The guitarist's face is painted white, save for some red lipstick and a big black star around his right eye. A hulking bass player dressed in armor and kabuki makeup stalks the stage behind him in 6-inch platform boots. A shouted challenge from the guitarist — "Is everybody ready for a rock and roll party!?" — is answered by a roar from the crowd, and the musicians break into a rousing rendition of "Deuce."
The band responsible for that song, KISS, is among those to be honored in tonight's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I'm watching a different band: the KISS tribute act Mr. Speed, playing to a packed club in suburban Cleveland.
Fifty-year-old Rich Kosak, who plays the part of vocalist Paul Stanley, claims to have seen KISS 52 times since the late 1970s. He says he grew up with an older brother who was into the heavier sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Yes.
"When I saw this, I thought, 'Well, I don't like all that stuff that you have to think about so much,' " Kosak says. "I like this stuff that just makes me feel real good. We're fans, just like the people that come to see us, the people that go to see KISS. We're really passionate about what it is that we do."
Howard Parr, for one, is impressed with the effort Mr. Speed has put into its look and sound. As executive director of the Akron Civic Theater, Parr says he's seen the number of such performers explode in recent years — from the occasional Elvis imitators to a mini-industry of tribute bands. Many of them play what commercial radio now calls "classic rock," music from the 1970s and '80s. The trend has even hit concert halls.
"There are tribute packages that are being sold to symphony orchestras, for example," Parr says. "A John Denver tribute show was recently done by the Akron Symphony, where the Akron Symphony performed with this guy doing John Denver songs."
Every single one of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees has its imitators. Majickat is among the Cat Stevens tribute acts. Hall & Oates have inspired the likes of Maneater and HmfO. For Linda Ronstadt, your choices include Different Drum, Just One Look and Heart Like a Wheel.
The members of Bleach — named after Nirvana's debut album — are a bunch of working-class Akron guys who channel the band's spirit on weekends. Bass player Nathan White joined Bleach after seeing them thrash though a set at a local club.
"It was inspiring, in a way, because that was the kind of dream I wanted to have — to be in a band with that much power," White says.
While some critics might dismiss tribute bands as musicians who aren't talented enough to do original material, UCLA music scholar Mitchell Morris says the ones he's seen tap into something deeper.
"I think it's a really basic human desire," he says. "You're playing. You're creating fiction. It's really the performance version of telling a story."
Though it has received the tribute treatment many times over, KISS is still touring. The real Paul Stanley says he can relate to the passion of emulating your musical heroes: "The adage 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' comes to mind," Stanley says.
But what happens when that's not totally clear? The Akron Civic Theatre's Howard Parr suggests, based on some experiences at the theater, that some fans may not know the difference.
"It happens all the time that we have people that want to get backstage on the tribute band shows," Parr says. "And you're like, 'Do you not realize that that's not Jon Bon Jovi?' And, you know, they don't."
Then, we've got a problem — especially when money is involved. "If it's done with the right heart, and as a fan, I appreciate it," Paul Stanley says. "When it becomes business, then it's time for us to talk about it."
In a new memoir, Stanley acknowledges that 40 years on the road are starting to take their toll on him physically, and he can see himself eventually stepping aside and letting someone else take over his KISS character. Rich Kosak of Mr. Speed, who will head to Los Angeles later this month to perform on the cable series The World's Greatest Tribute Bands, has been practicing.