The Great Pretenders

Saturday night in Reseda. The rain’s falling hard and fast, an unrelenting assault of liquid bullets shooting from the sky like a torturous cold shower that can never be turned off. This being the Valley, cars swim through flooded intersections. Yet inside the club, Mike is smokin’ hot. He’s got the music in him, prancing, pointing, buying rounds for the bands, and stalking the stage.

“Dude, dude, watch his foot,” he yells, just as Anthem drummer Marshall Mason begins to kick it during the opening bars of “Today’s Tom Sawyer.” This is bliss. This is tribute night at Paladino’s.

Like many of the dude persuasion milling about the club, Mike’s got that Valley rocker frozen-in-1979 appearance: A freak flag of hair, fu manchu above the lip, shades atop the head, faded jeans, leather jacket. His band, Secret Affair, plays its own shit, and has even gigged a few times at the club. But Mike’s all fanboy tonight. “The tributes are awesome,” he yells. It’s been a good night. Mike’s been digging Petty Theft (a Tom Petty tribute) and Kick (INXS), but Anthem, an Orange County band devoted to Rush, has sent him over the edge.

The trio onstage certainly sounds the part, but, alas, the band’s Geddy Lee – guitarist Dale Zapata – is lacking in the looks department. For starters, where’s the monster mullet? Zapata’s hair is spiky, and besides, he’s wearing spankin’ new Airwalks that were maybe cool ten years ago. But they take care of business musically, which pleases the middle-aged geekazoid boys in the crowd of a hundred or so. Like that guy sitting in the corner. He looks like he’s listened to Moving Pictures seven gazillion times alone in his room during his adolescence many, many years earlier. He pounds air drums and taps his feet with gusto. His female companion, though, looks to be out stone cold. The chicks never did dig Rush.

If you love a band and they no longer exist, or the tickets to see the real thing cost serious bling for arena nosebleed seats, maybe tributes are an awesome alternative. And these days, there’s a tribute band for almost every taste -- running the gamut from the Grateful Dead to the Ramones -- gigging everywhere from Fourteen Below in Santa Monica to the Knitting Factory to House of Blues to Paladino’s, which is Tributeland Ground Zero.

I myself dabbled in this world of musical mimicry. In the late 90s, I was a devoted follower of Saint Nick, a tribute band devoted to the majesty and genius of Nick Gilder. Sadly, Saint Nick was a not-for-profit enterprise, and disbanded after only a few appearances. But for a few magical nights, hearing such classics as “Hot Child In the City” and “Backstreet Noise” re-created, letter perfect, in a small club, was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a gig.

Good memories are worth a lot, and tribute bands have come a long way from the days of Randy Hanson and Machine Gun doing Hendrix and Dennis Colt, the self-proclaimed “king” of Elvis impersonators. Today, bands like The Fab Four (Beatles) and Super Diamond (Neil Diamond) can pull upwards of a million bucks a year regurgitating nostalgia. And local bands like Which One’s Pink (Pink Floyd), Atomic Punks (Van Halen) and Led Zepagain (Led Zeppelin) fill clubs wherever they go.

Let’s face it: We’re not going to see Michael Hutchence again, so the thrills are real when middle-aged women raise their Rolling Rocks to the sky when Kick busts out the riffs from “Killer Inside.” During those moments, you are lost in the power and comfort of a familiar song, done just the way you remember it. During those moments, you’re not in some scuzzy club in the middle of the Valley. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Fabulous Fucking Forum. And you are being seriously rocked.

And if you stand back, squint, and suspend belief, it can be pretty damn close. Led Zepagain vocalist Swan doubles as a Paladino’s soundman and has been approached for autographs outside the club by those mistaking him for Robert Plant. “He gets on that stage and he basically transforms into Robert Plant,” says Paladino’s manager Steve Sano. “He is Robert Plant I don’t care what you say. He sounds like him, he looks like him. Walks like him, talks like him.“

Paladino’s does book original bands, but it’s the tributes that pay the rent. The club’s tucked in a funky L-shaped retail corner in a bleak pocket of Reseda that’s like an industrial-nightmare flashback from Repo Man. Its neighbors are body shops, a cigarette retailer, the Frisky Kitty strip club and a coin laundry.

“The original bands don’t have the following,” says Sano. “With a cover band, people know what to expect, and I don’t think people are ready for a lot of experimentation. You’re not going to spend your money and gamble. Most people go to a safe haven.“

Sandy Landis works the door at Paladino’s, and remembers a time when the Valley did support original bands. She’s the daughter in-law of the late Chuck Landis, who opened the Country Club in Reseda in 1979. Back then, local and national bands were plentiful at clubs like the Palomino in North Hollywood and the Bla Bla Café in Studio City.

But it’s different today, Landis says. “All the bands in L.A. these days think they’re rock stars. They don’t want to do the work. Back in the 80s they loved the music.”

With a dearth of interesting new talent, tributes more than fill the void. “Nobody wants to see original bands,” she says. “Tribute bands are younger, cuter, and they sound just as good as the real thing.”

Paladino’s ain’t the Roxy, but rock star dreams still dangle by a thread here. The reminders are obvious: Metallica and Aerosmith blacklight posters hang from stage left. And everyone still talks about the time Foo Fighters played a surprise gig back in 2001, opening for Atomic Punks. That was a very good night for club booker Jimmy D. He went out and bought a new truck a few days later.

Jimmy’s been with Paladino’s since it opened seven years ago, with a year off to recover from Hepatitis C. He’s known as the King of Tributes, “I don’t know if I like being called that,” he shrugs, but there’s truth to it. He’s been booking copycat bands since 1994, when he was over at Scruffy O’ Shea’s in Marina del Rey. Now, he complains, everyone’s doing it.

He’s an old-school Valley Guy – Canoga Park High, class of 1973. He saw Jimi Hendrix at the old Devonshire Downs near Cal State Northridge when he was a kid. Grand Funk’s his favorite all-time band.

In the Valley, he says, tributes are the only game in town, at least if you’re interested in making money. And some of ‘em can be a pain in the ass. He leans against the bar, nursing a beer. “The Freddy in Under Pressure has a contract rider that stipulates a fruit basket in his dressing room. Can you believe it?” Don’t get him started on the Jim Morrison from Wild Child or the Mick Jagger from Sticky Fingers.

They may be difficult, but many of them have the same dream: Break on through to the other side. A precious few have done it. Guitarists Bart Walsh and Brian Young were plucked from Atomic Punks to tour with the genuine article, David Lee Roth. And we all know the story of Ripper Owens -- vocalist for a Midwest Judas Priest tribute band who replaced Rob Halford with the real Priest. Of course, now Halford is back and Owens sings less glamorously with a band called Iced Earth, but no one tells that part of the story.

Jimmy D’s girl has those dreams. Her name is Diana des Coombes. She arrives at the club late, straight off her shift as a waitress at Dr. Hogley Wogley’s Barbecue in Van Nuys. She says she’s 38, but looks older. She has a face that says nothing’s come easy. She’s also Stevie Nicks in a Fleetwood Mac tribute band called Replay.

It may be too late for Diana, but Kris Bradley is just getting started. The 21-year-old fronts a Heart tribute called Heart Brigade. She first saw Ann and Nancy Wilson’s band three years ago. “When they played ‘Battle of Evermore’ I fell in love.” Tonight she’s doing her second gig fronting Black Dog, a Led Zep tribute.

A student at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, Bradley has bigger plans than belting “Barracuda” night after night. “I don’t think I am Ann Wilson. I have other interests. I don’t want to be stereotyped as a tribute singer.”

Kris’ mom, Maggie Hokanson, is in the audience, as she is for most of her daughter’s gigs. A plump woman of 38, with a Panama hat and a tiny stud in her nose, she says Kris was a natural almost from birth. “When she was two and I was 18, we’d crank Zeppelin and Rush, and during ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ she would scream at just the right moment.”

By the time Black Dog hits the stage at 1 a.m., the rainy night crowd has thinned considerably. The band bares no resemblance to their heroes -- they look more like accountants than rock stars, although if you’re really shitfaced, the drummer could pass for the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.

And the vibe, too, is less than electric. Some highlights: One guy’s impressed enough to take some pictures with his cell phone…. The bassist gives a subdued devil’s horn salute to relatives visiting from Vegas…. A middle-aged couple with matching frizzy long hair move to the foot of the stage, and while the fury of “Rock and Roll” gets their heads moving up and down, it’s not enough to get their hands out of their pockets…. Sandy Landis whispers in my ear that the bass player is really ugly.

It’s thoroughly mediocre. Except for Kris, who moves and sings like she’s in a different band, a different universe. She’s got moves and bluesy chops, more Janis Joplin than Ann Wilson or Robert Plant. During “I Can’t Quit You,” Hogly-Wogly-Steve-Nicks Diana tells me Kris is going to be a star.

It’s 1:45. “Communication Breakdown” has ended and we converge outside where the sky is still pissing rain. The discussion turns to cameras and film’s impending obsolescence. Diana explains that a photographer using film must be dedicated to his craft. “You must be an artist,” she says. “I’m an artist. We’re all artists.” I tell her I’ll see her at Hogly Wogly’s and make a mad dash for my car.