Tribute bands riding wave of popularity in NE Pennsylvania

February 25, 2020 GMT

PLAINS, Pa. (AP) — When Doug Delescavage plays Elton, he’s not trying to be Elton, not exactly.

The frontman for Philadelphia Freedom, a new Elton John tribute act out of Plains Twp., wants people to experience his own musicianship, too.

“I don’t want it to be exactly Elton,” the 24-year-old musician said, going on to describe a complicated relationship with the music he plays.

“I definitely want people to leave the place and be like, ‘Wow, that was like being at a classic Elton John concert.’ ”

On any given weekend, tribute bands play at least a couple bars and clubs in northeast Pennsylvania. The good ones let fans experience their favorite performances close to home for a few bucks instead of a few hundred.


There’s been an uptick in the number of tribute artists playing the Northeast, according to promoters and venue owners who book them.

“People want to close their eyes and walk into a show and feel like they’re seeing the actual band there,” said Rob Friedman, owner of the music venue River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Twp.

Delescavage and his troupe are riding the wave, and quickly making a name for themselves. They’ve opened for other famous tributes, including Almost Queen, and are broadening their tour base with a couple shows booked in New England and Pennsylvania.

They started playing Elton John songs years ago, but only organized and hit the stage as Philadelphia Freedom in 2019.

Tribute acts are not cover bands. They’re like living history performers vs. bit part actors.

Instead of playing a couple hits, they shape their brand to match a famous artist’s. They emulate them on stage with their movements and how they interact with the crowd.

Joel Hanks lives in Rhode Island, but he’s been traveling to play in northeast Pennsylvania venues for two decades.

“We have so much history in Scranton,” he said.

The bassist for a Sublime tribute called Badfish is on a first-name basis with local promoters. He also manages other bands, including the Metallica tribute The Four Horsemen, which packed Stage West in Scranton last weekend.

“Some of these markets kind of become a little bit of a sweet spot,” he said, suggesting that fans in the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys might have a stronger appetite for tribute music for a few reasons, including the cost of a ticket, distance to travel and preference for a more intimate setting.

An older market probably has something to do with it, too. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton metro trends a little older than other places with a median age around 43 years old.


“If you’re over 45, the number of times you go out to bars, it’s greatly reduced. I think people sort of look for an excuse as they get older,” Friedman said. “Instead of being tucked in bed at 9 p.m., they’re coming out having a good time like they did years ago.”

Tributes have a head start if they portray a band that doesn’t tour anymore.

That’s probably played to Jon Braun’s advantage in the beginning. The David Byrne impersonator leads Talking Heads tribute Start Making Sense out of Bethlehem. Over the last 10 years, Start Making Sense built a following all its own.

“The fact that they (Talking Heads) aren’t playing makes what we do specifically something people want to see because they can’t see them do it,” Braun said.

Anatomy of a tribute

It starts with skill, Hanks said.

No act, tribute or otherwise, stands a chance without it.

“The bands have to be good,” he said. “If they’re good, then you have a chance to build a following.”

Then they have to pick an accessible, famous artist to copy.

While the Four Horsemen still has a market, it’s far more limited because Metallica’s heavy guitars and edgy stage presence attract a smaller fanbase.

Tribute artists may book interstate tours, but just like fans aren’t paying arena prices, the musicians aren’t claiming arena salaries. Most tribute artists have other jobs.

Start Making Sense gigs Fridays through Sundays, but the income would never provide enough to live on.

“If you can pay a bill with a gig, that makes you feel really good,” Braun said.

Most members of Start Making Sense teach music in Bethlehem, which has a thriving local music scene, and play in other bands. Delescavage, who studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, teaches at Joe Nardone’s Rockology Music Academy in Wilkes-Barre Twp.

Delescavage listened to Elton John his whole life, plus he sounds like him when he sings.

But he also acknowledged that, at least from a newcomer’s perspective, that he gets to piggyback off Elton John’s celebrity.

“We are selling Elton John as a product,” he said. “It’s not my name selling first … It is a little easier to brand off someone’s name, for sure.”





Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/