At one time, tribute acts were a novelty, often pulling in more concert-goers than original bands or nostalgia acts from the era to which they pay homage.
The best ones – like the Chapel Hill-based Who’s Bad tribute to Michael Jackson – still do well, but attendance is down for many of their peers. The Fillmore, for instance, gives away stacks of tickets to many of its tribute shows, and Amos’ Southend is trying to lure fans to its tribute shows with free monthly food truck events.
Badfish may be the last tribute band standing. As a tribute to Sublime – the SoCal reggae-hip-hop-rock stoner favorite whose singer Brad Nowell died of a heroin overdose right before the release of the group’s breakthrough album – Badfish still attracts near sell-out crowds. It returns to Amos’ with Less Than Jake next Wednesday.
“I think we’ve lost some of our crowd a little bit, too,” says frontman Joel Hanks. “I think, unfortunately, less people are going out to see live music. There’s been a generation of kids that are going to see DJs. I feel like that’s starting to decline, but for a few years there, in the college market, our numbers were way down.
“With our music, there is a lot more regeneration of new fans. Sixteen and 17-year-olds get introduced to Sublime for the first time and that helps us sustain.”
Spin Magazine reported in 2006 that Rhode Island-based Badfish grossed $1.4 million, which was practically unheard of for a tribute band. That was before the surviving members of Sublime – Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh – re-formed Sublime with Rome Ramirez under the name Sublime with Rome. It still tours (though Gaugh has since departed).
While some music fans snub their noses at the idea of seeing any band other than the original, there’s something different about how Badfish is perceived.
“It’s become a culture for the fans. The people that are coming are so excited about the music,” Hanks says, adding that Badfish doesn’t dress up as Sublime. They simply play the songs with a similar vibe. “We grew up in that culture – on the beach, just on the East Coast. It’s not the same, but it’s similar.”
That perception explains the current tour it’s doing with ska-punk veterans Less Than Jake – an original group that’s worked the Warped Tour circuit for two decades. It marks the first time Badfish has toured with an established original band, whom it met on the 311 Cruise.
“They were one of my favorite bands growing up,” says Hanks. “We thought we should try a couple shows together and see how it works for both bands. Some bands don’t want to play with a tribute band. There’s that whole stigma of ‘we’re too cool for that.’ ”
Teaming up with a veteran act seems to be a way to break down the barrier between tributes and originals while expanding both groups’ audiences.
“The hope is that each band is going to make new fans and get introduced to different people,” he says. “(Less Than Jake) were saying a lot of their fans are my age – 30 to 35. Ours is a younger crowd. Sublime’s music is being passed down. We’re sort of lucky with that.”
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