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More than a cover band

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The Rochester music scene is blessed with an abundance of individual artists and bands, in myriad genres, playing original music. But while those concerts dominate the concert calendars, it's hard to ignore the creeping number of Facebook invites touting local "tribute shows."

These concerts, in which musicians perform an influential album in its entirety or honor the catalogue of a legendary band or individual, pop up at least once a month. Flour City Station hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of Weezer's "Blue Album" in May, Three Heads Brewing held a Counting Crows night in June, earlier this month there was a tribute to Green Day at the Bug Jar, there's a July 31 Creedence Clearwater Revival show at Abilene Bar & Lounge, and the Bug Jar is hosting a night honoring the late Roky Erickson on August 31 at the Bug Jar.

In contrast to shows played by cover bands — in which musicians devote themselves full-time to playing the work of a particular artist, night in and night out — the Rochester tribute shows are special, one-off events performed by musicians who are committed to writing and playing their own songs.

With more and more local musicians lending their talents to these concerts, what's the impact on the health of the Rochester music community? Do tribute shows diminish the vibrancy and originality of the scene, or do they contribute to more growth? How do individual musicians or bands maintain their own identity in a tribute or themed event show? Can they still be considered "original"?

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

In a recent roundtable gathering, several players on the scene discussed those questions. The participants were all original musicians who have produced or performed in their fair share of tribute shows: Geoff Dale, Three Heads Brewing's music programmer and Extended Family guitarist; Teagan Ward, leader of the hard rockin' bar band Teagan and the Tweeds; one-man-band and busker Jackson Cavalier; and Karl Heberger, lead guitarist for fun-loving surf rockers The Isotopes.

The current influx of tribute shows in Rochester was essentially kick-started through month-long artist residencies produced and hosted by Dale of Three Heads Brewing, starting around 2017. Dale wanted the residencies to be a platform for local artists to express what has inspired them musically, and to show how that informs their work currently, over the course of four unique shows.

"Pick what influenced you," Dale said. "I wanna understand what made you a musician. I also think then if you go that route, it's gonna be a lot more honest and true. And I think it's gonna resonate better with people."

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

As tribute shows became a fixture of the Three Heads residency format, Dale himself had concerns about a possible imbalance in programming at the brewery.

"I always sort of prided myself on being a champion of original music," he said. "And it was tough to sort of open the door to this whole thing." He worried about whether he was being a sellout, he said: "Because we make original beer, I want to support original music. And it's sort of a battle I have because, let's be honest, they also draw well." And he is, after all, running a business.

A typical Three Heads residency consists of one show per week, usually on a Thursday or Friday, for three to four weeks. And tribute shows often make up at least half of the performances in a given residency. For example, "Overhand" Sam Snyder's October 2018 residency included sets devoted to The Velvet Underground and the "White Album" by the Beatles, but it also featured a performance by Snyder's original rock band Maybird.

The non-residency shows at Three Heads mostly feature artists playing their own songs. And the tribute shows, Dale said, helps introduce people to bands who play their own music, and that helps to "ultimately keep that scene thriving and growing."

"Over the past 10 years," Cavalier said, "I feel like the Rochester music scene and the draw in Rochester seems to have gone from a lot of big venues booking cover bands — doing all covers — but now it's kind of converted over to original bands who will sometimes do cover shows. And everyone's benefiting a lot more."

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Dale and Three Heads have frequently highlighted local original artists paying homage to unlikely albums and genres. Ray Mahar, the frontman of folk band A Girl Named Genny, performed an 80's metal-themed tribute — with an Americana twist — during his March residency this year. Brian MacDonald, frontman for the jamgrass group The Honey Smugglers, presented the electro-pop duo The Postal Service's indie cult hit "Give Up" as part of his December 2018 residency.

The Isotopes have put a "karaoke" spin on the tribute show concept. In this format, the band provides live accompaniment for multiple individual singers, in lieu of the typical pre-recorded track.

"Because we're an instrumental band," Heberger said, "we don't get to play a lot of cover songs with singers, and we have a ton of friends who are great singers. And we decided, 'What if we invite 15 people up to sing with us one night, and we play a bunch of cover songs?'

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

"And lo and behold, when you have that many guest musicians, it turns out to be a pretty big show. They all bring a couple of friends and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends."

"Everyone's in on the joke, too," Heberger said. "You could be tongue-in-cheek and have fun with it. We're not trying to win a contest."

Even though they're interpreting the work of others, musicians can renew their creativity by performing in tribute shows. "The process of learning someone else's songs encourages musical growth," Dale said.

"It almost forces you to rethink how you play and write," he said. "You start to see the song structures, how they're putting chords together. And you sort of have to follow someone else's map, but it sometimes then opens up a door to a different thing, creativity-wise, and then you become just a better musician for it."

Playing tribute shows, Ward said, can be freeing from a performance perspective as well. "I don't have to be Teagan," she said. "I can just be somebody that's playing Stevie Nicks, and I think that teaches you something about yourself, performance-wise, because you take liberties that you wouldn't necessarily take onstage with your own music or your own persona."

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Cavalier plays his Americana-roots music throughout the Finger Lakes region, primarily performing his original tunes. In March, however, he put together a Townes Van Zandt birthday tribute show at Abilene Bar & Lounge. And he returns to Abilene July 31 for the show honoring Creedence Clearwater Revival with fellow locals, including Whilin' Jack Dervy, The Archive Ravens, and Genesee Johnny.

He's relieved when the tribute shows are over, Cavalier said, but like Dale, he's also found that with every performance, "I pick up a couple of tips and tricks and ideas and stuff that you can use in composing."

Another benefit: "I think we're all sort of sensitive as original musicians," Dale said. "It's sort of nice when you do something else where you don't feel like you're getting — yes, you're getting judged, but it's a different kind of judge where it's not as personal."

"You're getting judged on performance," he said, "as opposed to 'This is like my song and soul. Here we are: Judge me.'"

"It's easier to play someone else's songs in front of people," Heberger said. "It's just always easier."

Tribute shows can prompt collaborations between people who hadn't previously known each other, let alone played together. Teagan Ward has experienced this firsthand. Because of her involvement in shows commemorating Fleetwood Mac's iconic album "Rumours" at both Three Heads and Anthology, Ward got to know local jazz pianist and electronic musician Charlie Lindner, whom she had never worked with before.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

"When you play music, you're sort of speaking a language," Dale said. "And sometimes you maybe speak different dialects. And when you do these tribute shows, it's a common ground that you'll find common footing, and it breaks down walls a lot easier."

Tribute shows also help original bands reach new listeners and broaden their fan base. Ward recalled the "Rumours" show at Anthology last October: "Not one person that I talked to knew anyone on the stage, which is awesome for us as original musicians. Because then they ask your name, they take their picture with you, they tag you on Facebook — and the next thing you know, they're at a Teagan and the Tweeds show."

From a practical financial standpoint, tribute shows help to bolster the local music scene by allowing artists to supplement their income as original musicians. "It's no secret: You make really good money doing tribute shows," Cavalier said. "It's really nice."

"We all are original artists," Ward said. "So I mean, we're getting paid to do tribute shows, but then that money is going back to our lifestyle that is ultimately an original musician's lifestyle."

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Though the tribute show niche in Rochester is a robust one, there's room for improvement. For instance, Dale said he's making an effort to be more inclusive in the artist residencies at Three Heads, particularly with respect to gender.

"Each year, I'm trying to be a little bit more diverse with who I'm getting do residencies," he said. "Katy Wright is going to be in August, and she's going to be the first female to do a residency. And I feel bad that it's taken this long. But I also know, I've been talking to Avis Reese about doing a month, and I think if she signs up, it's going to be awesome. She's amazing. She's so talented — the secret weapon of Danielle Ponder that I don't think people realize. The more diverse I can make the lineup, the more diverse the music's gonna be."

Given the frequency that tribute shows are occurring in Rochester, is there a shelf life? Are they sustainable over a long period of time?

"I think you have to be careful," Dale said, "and this is what happened to some of the tribute shows before. It basically became The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, and Pink Floyd. That's one of the things I've really steered away. I don't want people to do Pink Floyd tributes at our place. They've been done. It's overdone.

"I think if people keep approaching and actually bring some of these new bands or go a different route, then it has sustainability. I think if you start sort of rehashing the same thing, then yeah, it's gonna die. If everybody keeps doing a Johnny Cash night every time, Bob Dylan."

Are there certain artists or genres that have been neglected in Rochester tribute shows so far?

"I'd love to see some more Motown," Dale said. "I'd love to see some more funk and soul. I'd love to see that kind of stuff. You know what? Maybe some more original country."