- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

WALLINGTON, N.J. — Joe Donnelly was 9 when his uncle took him to see Ozzy Osbourne in concert with Black Sabbath. The memory that stuck was of "some maniac running up and down the stage, all dressed up in white."
Twenty-five years later, Mr. Donnelly sits on a lumpy brown couch in a closet-size dressing room, preparing to play the part of that maniac. He pulls on a blue nylon jumpsuit lined with foot-long white fringe and a battle-scarred pair of white platform boots. He brushes his wavy brown hair. He applies eyeliner and writes the letters O-Z-Z-Y in marker across the knuckles of his left hand.
Mr. Donnelly's band, Sabbra Cadabra, is a tribute to Black Sabbath and performs that band's songs exclusively, note for note. To cop the look and sound of the forefathers of heavy metal at their peak in the early 1970s, the members of Sabbra Cadabra have pored over every album, book, photograph and bootleg video they could find.
"The only difference is, we didn't write the songs and we're not rich and famous," says drummer Tom Capobianco, who portrays Black Sabbath's Bill Ward. "This music is the soundtrack to my life."
These clones are not alone.
Every major rock band has spawned a tribute group at one time or another, from AC/DC (Hells Bells, AC/DShe) to Led Zeppelin (Whole Lotta Led, Led Zepagain). Some tribute bands start as a way to promote an original band, others because there is money in playing an audience's favorite songs. Some offer a more authentic performance than others. All fight for respect and are creations of the ultimate fans.
"If imitation is the greatest form of flattery," Mr. Capobianco says, "then this is adulation, man."
The world of tribute bands is the subject of a new movie, "Rock Star," which stars Mark Wahlberg as one Chris Cole, who puts his gift of a steel-edged howl to work in a band called Blood Pollution. Fate brings him to the attention of his rock heroes, who pluck him out of obscurity to sing for their band.
"Rock Star" was inspired by a real-life Cinderella story set to a heavy-metal soundtrack. Tim Owens grew up in Akron, Ohio, on the records of Judas Priest, devouring its sound and throwing it back with a voice that also sang tenor in his local choir. He joined a Judas Priest tribute band, and a videotape of one of his performances made it to the British band when it was scouting for a new singer. He auditioned in February 1996. Three months later, "Ripper" Owens was fronting his favorite band.
"Mine was the luckiest break that could ever happen," Mr. Owens says recently while on break in Akron before a South American tour.
Among tribute musicians, Mr. Owens is a legend, but others also have been called up from the minors. In 1998, Metallica asked the Canadian tribute band Battery to open shows in five cities. Former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth kept a close eye on the Atomic Punks, who have performed in the Los Angeles area since 1994.
"The fact that he even came around was a compliment," says singer "David Lee" Ralph Saez. "He liked us so much he took my guitarist," Bart Walsh, who went on a world tour with Mr. Roth. Mr. Saez himself plays a bit part in "Rock Star."
The film captures the relationship between heavy-metal stars and fans. It's often a troubled relationship.
Draw the Line champions itself as the only officially endorsed Aerosmith tribute band. An unwritten agreement allows it to use Aerosmith logos and slogans, Draw the Line manager Tricia Byrnes says. The band sometimes is called on by the Aerosmith fan club to play events. Even with that and a lead singer, Neil Byrnes, who looks just like Aerosmith's Steven Tyler Draw the Line cannot win the respect of some fans.
"Some fans feel like it's a rip-off of the original band," Tricia Byrnes says. "It goes very deep with them, and they get very protective."
Rock critic and historian Dave Marsh shares that dim view of tribute bands and their fans.
"I think it's a psychological problem in our society. There's such a fanatical need to be around celebrity that being around a fake celebrity becomes desirable too," he says.
As long as there have been rock stars, there have been imitators. Howard Kramer, associate curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, points to Elvis Presley as inspiring the first mock stars.
R&B; singer Jackie Wilson started incorporating Elvis impressions into his show in the 1950s, but the first entertainers dedicated to aping "the king" popped up in the mid-'60s. After his death, they multiplied.
In the mid-'70s, when popular bands moved out of intimate club settings and into arenas, rock became less accessible, Mr. Kramer says, and imitation acts helped fill the void. In the 1980s, when many legendary bands folded or faded, promoters capitalized on nostalgia.
"It gave people a sense of security," Mr.Kramer says, "a way to maintain a hold on some bygone music."
Casinos, hungry for guaranteed crowd pleasers, have been steady traffickers in tribute bands.
By many accounts, more tribute bands are performing now than ever. Lenny Mann, who operates a Web site called Tribute City, says he has registered 410 of them. He estimates there are hundreds more, especially overseas, where one ABBA spinoff Bjorn Again has enough clout to play the Royal Albert Hall.
Sabbra Cadabra has been playing clubs for eight years in the band members' native New Jersey and as far away as Puerto Rico.
Says Mr. Donnelly: "People pay good money, and they come to be entertained. They don't want some slouch. So I go nuts for them. I drink beer and put on the fake accent. I do Ozzy. But other than that, I just drive trucks during the day."

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