Tribute bands find eager fans in Syracuse

Central New York is a hotbed of tribute performances, but the trend depends on where you're seeing the show.

When he’s performing on stage, musician Jon Braun isn’t himself. While dozens of rock singers might cop to the same sentiment (Bono especially), Braun’s loss of self has nothing to do with entering a trance or reaching a higher spiritual plane upon seeing 200 fans cheering him on. It’s more about playing a part.

Photo: Melanie Smith, from
Jon Braun channels Talking Heads frontman David Byrne live onstage with his band, Start Making Sense.

Braun leads the seven-piece band Start Making Sense, a live tribute act to 20th-century art-rock heroes Talking Heads. He assumes the role of erratic singer David Byrne right down to the beige suit and boyish haircut. But becoming David Byrne demands rigorous research and investigation, he said.

“When we started, I probably watched [Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film] Stop Making Sense more than any human should,” Braun said.

Despite a few lineup changes, the band has been playing together for five years — remarkable for a group that writes no original music and doesn’t sell branded T-shirts after its shows. But the Bethlehem, Penn.-based group has found success touring the Northeast and even down into Florida. Bigger cities tend to have more Talking Heads fans receptive to their act, Braun said, but smaller cities and towns appreciate them, too. Audiences there are just happy to see anything live.

“Most live music works in smaller markets because if it’s good, people love it,” Braun said. “Not that many bands come through smaller markets.”

For reference, Syracuse is a medium-sized market, Braun said. But Syracuse is geographically positioned such that tribute bands can have big nights here with hundreds of people in attendance. In the past month alone, four different tribute acts have played in Syracuse, while nearby Ithaca has hosted three of its own. Both cities have more booked through December.

Start Making Sense is slated for a Nov. 29 show at Syracuse’s Westcott Theater, with HMFO — a Hall and Oates-themed project featuring the same members — opening.

This all points to a larger question: Why do so many tribute bands opt to perform in Central New York? Local promoter Eric Binion, who co-runs the Upstate Shows booking and promotion company, said it’s simply what the market wants.

“The music scene overall in Syracuse is really strong on all ends,” Binion said in an email. “Our tribute shows just seem to fit well into our regular programming, and it reflects well overall on ticket sales.”

This fall, Binion booked Battery, a Metallica tribute act; Solar Garlic, a Phish tribute act; and Pink Talking Fish, a hybrid act that plays Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish songs in tandem. The events were well attended, Binion said. In the past, Binion has also brought the Sublime tribute act Badfish to Syracuse for sold-out performances.

But Dan Smalls, an Ithaca promoter who runs Dan Smalls Presents, has booked Badfish, too, only to find the opposite: completely unreceptive audiences. Smalls brought Badfish to Ithaca clubs but ended up in the red, despite the mere 56-mile gap between that city and Syracuse.

It’s not a reggae prejudice, either; both The Pink Floyd Experience and Get The Led Out, a Led Zeppelin-rooted tribute act, haven’t sold well or drawn large crowds either. It comes down to regional taste, Smalls said, and Syracuse crowds prefer a different type of live music than their counterparts in Ithaca.

“Maybe there’s more population up there [in Syracuse], but these people [in Ithaca] are very loyal to true musicians writing their own stuff,” Smalls said. In other words, no tribute bands allowed.

While geographic musical preferences are a huge component of successful booking, the full scope of any live act’s success depends on a few other factors, Smalls said. Most promoters utilize what’s called a “radius clause,” a type of non-compete agreement that prevents bands from booking shows with other promoters in the same market for a certain period of time. That’s why you won’t see the real Metallica hop from Buffalo to Rochester to Syracuse in a three-night sweep.

For tribute bands, radius clauses can be a bit looser. Start Making Sense, for example, is booked in Rochester the night before they play the Westcott. But tribute acts do tend to avoid more than two shows per year in a given market for two main reasons, Smalls said: to prevent saturating the market, and to plant interest for follow-up shows.

“In the end, it’s a business, and they come where they can make money,” Smalls said.

Dark Star Orchestra, courtesy of the band's Facebook page.

The great exception to all this is Chicago’s Dark Star Orchestra (or DSO), an act Smalls referred to as an “anomaly.” Fittingly, DSO is a tribute to the band that proved that relentless touring could be the foundation to build a legacy upon: the Grateful Dead. Both Smalls and Binion have booked DSO for upcoming shows at their respective Central New York venues.

“I think Dark Star is just relentless like the Dead were,” Smalls said. “I think that helps. Dark Star is an anomaly for Ithaca for sure. The Dead were an anomaly in general.”

When DSO plays Syracuse, the shows sell out. When they roll through Ithaca, the shows are well attended, and not just for a tribute act. DSO plans to play both by early December. Meanwhile, cities like Buffalo, Albany, Poughkeepsie and even Jamestown have DSO booked through the end of November.

Back in Syracuse, DSO and Start Making Sense will just miss each other, with the former arriving two days after the latter has already moved on to Pittsburgh. At the Westcott, Braun is poised to approximate David Byrne’s yelping baritone as his band’s rhythm section — two guitars, two drum kits, a keyboard and a bass — creates a swirling, symphonic groove behind him. The crowd can’t bring the experience home with them on CD, but that’s not the point of going to see a tribute band, Braun said.

“If you take away the visuals and the art and the Dadaist approach to everything, Talking Heads’ underlying rhythms are very upbeat and very danceable,” he said. “So the more we go toward those live versions, the more it becomes a dance party. The live stuff makes you want to dance.”

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