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Turn up the tributes: Riviera Theatre renews rich history with odes to rock royalty

Paying tribute to the work of legendary musicians is a taxing endeavor. It takes incredible skill and coordination, a commitment to exact replication, and the unwavering aspiration of awaking the artistic brilliance of a cherished act for its legions of adoring, sentimental fans.

But until about past decade or so, this work often saddled the expertly trained artists involved with an unwanted label from audiophiles and peers alike: sellouts. Despite the fact that everyone from orchestral philharmonics to The Beatles have made their mark by replicating the work of others, these tribute acts were considered inauthentic kitsch—as were the venues that hosted them.

“Fifteen years ago, if you were in a tribute band, you were selling out,” said David Fillenwarth, executive director of North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre. “As the manager of a theater, there was that guilty feeling of even hiring the tribute band.”

Fast-forward to today, when touring tribute bands have evolved into elaborate, Las Vegas-style productions at the same time skyrocketing ticket prices have taken concerts of the still-touring subjects of these tributes out of the average fans’ reach. Theaters and rock clubs across the country—and locally inside cherished locales like the Tralf Music Hall, Lancaster Opera House and elsewhere—have been booking tribute bands to give fans a more affordable taste of their favorite acts with great success.

Team these trends together, and the lure of the Riv’s successful Friday Night Tribute Series not only makes perfect sense, it makes for a schedule of must-see nostalgia, and has reawakened a cherished area theater in the process.

People fill the seats before the Material Girls tribute show at the Riviera Theatre in January. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The Riv goes rock

When the Riviera Theatre opened in 1926, it was a lavish backdrop to silent films, stage shows and other vaudevillian fare. An Italian Renaissance-inspired centerpiece of the Twin Cities, it was a gorgeously illuminated entertainment center on Webster Street, and home to its neighborhood-made Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Throughout its 93 years, it’s gone in a variety directions, including an underutilized existence once considered for demolition.

That all changed when Fillenwarth arrived in July of 2017. The Amherst native and entertainment management veteran had helped orchestrate local and out-of-town tribute shows for years, and when he found his new home at the Riv, he thought the concept could work well there.

“We wanted to get some consistency with the programming, so we came up with the Friday [Night Tribute] series,” said Fillenwarth, who critically screens acts from across the U.S and Canada for Riviera concerts. “Now, we have 40 of these shows a year. It’s our bread and butter, and helps us support other headlining and original acts we have throughout the year.”

With this formula, fans that pack the floor and balcony for shows like “The Land of Ozz” Ozzy Osbourne tribute (March 1) and “Crush: The Best of Bon Jovi” (March 29) have enabled tour stops from the likes of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, who played the venue last November. The revenue stream has also helped the theater’s small staff and tireless team of volunteers invest in the upkeep and maintenance of the North Tonawanda landmark—as well as add some weekly buzz to its Webster strip.

[Related: Review of Lindsey Buckingham at Riviera | Smiles from that show]

“When we first started doing this, we got a couple hundred people a night, then started to build on it,” said Fillenwarth. “Now on a regular basis, we’re nearly three quarters full or sold out for every show. It just shows how popular it is and that there’s a need for it.”

The sound of nostalgia

Toronto-area native Rich Hamelin is an accomplished singer/songwriter. He’s released six original albums and played onstage with the likes of pop-rock icons The Beach Boys and The Hollies.

He’s also the leader of internationally renowned tribute shows for Supertramp (Dreamer) and Electric Light Orchestra (Strange Magic), orchestrating performances that are exhaustingly committed to doing everything in their instrumental power to transport fans back in time, one song at a time.

“We’re selling nostalgia. That’s what it comes down to,” said Hamelin, who recently visited the Riviera in the role of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame frontman Jeff Lynne for the “Strange Magic: The Ultimate ELO Experience.” “We want a show that looks like the band we’re covering, and we want to bring people back to the 1970s with an accurate depiction of what it might’ve been like back then.”

And this nostalgia isn’t as simple as costumes and half-hearted covers. It’s earned with exhausting rehearsals, devising a fully choreographed stage show, and with the likes of Hamelin bringing showroom savvy and study to venues like the Riv. For his ELO show alone, he spent months devouring the band’s catalog and rewriting its cello parts by ear, as no easy-to-replicate information was readily available.

For an artist who was initially reticent about dipping into the tribute scene, it’s been a real ride for him and his audience, one that’s significantly expanded his abilities as a working musician.

“My experience in tribute bands has enhanced everything I do musically,” he said. “To do an entire set of music that is just Supertramp or ELO, that’s a real experience. That’s about as close as musicians will get to feeling the way [those bands] felt with that specific music.”

Linking generations

ELO’s orchestral rock classic “Face the Music” was released in 1975, years before Williamsville natives Christopher, Justin or Matthew Schnell were born. They weren't alive when the album’s hit “Evil Woman” was ruling radio airwaves—but their father Paul was.

The three boys grew up listening to their father’s favorite Jeff Lynne-conceived tunes, dancing to the lively instrumentation, and inserting the 1970s tracks into their own childhood. With the Riviera’s concert series, they can relive these childhood memories, and do it with their father amid the type of live show he may have seen as a teenager.

“Most people have Spotify nowadays and, if they like an album, they just simply add it to their playlist,” said Justin, 24, who attended the Riv's recent "Strange Magic: The ELO Experience" gig with his brothers and father. “It’s different when you go to a show like this.”

The Schnells are not alone. Though the Friday Night Tribute Series certainly caters to the aging Baby Boomers who used to take in gigs at the old Melody Fair, shows at the Riv have offered an affordable connective tissue between parents who came of age during rock’s halcyon days, and their children (or grandchildren) who have co-opted their vinyl.

“That’s the allure of the tribute shows and what they do for everyone,” said Fillenwarth. “It’s a $20 price, and it helps a new generation discover what their parents were into. It’s almost become a family thing now.”

And in a time when so much music discovery occurs in a disposable, distant way through Apple Music and other web-hosted options, this family thing has become a surprisingly authentic way to enjoy the spiritual communion between fans and their favorite songs.

That was always the intention, and it has left stewards like David Fillenwarth feeling validated.

“That leap of faith we took when people said we were selling out?” he said. “Now we can say, yeah, we are selling out—selling out the theater.”

*****

Satisfaction, The International Rolling Stones tribute band will be at the Bear's Den.

Tribute calendar

Whether inside the Riviera Theatre or elsewhere across the region, there are plenty of tribute shows planned for the coming months. Here are some to pencil into your calendar:

Classic Stones Live (Rolling Stones), Feb. 8 in the Riviera Theatre.

Tiny Music (Stone Temple Pilots), Feb. 8, Tralf Music Hall.

Satisfaction (Rolling Stones), Feb. 8, Bear’s Den at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Get the Led Out (Led Zeppelin), Feb. 16, Town Ballroom.

Grateful Shred (The Grateful Dead), Feb. 21, Buffalo Iron Works.

Bruce in the USA (Bruce Springsteen), Feb. 22, Riviera Theatre.

Big Martha (The Allman Brothers Band), March 8, Tralf Music Hall.

Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), March 8, Riviera Theatre.

Abbamania (ABBA), March 8, Lancaster Opera House.

Legendary Ladies of Country (Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn), March 9, Bear’s Den at Seneca Niagara Casino.

Who’s Bad (Michael Jackson), March 16, Rapids Theatre.

Rumorz (Fleetwood Mac), March 26, Buffalo Iron Works.

Experience Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix), March 30, Seneca Niagara Events Center.

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