Time passes, and we grow old. Trying as we may to fend it off the gradual, but seldom gentle, aging process is one of the few things that humanity still has in common with the natural world. Looks fade, joints stiffen, and senses dim, whether one walks on two legs or four. Despite millions of fans’ incessant idealising, musicians are no more immune to the march of time than the rest of us. But when it comes to the possibility of “aging gracefully” and coasting out the twilight years in cosy retirement, the archetypical rock star seems to have more in common with beasts than us mere mortals.
As we enter the 2020s, a select handful of artists seem destined to have performed across an astounding seven decades before their time runs out. Dylan, McCartney, and one or two Stones’ and Beach Boys are all heading rapidly towards that accolade; but as the years pass, the quality of these gigs are falling further into question. Consequently, this all culminates in the inevitable, albeit uncomfortable, question: is it worth the top-tier ticket prices to see old artists, often reluctantly playing the tunes that earned them their fame before a fair section of the audience was even born? In an era where tribute acts are headlining festivals and selling out venues, a concrete answer to that question seems difficult.
Firstly, remove from your mind any negative connotations the words “tribute band” may arouse. Forget fat Elvises in ill-fitting wigs, forget three-star European hotel entertainment acts, and forget the worst contestants Stars in their Eyes ever allowed on television. The tribute band has evolved as an artform over the decades since the first Beatles impersonators appeared on the scene in the mid-60s. Acts like Brit Floyd or Nervana have worked for years perfecting their craft, and many have earned a dedicated following for their efforts. Furthermore, as their audiences grow so do their performance budgets, with many acts putting on stage shows that look, indulge me the cliché, almost as good as the real thing.
So to really answer a question like this, one has to rely on personal anecdotes – everyone’s experienced the disappointment of a gig that fell short of the mark. For me, it was Morrissey (I know, I know) playing the SSE Hydro a couple of years ago. Accompanied by a lacklustre band and the pervading fear he was going to open his mouth for anything other than balladry, the bored-looking Mancunian was a far cry from the frontman my friends and I had fallen in love with. Perhaps the most egregious aspect, however, was the frankly shocking setlist – a barrage of obscure solo work with no more than two Smiths tracks, both stuck at the beginning and both delivered with jaded vocals and butchered lyrics. Perhaps we should’ve just been grateful he turned up at all.
In contrast, at the back end of 2019 I caught The Smyths performing at a tiny venue in Edinburgh. Touring the phenomenal Hatful of Hollow, the band spent half the gig playing the album in its entirety, before returning to the stage for a gauntlet of hits and deep cuts alike, each performed to a standard exceeding that set by the man they emulated. Where the group may have been understandably lacking somewhat in technical ability, they more than made up for in passion for their performance. When considering the quality of performance, intimacy of the venue, song choice and – especially – price point, the balance seems to tip heavily in favour of saving your cash and netting tickets to whichever wittily-named tribute act draws your eye.
However, this method fails to recognise one immeasurable factor: the equally undeniable and indescribable feeling of seeing an artist you love in person. Music is an inescapably emotional artform. Listeners form connections with music and thus, perhaps unconsciously, with the musician. A concert brings that connection out into the real world, a connection which is invariably missing from any tribute act. No matter how well The Smyths mirror the iconic croons of Morrissey or Marr’s delicate guitar passages, the act is inevitably capped at being mere imitation.
In the end, the question isn’t whether a tribute or a past-their-prime artist is the better experience, it’s what you personally hope to get out of the gig. If you’re looking to turn back time and recapture an artist at their peak, then a quality tribute act could be the time capsule you’re seeking. From Floyd to Franklin, nigh on every iconic artist you can hope for throughout time is having their work celebrated on-stage by passionate and talented fans. However, if you’re willing to look past technical flaws and appreciate an aged musician for merely existing before you, then even the closest imitation will always fall short of the mark.