In Ocala, tribute bands are the next best thing

By Dave Schlenker, Gainesville Sun

They look and sound the part, and nostalgic audiences love it

In January, the rock band Completely Unchained stormed the Reilly Arts Center stage in a crank-it-to-11 flurry of sparks, leaps and wild hair. Lots and lots of hair.

Think manes of hair. Think late ’70s, early ’80s. Think David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen.

That’s what hundreds of people were thinking that night, as Completely Unchained not only played Van Halen’s hits but inhabited the style and swagger of the legendary California party band.

The show was part of the WIND-FM Rocks the Reilly Series, now in its third season. The Ocala-based classic rock radio station brings tribute bands into the arts center, and the shows have proved very popular, often selling out.

The success of the series is part of a larger phenomenon: Venues are booking more tribute acts — musicians who not only play the music of popular, often-gone acts but play the parts. They dress like the originals, strut like the originals, bend guitar strings like the originals.

While the burgeoning local arts scene is presenting many headliners and fresh new acts, there definitely is a diverse menu of tribute bands. Consider upcoming shows at local venues:

Reilly Arts Center in Ocala: Let It Be – The Beatles, Cash Unchained — The Ultimate Johnny Cash Tribute, Remembering John Denver, Nightrain — Guns N’ Roses Tribute and Pig Floyd — The Music of Pink Floyd.

Tribute bands on deck

• Reilly Arts Center, 351-1606

Let It Be – The Beatles, Saturday

Cash Unchained: The Ultimate Johnny Cash Tribute, March 15

Remembering John Denver, a Tribute starring Ted Vigil, March 17

Nightrain Guns N’ Roses Tribute, April 13

Pig Floyd The Music of Pink Floyd, April 20

• Circle Square Cultural Center, 854-3670

Absolute Journey, March 23

TUSK (Fleetwood Mac), March 29

Hot Blooded, The Foreigner Experience, April 5

Simply The Best! Tina Turner by Karen Durrant, April 13

• Orange Blossom Opry, 821-1201

The Everly Brothers Experience, March 22

Hotel California, April 1-2

Circle Square Cultural Center in On Top of the World: Absolute Journey, TUSK (dubbed the “world’s No. 1 tribute to Fleetwood Mac”), Hot Blooded – The Foreigner Experience, Simply the Best, a tribute to Tina Turner and 7 Bridges: The Ultimate Eagles Experience.

Orange Blossom Opry in Weirsdale: The Everly Brothers Experience, Hotel California, John Denver Tribute and the Neil Diamond Tribute.

This list is not complete. Also, several acts listed are returning.

So what gives?

“Some of the greatest music ever made is from ’64 to ’74 and then into 1980. There’s a real resurgence in the nostalgia of this music,” said Jason Manning of 7 Bridges, a Nashville-based ensemble that sells out Circle Square Cultural Center each time it plays there.

Thing is, the big acts from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have either stopped touring, died or, if they are touring, command $200 ticket prices. But fans still want to hear that music. And when given the choice between a $200 ticket to a show hours away or a $20 ticket to a show minutes away, they will opt for a date night or girls night out in their hometown.

Tribute bands also are cheaper for venues. In between $30,000-plus headliners, sprinkle in some tribute bands for $12,000 or less. Ticket prices are lower, but tribute bands generally fill — at the very least — several hundred seats.

With tribute bands, WIND-FM Rocks the Reilly Series has been very successful, noted Hunter, an on-air co-host and WIND-FM’s program director.

“We’ve had quite a few sellouts. These things are hot,” she said. “It makes for a great date night. A lot of (the tribute acts) really keep true to the band.”

From teens to baby boomers, people simply love the sounds, styles and attitudes of classic rock. Teenagers are now collecting vinyl records and wearing Beatles T-shirts, so a $20 ticket to see what they missed all those years ago is quite reasonable, local sources contend.

Manning said there definitely has been an increase in tribute bands in the last five years. When 7 Bridges started 12 years ago, Manning said there were a handful of Eagles tribute bands touring. But when Eagles’ founding member Glenn Frey died in 2016, Eagles tributes bands started coming “out of the woodwork.”

“We turn down more shows than we accept,” Manning said, noting 7 Bridges also caps its tour dates these days to allow for more family time and side projects.

“The appetite is there,” said Matt Wardell, CEO and artistic director of the Reilly.

So is the inventory. Wardell said the Reilly gets a handful of calls each week from promoters trying to book their tribute bands into the venue. It’s tricky, Wardell noted, because the Reilly never intended to book tribute bands when it opened, opting to present Ocala Symphony Orchestra concerts, local productions and original touring acts.

But the popularity and supply of tribute bands — good tribute bands — is not to be dismissed. WIND-FM rents the Reilly to host their tribute shows, but the Reilly staff has started booking their own tribute concerts in between larger acts and symphony shows. Last weekend’s Denny Diamond concert, for example, was a Reilly-hosted show, whereas Let It Be will be part of the WIND-FM series.

“Five to eight years ago, performing arts centers wouldn’t even think about a tribute band,” Manning said.

But, now, a performing arts center such as the Reilly or Circle Square is perfect for tribute bands. Fans of the original bands are at an age where sitting down with a cocktail is far more appealing than going to a sweaty bar or a stadium that demands standing.

“I saw the Queen (and) AC/DC show at Reilly. It was awesome. I also went to the John Denver one and the Elton John show. I love them,” noted Ocala resident Laura Fontaine. “I like the tamer atmosphere with the great music.”

“We still want to hear the authentic bands we love, but can we afford it?” noted JoAnn Grosso, adding she has been called up on stage to dance at tribute shows. “I can afford the Reilly and can make it home safe.”

Other locals are not quite on board with the tribute band proliferation.

“I feel like I can just break out my records or go on Spotify and listen to the masters. And it’s free,” noted Jen Normoyle.

Wardell said the Reilly does not want to be tribute band-heavy. It strives to fill its schedule with diverse and original acts with headliner appeal. But the tribute band market is hard to ignore. He said the Reilly vets tribute acts carefully, examining internet clips and talking to references.

To be sure, there are bad tribute bands out there. But the increase in tribute bands also means there is a larger number of good bands, Manning said.

“The tribute bands have really stepped up their game in the last five or six years,” he said. They know how to put on a good show — a production with lights and quality sound and interaction.

In the end, good bands fill good venues if they are playing good music, WIND-FM’s Hunter contends.

“The tribute bands,” she added, “remind us of the way it was and how good it was.”

Completely Unchained rocks fans with Van Halen tribute

By Faran Fagen, The Palm Beach Post

Bare-chested except for the crimson suspenders clipped to his matching leather pants, Completely Unchained front man Gene Henrikson belted out, “Are you ready to rock tonight with this Van Halen tribute band?”

As his David Lee Roth-like blond wig dripped sweat down his back, the guitar intro to “You Really Got Me” resonated through the blackjack tables. The crowd pumped their firsts in the air with a resounding “yeah” that echoed through the rows of tinkling slot machines recently at Coconut Creek Casino. Waitresses had a hard time squeezing their trays of drinks through the audience of more than 200 that stretched from the small stage through the packed lounge and intruded into the game tables.

“When we do Van Halen, we create the right atmosphere,” said Henrikson, of West Palm Beach. “The costumes, mannerisms and delivery mean a lot to our fans. It’s about creating that Van Halen environment where the show is like a backyard barbecue where everyone has a good time.”

Dan Swenson wore his Van Halen T-shirt and coveted his spot by the stage. Swenson has attended at least 25 shows by Completely Unchained, including the Battle of the Bands on Feb. 2 at the South Florida Fair in suburban West Palm Beach. Unchained won first place, beating out such rivals as Guns N’ Roses.

“These guys are hard-core musicians,” Swenson said. “Gene (Henrikson) is actually a drummer, and all four guys can sing their heads off.”

Aside from Henrikson, who portrays Roth, the talented foursome includes Jake Miller, as lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen; Kevin Humphris, as bass guitarist Michael Anthony; and Tony Lazzara as drummer Alex Van Halen. Miller, Humphris and Lazarra live in New York and New Jersey, but road manager Tony Ferrari, who handles all transportation and equipment, is from Boynton Beach.

According to the group’s website, Completely Unchained is the only complete Van Halen tribute to perform the entire catalog: “All the lights, the sound, the magic, and most of all the spirit that captures every era of Van Halen. All the classic hits, the Sammy Hagar years, and David Lee Roth’s greatest solo hits.” From the original band days through the Roth era and Hagar’s tenure, fans will hear 1978′s “Runnin’ with the Devil,” 1984′s “Panama” and 1986′s “Why Can’t This Be Love.” Of course, the tribute band also plays its namesake hit, “Unchained,” from Van Halen’s first self-titled album.

The band’s popularity has them tightly booked through August up and down the East Coast, and of course, all over Florida. Thirteen shows are slated for March, including one on March 8 at The Venu Restaurant in Bar in Boynton Beach.

The group is used to quick turnaround between gigs. The night before the casino concert, they performed near Orlando and returned to South Florida just before sunrise.

Last year, on Valentine’s Day, Completely Unchained was chosen to perform for the troops stationed at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. Afterward, the band spent time with audience members. Some of them had been deployed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other countries in the region.

“They all had some incredible stories,” said Miller, who dons famed guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s guitar stripes for every show. “We were very humbled to say the least.”

A commander even played the drums for one song. Through one week, the rockers performed on little sleep. When they left, they came home to an immediate show in South Florida.

“It was an honor,” Henrikson said.

Henrikson, who just turned 57, has a strict ritual the day of each concert. He exercises and lifts weights while he listens to Van Halen, his favorite band since he was young.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of “Van Halen,” but Henrikson said Unchained fans like the music from every album, so that’s what’s on its playlist. No matter which era of Van Halen, Completely Unchained aims to deliver the most authentic show each night for their fans.

“Some fans that come and see us say they had a rough week and we made it better,” Henrikson said. “At some shows, it feels like we’re providing therapy.”

Playing For Our Troops in Kuwait!

This review originally appeared in South Shore Living, LI.

Last summer Completely Unchained, a local Long Island band played at Tanner Park in Copiague as part of the Town of Babylon’s concert series. They never imagined that in 2018, they would have an incredible journey ahead, half way around the world to a nation once under attack by the Iraqis.

They were picked by the Base to perform for the troops stationed at Ali Al Salem Air Base. Their trip started out at JFK International Airport where they boarded Qatar Airlines. The staff was courteous, well trained and professional. They served food and drinks often and they were entertained with movies and games on the screen behind each seat. The flight lasted approximately 16 hours to a small country called Qatar, where they had to transfer on a flight to Kuwait. After about a 90 minute flight, they arrived in Kuwait. Security was tight. They had to apply for tourist visas to enter the country, which took almost 2 1/2 hours. Finally, after receiving their visas, they were able to gather their checked luggage and seek out transport to Ali Al Salem Air Base. They were met by two servicemen who would be their guides for the duration of the time on base. The van ride to the base was about 75 minutes long. The roads were desolate. They were now in the desert. In the middle of nowhere.

Finally, they reached the base where they would spend the next few days. Their guides brought the band to the contained units which had 5 bunk beds and lockers for each of them. Air conditioning was provided but no toilet or sink. The restroom/shower units were just a walking distance along the gravel. Most of the base was gravel and sand. After settling in, they were brought to the cafeteria. They had some food before calling it a night.

Sleep came at a minimum. “You can hear footsteps, vehicles, helicopters and airplanes throughout the night.” said Jake Miller, lead guitarist for the band. The next day, they missed breakfast, took showers along side the military members and made their way back to the cafeteria for lunch. Later they were given a small tour of the base. They saw many different housing tents and units, barracks, bunkers and the main base area where the recreation center was located along with a post office, general store, Subway, pizza place and coffee shop. They were to perform in the rec center so they proceeded to view that location.

They were greeted by some Sergeants and Commanders who thanked them for making the trip to perform for them. They then head back to the cafeteria for a very good and well needed dinner along with hundreds of military personnel.

“After a little rest, we spent the entire evening sorting out the PA system, cables, wires, amps and drums. Once the stage area was complete, we sound checked the system for the show the next evening.” said Miller.

The next night, Valentines Day, Complelely Unchained played for about 100 people or so, as they all had different shifts and duties. Afterwards the band met with many of the personnel. They varied in age and rank. Some of them had been deployed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other countries in the region. “They all had some incredible stories. They were so appreciative for us making the trip and sharing our talents. We were very humbled to say the least. One of the Commanders even played the drums with us for one song. We definitely left a lasting impression on all who attended the show,” said Miller.

It was time for them to leave the base and head back to the US for another weekend of shows in Florida. They had only a few hours to prepare for their departure. Another ride along the desolate road back to the airport.

The flight leaving Kuwait was delayed due to a sick passenger, which led to the band’s missing their connecting flight to the states in Qatar. “The airline took full responsibility and arranged accommodations for them in a 4 star hotel in the city of Doha. The airline personal were all displeased about the situation, but the rest was well needed,” said Eugene Henriksen, lead vocalist. “The hotel was extremely nice, the rooms were impeccable and the bed felt like a cloud.” said Henriksen. They slept for about 5 hours.

The downtime alllowed them to recharge their batteries for the long flight home. “We would now have to fly to Zurich and then transfer on to another aircraft for our final destination in Miami. We arrived totally exhausted and hungry, in need of a shower and a change of clothes,” said Miller. But they had no time for that. They had another show that same night which they would arrive late due to traffic leaving Miami. “Somehow, we were able to perform with what little energy we had left.” said Miller. The band made its way back to West Palm where they crashed!

After finally having a decent night sleep, it was time for the band to prepare for one last show in Florida. So they packed up and head to Pompano Beach. “We felt refreshed and knew there would be a large audience as we had played this venue before. We enjoyed a delicious meal before hitting the stage. This time, we were at a completely different level. Our fans welcomed us with open arms and we felt right back at home. It was as if we never left the country.” said Miller.

Overall, throughout the previous 6 days, the band was running on about 12 hours of actual sleep.

When asked if they would ever do it again, Miller said, “we’d be on the next plane out, all for the love of music and respect for the US military. For without those men and women, we would not be able to enjoy the freedom we all take for granted each and every day.”