More than just a pale imitation: Petty Theft worth the cover

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Northern California bands pay tribute to their favorite rockers

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Local tribute bands a worthy alternative

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Some of your all-time favorite rock stars went to rock ’n’ roll heaven years ago. Others don’t tour anymore. And those who still do perform don’t play cheap.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t attend a live performance of the greatest hits by the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.

Northern California is booming with popular tribute bands with names like the Unauthorized Rolling Stones and AC/DShe (an all-woman tribute to AC/DC), recreating the music you love at a price you can afford.

Tom Petty’s summer tour will bring him no closer to Sonoma County than Los Angeles, but the cleverly named tribute band Petty Theft played his hits last weekend (March 2) at the HopMonk Tavern in Sebastopol.

“It’ll cost you $150 to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in an arena,” said guitarist Monroe Grisman of Petty Theft. “Most of our shows cost $15 to $20. It’s a comparatively cheap night out.”

Tribute bands not only play at the right price, but their music is a known quantity.

“The audience knows what they’re getting,” said Grisman, son of famed Petaluma mandolinist David Grisman. “They know they’re going to have a good time.”

Alan Williams of Santa Rosa, bassist and backup singer with Aqua Nett, believes in offering audiences more than a faithful recreation of songs they know and love.

“You need to do more than showing up to play,” Williams said. “It’s about the total show. If people are going to go out to a show, you need to give them their money’s worth.”

For their salute to the heavy metal, “big-hair” bands of the 1980s, from Poison to Whitesnake, the players in Aqua Nett don wigs, lipstick, eye-liner and tight costumes, and the crowds love it.

“People come dressed up in ’80s garb,” Williams said. “They love to drag that stuff out of the closet. It brings back their youth. The ’80s were a fun time.”

Unlike Aqua Nett (which also plays a wide variety of pop music under the name Counterbalance) and some other tribute bands, Petty Theft makes no effort to dress the part.

“I’m not into the whole costume thing,” said Petty Theft keyboardist Mike Emerson. “This is about the music.”

Emerson’s bandmate, Grisman, maintains it’s truer to the spirit of their hero not to try to look like him.

“Dressing up in a costume seems like an un-Tom-Petty-like thing to do,” Grisman said.

Other tribute bands agree with the “be yourself” approach. Zepparella, an all-woman band based in San Francisco, doesn’t try to look like Led Zeppelin while playing their music. Pepperland, a seven-piece Sonoma County band, doesn’t pose as the Beatles.

Zepparella even includes some original music created by its lead guitarist, Gretchen Menn.

“We’re excited to bring some of our solo work to our fans, as well,” said Clementine (who uses one name only), Zepparella’s drummer.

In an even more daring move, Zepparella doesn’t even play Led Zeppelin’s iconic anthem, “Stairway to Heaven.”

“We decided to leave one song sacred, and not duplicate it,” Clementine said.

Pepperland, led by Robert Butler of Sebastopol, is faithful to the Beatles song catalog, even to the point of performing “Glass Onion,” a semi-obscure cut from from the Beatles’ “White Album.”

“I never liked that song, but the fans wanted to hear it, and they loved it,” Butler said. “They were singing along.”

Another popular Northern California Beatles tribute band, the Sun Kings, boasts a repertoire of more than 150 songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo, even dating back to the English band’s early cabaret days in Hamburg, Germany.

Pepperland’s songlist includes solo tunes recorded by the ex-Beatles after their breakup.

“Our motto is no wigs, and some Wings,” Butler said, alluding to Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles band.

Pepperland faithfully recreates the songs, occasionally performing the Beatles’ entire “Sgt. Pepper” album, but allows itself the freedom to slightly update the instrumentals.

“If the Beatles were playing now, they’d rock harder,” Butler said. So, on some songs, “… we accentuate the drumbeat and bass.”

There are Bay Area tribute bands to suit almost every taste, from Foreverland, which plays Michael Jackson’s hits, to Zoo Station, which salutes the music of U2.

Playing people’s favorite music is a good way to draw crowds, said Grisman of Petty Theft, but it’s a big responsibility. The fans know how the classic hits should sound.

“It’s double-edged,” Grisman said. “Yes, everybody knows these songs, but they really know these songs, and they know if it’s right.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or See his ARTS blog at

Dan Taylor