You’ve seen them in barrooms, at backyard barbecues, and on some of the biggest stages in town—but regardless of who’s holding the instruments, you know the music before the band even begins to tune up.
Cover bands or tribute acts are a crucial yet sometimes overlooked part of any town’s music scene, even though many cover musicians are talented performers in their own right. They’re dedicated to their craft for a wide range of motivations—and not all cover acts happen at the same scale.
Cover bands can be lucrative and long-lived acts that draw legions of fans to hear the songs they know and love, or regional touring projects paying homage to long-gone greats, or local jam bands looking for an excuse to get some friends together and share the music that inspires them.
It’s tough to get a sense of just how many of these acts call Reno and the surrounding areas home, but we talked to six local cover bands about their backgrounds, their musical philosophies, and how they make a living (or not) playing hits and paying tribute.
ABBACADABRA—The Ultimate ABBA Tribute
Among hardliners, tribute acts can be viewed as interlopers or, god forbid, hobbyists who don’t stand for the same creative principles as “real bands.” Anyone who thinks that probably hasn’t seen the production value that goes into ABBACADABRA.
Billing itself as the “Ultimate ABBA Tribute” and selling out showrooms and stages all over the world, ABBACADABRA got its start in 2004 thanks to executive producer Garry Raffanelli.
“I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do a whole bunch of things,” said Raffanelli. “But I do have an addiction: I’m addicted to applause.”
A musician from a young age, Raffanelli has made a career out of music and entertainment—performing, producing acts and building custom pianos for some of the world’s biggest stars through his brand, Slam Grand Pianos. Raffanelli performed for decades as part of the musical duo Gary and Sandy with vocalist Sandy Selby, touring nationally before landing in the casino showroom and lounge scene of Reno and Las Vegas in 1976.
Raffanelli was eventually approached by the entertainment director of Harrah’s Reno to come up with an act. Raffanelli said that he gave the director three other ideas, and when pressed for a fourth, he invented a plan for an ABBA tribute act there and then.
“On the way to the meeting, in my car, my Saturn … when I open up the glove compartment, there’s (an ABBA) Gold cassette,” Raffanelli said. “And I go, ‘God, I love ABBA.’ So I popped that thing in, and I’m listening to ABBA on the way to the meeting. … And I said, ‘As long as it doesn’t leave this room, I’m putting together an ABBA show.’”
The enthusiastic response prompted him to spend the next year and a half musically dissecting ABBA’s greatest hits by ear and hand-picking musicians to not only accurately perform their music, but replicate—and sometimes spoof—the personalities of the Swedish supergroup in their heyday.
“We do the show pretending to be the players,” Raffanelli said. “If you know about ABBA, the two guys were married to the two girls, and then they divorced—and they weren’t really pleasant divorces. So we play the show as if they’re divorced, but we ran into some financial deals and now we’ve got to play together again. So there’s that edge, and there’s a little bit of name-calling, and I think that makes the show very funny. That’s what makes our show different.”
ABBACADABRA continues to tour nationally and internationally, even though the lineup has changed over the years, with Raffanelli managing the group while performing onstage himself. Even with the cast assuming the roles of the original members of ABBA, the legalities of performing have never inhibited the live show or the recordings they make and sell. (Although the show’s logo is spelled “Adbacadbra” in a stylized manner to avoid trademark similarities.)
To Raffanelli, tribute acts—ABBACADABRA in particular—can be successful from a business standpoint because of the economics of packing big rooms and the natural appeal to audience nostalgia.
“We can sell out the show for a fraction of the cost of bringing in the real act,” he said. “These acts, you can’t see anymore, so the tribute acts are taking up that slack for a much more reasonable price.”
To Raffanelli, the consummate showman, it’s not enough to simply put on the costumes and sing the songs. He said the highest praise he receives is when he feels he’s given his audience the same feeling he got when he saw ABBA live in 1979.
“People walk out going, ‘Thank you; I got to see ABBA live,’” he said.
Find out more at www.adbacadabra.com.
When it comes to paying tribute to great artists, sometimes it’s about more than just the music.
“The Pink Floyd ‘costume’ is the light show, the laser show,” said Vince Gates, bassist and band leader of Pink Floyd tribute act The Floyd, based in Carson City. “That’s the look of Pink Floyd. So it’s very important.”
Gates joined The Floyd in 2010 when it was known as Eclipse: A Tribute to Pink Floyd, around the same time he took ownership of music store Play Your Own Music in Carson City. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour had always been a huge inspiration to Gates and his guitar playing, and when the members of Eclipse asked him to take over as their bass player, he jumped at the chance.
“It was really low stakes and easy back then,” Gates said. “We were just playing clubs. We didn’t have two trucks full of lighting trusses showing up two days before. We weren’t selling 1,000 tickets.”
The Floyd is now a comprehensive musical experience with a set list that spans the group’s different eras and more than 4,000 lighting cues, all timed manually by the band’s lighting director, Ed Collins. Gates, along with bandmates Rob Lawrence, Jeff Laakso, Curt Mitchell and Dean Rossi, pride themselves on putting on a stadium-worthy show that sells out venues across the West Coast.
“There’s a real sense of emotional connection, I think, with the musicians in the band, or you can feel the emotional connection to the music,” Gates said. “It’s a really good show. Obviously, the lights are spectacular. The sound is spectacular. And the level of musicianship is top-notch.”
Gates plays in a few other tribute bands and original acts around the area and finds playing cover music—especially Pink Floyd’s music—to be an interesting technical challenge. While he recognizes the artistic value and personal reward of playing original music, accurately re-creating the nuance of a famous performance is just as, if not more so, challenging when playing live.
“There’s kind of a negative connotation to playing cover music, and I totally get it,” Gates said. “But the thing is, there’s art and entertainment, and there’s a line somewhere. I totally understand that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and that we, you know, haven’t really contributed anything artistically, per se. But people really enjoy seeing it, and hearing it, and being a part of it.”
Gates and his bandmates are content with finding musical fulfillment in putting on the best homage, sonically and visually, to one of their favorite bands—and none of the thousands of people who attend their shows seem to mind.
Learn more about The Floyd at www.thefloydband.com.
Gwen in Doubt
Even without a huge stage production or cast, smaller tribute acts can still find full-time work with the right look and sound. Such is the case of Reno’s Tamara Mclean, otherwise known as Tammy Tam Tam when performing with one of her many bands, duos and trios. When fronting her No Doubt tribute band Gwen in Doubt, she assumes the titular persona of Gwen Stefani.
“They actually did an interview with No Doubt, and the girl asked the question, ‘Do you know any funny tribute band names?’” Mclean said. “And then the drummer, Adrian (Young), said, ‘There’s one called Gwen in Doubt.’ So they know we exist, and it was pretty cool, because Gwen was saying how much she liked the name and stuff, so she thought it was clever.”
Originally, from Auburn, Calif., Mclean came to Reno in the early 2000s. She started her music career in the area with a Top 40 cover act called Steel Breeze. Throughout her career, members of the audience would tell her that she sounded and even looked like Stefani, whom Mclean lists as a big musical influence. In 2003, she came up with the band name and approached the members of Steel Breeze about leaning into the idea of covering both No Doubt and Stefani’s solo catalog.
“When I would sing Gwen, it almost like fit like a glove,” Mclean said. “Like, it just became very natural to me in the way she moved, and we kind of have some styles in common and like the same things. … I do my best when I’m up there; I want to do the best I can, because I think she deserves it.”
Gwen in Doubt’s set list covers a full two-hour performance, and she and bandmates Tommy Mclean, Kevin Strawn, Dan Bauer and John Dabaghian have taken the act to venues around California and Nevada. Mclean said she tends to get out on the road more in tribute bands than in her other projects, playing events like the Contra Costa County Fair and even opening for Terri Nunn of the band Berlin. The reaction she gets from the audience is one of the things she most enjoys when she’s “Gwen.”
“It’s fun to be a rock star sometimes,” she said. “You see someone out in the crowd, and they exude this really cool energy, and I want to exude that good energy to them and recognize them. So I kind of sometimes try to go the extra mile so people feel that they’re involved, too.”
Mclean is realistic about her persona, saying she would never “go to Walmart or something as Gwen.” Mclean stresses that she’s paying homage to Stefani instead of impersonating her, and the real utility of her tribute act is to supplement her income as a working musician who writes and records her own original work as well.
“I just came out with a new song on April 7, called ‘Love Doesn’t Have 2 Hurt’ … and my inspiration for that song was to stop domestic violence,” Mclean said. “I love singing other people’s songs, but when you get to sing your originals, and people are getting up and dancing to them, and they are downloading them and loving what you do, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s a wonderful feeling.”
For more information, visit tammytamtam.com.
In the wide spectrum of tribute and cover acts, there is a market for the real deal—or at least as close as one can get. Enter Johnny Reno, but you might recognize him as simply “The King.”
“Thank you, thank you very much,” said Reno.
Reno follows one of the most enduring tribute-act traditions as an Elvis impersonator—or, as he calls himself, a tribute artist—not only singing Elvis’ songs, but mimicking the King’s mannerisms and personality. As opposed to the caricature that some performers create, Reno said he works hard to pay tribute to Elvis’ real life and background.
“One of the kind of unwritten rules of thumb is don’t imitate other imitators; go straight to the source … (or else) you kind of come across as cartoonish, and I find that to be disrespectful. ” Reno said. “You know, watch the videos; listen to how he talks; listen to how he sings the songs. So I would play the music, and I would go back and try to emulate that as well.”
Reno can relate to Elvis’ background. They both grew up poor in Mississippi before going on to travel the world in their youth. Reno’s initial musical tastes were geared toward bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and it was only when people abroad in places like Australia and Asia began to tell him that he kind of looked like the King that he started to take an interest.
“Growing up in Mississippi, when I was really young, Elvis was around, and I’d hear his songs on the radio,” Reno said. “And there were little connections, like Elvis’ mother’s name was Gladys, and my grandmother’s name was Gladys. I’m not the long-lost brother or anything, but I did like peanut butter-banana sandwiches.”
Reno landed in Vegas in the 1980s and got the idea to be a tribute artist when exposed to that city’s love for the King. He relocated to Reno in 1987 for business purposes and chose the stage name “Johnny Reno” because it “rolled off the tongue.” He spent a few years refining his act, finding the appropriate leather jumpsuits and, of course, marrying couples as an ordained minister.
“I continued to do that for a while, and then the company that I worked for relocated me to the Sacramento area,” Reno said. “I thought perhaps my career would be over—but then it really kicked off once I moved to Northern California. … Of course, now I’m known as Johnny Reno, the Sacramento King.”
Reno estimates that he still performs between 50 and 60 shows per year all over California and Nevada and still makes it back to his namesake city for birthday parties, veterans’ events and casino shows—wherever the King is needed. He even hopes to move back to Reno sometime this year. To Reno, performing as Elvis is a steady gig, but it’s also about embodying a great artist who left his millions of adoring fans too soon.
“Elvis did his Aloha From Hawaii concert, which was broadcast around the world to a billion people by satellite,” Reno said. “It had never been done before. … He was just like one of the guys who happened to look really good and can make people feel happy.”
Of course, Reno remembers exactly where he was when he heard Elvis had died—driving a van in Long Beach, Calif., on the morning of Aug. 16, 1977. But to Reno and his fans, he never really died. He says as much when he signs autographs: “Keeping the King Alive”
Learn more at www.johnnyrenoaselvis.com.
The Beatles Flashback
Tribute bands don’t necessarily need a physical resemblance to their inspirations, though. The members of The Beatles Flashback made a conscious decision to keep their stage appearance separate from their sound; they don’t even introduce themselves by name to keep people focused on the music. Plus, when you’re covering perhaps the most famous rock band of all time, the audience doesn’t need suits and mop tops to get the picture.
“There are a lot of good tribute bands who mimic the look, the dress, the motions, the talking; we’re more focused on the music,” said Jeff Shamus, guitarist and producer of the Beatles Flashback. “Also, it’s hard when you have, you know, 50-year-olds trying to look like 20-year-olds with wigs and mustaches and everything.”
The Beatles Flashback started in 2006 in Sonoma County after a Craigslist ad brought the original members together. Shamus answered the ad with passing interest, unaware he’d be embodying the Fab Four for the next 15-plus years. After playing shows and private parties in California, Shamus moved to Reno in 2013. By then, he’d come to love playing in the band, but he found commuting back to Sonoma for gigs impractical. He elected to make a Reno version of the band to play shows closer to home while the “cast” back in Sonoma continued to gig as well.
“Like, if you hired us in Sonoma County, you got the cast that was down there, and if you hired us in Reno, and you got the cast that was up here,” he said.
The Sonoma band played its final show last summer. The Reno members include Curt Mitchell, Larry Fuller, Geoff White and Kevin Pavlu; they continue to book events ranging from private gigs to shows at Artown thanks, in large part, to the mass appeal baked into their source material, Shamus said. He said the band is busiest during the warmer months, and they already have shows lined up for June.
“When you’re in a cover band, you want to play songs that people are familiar with, so you pick from a lot of different genres,” Shamus said. “With the Beatles, you’re able to pick 50 songs or 75 songs, and play them, and everyone in the audience knows all the words. It’s the music that little kids are going to love, and grandparents are going to love, and everybody in between.”
However, the same qualities that make the Beatles so beloved can also make covering their songs demanding.
“You’ve got to play it exactly like the Beatles played it, because everyone knows it,” Shamus said. “You can’t just improvise … so it’s kind of a burden. I mean, it’s a labor of love, but it’s also a burden on us that we’ve got to play it right, because people in the audience are expecting to hear it like they remember it.”
Shamus said his band draws more from the high-energy, danceable Beatles catalog; no one wants to hear “The Long and Winding Road” at a backyard birthday party. It’s an impressive pace, considering some gigs last four hours.
“There’s no such thing as being tired,” Shamus said. “And then the adrenaline and the music kind of keep you going. You don’t realize you’re tired until you’re packing up.”
It’s the love of the music that serves as the primary motivator for Shamus and his bandmates. Shamus runs a software company as his day job; the other musicians also have full-time work outside of music. They still find time to rehearse regularly, though, both to give the Beatles songs the attention they deserve—but also because they genuinely enjoy it.
“When I was in a (regular) cover band, I’m playing the songs for the audience, really. In the Beatles band, I’m playing the songs for me,” Shamus said. “I mean, I’m the one having the fun, and I think that it comes across in our music.”
Learn more at www.beatlesflashback.com.
Faith ReNo More
Of all the motivations to start and perform in a band that plays other people’s music, sometimes it’s just a matter of getting your friends together and playing the music that genuinely inspires you.
To Ben Holsclaw and his bandmates Brian Walden, Shaolin Gates, Nick Bashaw and Vince Gates (also of The Floyd), San Francisco rock band Faith No More provided such an opportunity. Holsclaw, like most of the musicians in this article, was a musician from an early age. He was originally a trumpet player—until hearing Iron Maiden in the fourth grade made him put down the brass and pick up the guitar.
He played in local original bands Convicted Innocence and Tasty Red Snapper for years until having kids and the realities of a day job made touring, writing and performing harder to schedule.
“We really wanted to be able to perform, but, you know, doing original music is quite a bit more work,” Holsclaw said. “And, sadly, it can be a little less rewarding when you’re getting in front of people.”
In 2017, the band members followed through on an idea they’d had to form a Faith No More cover band. To Holsclaw, the variety and intricacy of the band’s catalog had always been a major draw for his musical sensibilities. Not knowing what to expect, they sat down for an initial rehearsal to see what might happen.
“I will always remember that first practice,” Holsclaw said. “I started singing, and I got through the first verse, and I look up, and Brian has the stupidest grin on his face. And Vince is just sitting there smiling. I was like, ‘OK, this is going to work musically. This is going to be really fun.’”
COVID-19 lockdowns had a hand in stopping Faith ReNo More from booking gigs for a while. Holsclaw readily admits that his band hasn’t been great at prioritizing finding shows to play—although they have encountered clubs that are less inclined to book cover acts due to the associated BMI/ASCAP fees they need to pay to host copyrighted music. While he hopes to book more shows this year, he also said it’s not really about playing as much as they can as it is about having a vehicle to perform when they want to—and to put on a great show when they do.
“During those times when the band’s not really touring. or we’re not really doing anything musical, for me, there’s a hole there,” Holsclaw said. “I really like writing music; I don’t think I’m super great at it, but it’s fun. But for me, (it’s about) the performance. It’s fun to get up onstage and really just kind of throw it out there.”
Holsclaw said the band is as much a tribute to the musicianship of his friends and bandmates as it is to Faith No More, and he relishes the chance to play live as a creative outlet.
“I have a hard time getting out of my own shell,” he said. “The stage kind of gives me an excuse to do that without really any major repercussions. Music is music, tribute band or not. Music has really given me an opportunity to meet a bunch of people who have been lifelong friends. We’ve had some really great moments up onstage.”
Learn more at www.facebook.com/FaithReNoMore.