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Tribute Bands vs. the Originals: Who Knows the Music Better?

Grateful Dead tribute band Terrapin.
"They're probably taking the music more seriously than the musicians themselves may have taken it when they first did it."
Brian Slattery

Tribute bands -- bands that emulate famous groups or individual performers -- are a big business. Elvis and The Beatles might be the inspiration for the tribute band trend, but tribute acts have become a subculture all their own. 

Take the Grateful Dead -- there are over 300 Grateful Dead tribute bands worldwide, according to one website dedicated to letting Deadheads everywhere know when and where they can catch another show.

In Connecticut alone there are at least a handful, including Terrapin, a relatively new Dead band. The group’s keyboardist Matt Winthrop said they started playing four years ago for small crowds.

"At the beginning we played any pizza parlor and restaurant that would have us in," he said. "But we found almost immediately there was an audience here. We started with 15 or 20 people and then we pulled 30 people, and then we’d have 80 people. And now we have about 8,000 followers on Facebook."

And tribute bands are not just playing music by groups that are no longer together. There are even tributes to newer groups. But they’ve filled a void in the rock music genre for decades.

And make no mistake, there is a distinction between tribute bands and cover bands. At the most basic level, cover bands perform popular songs by many different artists, whereas tribute bands usually study the work of a specific group or performer. And if you haven’t seen a good tribute band don’t judge yet.

“They’re probably taking the music more seriously than the musicians themselves may have taken it when they first did it," said Brian Slattery, arts editor for the New Haven Independent.

He said many of these bands are made up of talented musicians who have thoroughly studied the music. "They’re really analyzing every note and they’re analyzing how those groups that they love put their music together," said Slattery. "And they’re taking it seriously the way that a classical musician would take a string quartet seriously or a jazz musician would take a Miles Davis recording seriously.”

Of course, not all tribute bands are created equal. There’s been a fair amount of stigma associated with the acts. They’ve been looked at as cheesy on the surface said Slattery, who’s also a musician, and points out that performing live music by say, The Beatles, and doing it well is no small feat.

“It’s not just somebody in their basement strumming chords saying, ‘Here’s how this Beatles song goes,'" said Slattery. "It’s somebody who’s really spent a lot of time to figure out music that really good musicians wrote. You have to be quite good to fill those shoes and I have a lot of respect for that.”

The acts also make good business sense for venues like the Arch Street Tavern in Hartford. Production manager Mitch Moriber said a well-known tribute band can fill the place.

But, they weren’t always open to the idea. When he first started working there the venue was dedicated to promoting only original music. Tribute bands, in general, weren’t their thing. A sentiment Moriber said he never really understood.

“You can go see some of these bands and be truly inspired by the music," he said. "Some people are really recreating them, re-envisioning, and kind of like re-exploring a lot of these songs in new ways that you can’t see even if you go see the original members now performing those songs.”

You can find a tribute act for practically any popular music group or performer these days. Whether all tribute bands are legal in terms of performance rights is a little murky, to say the least. And there are more than a few that take their act on the road and play in other states.

But some, like the Grateful Dead band Terrapin, don’t take themselves too seriously, said keyboardist Matt Winthrop. They just want to be able to play the music.

"We come out to interpret songs that we’ve known and loved our whole lives and we add a little bit of our own personal footprint or stamp on each and every one of those," said Winthrop.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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