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Tribute Bands Give Crowds What They Want . . . i.e., Songs They Know

Mötley Crüe cover band Girls Girls Girls
Mötley Crüe cover band Girls Girls Girls
Photo by Jesse Dittmar

On a recent Friday night at Le Poisson Rouge it is the '90s, as images of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Blink-182 flash on screens and DJ Sugar Ray spins Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray." At 12:15, attendees pile into the room and the countdown to the night's main event, '90s cover band the Bayside Tigers (named after the mascot and fictional high school the characters in '90s morning hit Saved by the Bell attended), begins. The neon-clad foursome take the stage and jump into Eagle-Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight," Meredith Brooks's "Bitch," and the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." The packed house sings every word to every song.

"You wouldn't think that the bros that are screaming for Nirvana would be screaming for Spice Girls next," bassist Alex Rossiter says afterward of the general excitement in the room. "But they know all the words."

See also: Female G N' R Cover Band Guns N' Hoses Have Guns N' Roses Governors Ball Set Predictions

Increasingly, if you check the concert calendars of venues around town, you'll find a night or two dedicated to cover or tribute acts: bands paying homage to specific bands or the eras that birthed them. September alone sees shows by all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band Lez Zeppelin and Almost Queen (Queen tribute) at Highline Ballroom, as well as tributes to Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses and the Bee Gees (you'll find a schedule of tribute acts playing around town this fall at the end of this story). The appeal to fans is pretty straightforward: Nostalgia sells, and people are more likely to turn out for a night of old familiars than take a chance on a live act they've never heard of. The tribute bands draw. And that draw, of course, appeals to club owners.

Tribute groups like the Bayside Tigers, or like Jessie's Girl, who perform on Saturdays at LPR, can "bring bands that have broken up back together or the spirit of musicians that have passed away back to life," says LPR's former general manager Ruben Perez, who currently manages events for Fun Music Presents, which produces both the '80s and '90s shows at LPR. "Cover bands can take it a step further by performing the music of so many different artists." It's about infusing new energy into classic music (whatever "classic music" means to the listener), about letting showgoers connect with their youth, about hearing your favorite songs performed live instead of through a phone.

Spearheading New York '90s parties since 2010, the Bayside Tigers formed when roommates and Berklee College of Music grads Rossiter, drummer Nat Esten and guitarist Danny Finerman sought an outlet for playing music. None were playing by day (Rossiter is a talent buyer at Webster Hall, Esten books electronic music festivals, and Finerman works in technology at an investment management firm) and "it was breaking our hearts," says Esten. Not hacking it as musicians writing good original songs, at least by their standards, the three decided they would form a '90s cover band, playing the songs they loved as kids at what they assumed would be a few small gigs.

Small gigs, however, turned into private gigs, private gigs turned into bigger gigs, and bigger gigs turned into a residency at the Canal Room, where the foursome (mononymous singer Raeya replaced a prior female vocalist in 2012) quickly garnered a following. When the Canal Room closed in December, the band moved their weekly residency to LPR's much-coveted Friday night slot.

The Bayside Tigers' deep well of songs spans the decade to which they've dedicated themselves, the '90s. They play everything from 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up" to the Spin Doctors' "Two Princes" to Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song" (the long list of all the songs they perform is handily provided on the band's website), and they truly live up to their tagline — "The ULTIMATE '90s Tribute Band in NYC." Other tribute acts are more specific, choosing instead to home in on one act, offering fans of the artist a chance to see the songs played live without paying the steep price.

"If you can't afford the $400 ticket to see Justin Timberlake," says Raeya, "you can see the Justin Timberlake cover band."

Enter The Timberfakes, a popular Boston-based Justin Timberlake tribute band who play New York often. They'd agree with Raeya's assessment. The nine-piece ensemble is quite an elaborate endeavor, complete with a brass section and backing vocals. Led by vocalist Ryan Kelley, they've been covering Timberlake's entire catalog throughout the East Coast since 2009.

The band was founded in 2008 when Kelley, a project manager at a tech solutions company, was looking for a creative outlet and happened to catch Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveShow on HBO. Deciding the show might be fun to emulate on a smaller scale around Boston, he started assembling the group and honing their sound. Over the years, band members and band size have changed, but one thing's remained: the continual demand for JT pop hits.

 

Screech: Bayside Tigers
Screech: Bayside Tigers
Photo by Kimberly Mufferi

"It's a shameless sing-along dance party," he says, "a shameless Justin Timberlake dance party." And people have responded. When the Timberfakes played the East Village's Drom club in June, dozens of JT fans crowded the stage, dancing and cheering to "Take Back the Night," "Suit & Tie" (Kelley was wearing a suit and tie himself) and "It's Gonna Be Me." The energy of a live performance is "totally different when listening to a track you know," says Timberfakes guitarist Brett Malone.

Later in the same week the Timberfakes opened for the very real Salt-N-Pepa.

All-female, New York-based Mötley Crüe tribute Girls Girls Girls have also turned their fair share of famous heads. For their sixth show, they opened for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who were drawn to the band after seeing one of its flyers around town.

"I tried to sort of, like, spoof the album covers," says manager and former Girls bassist Patricia Nilsen (known to fans as Nikita Seis) of the band's marketing strategy. "My husband did this really cool flyer of one of my red boots." Less than a week before this particular Yeah Yeah Yeahs show in 2007, the image caught the eye of guitarist Nick Zinner, a Crüe fan, and the Girls were invited to join the bill. Girls have also opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Korn.

Nilsen, a mom and federal court reporter by day, attended the Mötley Crüe reunion tour in 2005, remembering the days of being a 10-year-old metal fan herself. Deciding she, too, wanted to play some Crüe, she started learning bass and assembled a team of badass women rockers. Two years and 45 punchy, leather-clad shows later, it was clear there was still demand for the music.

"People wanna hear songs that remind them of their youth," she says of their own popularity and that of other old-school tribute bands. The kitsch of an all-female band covering these songs doesn't hurt either, and Girls often share a bill with another band of the same makeup and mission, Guns N' Roses cover act Guns N' Hoses — "NYC's finest all-lady GNR tribute," according to their website, which welcomes visitors to "the Vajungle." That band was founded by lead singer and actress Erin Marsz, who, having been part of the male-dominated music world for years, wanted a stress-free outlet she could form with women. For her, the tribute scene is about great songs and great musicianship. And plaid and studs and fishnets.

"You wanna honor what they did but you also want to own what you can do," she says. Hoses often greet crowds who are at first cynical, but high-fiving by show's end. That was certainly the case when they opened for Girls Girls Girls in late June at Bowery Ballroom, when Marsz began the show, "In case you were confused as to where you are . . . we're now gonna take you to the jungle."

"Having young girls cover fuckin' old men is awesome," said Vanessa DuPree, an excited new convert that night. She added, "Can you still see Guns N' Roses?"

The following tribute acts are hitting NYC clubs this fall.

•Almost Queen Highline Ballroom, 9/5

•Guns N' Hoses Arlene's Grocery, 9/24

•Timberfakes + Hard Knock Live (Justin Timberlake + Jay Z tribute) Fontana's, 9/27

•Lez Zeppelin Highline Ballroom, 9/22, 10/27, 11/24

•The Machine (Pink Floyd tribute) Brooklyn Bowl, 10/3

•Tragedy (all-metal Bee Gees tribute) Brooklyn Bowl, 10/4

Non-NY bonus: •Tramps Like Us (Springsteen Tribute) Stone Pony (Asbury Park, NJ), 9/13

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