikki Taylor spent part of 2016 filling in with the Maidens while their regular drummer recovered from shoulder surgery, an arrangement the band says is common in the tribute world. "Some of our members have done stuff with AC/DShe," Shirasaki says. "It's never really been competitive for me, and I don't think for anybody else in my band. We just do this for fun. There's plenty of gigs to go around."

Julian Shah-Tayler is "David Bowie" from The Band That Fell to Earth.
Julian Shah-Tayler is "David Bowie" from The Band That Fell to Earth.
Ryan Orange

For more established bands, this may be true. But anyone attempting to get into the tribute scene now, especially in Los Angeles, faces an uphill battle.

"The market is so oversaturated with quality bands," says Music Zirconia's Meyer. "And the bad bands will underbid each other [for gigs], to everyone's collective detriment." The saturation even extends to specific artists. "In L.A., there are probably six or seven Zeppelin bands and six or seven Journey bands."

As the tribute scene has matured, band divisions have fueled further competition. When a traditional band breaks up, its members go on to form new, original projects. But when a tribute band breaks up or loses members, they often split into competing acts. Both Whole Lotta Rosies and ThundHerStruck, for example, remain active all-female AC/DC tributes.

When it comes to breeding its own competition, the most fertile band of all may be Led Zepagain. Its former members have gone on to start no fewer than four other SoCal Zeppelin tributes: Led Zepplica, Zepp Heads, Like Zeppelin and Zeppelin USA. Says Zepagain co-founder Tracy Longo, who now plays guitar in Zepp Heads: "It's almost like we gave birth to all these little branches of Zeppelin."

On a rainy Saturday in November, Swan Montgomery reclines on a sectional couch in the green room of the Canyon Club. It's several hours before Led Zepagain's headlining set, and so far only guitarist Jimmy Sakurai is in his full stage ensemble, which tonight includes a glued-on beard and a black suit with a cravat.

Even tribute bands have to keep things fresh, and Zepagain likes to do this by performing track-for-track re-creations of actual Led Zeppelin shows. Since the days when Longo was still in the band, they have reconstructed specific Zeppelin sets down to the last note and costume accessory from old concert footage and bootlegs. Tonight they're channeling Zeppelin circa 1971 — hence Sakurai's fake beard.

Not everyone, they admit, appreciates this approach. "Sometimes when we do the 30-minute version of 'Dazed and Confused,' people that aren't familiar with it are like, 'What's going on?'" says drummer Derek Smith, the group's newest member. Minus his John Bonham wig, he looks startlingly young and clean-cut. "But if we're doing our job right, hopefully they're buying into it."

For some fans, the effect can be transportive. "Sometimes people say, I was there, 1975 show!" Sakurai says.

Though his bandmates insist they recruited Sakurai in 2012 simply because he was the best man for the job (and after watching him perform, it's a hard point to argue), it was also a savvy career move. Before joining Zepagain, Sakurai had his own successful Zeppelin tribute in Japan called Mr. Jimmy. Zepagain had performed in Japan before, but adding Sakurai to their lineup made them instant stars in a country that takes tribute bands very seriously.

"When you play in Japan, it's sometimes a five-hour show," Montgomery says. In October they did a series of shows in Japan, re-creating all three hours of Zep's Song Remains the Same tour, complete with a mirrored stage set and flashpots for the end of "Whole Lotta Love."

Zepagain strive to innovate in other ways, too. They were among the first Zeppelin tributes to jump on streaming services, long before the actual Led Zeppelin licensed their music; the Zepagain version of "Stairway to Heaven" has more than 12 million plays on Spotify. They occasionally play original acoustic arrangements of Zeppelin songs with a string quartet under the name Symphony to Heaven, and Montgomery is developing a multimedia version of their stage show called Evermore, which he hopes can become the next phase of Zepagain's evolution.

Fleetwood Mac tribute band Rumours features Jesika Miller as "Stevie Nicks."
Fleetwood Mac tribute band Rumours features Jesika Miller as "Stevie Nicks."
Ryan Orange

Ultimately, Montgomery foresees a day when Led Zepagain continues on without him. "When I'm older and I cannot perform, I want to be able to sit back and let the brand continue — and get another Robert Plant."

There is already some precedent for tribute bands carrying on like long-running Broadway shows, with new members (or "cast," as the Music Zirconia website tellingly puts it) swapping in as others age out. Remember Rain, the Beatles tribute that started it all? Co-founder Mark Lewis now manages it as a Broadway-style revue; in fact, Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles even had a 300-show run on Broadway in 2010 and 2011. Rain's current Paul McCartney is the son of their former Paul McCartney.

When asked how far tribute acts have the potential to evolve, Brent Meyer cites Steel Panther, who began as a genre tribute (or "variety band," as Ralph Saenz prefers to call it) to '80s hair metal before achieving worldwide success with original songs that simultaneously lampoon and pay homage to their Sunset Strip forebears. "They got a six-figure Interscope deal and regularly appear on TV and [have] millions of YouTube views," Meyer notes. Most bands interviewed for this story agree with him, citing Steel Panther as the best example of an L.A. tribute that "made it," even if by the time they did, they had long since broken the tribute-band mold.

In fact, Steel Panther are now so popular that they have inspired their own tribute band. "They're called Surreal Panther. They're out of the U.K.," Saenz says, sounding genuinely excited. "How ironic is that? I don't wanna say it's a dream come true, but it's fucking pretty awesome to have four guys that want to do all Steel Panther songs and dress up like us."

Here are just a few of the upcoming L.A.-area shows by bands featured in this article (in chronological order):

CONTENDERS (opening for Heart Love Alive: A Tribute to Heart | Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills | Sat., Feb. 4, 7:15 p.m. | $19.50 | canyonclub.net

THE BAND THAT FELL TO EARTH | Discovery Ventura, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura | Sat., Feb. 4, 8 p.m. | $5-$14 | discoveryventura.com

QUEEN NATION (opening for Which One's Pink?) | City National Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim | Sat., Feb. 4, 8 p.m. | $23.50 | citynationalgroveofanaheim.com

RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES | McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert | Fri., Feb. 17, 8 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 18, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 19, 2 & 7 p.m. | $37-$87 | mccallumtheatre.com

HAMMER OF THE BROADS | Paladino's, 6101 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana | Sat., Feb. 18, 10 p.m. | paladinosclub.com

SWEET AND TENDER HOOLIGANS, THE CURSE | Romano's Concert Lounge, Canyon Crest Towne Centre, 5225 Canyon Crest Drive, Riverside | Sat., Feb. 18, 8 p.m. | $15 advance, $20 door | theconcertlounge.com

STEEL PANTHER | The Roxy. 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood | every Mon., Feb. 27-March 20, 8 p.m. | $26 | theroxy.com

LED ZEPAGAIN | The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano | Sat., April 8, 8 p.m. | $18 | thecoachhouse.com


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