L.A. is the tribute band capital of America. Don’t believe us? Just head down to Paladino’s in the Valley any weekend and you’ll be treated a parade of doppelganger acts with names like Open Arms (Journey tribute), Hammer of the Broads (all-female Zeppelin tribute) and Stoned Temple Pilots (a tribute, we presume, to Scott Weiland’s lost years).
Most are these tribute acts and cover bands are the short-lived side projects of local studio musicians, guitar techs and hobbyists. But a select few have built full-fledged careers upon the bands, genres and eras that inspired them.
Here, we’ve ranked 20 of the best, using a highly technical and scientific set of standards that we won’t explain because you wouldn’t understand them anyway. Suffice it to say that each of these tribute bands combines mimicry, creativity, showmanship and, in some cases, silliness to provide a club-sized live experience nearly as awesome as their arena-sized source material.
20. Skapeche Mode
Skapeche Mode does an excellent job of “ruining both the eighties and ska” — as they say on their Facebook page — with their cross-wired mix of romantic Depeche Mode covers and rockin’, pogo-worthy ska arrangements. The band features some seasoned ska players — including two original members of Save Ferris — and their goofy music reportedly helped lift singer Kebin “Skrince” Smith out of a depression. Theirs is a wonderfully sacrilegious approach, and the measure of how much you like what they do is probably relative to how much you take music seriously in general. — Peter Holslin
19. Hollywood Stones
Nobody “Moves Like Jagger,” really, but Dick Swagger comes close. The long-time Mick impersonator (known for his previous band Sticky Fingers) has the mouth, the mojo and, most importantly, the vocal chops to channel the most bodacious frontman in rock & roll. As with the real Stones, it’s not all about the lead singer; Swagger and his “Glimmer Twin” Keef Riffoff have the rapport (and tension) required to make this tribute roll. Hollywood Stones focus on the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s-era Rolling Stones catalog, and often tour nationally. Ripping every joint they play and getting rocks off way beyond Hollywood, this tribute is pure satisfaction for Stones fans. — Lina Lecaro
18. Dead Man’s Party
Of L.A.’s many beloved-but-defunct ’80s-era bands, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo seem least likely to ever reunite, thanks to frontman Danny Elfman’s wildly successful career as a film composer. So this OC-based eight-piece tribute crew is as close as SoCal Boingo fans can get to reliving the days when “Only a Lad” and “Weird Science” were in heavy KROQ rotation. Led by Elfman sound-alike Rob Elfaizy (we really hope that’s his real name), the band has been “officially Elfo-recommended” by Danny’s brother, Boingo-co-founder Richard, for their faithful, horn-fueled recreation of the band’s early ’80s heyday. — Andy Hermann
Members of this campy outfit also play in a Go-Go’s cover band called The Gay-Gay’s, but it makes much more sense that they’d pair feather boas and glitter with the stiff riffs of Australia’s most iconic pack o’ dudes. Onstage, GayC/DC inserts all the obvious and necessary jokes into AC/DC hits like “Big Balls” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” reworking them as pelvic-thrust-worthy power jams for the gay bar set. The band boasts an impressive collection of outfits — including trashy cocktail dresses and enormous wigs — and they spit their lyrics with extra sass. Because there’s nothing more homoerotic than testosterone-charged rock ’n’ roll, amirite? — Peter Holslin
Building your ’80s cover band around a Back to the Future theme is almost too obvious, but The Flux Capacitors take the whole time-traveling shtick to such goofy extremes that we can’t help but give them props (and have done so before). Arriving at gigs in an actual DeLorean and dressed up as characters from the film, including Marty on vocals and Doc on guitar, they lay down both B2TF soundtrack hits and contemporaneous classics like “Walk Like an Egyptian” with geeky aplomb. Not surprisingly, they’re perennial favorites at retro-themed joints like New Wave Restaurant & Bar, where they’re sometimes joined onstage by actual ’80s survivors like When in Rome’s Clive Farrington. — Andy Hermann
Krammpstein emerge to cause a rumpus in L.A. clubs around Christmas time, attacking the music of German electro-metalers Rammstein, and leaving fans traumatized and tantalized in their wake. With former members in Green Jello in the macabre mix, the theatricality and stage production here is a given, but they’re also sonically fiendish, bludgeoning intricate licks and rhythmic lashings with biting holiday-in-hell lyrics. Still, it’s the creepy costumes and props (cookies! cages!) that make these head-banging creatures’ show so killer, it haunts your nightmares all year long. — Lina Lecaro
14. Undead Kennedys
It’s zombies doing Dead Kennedys covers. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Led by Dukey Flyswatter of venerable L.A. horror-punks Haunted Garage and featuring members of the Radioactive Chicken Heads, Undead Kennedys seldom play out, except around Halloween. But when they do, expect a ghoulishly good time, as they unleash appropriately unhinged renditions of DK classics, often rewritten (“Too Dead to Fuck”) to better suit the brain-eating crowd. — Andy Hermann
13. Black Sabbitch
When it comes to reproducing the majestic gloom of Sabbath in a reverent way, these are the baddest bitches out there. The all-female tribute band are sticklers when it comes to capturing every sinister nuance just as it was recorded and rendering them in a live setting. It’s truly a trip to watch drummer Angie Scarpa brutalize the kit, and guitarist Blare N. Bitch (formerly of Betty Blowtorch) is hands-down one of the most mesmerizing guitar players in L.A., period, not just among tribute bands. With the addition of singer Aimee Echo (The Start) last year, these faeries with boots kicked their wicked sound into a new realm of darkness that’s now more relentless than ever. — Lina Lecaro
12. Damage Inc.
Ain’t nothing fancy about Damage Inc. The Metallica tribute band — not to be mistaken with Damaged Inc. from England, who also take their name from the final track on Master of Puppets — simply dishes out badass ’Tallica tunes on stages across SoCal. They aren’t discriminating about the thrash-metal elders’ somewhat divisive discography. They’ll play a classic like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” but also a later-period hit like “Fuel,” and they’ll play both with equal fury. Because sometimes you just want to bang your head and not worry about metal politics. (Bonus points to singer/guitarist Christopher Knight for looking a little like James Hetfield.) — Peter Holslin
11. Hell’s Belles
The ladies of Hell’s Belles are as evil and electric as prime-era AC/DC in pretty much every way: vociferous wails, big ballsy beats (which have nothing to do with anatomy) and raging riffs that are as appealing as they are imposing. Only one Belle, guitarist Sharon Needles, lives in Los Angeles — the rest reside in Seattle — but they take the highway to Hell-A enough to have a major fan base here. Singer Amber Saxon does both Bon and Brian proud, while axe vixen Adrian Conner’s A+ turn as Angus is spazzy schoolgirl awesomeness. And any band smart enough to pin down Needles (another founding member of legendary L.A. rockers Betty Blowtorch) can definitely shake us all night long. — Lina Lecaro
Re-creating Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie in all his kooky, glam glory wouldn’t work without a captivating, far-out frontman. And The Band That Fell to Earth got one: sensuous singer Julian Shah-Tayler (of The Singularity). He pulls off the orange-red wig and the skintight alien chic, but more importantly, Tayler captures Bowie’s onstage charisma, even chattering in character in between numbers. His vocals are spot-on, especially on the Ziggy and Hunky Dory stuff, but he’s good enough to add his own new little inflections here and there, too. With skilled Spiders from Mars-alikes providing a solid cosmic backdrop, this mock Moonage Daydream makes us freak out every time. — Lina Lecaro
Tribute bands don’t get any more high-concept than this so-wrong-it’s-right collision of Led Zeppelin and Jamaican grooves, fronted by a Fat Elvis impersonator named Tortelvis. Amazingly, they’ve been at it for over 25 years, continuing to defile every corner of the Zeppelin catalog with skankin’ grooves and Elvis jokes: “Heartbreaker” gets mashed up with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Black Dog” morphs into “Hound Dog”… you get the idea. They just released their 15th (!) album, SoSo, which even manages to give the John Bonham drum showcase “Moby Dick” a reggae makeover. — Andy Hermann
From leather jackets to vintage synths, Strangelove’s tribute to Depeche Mode is heavy on the details and made for hardcore Modies. Singer Freddie “Devotional Dave” Morales not only does a spot-on impersonation of Dave Gahan’s croon, he nails the hip-swivels. Once he grabs that microphone stand and spins, you will question your ability to tell the difference between the tribute band and the real thing. Strangelove’s resemblance, both visually and sonically, to Depeche Mode is frightening. The main difference: Where Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode 20 years ago, Alan Wildest (Dave Sepe) still hits the stage with Strangelove. — Liz Ohanesian
The alter ego of comedy writer Mark Jonathan Davis, Richard Cheese cornered the market on lounge lizard versions of rock anthems. Rising to infamy when KROQ picked up his campy jazz cover of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” Cheese went on to swankify every genre imaginable: hip-hop, diva pop, punk, metal, disco, etc. When it comes to the “Lounge Against the Machine”-era music that started it all, he’s clearly had the last laugh too, proving to have more longevity then a lot of the nu-metal acts he covered. Some health and medical issues saw the crooner take a hiatus from performing and recording the past couple years, but thankfully, Cheese is in full recovery and ready to melt (m)asses once again. — Lina Lecaro
Recently reunited after a lengthy hiatus, Nudist Priest, the naked Judas Priest cover band, began as a dare. Lead guitarist and vocalist John Ramirez was bantering with some female musicians when they issued a challenge: “If you do Nudist Priest, we’ll do ZZ Topless.” The girls chickened out, but Ramirez held up his end of the bargain. Playing naked only made drummer Matt Stein nervous on a few occasions, he says — like as the time his father-in-law, an actual priest, introduced the band. Then there was the time that Spaceland, whose promoters apparently didn’t realize that the band actually would take it all off, slapped them with a lifetime ban and sparked fears of arrest. The plan for their upcoming summer shows is to be true to their name — but hopefully without breaking the law. — L.J. Williamson
Technically a parody act, not a tribute band, but too awesome to leave off this list, Steel Panther offer up such a pitch-perfect spoof of ‘80s hair metal that actual fans of Poison and Mötley Crüe might think they’re for real. Of course Steel Panther is totally over the top, serving up masturbatory guitar solos alongside winking wordplay, gratuitous sexism, and even some disgusting scrotal sight gags in the video for their song “Pussywhipped.” And yet they also make for a loving homage, as they power through arena-ready hooks and David Lee Roth squeals while decked out in tacky outfits and plenty of hairspray. It’s a brilliant approach, underscoring just how much of a joke hair metal was in the first place. — Peter Holslin
Metalachi roll metal and mariachi music together into a big zesty burrito with just the right amount of heat. Like the most garish ’80s glam bands, they don painted faces and wigs; they just top ‘em off with sombreros, and sometimes fancy polyester too. The shtick works because the guys are skilled mariachis, especially their horn and violin players, who attack their solos like Speedy Gonzalez meets Slash. They built a following playing Skinny’s in NoHo, but the band always made the most sense on the Strip. In fact, they should really get a residency at El Compadre across the street from Guitar Center. Their renditions of Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Guns n’ Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” would go over muy bueno with some flaming margaritas. — Lina Lecaro
Attempting to replicate the immense theatrics of an Iron Maiden concert is a very daunting task. But since their formation in 2001, this all-female tribute’s ability to scale down the Iron Maiden experience to a smaller stage has allowed their wings to spread far beyond Los Angeles, including tours of Japan, Australia, South America and Europe. The musical contributions of current and former members spread beyond the Iron Maiden realm as well, with drummer Linda MacDonald having previous experience in local ‘90s shredders Phantom Blue, and other members moving on to perform with acts as diverse as Alice Cooper and Blue Man Group. — Jason Roche
No average musician can just waltz onstage and imitate Morrissey. But if anybody can exude the same outsider charisma and raw sex appeal as the all-powerful Moz, it’s Jose Maldonado of Sweet and Tender Hooligans. The Mexican-American singer co-founded this legendary Smiths/Morrissey group way back in 1992, and throughout the ’90s he built a devoted cult following among Latino Morrissey fans from L.A.’s Eastside. Today the Hooligans are regarded as masters of Smiths tributedom, and this reputation certainly has a lot to do with the band’s glimmer-y guitar tones and unfussy onstage style. But really, it’s all about Maldonado’s own star power — not to mention his beautifully resonant voice and handsome pompadour. — Peter Holslin
1. Mac Sabbath
Heavy music, like heavy food, is best consumed voraciously and without much thought. But the McGenius behind Mac Sabbath is that they obviously put a lot of thought and skill into their quirky musical cookery, which roasts greasy fast-food corporations as much as it pays tribute to the pummeling rock of Ozzy and Sabbath. Like many gimmick-driven grinders, the members shroud themselves in secret sauce. Mike Odd of local costumed rock legends Rosemary’s Billygoat is involved, which explains Mac’s ferocious metallic flavor and demented props. From their elaborate super-sized costumes (Grimalice, the Catburglar, and Slayer McCheeze back up creepy clown crooner Ronald Osbourne) to their clever, freak-fried takes on Sabbath’s lyrics (“Pair-A-Buns” to the tune of “Paranoid” and “Frying Pan” to tune of “Iron Man”), these happy meal menaces sizzle live, and always serve up more than the empty calories of most cover bands. — Lina Lecaro