Fake Fest's bands trace classic-rock masterpieces.

Send in the Clones 

Fake Fest's bands trace classic-rock masterpieces.

Pittsburgh once birthed a man who made his fortune repainting Campbell's soup cans, so it makes sense that the first arena-sized replicant rock tour would be created there. The event in question is called Fake Fest, a naked admission of what it is -- a lineup of tribute bands dedicated, like Dolly the sheep's scientist creators, to making as exact a copy as possible of the sounds and visions of a particular forebear.

So on one bill you get: Pink Floyd! (Actually Wish You Were Here.) Guns N' Roses! (Actually Paradise City.) Van Halen! (Actually Atomic Punks.) Jimi Hendrix! (Actually Wild Blue Angels.) AC/DC! (Actually Hell's Bells, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, version -- not to be confused with the Australian and English tribute acts of the same name.)

By the time the nine-day tour gets to Sandstone Amphitheatre on May 17 (it ends May 19 outside Indianapolis), Clear Channel Entertainment, Fake Fest's organizer, will know whether the nation is ready to fill amphitheaters at $10-15 a head to see Diamonique David Lee Roth and Roger Watered-down.

It would be easy to blame the concept of fake bands in real-sized venues on Clear Channel, which is promoting this tour for six dates from Pittsburgh almost straight west on Interstate 70 to Kansas City. (Cleveland is the only major city not on that road to get a date.) How pathetic is it that instead of finding innovative new bands to promote in amphitheaters, Clear Channel is using retreads of acts that are dead, aged or sitting on their fat English arses collecting royalties? Then again, if Wal-Mart can reach the top of the Fortune 500, hasn't America already proven it wants cut-rate merchandise?

Fake Fest premiered last year at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, outside Pittsburgh, and was the brainchild of that facility's director, Lance Jones. Jones was reading an industry trade-magazine article about the popularity of some tribute acts, such as Shania's Twin, dedicated to lite-country chanteuse Shania Twain. Acts like the Back Doors (the Doors, of course) had filled clubs in Pittsburgh, he reasoned, so why not put a bunch of these bands together for a Pavilion event? Despite Clear Channel's reputation as a musical colossus, local venues get some freedom to experiment with shows. Jones thought it might make a good, cheap family day out.

"We wanted to first of all put artists on that people had never seen," Jones says, "like Hendrix.... We got a Led Zeppelin tribute band together. And then we got the Beatles and Elvis for the parents."

The event, held on May 11, 2001, at the Pavilion, attracted 4,400 people -- not an overwhelming success, but a good draw for early in the summer and a nice-sized crowd on which the seasonal staff could warm up before Jimmy Buffet and other amphitheater-fillers came to town. And even with their original members, some big-name bands had sold fewer seats.

Jones presented his idea to his fellow impresarios in Clear Channel's central region, and it happened that one of them, Dan Kemer in Cleveland, was working on a similar project headlined by Wish You Were Here, a premier tribute act in a city second only to Los Angeles in that genre. (In Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exists not just in a glass building on Lake Erie but also in clubs throughout the classic-rock-and-live-music-mad city. After all, northeast Ohio gave us Tim "Ripper" Owens, the Akron plumber who fronted a Judas Priest tribute band and then ended up as lead singer for Priest itself.) The cities selected for the tour were those that raised their hands at the meeting and said they'd book it.

Bob Grossweiner, a New York-based concert industry analyst, says the idea of Fake Fest sounds good to him. Clear Channel might not draw huge crowds, but it will likely attract people who will buy merchandise (no plans yet for a clothing booth with pleather vests and Dacron pants) and, more important, beer. And it isn't paying the bands much.

In return, the bands get a chance to play before bigger audiences in cities where they've never performed. "I'm trying to reap the benefits of what I've worked for the past five or six years," says Eroc Sosinski, bass player for Wish You Were Here (and for -- those forty and older might remember him -- Michael Stanley).

The story of many of these acts is the same: They started as cover bands, or even playing original tunes, but got a greater crowd response by mimicking a particular artist. Eventually, they focused on that artist to the exclusion of others and found that made them more popular than ever. Some in the tribute-band industry say the number of groups has actually decreased in the past ten years, but the ones that remain are far more dedicated, some going to the extremes of an act like Dark Star Orchestra, which replicates the placement of amps and microphones to a specific Grateful Dead show they will be recreating that night. (That act will be headlining the JamGrass Festival, which stops at Starlight Theatre on September 7.)

Ralph Saenz, the lead singer of Atomic Punks (which also played the ill-fated '80s hair-metal band Danger Kitty in Discover Card commercials a couple of years ago), says bands like his are a good, inexpensive way to relive favorite concerts. "It brings people back to a time when things were fun," Saenz explains. "It's like going to Disneyland for $12, except it's OK to get drunk and scream at the top of your lungs."

Jones says the promotion of Fake Fest is all in fun (the event's logo is a can of Spam), and if it flies, great. "We're all scrounging, trying to fill days and come up with something new," Jones says. "I hope it bears enough fruit to keep going."

Somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.

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