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Bands on Rewind : Performers find success, and paychecks, re-creating rock acts from Rush to Kiss for fans who shun gangsta and grunge.

August 26, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

CALABASAS — The man in the leather pants, with the bandannas wrapped around his wrists, was shouting and singing and jumping like Diamond Dave himself. And the crowd was screaming back, singing along to songs like "Jump" and "Hot for Teacher," pausing only for some solos from that guitarist in the black leather vest.

This was not the band Van Halen (circa 1984) on stage, or singer David Lee Roth or guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Those days are long gone. But for this crowd of 300 on the floor of Pelican's Retreat, the original lineup of Van Halen had miraculously returned, without that Sammy Hagar guy who replaced Roth in 1986, or any other evidence of time having passed.

That singing acrobat in the long blond hair was actually Ralph Saenz, who is only in the early stages of his own musical career, fronting this band called the Atomic Punks in tribute to the hard rock act he idolized while growing up. By the third song of the night, Saenz assures the crowd that the Atomic Punks don't actually believe they are Van Halen, or suffer from any other identity crises. "We're just here to have a good time," he says.

The 90-minute Atomic Punks concert last week was just the first of a monthlong series of performances by a variety of acts paying tribute to popular rock groups at the Calabasas nightclub. It continues Saturday with Sheer Heart Attack, a tribute to Queen; followed by a Rush tribute called Caress of Steel on Sept. 9; Parasite, a re-creation of Kiss in all its high-heeled, heavy-makeup glory, on Sept. 17, and the self-explanatory Led Zepagain on Sept. 23.

"People were really into it," says Dave Hewitt, who books talent at Pelican's. "They were yelling and singing like they were at the Forum or something."

But he's hardly surprised. The regular Pelican's crowd has already demonstrated a willingness to look back. The club's regular Thursday night re-creation of the disco era via the Boogie Knights band is already one of the week's busiest nights. Hewitt also has plans to bring in a band that plays nothing but KROQ-FM (106.7)-style '80s pop later this month.

On a broader scale, tribute albums featuring major recording artists singing the songs of Curtis Mayfield, Kiss, Neil Young, even the Carpenters, among others, is a trend that has accelerated in the '90s.

So reflecting on older music, Hewitt suggests, is an alternative for those unable to identify with some newer forms of pop, whether it is the roar of grunge rock or the seething aggression of gangsta rap.

"What we do is something you can't see anymore," says Atomic Punks guitarist Bart Walsh, referring to Van Halen's original lineup, which influenced a generation of hard rock acts. "And it's a very viable form of music that's no longer being made. I'm like a kid in a candy store when I'm doing this."

The Atomic Punks were born just eight months ago when Walsh's band found itself without a singer for a fast-approaching club gig. He invited Saenz to sing with the band that night, and spent it playing mostly Van Halen songs, since all the players were fans and already knew the material. While each of the band's members continue to pursue more traditional rock careers in other acts, they've discovered a huge demand for resurrecting the old Van Halen.

"Anywhere we play everybody already knows the words. We play all their hits and everybody goes crazy," says Saenz, who was enough of a fan to attend five Van Halen concerts before Roth left the band. "David Lee Roth was an exceptional entertainer, and that's what the Atomic Punks try to capture."

Along the way, Walsh says he has enjoyed the aid of Eddie Van Halen's guitar technician in re-creating some of the guitarist's unique sounds, though none of the original band has yet to witness any of their performances. "First of all, we love Van Halen," says Walsh, who lives in Burbank. "They were a big influence on all our lives. It's out of respect that we try to make it as authentic as possible."

Hewitt says he chose the five acts for his "Rock Tribute Month" series out of a large, growing field of tribute bands of varying quality. The built-in popularity of the material being performed has made the tribute-band racket a profitable career move for many musicians. "It's kind of a bandwagon," says Walsh. "A lot of guys are jumping on it now to make money" because the music is already popular.

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For rock players who have spent years struggling, or have even paid promoters for the opportunity to perform, the growing demand for tribute acts is an irresistible new sensation. Sheer Heart Attack guitarist Steve Zukowsky has watched as demand for his band's performances as Queen takes them to clubs across California.

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