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The Joshua Tree
Sharing a moment, Jason James Thiesen and Charles Alm, members of the Joshua Tree, a U2 tribute band, exude an energy only diehard U2 fans can understand. Don’t be fooled, these eerie look-alikes are only pretending to be the real thing.
Cover Story:
Hey, Hey, My, My ... Rock 'n' Roll ...
Can Never Die

There's more to the tribute than meets the eye ... and if imitation is the sinerest form of flattery, these bands are right
on target.

It is 1973 once again; Led Zeppelin is still at the height of its game—John “Bonzo” Bonham is alive and drumming—and the band has enticed a generation of heavy metal followers, sealing its fate in rock ‘n’ roll history. Robert Plant, blues man extraordinaire and iconic voice behind Zeppelin’s fame, shouts, “You’ve given us a whole lot of gosh-darn love, and I think it’s only fair that we give you a whole lot of gosh-darn love,” before wildly shaking his mass of blond curls and rewarding fans gathered at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana with a much-needed dose of “Whole Lotta Love.”

Flash forward to 1977, as Queen basks in “News of the World’s” success. Freddie Mercury, arguably the world’s most flamboyant front man, known for excessive stage antics and operatic vocalizations, disappears backstage for a last minute wardrobe change. Returning in a black and white spandex jumpsuit that literally has no secrets, he prepares to officially rock the house. The Galaxy fills with the thunderous sound of hundreds of simultaneous foot stomps and handclaps, as fans anxiously anticipate the infamous first verse of “We Will Rock You.” Just when the crowd can take no more, Mercury begins, “Buddy, you’re a boy . . .”

Proceed to the millennium. After a full 30 plus song set, U2 returns for an encore in the small, intimate setting of the Hard Rock Café in Los Angeles. Fans shout out a variety of requests ranging from typical hits to more obscure rarities, and settling on “Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of,” Bono leaps off the stage to serenade a fan named Tracy. Standing within inches of her, he sings, “You are such a fool, to worry like you do” before turning, microphone in hand, and parting the crowd like Moses at the Red Sea.

For these reporters, two of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll addicts you will ever meet, the past few months have been a crazy time warp of chance encounters with bands our worlds were built upon long ago. Standing front and center, we bared witness to the burgeoning art of the tribute band; affordable entertainment made possible by diehard fans—turned professional impersonators—dedicated to recreating their idols’ sights and sounds. So what if the men performing on this nostalgic trip were only posers? They were close enough to bring the past to life.

“In My Time of Dying”: Keeping the Magic Alive

In 1981, unwilling fans said goodbye to rock’s black magic metal gods when Led Zeppelin announced its official disbanding, following the untimely death of John “Bonzo” Bonham—drummer like no other—the man who put the sound of thunder behind Plant’s soulful squeals. But, fortunately, goodbye is not always forever; David “Swan” Montgomery, who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Plant, joined “Led Zepagain,” the foremost Zeppelin tribute, in 1989, to honor the band he grew up worshipping. The magic was reborn. Montgomery, who had often been compared to Plant, gladly filled the timeless singer’s hard-to-fill shoes with the intent of establishing a name for himself as a solo artist in the music industry. “I thought it would be a great challenge to take on the mighty Zeppelin,” Montgomery says. “All of us infuse ourselves into the performances, but we aren’t trying to be Zeppelin. We just want to keep the magic and the spirit alive.”

Although Montgomery does not attempt to completely embody Plant while onstage, he instead opts to combine his own musical spirit with that of the legend. Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page himself said the band was entirely true to form—completely “inside the music”—and fans rave about Zepagain’s ability to capture the essence of a Zeppelin show.

“Dancing Days Are Here Again”: A Journey in Zeppelin’s Footsteps

Zeppelin’s undeniable spirit is alive at the Galaxy. Fog filters through the air, mixing and mingling with the faint, sickly-sweet scent of Mary Jane, creating a mystical haze of music. Thin beams of red, green, and blue lights bounce off nameless faces in the crowd. Montgomery effortlessly oozes sexuality in his skintight bell-bottom jeans. Strutting across the stage of the Galaxy, he could easily be mistaken for the British Plant, as he croons the most prevailing notes of the bluesy “Your Time is Gonna Come.” Between shouts of “Can you dig it?” and “Let me feel you,” he is true to every lip pout, hip swagger and rhythmically inspired hand clap ever witnessed by the likes of Plant.

Vibrations run through the crowd. Kari Storm, a Garden Grove resident strategically positioned near the speakers, says she is celebrating her friend’s birthday by “rocking out.” She plays air guitar while whispering that Montgomery sounds just like Plant. “This song is perfect for all the bullshit that is going on in the world today,” Montgomery shouts over the deafening noise, “In the immortal words of Robert Plant at Madison Square Garden in 1973, ‘This is a song of hope, and hope is what we need right now.’ ”

In 1977, guitarist Steve Zukowsky first experienced the magic sounds of Zeppelin at one of the band’s final concerts in the United States and, immediately inspired, rushed home to learn “Over the Hills and Far Away.” “I remember how much of a presence Led Zeppelin had and how in awe the audience was,” Zukowsky says as he recalls his-first Zeppelin experience. “Everyone knew that they were really something special.” Zukowsky is now a virtual guitar master, wearing replica black, space-themed bell-bottoms and a matching jacket. Jumping atop a large speaker, Zukowsky whips out his violin bow to attack his guitar in classic Page fashion, and does not stop playing until the horsehairs hang loose and ragged, worn out from riff after unbelievably accurate riff. Meanwhile, Montgomery makes a production of orchestrating each thunderous “wah-wah” from Zukowsky’s guitar. Bassist Jim Wootten, in a white 1970s style suit, captures the versatility of John Paul Jones, skillfully covering bass, keyboards, mandolin and acoustic six and 12-string guitars. And drummer Jim Kersey could be Bonham incarnate, wearing Bonzo’s headband across his long, dark brown-black hair. “Besides setting the standard for all heavy rock bands to follow, Zeppelin won my heart when the band called it quits after the tragic death of Bonham,” Kersey says. “They could have searched for a replacement but opted to disband, giving Zeppelin one of the most innovative drummers his place in rock and roll history.”

“Whole Lotta Love”: The Inspiration for Imitation

Montgomery, Zukowsky, Wootten and Kersey play roles while on stage, but there is nothing fake about their musical talent. Fans likely close their eyes and fantasize that they are at a live Zeppelin concert circa the early years. It is evident that Montgomery and crew have studied everything from the legendary “The Song Remains the Same” to “No Quarter,” a recording from a Plant/Page Reunion Tour.

As of today, the band can perform 90 percent of Zeppelin’s catalogue on cue; rarities, b-sides and all. In fact, the band refuses to perform the same set twice. Zepagain’s efforts allow fans to experience historically memorable moments in Zeppelin’s career time and time again. “I think that tribute bands introduce the music to a whole new generation, especially the likes of Zeppelin, the Doors or The Who,” Montgomery says. “Kids nowadays will never have the opportunity to see any of those bands live again.” “The success of tribute bands goes along with the fact that younger people are starting to listen to classic rock, “ Zukowsky adds. “And we’re the closest that they’ll ever get to actually seeing the real Zeppelin.”

“It’s been said that it all comes down to the songs, and this is true for the most successful tribute bands,” Kersey modestly says in an attempt to explain Zepagain’s success. Zeppelin left behind a catalogue of mystically inspired songs, rich in imagery and extremely powerful in instrumentation. Dave Comer, a city of Orange resident and a Zeppelin fan since witnessing his first show at the Forum in 1977, says he has seen Zepagain at least eight times, and that there is no comparison. “There is, of course, no substitute for the real thing, but what I like about Zepagain is something the original Zep didn’t do so much,” Comer says. “They stay true to the album cuts while Zeppelin changed them a bit live. What Zepagain does is more difficult because of the multi-layered guitar on the records, using lots of different effects and instruments to achieve different sounds.”

“The Show Must Go On”

A fan base of millions worldwide mourned the loss of a sound and presence unmatched by any other band in rock history when Freddie Mercury, who set the standard for spandex and makeup-wearing glam rockers, fell victim to AIDS on Nov. 24, 1991. Queen did not disband, instead choosing to continue onward in tribute of the man behind its slew of vocally diverse arena anthems and orchestral hits—unknowingly encouraging at least five diehard fans to follow suit.

“They really raised the bar with what you could do with 1970s recording studio technology,” Under Pressure bassist Beau Landry says. “Also, they seriously pushed the envelope of what rock was; they managed to be ‘progressive’ without being ‘prog’ and also rocked without being ‘rock.’ ”

“I Want to Break Free”: We Will Mock You ...

It is a rawhide infested, sunny day for rocking on Santa Monica Boulevard, home of gay pride and many a Queen fan as the annual street festival gives way to crowds of men wearing little more than strategically placed strips of black leather, dangling chains and an occasional pair of ass-less chaps, along with one lone woman, topless if not for the rainbow stickers conveniently covering her breasts. They are gathered for the solitary purpose of spreading love and sexual awareness amid roaring guitar riffs. DiMaria screeches, “Got my timin' right, I got my act all tight” as he launches into “Tie Your Mother Down,” beckoning a sea of men toward the stage and unquestionably conveying Queen’s mass appeal. He takes on the personality of Freddie Mercury, in which everyone is a “doll,” and any stage becomes an orchestra pit at the mere sound of his high-pitched and far-reaching vocals. Mercury is a man DiMaria refers to as “the greatest front-man who ever lived.”

Standing back-to-back with guitarist Vin Amorando, DiMaria invites audience members to “give him all their love tonight,” as he turns his microphone into a makeshift guitar, cementing the first lengthy wire choir riff notoriously linked to May’s trademark sound. Later, working a power fist through the air, DiMaria—adorned in leather pants and a matching cap—sings “I Want to Break Free” and prances like a pony across the stage. Darting on and off stage during instrumental sequences of drums, bass, guitar and keyboard, he changes twice in 45 minutes but has about 10 costumes waiting in the wings for longer sets. Black and white spandex, sequins and lots of leather—a wardrobe worth more than $1,000, which is deemed necessary for authenticity’s sake in the tribute world.

Amorando, a May-look-alike in his wig of black curls, tears at his Red Special guitar, capturing the legend’s tendency to layer chords and setting the pace of DiMaria’s energetic swaggers and twirls. Landry, semi-formally dressed in a suit jacket and black jeans, offsets Amorando’s power chords with a few John Deacon-inspired riffs of his own. Shapiro even mimics every Roger Taylor “hi-hat,” a trademark drumbeat seemingly only significant to professionals, fans, or an exceptional combination of the two. “The way Roger utilizes his hi-hat skills is very unique,” Shapiro says. “I like the way he accents his snare hits with an open hi-hat. I always did that as well and actually thought I made it up until I heard Roger back in 1973 on Queen’s first album. I knew at that point that he was going to be my hero.”

“We are the Champions”: An Under Pressure History

Under Pressure formed in 2003 when four Queen lovers, united by an online ad placed by Amorando calling for skilled musicians to participate in a “casual cover band,” discovered an instant connection and decided to tackle the growing tribute scene. “I think it was Chuck who said, ‘You know, tributes are big now, so why don’t we form a Queen band?’” Amorando says. Landry, who says he joined Under Pressure with the intention of earning a substantial living playing music, soon discovered that the tribute scene was more than it was mocked up to be—not only was the band celebrating Queen’s legacy with fans, but also reintroducing ever-lasting “true” rock ‘n’ roll, to the diminishing music scene. “We know we are not Queen,” Landry says. “We’re fans just like the audience members and we worship right along with them.” Determination factors into accurate portrayals of the Queen gamut—from the money invested in Amorando’s signature Brian May guitars and Freddie’s hard-to-find costumes—all of which DiMaria has custom-made by a designer who specializes in spandex—to the time spent honing the glam band’s unique sound.

Under Pressure is not in it for money, but for the glory of reliving Queen’s historical catalogue of music. “I play the music that has inspired and moved me for 20 years with guys who ‘get it’ and whom I’d call my closest friends,” Amorando says. “The money is nice when it’s there, but I was digging this just as much when gigs cost us money to play.”

As an aspiring actor, DiMaria holds performance art in high regard, giving his all to recreating Queen’s rock ‘n’ roll mayhem. “I try to do as much as I can,” he says after acknowledging the fact that he may never match Mercury’s distinctive vibratos, a result of the former lead singer’s Parsi descent. DiMaria says the preparation that goes into capturing the minute details of every performance, such as the time spent rehearsing scenes that fans expect to see re-enacted onstage. “With music, it’s all about the live performance,” DiMaria says. “Everything you do is geared toward that. With the tribute band, it’s a live performance with a definite vision in mind for what it needs to be in order to make the entire experience as real as possible for the audience. Just as Queen’s members once were, the men behind Under Pressure are driven by perfection. “From Freddie’s showmanship and Brian’s ‘wire choir’ guitar harmonies, to the size of their lighting and stage setups, Queen constantly forged new ground,” Amorando says. “Above all else, even their technical prowess, was the passion behind their re-cords and live shows. Brian could have easily rested on his laurels early on, but kept pushing himself.”

“I would hope that if any of the surviving members of Queen ever saw an Under Pressure show, they would see the sincerity behind the performance,” DiMaria says. Whether band members invite 20 women onstage to dance during “Fat-Bottomed Girls” or transform any venue they grace into a stomping-ground inspired by a now notorious sports arena anthem, they never fail to supply the goods—proving that they are, in fact, champions of imitation. Though DiMaria and crew would be the last to credit themselves with delivering dead-on performances, fans are quick to applaud and celebrate the band’s precision on a regular basis. "Having seen Queen live in 1981, all I can say is that Under Pressure is the real deal,” Maria Gonzalez, a longtime fan from Santa Monica, says. “Chuck's Freddie is so uncanny, I get chills every time I see him perform.”

Will the real U2 please stand up?

“I always said that if I never made it in the music business, I wanted to be in a U2 tribute band,” says Jason James Thiesen, lead singer of The Joshua Tree, as he stands onstage at the Hard Rock decked out in head-to-toe Bono garb. “At that time, there were no tribute bands. In the last four to five years, tribute bands have become really popular. People cannot always afford tickets to see the real deal, so they come to see us, and that’s the next best thing.”

A “JT Fix”: The Loudest Live Act You’ll Ever See

Mirroring Bono’s typical mannerisms, Thiesen maneuvers between fans, forming connections and providing photo opportunities as he stops to serenade a select, lucky few with a dead-on rendition of “Walk On.” Jumping in the air, he tugs at the black T-shirt loosely tucked into his tight leather pants and makes love to the stage, duplicating a classic scene from U2’s “Elevation” Tour. To fans, he is the real Bono. Pushing towards the front of the stage, they attempt to get as close as humanly possible to the aura of celebrity he radiates.

The band winds through two sets, beginning in 1992 with the “Zoo TV” Tour. Guitarist Charles Alm, outfitted in a purple sleeveless shirt and trademark black beanie, never misses a riff. Drummer Michael “Larry” Kuntson dons a backward army print cap, sitting low behind his Yamaha and Paiste kit, pounding out each rhythmic beat in perfect pulsating precision. Bassist Ron “Fake Adam” Coleman, adorned in a cut-off jean vest, gray T-shirt and loose-fitting jeans, standing rigged at his post, runs his nimble fingers down the neck of his bass. Twenty minutes later, 23 years have flown by, placing fans in the midst of U2’s “Vertigo” Tour. Theisen places a straw cowboy hat on his head, as he slips on the exact same pair of translucent, blue-purple shades Bono himself owns. Coleman even goes so far as to spray paint his hair a shiny gray, with what he refers to as “Adam Hair in a Can” to portray his character’s aging process.

The band is so accurate in its portrayal of U2 that it has gained a dedicated fan base known as the JT family. “U2 fans are a breed of their own, and until you’ve been to a U2 show, you wouldn’t understand the magic and spirituality their shows entail,” says Karen Simpson, who travels both near and far from her San Diego home to see JT. “A JT performance is a miracle drug—as close to the real thing as you could possibly get.”

“Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out of”: A JT History

After countless hours spent studying DVDs, combing store shelves, and custom designing impossible-to-find items and dishing out gobs of hard-earned cash on exact, true-to-sound equipment, the Joshua Tree was born with a spritz of Christian Dior’s ”Dune,” rumored to be Bono’s signature scent. “My life used to revolve around the band, especially the first couple of years when we were getting started,” Thiesen says. “Now that things are rolling, most of my days are spent working and with my girlfriend, her kids and my son.”

“Bono was once asked during the ‘Zoo TV’ Tour what the essence of U2 was,” Thiesen adds, referencing Bono’s “Fly” period, in which he donned giant insect-like sunglasses. “He said, as the Fly with the bug shades on, ‘Four jerks and a police escort.’ Sometimes, I feel like we’re four jerks without a police escort. We’re just normal guys acting out the live shows, playing our favorite band’s music and sharing our love for U2. That’s all.”

But that is far from all. Thanks to JT, fans are able to relive significant aspects of U2’s entire touring career for an affordable price, becoming stuck in moments they cannot get out of, as Bono sings in the song of the same title, by simply attending local shows. U2 will never embark on the “Zoo TV” Tour of 1992 again, but JT might on any given night.

“Although we strive to play everything note-for-note—we want the guitar and bass tones, the drums and vocals to sound like U2—it is the spirit and passion that we try to capture that makes our shows more than just four guys copying U2,” Alm says. And as Thiesen describes, the band has even caused an intersection congestion on one occasion. “We played on a flatbed truck outside Tower Records, across the street from the San Diego Sports Arena with 91XFM,” Thiesen says. “People were stopping in traffic to see us, some thinking we were the real U2.”

From the beginning, JT members hoped to combine their eerie resemblances to the members of U2 with their passions for musical perfection—it always comes down to the music, and this band has mastered it. Alm travels with more than 10 guitars in a concentrated effort to achieve the quality and complexity of Edge’s skilled musicianship. “Chas spends an unbelievable amount of time and money trying to recreate Edge’s sound,” says Rachel Joelson, a longtime fan from Irvine. “Edge uses so many bells and whistles, that just to play one song, he needs a bunch of pedals and machines that do things like delay, filter and shimmer. Chas has to be a scientist as well as a guitarist.”

Perhaps Alm’s hard work and attention to detail is overlooked in the end, but Joelson says he prefers not to be singled out, as he instead enjoys basking in the spotlight cast on the band as a whole. “It feels amazing to step to the front of the stage for the solo of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and hear the crowd yell,” Alm says. “For that brief moment, I can feel what it’s like to really be U2 onstage, but it’s the reactions from fans when I wander through the crowd and stop to play guitar in front of them, the smiles I see when I start playing a song that someone has been yelling for all night, that make shows memorable.”

For Coleman, the music behind the success of U2 is naturally intertwined with the band’s politics and quest to go beyond the easy-come, easy-go rock ‘n’ roll cliché. “The music of U2 has been the soundtrack to my life,” Coleman says. “Music is such an emotional and spiritual thing, and when you can find an artist or band that evokes love, peace, care for your fellow man and planet Earth, making you ask the important questions, well that just makes a lot more sense to invest in than the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing.”

Despite JT’s dedication, Coleman says the band has no delusions of grandeur. “I mean, if my band were playing a gig and the real Bono walked in, do you honestly think anyone would be looking at us or giving us the time of day?” Coleman asks. “You have to stay grounded and keep it real. I have never had the pleasure of meeting the real Adam,” Coleman continues. “But I have this fantasy where I meet him, and I’m totally in wardrobe and in character, and we both stare at each other and do the mirror thing, you know? Where if he moves, I move, etcetera, then, stunned silence. He says, ‘Stop copying me.’ I say, ‘Stop copying me,” and then he says, ‘You stop copying me.’ ”

Cover vs. Tribute: The Face-off

As Montgomery softly crooned a classic verse of “Going to California”: “Don’t let no one tell you that they’re all the same,” one could not help but think that he was making some obscure reference to the difference between cover and tribute bands. At the time, true fans knew that the proceeding verse was about jet planes, but the thought remained an active little soldier in these reporters’ minds for months on end.

The importance of tribute bands may be hard to swallow for critics, who quickly label them as washed up wannabes. But there is nothing silly about middle-aged men donning costumes to honor their heroes, all for the purpose of becoming one with fans of the bands they imitate; it is really more of a magical experience. Thiesen said that cover bands are not sincere; members go through no personal trouble or sacrifice, merely covering songs rather than attempting to capture a band’s innermost presence. “A cover band is just like a house band that plays covers of a particular band or band’s music,” Thiesen said. “They don’t try to imitate the band’s sound, feel, and music note for note and do not pay attention to details both great and small to capture a certain band’s feeling or essence.” Tribute bands, on the other hand, are fan bands. Members take nothing more seriously than recreating an authentic experience. As Alm says, “A quality tribute, not a cover band, but a true tribute, can allow you to lose yourself in the moment and make you feel as if you are seeing the real thing in a unique setting.” Members of Led Zepagain, The Joshua Tree and Under Pressure have traveled far beyond the typical level of fandom, be-coming imposters whose sole purpose is to impose a timeless love of rock ‘n’ roll on the world.

Ultimately, tribute bands are celebrating a recent surge in popularity; inspiring many aspiring musicians—men, women and even midgets—to take a running leap onto the tribute bandwagon. Determined not to let the music die, tributes aim to pick up the long-lost and shattered pieces of rock’s melodious history one mimic at a time, continuing to ensure that the youth generation will be around for the last spasmodic death rattle of rock ‘n’ roll as the world once knew it.