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Almost Famous

Tribute bands recreate major musical moments on Rhode Island's stages

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Although you’ve probably heard some of their names or even seen them play, you may not know that South County regularly hosts (and is sometimes home to) a wide array of cover bands recreating hits across diverse genres. Some acts cover only one band, while others pick songs written by a variety of musicians; some dress the part, while others are more low key. No matter what type of music you like most, one of these acts is bound to have you covered.

Robert Black of Robert Black and the Elvis Express Band is billed as New England’s premier Elvis impersonator and has been paying tribute to the King since 2012, either using backing tracks or a full band. “Elvis is the greatest of all time, appeals to every age group and is also the most requested tribute show worldwide – so there’s never a lack of work,” he says. He has competed nationally in Elvis tribute competitions, but finds that “playing shows at major venues throughout New England and nationwide is just the best gig there is. We plan on doing these shows as long as we can.” 

Guitarist and vocalist Dale DeJoy of the band Hey Nineteen got into Steely Dan early on. “It was the first pop music I’d heard that was so complex, sophisticated and outside the box,” he says. “It got more interesting as they grew musically. I would wear out their albums trying to figure out the solos.” The eleven-member Steely Dan cover group has now been playing since 2013 and completely sold out the first show they ever played at the Greenwich Odeum. “There were 200 people outside trying to get in, some scalping tickets.” Check out the band’s website for upcoming gigs, such as one at Newport Grand on June 17. 

AC/DC’s iconic shrill, brash vocals are not easy to emulate, so when bassist Miguel Goncalves found someone who could sing like Brian Johnson in 1990, he decided to start Back in Black. It was a false start at first: “My first singer joined a carnival and never made the first rehearsal,” says Miguel, “which was a blessing because [vocalist] Tony Sitler came in and is still here.” Twenty-seven years of success can be attributed to the rocking, high-energy show they put on, electrifying audiences all over New England and beyond. “The money is minimal, the travel is excruciating and a tough life on our families, but we love what we do. Passion is a good word.” 

Another popular, long-running cover band is Badfish, whose members convened to cover the ‘90s reggae/punk/ska band Sublime in 2001 while studying at URI. After Sublime’s lead singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell passed away in 1996, “we knew there were a lot of fans that never got to see them play live, so the idea made sense of us,” says Badfish bassist Joel Hanks. Their favorite show they’ve ever performed? “When Sublime’s original drummer, Bud Gaugh, sat in and played an entire set with us was truly a magical night.” Badfish is in the middle of a big US tour, but will be coming back to Rhode Island with shows at Lupo’s in Providence (April 29) and the Ocean Mist (May 28). 

Contrary to what its name might imply, The Blue Album doesn’t cover just one Weezer record – although they did start out that way. “Weezer’s Blue Album was pretty important to our collective musical upbringing, and we felt like it would be fun to cover,” says band member Brad Caetano. “We decided to keep playing more than just a one-off show, and figured we might as well learn a few other Weezer albums.” Starting in 2011, the band took a short hiatus, but has been back performing as of a June 2016 show at the Met in Pawtucket. “Being able to hang with some of our closest friends working on a musical project that is not stressful or draining – which original bands can tend to be – is a no-brainer.” 

While many cover acts choose just one band or artist to focus on, some incorporate music from a whole genre or era of rock. Green Tea is a local seven-member jam band that performs original music as well as ‘70s rock classics from The Grateful Dead, The Band, The Allman Brothers and Pink Floyd, to name a few. “It’s what we all grew up with, were into and gravitated to,” says drummer Jay Hartley. “Once you weed out the people who don’t mesh and find a rock solid crew that’s really happy with the style, it works.” Although the band has been playing together since 2001, winning the local live battle of the bands at Mohegan Sun in 2014 marked a big turning point for them. “It was a huge opportunity, a great prize and led to a lot of bigger gigs,” says Jay. “But above all, we’re real musicians at our core who above everything just love to play music. We don’t do it for the money, we do it for the enjoyment.” They’re playing the Wood River Inn in Wyoming this month (April 15), but keep an eye on their website for more upcoming dates in Westerly and Mystic. 

Sugar
, originally called Sugardaddy, is a high-energy act that never fails to get crowds up and dancing, covering a wide mix of ‘70s disco/funk and ‘80s, ‘90s and modern pop, rock and R&B since 1999: think Michael Jackson, Prince, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars. Popular among all ages, the band consists of seven to ten musicians depending on if the horn section is joining them that night. Performing at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC – the home of the Rob Roy cocktail and host to Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor – for the 9/11 Memorial was a nostalgic evening and a special memory for the band. You can catch them this month at the Newport Blues Cafe (April 22) and the Windjammer in Westerly (April 28). 

Neal and the Vipers (previously Young Neal and the Vipers) has made a name playing blues and American roots-based original music for more than 30 years as well as covers of rockabilly, R&B, surf and rock-and-roll tunes. The now four-member band was signed to major labels during their career and produced more than a dozen records, including nine for frontman Neal Vitullo alone. “We pick songs that move us,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a popular song by any means – currently we’ve been playing ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ by Doc Johnson a lot.” The band jams regularly all over the state, and for them there’s no place like home. “No place is perfect, but Rhode Island is awesome and the people here are wonderful and always support music. I have musician friends from all over the country, and they do not get the support that we do here,” says Neal. Catch them this month at the Tri City Elks in Warwick (April 22) and the Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown (April 29).