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They're the next best thing

Almost 1,000 people mill around inside Rams Head Live waiting for the show to start. They're young, either fresh into or just out of college, and dressed like faux hippies and pseudo punk-rockers.

A night of Sublime is on the way, though the California reggae/punk trio broke up almost 10 years ago after lead singer and guitarist Brad Nowell overdosed on heroin. Instead, the headliner is Badfish, a four-piece Sublime tribute band that will crank out 30 or 35 covers in an hour or two. And the crowd, most of whom never saw Sublime live, will eat it up.

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Badfish is one of hundreds of tribute bands touring the country playing another group's music. Some, like Badfish, just perform the songs. Others, like Cold Gin, a Baltimore-based KISS tribute band, get into full regalia. A good deal of them have albums, but most earn a living reproducing the live experience of a popular group.

"The difference between playing your own songs and playing someone else's songs is not a huge difference, as long as you really love what you're doing," said Badfish bassist Joel Hanks.

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"It's really just entertainment for the crowd. No matter how big a band is, whether it's Dave Matthews or Metallica or just any band, you have to entertain the crowd. People are there to have fun - have a good time. That's really what this is - for everyone."

Minutes before the show starts, Chad Leckert, a 27-year-old who lives in Towson, sits at a table along a wall with friends. He's a Sublime fan who saw the band at the Capital Ballroom, now Nation, in Washington in the mid-'90s. Many touring bands play the occasional Sublime cover, but few devote every concert entirely to the group.

"I'd like to hear somebody who does all Sublime," Leckert said of why he came to the Badfish show. "Maybe close your eyes and pretend."

Musicians have covered songs since recorded history, using outside influences to shape their own unique sound. Even the biggest names touring the country have a few cover songs up their sleeves, giving the crowd original and unique takes on classic songs. Dave Matthews, for example, intertwines new versions of classic songs into his repertoire, including "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, "The Maker," by Daniel Lanois and, most recently, "Time of the Season," by the Zombies.

Most types of musicianship begin with cover bands or covering other people's music, said Dr. Joseph C. Morin, a music historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"My sense is that it's a natural thing, something that has been around forever," he said. "Every kid in the '60s who picked up a guitar played 'Louie Louie.'"

Tribute bands take it one step further. Instead of hooking the audience with a song they can sing along to and then reeling them in with their own tunes, they opt for emulation of their musical heroes, offering crowds the next best thing to the real bands.

The members of Badfish are all Sublime junkies who played in separate bands and started performing together in 2001. At the time, they were in their last years of college in Rhode Island. After they graduated, they decided to play full time. Now, Badfish is one of, if not the only nationally touring Sublime tribute bands.

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One of the main reasons for their success is the universal appeal of Sublime's music.

"When I was a freshman in college, every dorm room that you went into, every college party that you went to was playing Sublime, Sublime," Hanks said. "It was just everywhere, and no one ever got to see them play, so we just thought it would be fun, if not anything else."

Another reason Badfish attracts such a large audience is because Sublime no longer exists. But other tribute bands make a living even though the group they emulate still tours. Randy Alexander, a former publicist for the Dave Matthews tribute group Tripping Billies, among others, said he emphasized the cheap tickets and intimate atmosphere tribute bands offer.

"Why pay all that money to go see the Dave Matthews Band when you can spend a fraction of that to experience them up close and personal in a club setting where they haven't even been for 10 to 25 years?" Alexander said.

Some tribute bands go to great lengths to duplicate the live experience of the band they cover. Cold Gin does more than just perform KISS tracks to a T. The group has spent thousands of dollars on costumes, props and lighting, said Charles Parker, the Paul Stanley of the group. It pays off at their shows, he said.

"Canada's crazy," Parker said. "They come out, and they think you are KISS. We've signed autographs, taken pictures. ... It's ridiculous. Don't you realize we're not KISS?"

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Artists like KISS or the Dave Matthews Band have little control over tribute bands. They can keep tribute acts from using trademarks like logos and album art, but not from performing live. Venues, not bands, are liable for live shows and must register and pay royalties to performance rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

The same goes for recording. Anyone can cover a tune and release it, as long as they get permission - in the form of a license - from the National Music Publishers Association or a subsidiary like the Harry Fox Agency Inc. There's a fee of about 9 cents for every copy of a song under five minutes, said Laurie Jakobsen, vice-president of communication and marketing for Harry Fox.

"As long as somebody is not modifying the original recording in the sense that they're not changing the lyrics, they're not interpolating it with something else - they're just doing a straight cover version, the band cannot stop them," Jakobsen said. "It's something a lot of people don't realize about copyright law."

Badfish has gone as far as to put out a 16-track live disc, Live '05, which is comprised of Sublime covers. They sell the album at shows and on their Web site but said they make the majority of their money on ticket, not album, sales.

According to Paul Manna, a promoter for the Recher Theatre and Fletcher's, you won't see the members of a steadily touring cover band such as Badfish taking a part-time job. A successful tribute act can bring in some serious bank; Manna estimates bands of Bad fish's stature make more than most people with a full-time job. Badfish sold out the Recher before moving to Rams Head Live.

"It seems like all people 16 to 20 years old just become Sublime fans," Hanks said.

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Local bands who write their own music respond with less enthusiasm. Mike Nestor, guitarist for the Seldon Plan, said tribute acts reap the benefits without working to write original songs.

"It's sort of like fast food," Nestor said. "It's like you can eat McDonald's, and it's quick, and it's easy, and it's junk food, and you're going to get fat from it, or you can take your time and cook your own food. It takes time, but it tastes better, and in the end it's more rewarding."

Dan Book, Voodoo Blue's guitarist and singer, said he respects tribute bands' dedication, but ultimately agrees with Nestor.

"Without bands that write originals, there would be no tribute bands," Book said. "Not the other way around. Tribute bands aren't necessary - it's real bands that are necessary."

For some groups, the cover band scene is merely a step toward becoming a successful band in their own right. Badfish hopes to transition into playing predominantly original music.

"By no means is this ungratifying, but to take something that you've created, and to get a response from it, I think there's something to be said for that," said Scott Begin, the drummer for Badfish.

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But few people have made the jump from tribute to acclaimed original artist. Marshall Crenshaw, who later went on to find his own fame in music and film, emulated John Lennon in Beatlemania. But there aren't many other instances.

"I haven't seen too much of artists starting in tribute acts and then coming back around with a catalog of original music," Manna said.

Sometimes, musicians from emulated groups like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and the Grateful Dead will perform with or endorse their favorite tribute acts. Ike Willis, a long-time member of Frank Zappa's troupe, plays with Project Object, a Frank Zappa tribute band.

"It gives Ike work to do, and it gives the band a way of boosting their market value and their credibility and their enjoyment and the thrill of not only playing the music but playing with the people that created the original records," Alexander said.

The tribute bands that draw the largest followings and find the most success have a passion for the music they cover, he said. It's a trait that the fans and even the bands they emulate recognize and appreciate.

"They're doing it because they love what they're doing," Alexander said, "and it's the music that comes first, and it's the art that comes first, and it's the dedication and the respect for the originals that fuels them."

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mike.barnett@baltsun.com

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Tribute band concerts

Tomorrow: The Soft Parade, a tribute to the Doors, at The 8x10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. The club is at 8-10 E. Cross St. Call 410-625-2000 or visit the8x10.com.

Saturday: Bruce in the USA, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, at Recher Theatre. Tickets are $17-$20. 9 p.m. The theatre is at 512 York Road in Towson. Call 410-337-7178 or visit rechertheatre.com. Also at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, on Sunday and Monday. 7 p.m. Tickets are $28.50. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.

May 4: Sex Pistols Experience at Rams Head Live. 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. The venue is at 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Call 410-244-1131 or visit ramsheadlive.com.

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May 6: Project Object with Ike Willis and the School of Rock All Stars at Rams Head Live. 8 p.m. Tickets are $17-$19.

May 6: The Mahoney Brothers, a tribute to the Beatles, at Recher Theatre. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.

May 20: Dark Star Orchestra, a tribute to the Grateful Dead, at Rams Head Live. 10 p.m. Tickets are $22-$25.


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