Opinion - Tonight, Matthew...

Daniel White looks behind the glittery stage curtains to ask what makes a good tribute act...

Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, there was a light entertainment show on Television that was hugely popular. Every week, members of the public would appear and perform as their favourite artist, including a makeover and costume upgrade. After a brief on camera introduction, Matthew Kelly (who seemed to host everything back then) would prompt them to tell us all who they were going to be. They would answer with "Tonight Matthew I'm going to be (insert artist name)" and then after a clever bit of time lapse they would appear and attempt to perform. I say "attempt to perform" because the results were decidedly mixed but Stars In Their Eyes was a massive success and capitalised on our obsession with tribute acts. 

Any cursory glance at your local theatre's "What's On" page now will show you that nothing has changed and every week, around the country, people fill theatres to watch a tribute to their favourite artists. Last Sunday (8th January) it would have been David Bowie's 76th Birthday and I had tickets for The Bowie Experience. As a massive Bowie fan, it seemed appropriate to join with hundreds of other fans and celebrate the incredible career (and costumes) of a man who had soundtracked my life. Even though he died 7 years ago, I still miss him and his music still has the power to captivate and inspire me. This is not a review of The Bowie Experience but what I saw and heard on Sunday got me to thinking. Is it more important for a tribute act to look or to sound like the artist they are attempting to be?

Before I start, it's probably important to say that I am incredibly picky about tribute acts. Maybe it's because I am a musician but, for me to enjoy a performance, they really have to sound like the artist they are attempting to be. With people like Bowie and Freddie Mercury this sets the bar impossibly high. No one can ever completely reach the standards that Freddie set and I have never heard anyone match his vocal range or stage presence. Paul McCartney (Fab Macca thumbs aloft) famously said, when asked if The Beatles would reform, that it was unlikely while John Lennon continues to be dead. Likewise with Bowie, the sheer vocal talent of the man means he is almost impossible to perfectly imitate. To be fair to Oliver Slee, who currently performs with The Bowie Experience, he really gives everything he has in his performance and the costume changes are fast and seamless (pardon the pun.) The band that backs him is note perfect and hugely enjoyable to watch as they lovingly smash their way though hit after incredible Bowie hit. It's also worth pointing out that no tribute act that I have ever seen claims to be a perfect replica of the artist they are celebrating, because it is just that, a celebration of the star's career and hits. 

However, when someone dresses and attempts to sing like an artist, it is fair to assume that they will get pretty close to the original and that's the problem. Because they generally don't! Exceptions do exist and I want to highlight The Bootleg Beatles as a particular fantastic example of a tribute act that in actions, costumes and performance are so close to the original it's almost uncanny. There are also a lot of high end Elvis acts that are amazing and Thriller (Michael Jackson tribute) is an astonishing evening with a lead artist that could have been Jackson himself. Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking the passionate and talented efforts of creative performers who work tirelessly to entertain and clearly have worked for hours to ensure that what we see is as close as we can get to the original article. Indeed, without these acts, some of us would never have a chance to experience Bowie or Queen (Mercury-fronted) and the experience can be a powerful and emotional moment of respect for those of us who are super fans. I really enjoyed Sunday night but in no way could you shut your eyes and hear Bowie, no matter how talented Slee is vocally. Neither did he look like Bowie, which is no surprise when you consider Bowie's back catalogue spans decades and countless different looks. The costumes themselves also looked a little tired and, well, cheap so the overall experience was a little disappointing. I remember an embarrassing occasion where I dressed as Freddie in his famous yellow jacket, I even grew a moustache for the occasion. What was I thinking? I have felt the same feeling when I've seen a couple of Queen tributes and almost always feel guilty for being disappointed when so much work has gone into a show. With songs from artists which are so well known and so well loved, there is nowhere to hide and every note which is sung differently from the performer they are tributing grates on my ears. I am, admittedly, a hard man to please!

I think it's easier to enjoy when the act in question is a tribute band (Queen is an exception 'cos, you know, Freddie) and the focus is on the overall sound and not on one individual. This may be why The Bootlegs are so successful but also The Illegal Eagles, Australian Doors and Bjorn Again. So, to answer my question at the beginning, both costume and sound are equally important if you are a tribute act. Mercury and Bowie were both incredible singers but also outstanding performers who owned every stage they were on. So it's also as much about attitude, facial expression and rapport with the audience as it is vocal and costume talent. Put simply, "Tonight Matthew I AM David Bowie." 

My conclusion has to be that if, I want to enjoy tribute shows, I have to learn to lower my expectations. As Slee put it on Sunday "to join together and celebrate the music and life of David Bowie" I need to learn to focus on the whole experience and not whether every note sung is truly Bowie-esque. I don't know if I can do it but I guess I need to try a little harder. This one is on me!

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