‘Mamma Mia,” the musical written around the music of ABBA, was a huge hit with critics and fans when it opened to sold-out crowds in London and Broadway.
But when music promoter Gary Lichach saw it, his reaction was more like, “Eh.”
“I saw the stage play of ‘Mamma Mia’ in rehearsal in London, England, and it wasn’t that good because they didn’t sound like ABBA, and they didn’t look like ABBA,” Lichach said. “But the show was sold out a year in advance.”
For a guy who promotes tribute bands, the success of the musical was a clear sign that the world was ready for a good ABBA look-and sound-alike.
“ABBA wasn’t really my style of music,” said Lichach, a former working musician himself. “But I put together the ABBA show because of the demand.”
Eleven years later, his ABBA tribute band is still performing, as it will Jan. 12 in Arroyo Grande. Joining ABBA-Mania will be Night Fever, a tribute to the Bee Gees.
For most of his career, Lichach, of Toronto, was a nightclub musician, singing and playing sax, drums, and flute covers of songs by Chicago, Tower of Power and the Bee Gees. But 18 years ago, he began a career as a promoter. And he quickly picked up on the popularity of tribute bands.
“In the late ’90s, I had tributes to the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys that drew all the kids,” he said.
But, as he continued to assemble tributes, he began to recognize the essential elements of a long-standing successful group. A good tribute band, he said, will imitate an act with lots of hits that’s no longer available to tour, either due to retirement or death.
“You’ll never see Elvis again,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to see an Elvis show — as every good Elvis impersonator can tell you.
“In time, Michael Jackson will become the Elvis to a lot of those people,” Lichach said.
Locally, a handful of tribute bands have performed in recent years, including acts performing the music of the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. And more are coming, including tributes to the Beach Boys and Buddy Holly.
“We’ve had a history of sold-out tribute bands,” said Stephen Hughes, president of the Clark Center Association Board, which books about 25 shows there a year.
To help determine which kinds of acts the venue should host, the board assembled focus groups, Hughes said, “and tribute bands rate very high.”
More than bar bands performing cover songs, tribute bands work hard to re-create the look and sound of the acts they emulate. The good ones perform only in theater venues, not clubs, where audience members will likely pay more than they ever did for the actual acts.
“For a theater, you’ve got to make sure you’re going to have a draw for people to come and see it,” Lichach said. “It’s not your local nightclub — let’s go meet some girls and have a party. They come to sit and watch, so it better be something for them to pay $30 or $40.”
While venues like the Clark Center have to strike a balance between new and old music, Hughes said audiences like to hear familiar tunes. And tribute bands provide that, along with a sense of nostalgia.
“I remember exactly where I was when I heard ‘She Loves You’ by the Beatles for the first time,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Beatles tribute bands — and there are many of them—do well.
Lichach, a Bee Gees fan when he was younger, formed Night Fever after seeing the success of ABBA-Mania. In fact, a member of ABBA-Mania recommended a performer for the part of Barry Gibb.
“He came into my office, and I wanted to hear all the high falsettos,” Lichach said. “He came in with a guitar strapped over his shoulder. He sat down, started playing, and I looked out the window and said, ‘He sounds exactly like Barry Gibb.’ ”
Lichach, who handles all the press interviews for the shows, said busy touring schedules make it impossible for members of either band to be available for interviews. While that suggests Lichach closely controls the publicity of his acts, it must be working.
“Last year we sold out two nights at the San Diego Symphony Orchestra,” he said. “That was, like, 5,000 people a night.”
While talented musicians and gaudy clothes help sell tickets, the shows would be nothing without the music of the originals.
Both ABBA and the Bee Gees were giant bands of the 1970s. ABBA, a Swedish pop group, consisted of two couples, whose hits included “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo” and “Take a Chance on Me.” The Bee Gees, consisting of brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, actually started out as a rock band in the 1960s, but transformed into disco kings in the ’70s, recording hits such as “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “How Deep is Your Love.”
ABBA split once the two couples in the group split. And the Bee Gees were devastated by the death of Maurice Gibb in 2003. So fans hoping to see either act live will be disappointed.
Yet, they can see the next best thing — bands that look and act like ABBA and the Bee Gees —which explains why Lichach’s tribute bands perform to good-sized crowds throughout the world.
“This show has played more than the real Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna combined,” he said.