Updated: May 4
A Tribute Band Roundtable with Rebel Rebel and The Minks
By Michael Molenda Rebel Rebel Photos by Michael J. Kirshner | Minks photo by band
I thought it was the lamest thing a musician could do.
The very idea of playing in a tribute band, trying to replicate songs created by artistic
divinities—songs that had transformed, energized, and passed judgement on culture—seemed vile and shameful. After all, if a musicians job is to look outward or inward, bare their soul, and conjure truth, love, angst, regret, joy, and other emotions with a voice, a guitar, a bass, drums, or any instrument of their choice, then the ultimate betrayal of the artform is stealing the treasures already owned by someone else. But I was young then. And I was wrong.
Tribute bands do not suck. It can be incredibly difficult to get the musical concepts,
techniques, compositions, and performance style of transcendent players absorbed into
your own DNA. (I would never ever be able to tackle Eddie van Halen, Jimmy Page, and
scores of other virtuosos, and I salute those truly amazing guitarists who can.)
Furthermore, there is nothing but beauty and benevolent power in sharing the sounds of
popular bands with enthusiastic audiences looking to dive into a carefree, communal
party atmosphere—where they can dance and shout and drink and remember how the
songs made them feel once upon a time, and still inspire them now. As an entertainer,
what can be a greater experience than making people happy?
To be quite honest, I would rather perform my original rock music onstage, but without a
past track record and a substantial, public-facing music catalog, it's challenging to
acquire good gigs in awesome venues when competing with the younger, hipper bands
of the moment. It's their time. The way of the world. No complaints. No regrets.
But playing songs I absolutely adore in two tribute bands—a glam-era David Bowie act
called Rebel Rebel (I'm the drummer) and a rocked-up celebration of Monkees hits
dubbed The Trouble With Monkeys (guitar and vocals)—has lifted my soul, challenged
my chops, allowed me to jump around in fantastic venues, and given me the opportunity
to play with wonderful musicians who I actually like as people (hahaha). It's a marvelous
personal "win" for a lifetime creator such as myself, and I'm now rather embarrassed by the arrogant rants I launched against tribute bands in my youth. (Sincere apologies to
anyone who was in earshot of my ill-considered tirades back then!)
All of these notions rolled around in my head as Rebel Rebel and our buddies The
Minks—an all-female Kinks tribute—prepped for a co-headline show at Club Fox in
Redwood City, California, on April 8, 2023. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to
talk with my friends and peers to reveal their perceptions and experiences performing
the work of musical heroes. Hopefully, this tribute-band roundtable will bring some
interesting insights and ideas to all players—whether they are rocking their own material
or honoring the songs of their favorite groups.
The participants are Jennifer Edwards (vocalist, The Minks), Christina Michelle (vocalist,
Rebel Rebel and bassist The Minks), Desmonde Mulcahy (bassist, Rebel Rebel), Linda
Palermo (keyboardist, The Minks and Rebel Rebel), Geri Vahey (drummer, The Minks),
and Joshua Vaughn (guitarist, Rebel Rebel).
Here we go...
Michael Molenda: I've often wondered how you get yourselves into the creative headspace of an iconic performer in order to present a faithful tribute to their music.
Christina Michelle: I don't. I'm focused on delivering a compelling live interpretation
that leverages musicality, movement, fashion, and performance to evoke the artist's
Jennifer Edwards: I immerse myself in the lyrics of Kinks songs when we perform.
There is magnificent raw energy, genuine emotion, and intensity to tap into with songs
such as “Lola” and “You Really Got Me.” I am also struck by how relevant the Kinks’
lyrics feel today. Many of their songs—like “Do It Again” and “Set Me Free"—deal with
themes that are just as relevant now as they were when they were written decades ago,
from the struggle to find one's place in the world, to the complexities of love and
Desmonde Mulcahy: I don't think it would be possible for me to get into [David Bowie
and The Spiders from Mars bassist] Trevor Bolder's head, but I do feel his presence
when I play his parts. I get a sense of how he interpreted Bowie's songs, how he
grooved with [Bowie drummer] Woody Woodmansey, and how he created his bass lines
against the harmony structures. I discovered that, for a lot of bassists I like to study,
transcribing their parts is the next best thing to taking a private master class with
them—if that were even possible.
Geri Vahey: Mick Avory [Kinks] is such a delightful drummer. I feel our high-level goals
are the same—to serve the song without overpowering it. While I wish I had his jazz
chops, I really enjoy emulating some of his subtle share fills in less-than-obvious spaces.
Joshua Vaughn: My previous David Bowie tribute band had two guitarists and covered
a wider range of his career. As the rhythm guitar player, I got to play Bowie’s 12-string
parts on songs such as “Space Oddity,” and Nile Rodgers’ electric-guitar parts on songs
like “Let’s Dance.” As Rebel Rebel is all about the Ziggy Stardust glam-rock era, I get to
focus exclusively on playing like Mick Ronson. The biggest thing that helped me get into
Mick’s headspace was getting a new, red-finish Les Paul for Christmas. Thanks, Santa!
Mick always played a Les Paul, and when I played these songs on my Stratocaster,
they didn’t sound quite right. But the first time I played them with my Les Paul, I
immediately felt more like Mick.
Michael Molenda: When I'm emulating Woody Woodmansey from The Spiders from Mars, I know I have to perform well-known drum parts, such as the ba-da-da tom fills after the line, I'm an alligator on "Moonage Daydream". Also, as Desmonde plays the bass lines pretty exact to the original parts, I can't drop a surf beat on, say, "Ziggy Stardust" or we will be completely out of sync. For everything else, though, I don't think I have to copy Woody's beats as long as I capture his vibe. How do you choose where you can and can't infuse your own style—or interpretation—into the music of Bowie and the Kinks?
Jennifer Edwards: As a female singer, I've already added a different vocal dimension
to Ray Davies’ songs. Because we’ve already made a musical deviation, we otherwise
stay quite true to the original arrangements—which honors the Kinks, and all those who
love the songs just as they were recorded. Ray Davies poured his heart and soul into
every word he sang, and I love tapping into that.
Linda Palermo: That's true. We are women, after all, so even though we play the songs
as close to the original Kinks records as possible, our personal styles still filter through
the music. There's no way we can precisely imitate the artistic lives of men who grew up
in Muswell Hill, London, throughout the '40s, '50s, and '60s. We can only celebrate what
they did, and in our own way.
Desmonde Mulcahy: As a tribute band, there's an audience expectation that we
capture what the artist performed in the studio and onstage. But, with Bowie's material, I have some flexibility with my bass parts, as he often rearranged his material for live performances. In addition, Bowie always had really good bass players in his band, and
he gave them a lot of freedom with what they played. My approach is I tend to play
close to what was recorded but modified to my own taste. For an iconic song such as
"Ziggy Stardust", for example, I feel I shouldn't mess with the original bass line too
much. For some other songs—such as "Moonage Daydream" and "Star"—I give myself
permission to change things up.
Christina Michelle: I'm in the unique position of having emulated some of the most
famous male rock stars of all time in various tributes. As a female, I have no choice but
to bring my own style to the performance, so I'm definitely not mimicking David Bowie in
Rebel Rebel. I can't. But I think what makes a tribute interesting is observing someone
who has studied an artist's body of work to the extent they can exhibit a mastery of the
material, deliver an energetic and compelling performance, and hopefully add a fresh
twist to what is likely a familiar song in the soundtrack of someone's life. At the end of
the day, the tribute performer and the audience are celebrating the artist together.
Geri Vahey: With the Kinks, there are such a range of approaches. Their studio
performances are so rich, but the live versions have such different vibes—like throwing
a reggae beat under "Til the End of the Day" And I just love the punk energy of "You
Really Got Me", so when in doubt, I like to amp up the aggression.
Christina Michelle: Taking into account what we've all said, I still think it's worth
emphasizing that tribute musicians must absolutely nail the signature riffs. You can't
play "Satisfaction" in a Stones tribute and screw up the guitar riff. It's iconic. Respecting
signature riffs can also inspire creative interpretations. I recently saw a chamber-music
performance of Fleetwood Mac material, and the musicians had the band's signature
parts down pat. When they added their own beautiful layers, the melodies were still recognizable.
Joshua Vaughn: I listened to the studio albums, of course, but I also studied two live
albums from The Spiders from Mars—Santa Monica ’72 and Hammersmith Odeon
1973. It was obvious Mick Ronson did not play exactly the same way every night, so I
keep to that same spirit in my playing. For example, the short solo in the middle of
“Moonage Daydream” where Mick emulates the flute part from the album is iconic, so I
always play it exactly the same way. But on the second solo, I can blow the doors wide
open. I’m also a big Pink Floyd fan, and as I once played in a tribute band called "Space
Cadet Glow", I found the Bm progression at the end of “Moonage Daydream” is almost
the same as the chords at the end of “Comfortably Numb.” I’m sure some of my David
Gilmour influence comes out when I’m playing that solo!
Michael Molenda: It's probably more of an issue for the guitar, bass, and keyboard sounds, but how important is tone to your presentation of the music? Admittedly, I have no idea how Woody tuned his drums in 1972. Sonically, I could be completely tanking the illusion of The Spiders from Mars.
Geri Vahey: It's the same for me. I love Mick Avory's drumming on those classic Kinks
tracks, but I'm not about to tune my snare and the rest of my kit to match how his drums
sounded in the '60s and '70s. Instead, my mission is to share the love of the tunes and
bring on the energy the material deserves.
Christina Michelle: I'm not trying to replicate Bowie's vocal sound on the recordings.
My goal is to capture the energy and passion of a live performance and make it my own.
Hopefully, I can channel Bowie's energy and allure when I sing his songs.
Desmonde Mulcahy: I love how my bass sounds through my amp rig. Does it sound like Trevor's? I wouldn't know. I do know the tone works in Rebel Rebel, and it works for the audiences we play for.
Joshua Vaughn: A lot of guitarists are gearheads and collect analog effects pedals, but
I’ve always preferred the convenience of an all-in-one digital processor. I had been
using a BOSS processor that I bought at Gelb Music almost 20 years ago, but it finally
crapped out on me during our initial Rebel Rebel rehearsals. I bought a new Zoom G6
processor to replace it, and I have been really happy with it so far. It sounds great. It
has a touchscreen interface, so it’s way easier to program, and it’s also smaller and
lighter than my old BOSS. I created four main settings—Clean, Spacey, Rhythm, and
Lead—and assigned each patch to a dedicated footswitch. On “Moonage Daydream,” I
use all four settings for different parts. I switch tones at least 20 times during the first
half of the song alone—and this is before I get to the big solo at the end. I’ve had to
practice using my feet almost as much as my fingers.
Michael Molenda: Present company excepted, of course, but it really bothers me when a tribute band steps onstage in jeans and t-shirts. There's no effort at all to take the audience on a nostalgic journey. It's like, "Hey, I just weeded the garden, and now I'm going down to the club in my soiled scruffs to play Beatles music" I strongly feel that performance gestures and costuming are essential components of whatever musical illusion you're putting out there. What do you think?
Christina Michelle: Anyone who has seen me perform knows I'm a fan of both the
gesture and the costume! I take inspiration from the original band, so I can represent
the fashions of the artist, while modifying them to fit my body, style, and personality.
Sometimes, I try to modernize the look. I also actively include an artist's signature
gestures into my performances, and I always have some kind of prop, costume, or
stage accessory on hand. Bands are in the entertainment business, and a little effort
can go a long way in creating a unique and captivating experience for the audience.
Linda Palermo: Costuming is partly what makes it so fun to be in a band—shopping
together and trying on outfits. The Minks evoke a '60s look with gogo boots and mod
dresses. It's our brand identity. It would feel wrong to perform in everyday clothing.
Christina Michelle: I mean, there's something to be said for musicians "being
themselves," but that's when the act stops being a tribute. Instead, it becomes a
creative interpretation by an independent artist. Personally, I'm attracted to bands that
pay attention to details and have a strong visual presence. Now, I'm not saying you
have to look exactly like the original artist, but you do need to look original. There are
certainly very successful tribute bands where no one on stage looks anything like the
original artists. But they still look amazing.
Michael Molenda: What's your methodology for studying parts? I tend to print out a lyric sheet, play the original track on YouTube, and write performance notes and arrangement
cues over the lyrics as I listen.
Geri Vahey: I also spend the bulk of my study time with the band’s studio recordings. I’ll
reference YouTube videos, as well, but my main inspiration comes from being a Kinks fan.
Christina Michelle: I make playlists of songs on Spotify and put them on repeat. I'll
download lyrics, guitar chords, and bass tabs from online sites as a starting point. In