Cleveland's Robust Cover and Tribute Band Scene Remains Thriving, Which is Good News for Fans and Musicians Alike

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click to enlarge E5C4P3–The Journey Tribute - Photo by John Faddis
Photo by John Faddis
E5C4P3–The Journey Tribute

"Well, it looks like we have a whole lot of Journey fans out there!" says Jason Kelty, the lead vocalist of E5C4P3–The Journey Tribute. Using his hand like a visor, he's peering out at the sold-out crowd of New Year's Eve revelers at Hard Rock Live at the Rocksino.

We're still in the 10 p.m. hour, but the audience is clearly already feeling frisky as E5C4P3 rolls through their first set. A man and woman wearing festive shiny bowler hats playfully hold on to one another and dance around during "Feeling That Way/Anytime," breaking only when the man, clearly overcome by the sheer awesomeness, starts air-drumming. Several feet in front of them, two women dressed alike in matching silver tops wave their hands in the air throughout "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'."

During the ballad "Lights," a nearby couple— her sporting a sleeveless glittery top and a "Happy New Year" headband; him rocking yellow and green leis—slow dances like no one else is in the room. As the set winds down with the fist-pumping anthem "Any Way You Want It," the pair starts making out like lovelorn teenagers.

As these scenes unfold, a jeans-clad Kelty is busy belting out these hits and swapping shirts—a red tailcoat, a white overcoat with tails over a black T-shirt, a leather jacket. Journey fans will recognize these items of clothing as similar to ones worn by former vocalist Steve Perry, which is no accident. Onstage, Kelty's vocal cadences and range are dead ringers for the beloved rock icon's pipes, and the same goes for his appearance. Even his hair— a pin-straight shag—mimics the 'do worn by early '80s, MTV-superstar-era Perry. Behind him, the band supplies booming synths and rippling, jagged guitar tones in top-notch emulation of Journey.

E5C4P3 celebrated 25 years as a band in 2018—an impressive feat for any group, but doubly so for a tribute act. "We've gone [from] place to place, and it's all because everybody loves Journey," Kelty says a few weeks later. "It worked like that back in the '90s—and today it's even way stronger."

Tribute and cover bands—and, make no mistake, the terms shouldn't necessarily be used interchangeably—are big business in Northeast Ohio. Head to nearly any outdoor event or festival during the warmer months and, chances are, these groups are providing musical entertainment. Cover and tribute acts permeate the club and bar scene as well, both at long-time usual suspects (Westlake's Time Warp, North Olmsted's Sly Fox Lounge, the Rocksino's Club Velvet) and venues that book a mix of originals and touring acts, such as the Music Box Supper Club and the Winchester.

Northeast Ohio's cover scene is vast and varied. Decade- and genre-specific groups proliferate, from the '90s- and '00s-leaning Top 40 troupe Pop Fiction to hip-hop-centric Old Skool to '80s-heavy 80s proof for new wavers. Fans of '80s hard rock and metal can go see Juke Box Heroes or the long-running troupe Cleveland's Breakfast Club featuring Paul Sidoti, the local native who's been Taylor Swift's lead guitarist since 2007. Even the local original music community gets in on the fun—notably on Halloween, when rock, punk and indie musicians work up elaborate covers sets for an annual show at the Beachland Ballroom.

Other tribute acts focus on individual bands, such as the Cars (Moving In Stereo), David Bowie (Diamond Dogs), the Beatles (The George Martins) and Pat Benatar (Invincible). Metal fans have acts dedicated to AC/DC (Dirty Deeds), Van Halen (Panama) and Iron Maiden (Maiden Voyage). Several years ago, there was even a short-lived tribute to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, a British rock band adored here in the '70s thanks to WMMS airplay.

In short, no matter what era or style of music you're into—chances are, there's a band in town catering to your interests or hitting that perfect nostalgic sweet spot. For the musicians playing in these groups, motivations also vary. Covers-centric gigs can pay very well, and function as a reliable additional revenue stream. Some covers or tribute bands are simply an outlet for low-pressure musical fun. Others give musicians a chance to stay on their toes or hone additional instruments. In short, there are many reasons to be in—or see—a cover or tribute band, and every one of them is valid.

* * *

Cleveland's tribute band patriarch is the late Bill Pettijohn, who fronted Moonlight Drive, a Doors tribute. "He created that aura of Jim Morrison," says Eric "Eroc" Sosinski, bassist/vocalist for the popular Pink Floyd tribute Wish You Were Here. "He was channeling Morrison; he was living the part."

Sosinski himself is a tribute band veteran who performed with Harvest Pink Floyd Revue for five years starting in 1988 before co-founding Wish You Were Here with Jim Tigue in 1995. "There really weren't very many tribute acts at that point," Sosinki says. "We came out of the gate right away with sold-out shows." Lance Horwedel started the Fleetwood Mac tribute act Rumours with his then-girlfriend back in 1997, around the time the real band's golden-era lineup regrouped for a well-received tour. Rumours' first gig, at the Huron River Festival, also drew well, he says.

Kelty says E5C4P3 had a slightly tougher go of it in the '90s, when they were weekend warriors racking up miles doing out-of-town gigs. "It really took a toll on us because, back then, tribute bands were not respected like they are today," Kelty says. "There were a lot of tribute bands that were trying to play [then], but a lot of them were not really that great. They were just sort of garage bands that were playing the same music of the band they were tributing. They weren't really good at sounding just like who they were tributing."

Indeed, the major difference between tribute and cover bands is execution. The latter has more leeway to be casual. The former, however, are held to much higher standards, especially performance-wise. "You try and get it as close to the record as possible, because that's the way people know it," Kelty says. "When people hear it the way they remember it from the radio, that makes people go, 'These guys are great!' If there [are] lots and lots of wrong notes, then people are going to go 'Ehh, they're okay.' Getting the stuff as close to the record is really what makes a tribute band truly a tribute band, makes us worth our salt."

Kelty is lucky in that he bears a striking resemblance to Steve Perry, and has a sense of humor about tributing Journey. For example, at the Rocksino, he prefaced the Perry solo cut "Oh Sherrie" by paying homage to several plot points in the song's video, like when the rocker grabs a broom and also sports a jaunty hat.

Of course, not every musician is a rock star doppelganger, although there are plenty of ways to create an authentic experience. Wish You Were Here, for example, has Floydian stage props—including an inflatable pig with glowing green eyes and a mini version of the famous white-bricked Wall—and focuses on instrumentation. "I'm very big on the details," Sosinski says. "That's what makes a tribute band successful: It's all in the details. Using the vintage instruments that the acts used, getting those little things like the sound effects, the phrasing of the vocals. That's really what sets apart the bar-level tribute bands with the concert-level tribute bands."

Yet replication isn't a hard-and-fast rule, according to Tom Prebish. That's why his Grateful Dead tribute band, Sunshine Daydream, looks more to capture the improvised, loose spirit of the famed group. Each show has a different setlist—in fact, it's a point of pride that Sunshine Daydream never plays the same Dead gig twice—and is always rotating new tunes into their repertoire, which currently numbers between 75 and 80 Dead songs.

click to enlarge The Boys From County Hell - Photo by Mara Robinson
Photo by Mara Robinson
The Boys From County Hell

"The comment I get most is that 'You guys aren't trying to be the Dead, but you channel that feeling of exploration, live performance,' things like that," says Prebish, a self-proclaimed life-long Deadhead. "There's a pretty wide range of ages of people that come to see us—younger people that never even saw the Grateful Dead to people that have seen the Dead hundreds of times. And they all seem to say the same thing. 'You guys have a reverence for that music. You're not trying to replicate it.'"

Tapping into that well of nostalgia certainly explains the appeal of cover and tribute bands. "People miss the richness of music from the past," says Monique Orban, who handles Ann Wilson's parts in the Heart tribute Straight On. "I feel like people are searching for music with meaning, like we all grew up with." Tribute acts are also filling a live-concert void, she adds. "A lot of these beloved musicians and bands are no longer with us, or are currently not touring—like Heart, for instance," Orban says. "People miss the live music experience of their favorite bands that they grew up with. With a good tribute band, it's as close as you can get to experiencing the real thing all over again."

Sosinski concurs. "People want to communally celebrate their favorite bands. They want to recreate going to the concerts that they used to go to in the '70s and '80s. Tribute bands fill that void."

* * *

It's two days before Christmas and Pogues tribute band The Boys From The County Hell are amping up the rowdiness at their annual pre-holiday House of Blues show. A smattering of Santa hats can be seen in the crowd, alongside more punkish attire, such as a U.S. Bombs jacket. Vocalist and ringleader Doug McKean, his gravelly voice echoing Pogues' ringleader Shane MacGowan, exults the crowd.

"We've been looking forward to this for 364 days," he exclaims after finishing "Greenland Whale Fisheries."

During the two-hour set, The Boys From The County Hell mix original Pogues classics and traditional Irish tunes popularized by the band, as well as a few Clash tunes and (appropriately) a rip-roaring encore run-through of the Kinks' "Father Christmas." Yet the range of dynamics on display gives the concert nuance. During the ballad "Rainy Night In Soho," McKean turns in a laconic, sad-bastard performance while sipping a beer to match a muted trumpet. In contrast, "The Galway Girl" made the crowd spring to life and sing along lustily, and the speedy, "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" spawned mass hollering and clapping.

Of course, the night's centerpiece is a melancholy re-arrangement of the now-holiday classic "Fairytale of New York." After kicking off with a slow and sad intro from a live string section, the song soars as McKean teams up with guest Ashlie Sletvold, a bold and brassy singer who handily takes on Kirsty MacColl's parts. The pair slow dance together to the end of the song, while people in the audience also similarly throw their arms around one another's shoulders and sway to the music, tipsy on drink and emotion.

Since playing their first show on St. Patrick's Day in 2000, The Boys From The County Hell have grown into one of the most well-respected tribute act in the area and beyond; they've even toured as the backing band for an original Pogues member, Spider Stacy. When they're not raging through Irish punk, however, many members of The Boys From County Hell spend their time playing original music. For example, both McKean and Prebish, as well as guitarist Chris Allen, perform with holiday troupe Ohio City Singers.

"I certainly wouldn't say that being in a cover band is free of drama, but it's different drama," McKean says about the differences between cover and original groups. "The pressure on what to do creatively, how to promote it, and the way people's egos get tied up in what an original band creates—there's none of that. For the most part, it's much easier for that reason."

He also has his own theories on why people enjoy cover and tribute bands. "They're hearing the version of the song in their head that they've heard a thousand times as you're doing it, so I think you get an automatic boost to how you sound to a listener," he says. "They like the music and don't get to see it performed often—or ever. They're curious about how someone does playing songs they love, so they want to check it out to sort of grade it."

Still, getting fans to care as much about artists playing original music can be tougher. "There's a lot of people who really enjoy hearing songs they're already familiar with rather than wanting to check out something new, honestly," says Beth, bassist/vocalist in the low-key, classic rock-leaning Lynyrd Skynflute.

For Brent Kirby, coming up against this mindset can be frustrating. He's one of the most forceful champions of original music in Cleveland, between his own projects and his tenure hosting the weekly 10 X 3 Songwriter Showcase at Brothers Lounge, which requires participants to perform a song they've written. Typically, if Kirby is playing a cover at one of his own shows, it's a song written by one of his local musician friends, such as Ray Flanagan, Ed Bridge or the late Larry Trupo.

Yet he also helms the popular Gram Parsons cover band The New Soft Shoe, which recently celebrated nine years together by launching a 2019 residency at Forest City Brewery. The troupe's parameters are rigorous, and center on historical accuracy. "We get kind of nerdy about it," he says. "Our rule is if Gram played it—and there's evidence that Gram played it, like on a setlist or recording—then it's fair game." That means setlists might touch on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Parsons' own Grievous Angel, as well as outtakes, hotel tapes and even unfinished tunes.

Still, Kirby stresses that the New Soft Shoe is a low-stress musical endeavor. "We've rehearsed three times in nine years. Everything that we've done has just been through repetition and unsaid musical communication," he says. And it "was never ever for anything but our own amusement, honestly. It's lasted for nine years because the musicianship is so good in that band that you can't deny it when you hear it. I'm happy to be a part of it. All those guys are so talented, and we've raised the level of each other's playing."

And Kirby feels very strongly that there is a difference between cover and tribute bands.

"Tribute bands are trying to be exactly like... they're trying to look, they're trying to act, you know, even if it's a British accent, they're doing the British accent, whatever it is," he says. "That stuff has never interested me. I'd much rather people go out and interpret those songs. And I understand that the public can't see those bands anymore and they want to see those bands. But it just doesn't interest me. It's not authentic."

* * *

It's about 12 minutes to 2019 at the Rocksino and E5C4P3 have just powered through a series of Journey smashes. First comes the epic ballad "Open Arms"; next, the soaring, melancholic rocker "Still They Ride"; then finally, the 1981 Top 5 hit "Who's Crying Now," replete with a faithful guitar solo by Steve Raz.

"That was all the hits from the Escape album," Kelty says casually afterward. "Oh, wait, there's one more." Cue, of course, the opening piano chords of "Don't Stop Believin'," and the attendant exuberant mayhem of cheering and singing.

After the countdown to midnight, things start winding down, and the crowd is noticeably more subdued. Kelty too is in a reflective mood.

"Twenty-six years ago, someone gave me the idea of being in a Journey tribute band," he told the crowd. "What a life-changing idea that was."

This is E5C4P3's first time playing the Rocksino. Their 2019 calendar is already looking busy — April shows at the Akron Civic Theatre and Music Box Supper Club are both reportedly selling like hotcakes, and several out-of-town concerts in Pennsylvania are already on the docket.

On the surface, cover and tribute bands function a lot like original bands, with a steady slate of shows and stellar production values. Wish You Were Here, for example, has a lighting director who puts together elaborate videos, as well as lasers and other effects. In tribute band circles, as with the original music community, you'll find plenty of lineup overlap. Kelty drums in an '80s-centric act called Rubix Cubed, and also sings for the classic rock-oriented Juke Box Heroes, while Orban is also in First Snow–A Tribute to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Many players in tribute bands also play original music; for example, Horwedel books steady gigs under his own name and releases albums with a band called Bar 61. Sosinski, meanwhile, is a bassist in Michael Stanley & The Resonators and the covers project Midlife Chryslers.

For the latter, having these other outfits is a welcome outlet. "With Wish You Were Here, I'm wearing all these different hats—tour manager, production director singer, bass player, chief cook and bottle washer," he says with a laugh. "So it is kind of liberating, in a way, when I play with Michael, because all I have to concentrate on is the bass and my performance."

Still, it's a myth that every cover or tribute musician wants to do original music. Kelty, for one, cut his teeth in a half-originals, half-covers band Heavens Reign before joining E5C4P3, but says he since realized he's "always been a cover bands guy."

"Over time, it became pretty evident to me that I really am just not interested in trying to become a songwriting rock star," he says. "I just always gravitated towards covers material, just reproducing what I've grown up hearing."

For Kelty, this mindset is rooted in pragmatism. At 47, he's under no illusion that mainstream fame is looming, and he's okay with that.

click to enlarge Fake ID - Photo by Emanuel Wallace
Photo by Emanuel Wallace
Fake ID

"I already know that my time has passed trying to get into an original band and making it big as a rock star. If that was going to happen, it would've happened back in the early '90s," he says. "Some people want to become the rock star by writing their own songs, and some people just prefer to just copy what they've heard. It's two different mindsets—and I think my mindset is more lucrative, as a working musician."

He's not wrong: Multiple artists interviewed admit that compensation for original music pales in comparison to fees for cover or tribute bands. (Original music does pay dividends elsewhere, however. For example, Howerdel says his original band project Bar 61 has placed music in TV shows, including Daredevil and Nashville.) Yet original musicians see non-monetary benefits for having a cover band side hustle.

"Having this band that plays in front of big crowds consistently has made me a much better performer," McKean says. "I get pretty sensitive about feeling rejected when I do my own stuff for people who talk over it, or if no one is there at all. I've gotten quite a confidence boost by playing in a band that people always love." Prebish, a bassist by trade, uses Sunshine Daydream as an outlet to hone his lead guitar skills.

Lynyrd Skynflute "started as a half-jokey, 'Let's get a band together and do a set of Skynyrd for the Beachland Halloween show'" thing, Beth says. "We've all played in punk and stoner rock bands and none of us take ourselves too seriously, or were really going for anything remotely resembling playing the all the hits or doing the material verbatim." (Video from gigs where they've played Skynyrd's "The Needle and the Spoon" and "Don't Ask Me No Questions" bears this out.)

However, what was supposed to be a one-time performance led to several other gigs, and the band re-assessing their future. "It ended up being some of the best times I've ever had playing music with people and it was nice to not have the pressure of 'making it,' or scene points, or fighting over the creative process, because that was already done way before any of us were born," Beth says.

"As much as my younger self would be snarky and that's so dad rock about a lot of this, I really get why it's a thing. People enjoy it, and we've had a lot of fun, so we're still hanging out, playing together, and branching out into some other songs we love and seeing where it goes from here."

* * *

The level of professionalism and ambition evident in Northeast Ohio's cover and tribute band circuit is impressive. For example, Orban says one of the biggest challenges with Straight On is "performing the music as precisely as Heart would have. Each of us goes out on stage and says, 'Okay, let's do this like members of Heart are out there in the audience.' I at least do that. If Ann [Wilson] ever showed up to a show or saw a video of us performing her material, I'd hope that she'd enjoy it."

These bands are also always striving for better (and bigger) shows. Straight On is revising its setlist for 2019. In April, Sunshine Daydream plans to perform the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead and American Beauty LPs back to back at the Winchester. And Wish You Were Here is launching what Sosinski calls the band's "biggest multimedia production" to date at the Masonic Auditorium on April 27. Dubbed the Any Brick You Like Tour 2019, it'll feature selected cuts from The Wall to commemorate the album's 40th anniversary and other choice hits, as well as new inflatables.

These shows are a reflection of how much the tribute band circuit is thriving. "If you told me 20 years ago I was still going to be Lindsey Buckingham 20 years from now, I'd have said, 'There's no way,'" says Rumours' Horwedel. "I saw it as maybe a five-year thing." Adds Sosinki: "We've got our biggest crowds that we've ever played to, 24 years going." The reason for this longevity is clear to him, however: "The music is timeless. That's one of the great things about Pink Floyd: Each new generation discovers Dark Side Of The Moon."

Each new generation is also embracing classic rock—and some are even taking an open-minded perspective on the sonic opportunities afforded by cover bands. "People like seeing them because it's music that they can relate to that they've heard before," says Norah Hyman, the 12-year-old vocalist for Fake ID, a cover band that's booked gigs at the Symposium and Stella's Music Club. "Some cover bands play [music] how they hear it, but other bands can shift [music], and it can give the listeners a new perspective on the song."

Formed in September 2017, Fake ID—whose members first met at local School of Rock classes—focuses on hard rock and classic rock. Although the band is working on original music, their existing covers repertoire is robust, encompassing acts such as AC/DC, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and, their favorite song to play, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing In The Name." And, perhaps unsurprisingly given Hyman's generous perspective, Fake ID are putting their own spin on things.

"We tend to change in the songs to make it more difficult for us," Hyman says. "A lot of the vocal stuff, [my bandmates] let me decide what I want to do with it." Such freedom has helped improve her vocal technique, namely by showing her she doesn't have to add "grit" to her singing voice. "Now I'm able to put my own touch on the songs instead of copying them."

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