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Chicago’s Best Tribute Bands Give Locals An Affordable Night Out, With A Heavy Dose Of Nostalgia

Bands covering Eagles, Van Halen and Queen and Lady Gaga will appear at the Throwback Music Fest in Gladstone Park this weekend.

From left: Greg Fundis as John Bonham, Paul Kamp as Jimmy Page, Bruce Lamont as Robert Plant, Matthew Longbon as John Paul Jones
Led Zeppelin 2
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GLADSTONE PARK — Of all the gigs Lindsay Weinberg has played with her Chicago-based Fleetwood Mac cover band — and there have been many — one particular night stands out.

It was earlier this year, and Weinberg’s group Second Hand News had just finished a show at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St. in Merrionette Park. Weinberg (who performs as the Christine McVie part of the band) and bandmate Melissa Brausch (a.k.a., Stevie Nicks) were packing up their gear when a woman hesitantly walked up to them.

“She literally had tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘I’ve been dealing with some rough stuff — this is the first night I’ve felt joy in seven years,’” Weinberg recalls. “She kept saying, ‘Oh my God, you don’t understand how much I needed this.’”

Such is the emotional pull of some tribute bands, which have thrived in the Chicago area over the last several years. Today, Chicago is home to tribute bands that pay homage to acts ranging from Abba to ZZ Top, with stops along the way for The Beatles, Journey, Dave Matthews Band, Queen, Santana, Amy Winehouse and many more. There are literally dozens of local tribute bands that cover standbys such as Van Halen, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin and other well-known acts.

From left: Melissa Brausch as Stevie Nicks, Josh Chicoine as Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsay Weinberg as Christine McVie in Second Hand News
Credit: Ben Chandler

And let’s not forget Chicago institution Tributosaurus, which for more than 20 years has been playing the songs of U2, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and many more.

(Just to be clear, there are tribute bands and there are cover bands. Here’s the difference: A tribute band performs the songs of one group, while a cover band performs the songs of many groups. So you’d see tribute band American Idiots if you want to hear the punk stylings of Green Day, while you’d check out cover band Sixteen Candles if you want to take in some ’80s-era poppiness.) 

Which leads us to the question: Why are tribute bands so popular?

For some, it’s simply nostalgia. “Tribute bands bring people back to a period earlier in their lives,” says John Garrido, a member of the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce who curates the music for that neighborhood’s annual Throwback Music Fest at Gladstone Park, 6030 N. Milwaukee Ave., which usually features several tribute acts. “You should see the smiles on the faces of people when they hear a song they love — they go crazy, like they were watching the actual band.”

It could also be pocketbook economics — you could spend north of $2,500 (plus plane fare, hotel, etc.) to see Lady Gaga at her Las Vegas residency, for instance. Or you could go to the Gladstone Park festival — admission: $7 — to check out Radio Gaga, a mash-up of Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury. The Throwback Music Fest is a veritable cornucopia for tribute bands; the 2023 fest included groups that emulate Van Halen (The Atomic Punks), Eagles (One of These Nights) and Fleetwood Mac (Gold Dust Dreams, not the aforementioned Second Hand News).

Even Better Than The Real Thing?

Before they take the stage, performers in tribute bands must consider all sorts of variables. For starters, how faithful do they want to be to the source material?

“We try to capture the spirit of the band,” says John Carpender, the drummer for Real Pretenders (three guesses for the outfit they cover). “Some bands try to sound exactly like the source band — they put on the wigs, they emulate the moves. I’m not interested in that. We do the hits, but the attitude and musical vibe of first two Pretenders records is what’s really important to us. That’s our north star.”

At the other end of that spectrum is Led Zeppelin 2, which tries to faithfully replicate the band that sits atop rock’s Mount Olympus. Led Zeppelin 2 is playing a two-night residence at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., on January 12 and 13.

“We do a full-on re-creation — we want to totally reconstruct a live Led Zeppelin concert experience,” says singer Bruce Lamont, who has two blond wigs to choose from when he assumes the identity of rock god Robert Plant.

Led Zeppelin 2 has been touring for nearly 20 years, and Lamont can add a unique experience to his tribute work: He actually met the man he emulates a few years back. “I was bartending at Thalia Hall, and Robert Plant just happened to make a beeline to me,” Lamont recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m in several bands, and one of them is named Led Zeppelin 2.’ He said, ‘I have been known to cover some of your songs,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I heard about that.’”

Lamont concluded: “He was totally cool about it — he was very sweet, very funny. We talked for a while, and eventually he shook my hand and said, ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you,’ and that was it. It was very cool.”

The Real Deal

There’s a reason many of these groups can come close to sounding like some of the top bands in the world: These are highly accomplished musicians with serious chops. Weinberg has worked as a teaching artist in Chicago for 18 years and performed with various projects across the globe. Lamont has a flourishing solo career and fronts several bands, including the highly regarded act Yakuza. Carpender has played with artists including Michael McDermott, Robbie Fulks and Ike Reilly.

Then there’s Matt Spiegel, who’s fronted Tributosaurus since the group’s first show at Martyr’s 21 years ago. Spiegel has sung with several members of the groups his band has covered, including Rolling Stones’ sax player Bobby Keys, famed bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn (who played with Eric Clapton, Otis Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.’s) and many more.

Spiegel, who also appears on WSCR as half of the highly rated Parkins & Spiegel sports talk show, says he finds a lot of room for ingenuity in his band’s work.

“There’s a level of hard work and organization and reverence for music that’s there. Plus you can show some creativity in choosing the set list and trying to encompass a career in 20 songs,” he says. “What are the good deep cuts? What are the most popular tunes? How do you order the songs? That takes a lot of thought.”

For members of these bands, the tribute life pays some — but not all — of the bills. Lamont puts his income as “probably on the lower end” of a good tradesman’s salary, noting “I know that because my father was in the elevator trades for 50 years.”

So if it’s not for the money, why spend so much time playing other people’s music? Think of all the rehearsal time, the nights shlepping gear all over the place, the crowds that may be more interested in getting their next drink than hearing your next song — which you didn’t even write.

Local outfit Tributosaurus has been covering different legendary rock acts for more than 20 years.
Credit: Jeff Scheithe Photography

For Spiegel, it’s an easy call — such as the moments when everything clicks and it all comes together. For instance, he cited when his band performs as Earth, Wind & Fire and does the song “That’s the Way of the World” live.

“As the solo kicks in, there’s that one moment where I stop and think, ‘This is everything I want from music’,” he says. “I want to bring people together, and I want us all to feel it on a million levels — and we do. It’s funky, and it kills.”

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