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Sounds of summer

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Top: The Eagles Experience take the stage at an indoor concert.
Middle: A press photo for the Jimmy Buffet tribute band,
Changes in Latitude Bottom: UnionJack performing at the annual
Abbey Road on the River festival in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Prime photos courtesy The Eagles Experience,
Changes in Latitude and Don Lempke

Tribute bands keep 1960s, 70s alive for concertgoers

By Debbie Gardner

      They’re the “other” boys of summer. The guys who get up on stage at fairs and festivals, town concerts and beer garden shows, playing those songs that, for many of us, were the soundtrack of our lives back when.

      And here in Western Mass. we’re lucky. Three of those bands we get to hear for free all summer long are among the country’s best tribute bands when it comes to recreating the sounds of the 1960s and ’70s.

      I’m talking  about the perennial summer favorites UnionJack British Invasion Band, Changes in Latitude and The Eagles Experience.

      Prime reached out to these local legends to find out how they got their start, and what it’s like to keep the memories going for their loyal fans season after season.

      Here’s what their lead artists shared….

UnionJack – it was supposed to be a one-time show ...

      Vocalist and drummer for the band we know today as UnionJack British Invasion Band, Dave Lempke, told Prime their roots go back to 1979, when the original members started covering songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Kinks as part of their club repertoire.

      “We saw ‘Beatlemania’ at the Winter Garden Theater [in New York City], came back and thought it would be fun,” Lempke recalled. “But we only did it for a year because there wasn’t a huge audience for tribute bands [back then].”     

      Lempke said instead the group “went the traditional way of playing clubs, still doing some Beatles, but more of what was on the radio” morphing into a wedding band called Innovations in the 1980s and ‘90s, and a British Invasion-themed tribute band that played local festivals.

      By 2000, Lempke said “the guys got tired of playing weddings” and the band went on hiatus.

      “Then I got a call from Celebrate Holyoke – we’d played at it for 15 years [as UnionJack British Invasion Band] – and they asked us to play the event,” Lempke said.

      “I had a hard time saying no,” Lempke admitted, “So I called [lead vocalist] Gary Wilkinson and Les Bowler – that was in 2002– and said to Gary ‘I have a gig and we don’t have a band; do you want to go back and do a one-off performance of the British Invasion Band?”

      Lempke said before Wilkinson answered, the poster for the event came out and “Les called and said, ‘there’s another band using our name playing Celebrate Holyoke….”

      Lempke called Jim Brown, who still plays guitar and does vocals with Union Jack and asked him if he wanted to play the gig, and Union Jack was back onstage at Celebrate Holyoke.

      “It was supposed to be a one-off [gig], but at the end people came up to us and asked us to play a birthday party, and at a club, and from then on we’ve been playing as UnionJack,” Lempke said.

      And though there have been some changes since the band reformed in 2002 – “retirements and leaving for health reasons or because they wanted another type of band,” Lempke said, he, Jim Brown on vocals, guitar, keys, maracas and harmonica and through 2022 co-founder Gary Wilkerson on guitar, vocals and bass have been the backbone of the band. Along the way Peter Schindelman on bass, vocals and guitar, Jim Stough on guitar, vocal, keys, harmonica and bass and more recently, Gary Santaniello on guitar, vocals, bass and harmonica, have completed the five-piece group that performs as UnionJack. “One more person, Michael Van Hoesen from Albany, New York, travels with us to festivals, and will play with us in East Longmeadow and Stanley Park [this summer]” Lempke added.

      Playing together nights and weekends around real life and jobs over the years because they “love to play,” Lempke said most of the band members are now retired. “We rehearse once a week at one of the guy’s houses,” he said.

The sound of a generation

      “What separates us [from others is], we’re not a ‘real’ tribute band. We play so many different styles we don’t try to look like them or sound exactly like them – we’re not a boots and suits band where we come out with a wig … I’m not a 23-year-old Ringo Star and our guitar player isn’t a 21-year-old Paul McCartney,” Lempke said. “We try to dress in the style of the 1970s but we don’t try to look like them. We try to bring you back to the era through the music rather than the visual.”

      And they do it incredibly well. In 2009, UnionJack was invited to play at “Abbey Road on the River” in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the world’s largest Beatles and Classic Rock festival. Lempke said they’ve been invited back to perform at “Abbey Road by the River” for the past 15 years.

      And that gig has led to even more international fame for UnionJack.

      “It’s funny, it’s through ‘Abbey Road’ that we’ve been able to become friends with [tribute] bands from all over the world, England and Germany, Scotland, Brazil, Holland and through that relationship  we’ve been invited to play at the International Beatles Festival in 2022 and 2023 at the famous Tavern Club and other Beatles-related venues, “ Lempke said. “Exposure to those two places exposed us to audiences of 20,000, and about 100,000 people come through Liverpool during International Beatles Festival Week.”

      “We think it’s a pretty impressive thing for a little tiny band from Holyoke to play those national and international functions,” Lempke added.

      And Prime asked the loaded question – “Do they ever get tired of playing those tribute songs over and over?”

      “Sometimes we get tired of playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” Lempke admitted. “But we learned early that’s what the people want.”

      “We do like to shuffle [the songs] around so we aren’t playing the same songs every week and every show,” said Lempke, who admitted he’s a big Rolling Stones fan “so that’s the songs I like to see” as well as “every song the Beatles played.”

Changes in Latitude –a tropical tribute

      Before a 13-year stint as a supervisor at U.S Air based at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, Changes in Latitude founding member Steve Kareta had been a musician and more. He played in a rock band in high school and later in bands that played the bar circuit. From there he used his musical background to land a gig as a touring sound engineer, working with Joe Crocker and10,000 Maniacs during his career.

      “I was well into the music business, but then I met my wife and decided I wanted to be off the road and got a job with U.S. Air,” Kareta shared.

      That airline job had one great perk, the ability to travel and he and his wife did just that with friends who also worked at U.S. Air. Among those trips was a weekend jaunt to see Jimmy Buffett perform in Charlotte, North Carolina. Little did he know the implications of that trip.

      When 9/11 disrupted the airline business in 2001, Kareta said he started looking for “something to do” to make a little money during the summer while waiting to see where his U.S. Air job was headed.

      By chance he was at a backyard wedding party with those same traveling companions when he picked up a guitar and stated singing. At first, he did some Rolling Stones, then moved on to a little Jimmy Buffet.

      His friend “Came over to me in a drunken stupor and said, ‘you kind of look like Jimmy Buffett and sound like him’ … and the rest is history,” Kareta said. “I started the Buffett band thinking it was just something to do until I figured out what else to do.”

      More than 20 years later that “summer” band, is the country’s premiere tribute show to the late singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.

Parrot head approved

      Kareta said Changes in Latitude puts a full complement on stage similar to Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band – a total of 11 to 14 performers per show. They also perform with “all the props … the lighthouse and the surfboard and the tiki torches and a full background, it’s all a standard part of our show,” Kareta said.

      Kareta added that he thinks of their shows as not just entertainment, but as a way to explain the man behind the legend, even to his fans.

      “A lot of people think Buffett is this goofy drunken guy but he’s more a singer-songwriter like James Taylor,” Kareta continued. “I do the show to tell a story, give them background, lead people through what a song is about, the meaning that might not be so obvious.”

      And they’ve done it up and down the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, even performing their signature show in the theater on Disney’s Magic and Wonder cruise ships as well as “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at the National Hamburger Festival in Akron, Ohio.

      Kareta said they also “do a couple of weeks in Florida … Since Jimmy Buffett has passed the demand for Jimmy Buffett [tribute bands] has exploded.” In addition, they’ve scheduled “a couple of weeks” in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and concerts in Pennsylvania.

      Looking back, Kareta admits the band has come a long way from the first days when “we had a lot of goofy inflatable palm trees” on stage when they performed, with even the band itself morphing over the years. He said there are no original members of the current Changes in Latitude, save himself.     

      “Every year or two somebody has to go or come, life evolves, somebody gets married, somebody gets divorced, somebody has a kid. Some people leave the band, some people come back,” Kareta said. When the are working a new person in, Kareta said he’ll rehearse with just that person, saying for example, “there’s no reason for someone who isn’t doing vocal to be sitting around” while one person gets up to speed on songs. And, most have other jobs besides performing with Changes in Latitude, some in music, some in other fields, though most with what he calls flexible work schedules.

      “All the people in this band are stellar musicians … two hours before the show we get together for a sound check, do our bits and bobs and then go through a new song while everybody is up and running,” he explained. If everyone is comfortable, they put it in the play list, if not, they set it aside for more work.

      At 54 years old with more than 20 years of nearly full-time touring and playing with Changes in Latitude under his belt, Kareta said he had been thinking about slowing down in the near future, but not now   

      “The next year or so are going to be crazy,” he shared.

The Eagles Experience –standin’ on a corner…

      And Changes in Latitude isn’t Kareta’s only gig. He’s also the founder of another locally-based premiere tribute band, The Eagles Experience,

      Kareta told Prime that second tribute band was really born out of his desire to fill his show calendar during slow months.

      “[Changes in Latitude] is crazy busy in the summer, but it slows down in the winter and if I wanted to stay playing, I started thinking, ‘what other band do I like … I like the Eagles’ and off it went,” Kareta said.

      One of his criteria for starting a second tribute group, however, was maintaining the level of professionalism he’d established with Changes in Latitude.

      “I wanted to make sure it was the same level of quality and musicianship between the two bands,” Kareta explained. “We spent about two years rehearsing [The Eagles Experience] before we brought it out.”

      He added that Lincoln Hubley, the Eagles Experience drummer, was crucial to helping the band capture the sound of the original Eagles band.

      “He was instrumental in dissecting the vocals … he would say ‘somebody has to sing this note’ … he listened to the recordings very closely and figured out what needed to be sung,” Kareta said, adding that The Eagles Experience only performs songs recorded in the 1970s by the full Eagles band, not works done by Glenn Frye, Joe Walsh or Don Henley as solo acts.

      Getting the Eagles sound right, Kareta joked, involved “a lot of sitting in a backroom with an acoustic guitar and rehearsing the vocals” over and over.

      “We do the radio versions of the songs people know, they’re exactly as recorded,” Kareta stressed. He added that they perform all their material live, with no pre-recorded backing tracks or “digital assistance.”

      The first show for the Eagles Experience took place in March of 2017, and the reputation of the tribute experience they provide has exploded in popularity every year since.

      “We’ve played some big venues up and down the East Coast [over the years],” Kareta said. But the biggest show they’ve done to date was in 2021when they were invited to headline at the “Standin’ On The Corner” Eagles tribute festival in Arizona, performing alongside American Idols winner Jake Hoot.

      “Winslow, Arizona was kind of a feather in the cap; it was a long way to go but it was a cool gig,” Kareta said. “I have pictures of us standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.”

      Between the two bands – which Kareta said are “night and day” in terms of the type of performances – “the Buffet [band] is pretty much anything goes … with the Eagles band we’re very accurate”, Kareta  said he felt “blessed.”

      “To have stumbled into both of these [bands] and to have pushed to have them become a product that people want to come and see … It’s important to me that the band is worth the time and money to come and see,” Kareta said.

                And for him the reward for all that work is “The two hours onstage, when I can see people enjoying the fruits of our labor.”