It’s only rock ‘n roll, but we like it

Tribute bands transport boomers back to a joyful past

Tribute band Steeling Dan / Photo by Angelo Gentile

The dance floor at the dark, gritty Route 47 Pub & Grub in Fridley was jammed on a recent Thursday night. Fired up baby boomers were defying their age—or maybe denying their age—dancing and playing air guitar to the pulsing groove, lush horns and scorching guitar solos of the Steely Dan classic “My Old School.” It wasn’t pretty but the sheer, unabashed joy was infectious.

The party vibe came courtesy of Steeling Dan, a 13-piece, Twin Cities-based tribute band that has been performing spot-on homage to the dense, intricate arrangements of Steely Dan’s songs such as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Josie” and “Aja” for more than 20 years. The band’s faithful re-creation of Steely Dan’s music connects those of us of a certain age to fond memories of youthful times.

“This music brings me back,” one of the smiling revelers from the dance floor told me after he and his wife returned to their barstools next to mine. Out of breath from dancing, he and his Steely Dan t-shirt were sweaty. He took a moment to catch his breath, then added with a laugh, “I can remember the makes and models of cars I had back then and even my old girlfriends.” His wife rolled her eyes.

The music of tribute bands “conjures up the good feelings that people had however many decades ago when the song was fresh in their lives, when it was new,” Jennifer Grimm told me a few days after the Steeling Dan show. Grimm is the music director at Crooners Supper Club, also in Fridley, which regularly books tribute bands. Grimm is a musician, singer and songwriter herself and has performed tribute shows, including a salute to Judy Garland. “When people attend tribute shows, they are buying tickets to their own memories.”

Even famous musicians can get swept up in those musical memories. Country singer Vince Gill, who now plays with The Eagles, may have summed it up best when he told Guitar World Magazine recently about his Eagles experience: “I look over to the side and see Joe Walsh while we’re playing ‘Rocky Mountain Way,’ and I’m transported back to being a kid in my bedroom.”

Music can be quite associative that way—you can often remember what was happening in your life when listening to particular songs. In fact, music therapy has been shown to be beneficial to those in memory care.

The strong, nostalgic connection that this music evokes for baby boomers has helped spur the popularity and proliferation of tribute bands. They seem to be everywhere these days, frequently selling out theaters, nightclubs, supper clubs and other venues, performing a variety of musical genres: rock, pop, country, jazz, soul and more.  Although there’s no hard data on the number of these bands in the region, several local musicians and booking agents estimate there are well over 50 on-going bands or one-off tribute shows that are staged on a regular basis.

Beyond nostalgia: ‘Iconic, timeless music’

Granted, this nostalgia angle draws an ever-growing, enthusiastic audience. But for many fans of this music, and the musicians who play it, the memories stirred up are only one piece of this music’s appeal. The other element centers on the music’s substance: its cultural importance to the ’60s and ’70s and also, in many cases, its complexity—it’s hard music to play.

“This is iconic, timeless music,” said Paul Scott. He’s one of several co-founders of Twin Cities-based Shabby Road Orchestra, a tribute band that focuses on “late period Beatles,” he said, performing several of those albums in their entirety, including Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.

Referring to the Beatles specifically, Scott said, “I think this music is our Beethoven for our era, for our age group, because it is very powerful and not something that’s easily performed…we have to work and work and work to figure out how they (The Beatles) did it back then,” because the goal is to faithfully re-create the sound, not just do a basic cover version.

“The love of this music makes all of us put in a ton of effort” said Scott, 60, who plays piano for Shabby Road. “It’s an amazingly rich body of music…and really complex, five-part vocal harmonies, multiple guitars, orchestration, woodwinds, vintage and exotic instruments like the sitar, etc.”

Shabby Road is generally a 12-piece unit, Scott explained, but will add musicians as necessary, such as including an auxiliary strings section and a harp for the Sgt. Pepper album, which they performed recently at a sold-out Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. I was there that night and when I walked into the theater, I was stunned by the stage: it was packed tight with instruments, microphones, amplifiers, wires and, eventually, musicians. The resulting performance was even more stunning—transcendent.

Dave Foley plays saxophone, trumpet and other woodwinds for Shabby Road, Steeling Dan and dozens of other bands and one-off tribute shows. “It’s really a bunch of musicians who are honoring the music because they love the music,” he told me of his tribute show experiences. “The music is inspiring emotionally and challenging to learn.”

Regarding Shabby Road specifically, Foley, 59, added, “We are trying to re-create the music to play it live…something the Beatles never could play live because it would have required so many musicians and instruments on stage.”

John Heinen, one of the co-founders of Steeling Dan, and one of four vocalists in the group, agrees with Scott and Foley that learning and playing the songs is a labor of love. “It’s complex stuff but our band is devoted to learning the music because they love it.” Heinen, 58, has been involved in developing three tribute bands over the past years: Steeling Dan, which celebrated its 22nd anniversary in April, Fleetwood Mac Attack, which played for several years before disbanding, and, his newest creation, The Super Tramps, a salute to the music of Supertramp, which premiered in April.

Tribute band, Shabby Road Orchestra / Photo by Charles Robinson

Roots of area tribute bands, shows

So how did this so-called tribute band “scene” start?

It wasn’t really intentional, said Foley, the woodwinds player. “None of us did this purposely, it was not a conscious thing, it all started organically.”

Steeling Dan is a case in point. Heinen recalls that he and several musician friends had already been doing a few Steely Dan songs in various cover bands they were in, “and we thought, how would it be, wouldn’t it be a gas, to do a Steely Dan tribute,” Heinen said. The concept was launched at the since-closed Famous Dave’s in Uptown in the Spring of 2002 and took off from there.

The St. Cloud-based Fabulous Armadillos also found early success with tribute shows, especially making its mark with a popular Eagles tribute production (joining forces with another band, Collective Unconscious, for that show). Formed in 2006, the Fabulous Armadillos established, as its website boasts, “a large and loyal following in Minnesota and beyond with… spot-on re-creations of songs from many genres of music from country to Motown to heavy metal to ’70s soft rock and play them just like you remember.”

Two other notable tribute pioneers, who have had success with their own original music as well, are area singer-songwriter Mary Jane Alm, who has performed salutes to various country, rock and pop artists, and local favorite Martin Zellar, who continues to stage a salute to the music of Neil Diamond, “Neil!”

On a global basis, the tribute genre—if it can be called that—has now spawned hundreds of bands with creative monikers. A few of my favorite band names: Motel California (a New Zealand Eagles tribute group), Endless Summer (a Dallas-based Beach Boys tribute band), Lez Zeppelin (a New York-based all-female tribute to Led Zeppelin), Zed Leppelin (a Minnesota Zeppelin band), Those Medley Kids (A Minneapolis prog rock tribute), Brothers Allmanac (Minnesota Allman Bros. tribute), Men of Motown (Minneapolis-based Motown salute), Belfast Cowboys (Minneapolis band specializing in Van Morrison), All Tomorrow’s Petty (Twin Cities Tom Petty tribute), and, well, you get the idea.

Where to see these acts

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres stands as one of the first area venues to showcase tribute performers.

“We pridefully say we were an early adopter,” said Tamara Kangas Erickson, Chanhassen DT’s vice president, co-owner and resident choreographer. She said the theatre started slow with tributes with just weekend shows and no summer bookings. “It kept growing and growing with so many great shows. Now it is year-round, typically Thursday through Sunday, a ton of matinees, our holiday series every day of the week. It has been absolutely amazing…Boomers love this music.”

Chanhassen DT has hosted everything from Motown and Yacht Rock to Fleetwood Mac and Prince tributes. Kangas Erickson said the audiences especially appreciate the high quality of the shows. “They were maybe expecting a cover band and were surprised by the level of professionalism and musicianship.” Indeed, these groups are not “impersonators,” those who perform Beatles or Elvis impersonations in wigs and cheap costumes.

In addition to the Chanhassen DT, there are plenty of other places to catch tribute shows, including Crooners Supper Club, the Dakota, the Parkway Theater, Hook & Ladder and Pioneer Place in St. Cloud, just to name a few. Plus, you can catch some of these acts at bars too, like Route 47.

Finally, in recognition of a more “senior” demographic that these bands and shows attract, Crooners is launching a new music series called Crooners Classics, according to Grimm, the club’s music director. These will be scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesdays. “So, you can come and have a night out, have a great dinner, see a show, and be home before dark…it’s designed for the active retiree.”

Angelo Gentile is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. He recently wrote a travel piece for Minnesota Good Age about exploring Duluth’s Skyline Parkway.