Why playing the music of our favourite stars is the best tribute that we can pay
It may not be the real Adele, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton or Bono on stage, but, as Lee Henry finds out, home-grown lookalikes are still selling out venues around Northern Ireland every week.
On Boxing Night 2015, and the two following evenings, 34-year-old performer John Paul McCauley stepped out onto the stage at Crumlin Road Gaol and fulfilled a long-held ambition, his faithful guitar in hand, dressed head-to-toe in black.
For years beforehand, McCauley had been listening to, learning and losing himself in the music of American country rock icon Johnny Cash - idol of outcasts and author of songs that have long since entered the Great American Songbook - whose famous composition Fulsom Prison Blues captured the disaffected voice of a generation and whose subsequent album, Live at Fulsom Prison, instantly became the stuff of recording legend.
Here was McCauley, Northern Ireland's foremost Johnny Cash tribute artist, about to raise the Crumlin Road roof for hundreds of audience members brought up on Ring of Fire, A Boy Named Sue' I Walk The Line and other Cash staples. The pressure was high, the lights hot, the band poised to play. For the boy from Clady in Co Tyrone, December 26, 2015 will live on in the memory for years to come.
"The current show, Cash Returns, has been going for about two years now," says John Paul "and the reaction from the public has been a bit of a surprise, to be honest. I came to Johnny Cash's music quite late on, just after his death in 2003, when I first heard his version of Trent Reznor's Hurt, and I've been hooked ever since. It's amazing to fill his shoes for a few hours every week."
Having performed in various acoustic groups over the years, playing his own tracks and others by the likes of Neil Young, Green Day, Bonnie Prince Billy and AC/DC, McCauley decided to assume the role of his newfound musical hero after finding that general music audiences consistently responded with gusto to Johnny Cash covers.
McCauley now performs in pubs, clubs and penal institutions across the UK on a semi-regular basis - at weddings, parties, festivals and openings - with his sister, Caroline, conveniently completing the Cash Returns line-up as iconic country singer, and Cash's late wife, June Carter. "She has a fantastic voice," adds John Paul, "and the crowds love her.
"We're chuffed to be able to do what we do," he beams, taking time out from his full-time job as a successful graphic designer to chat about his other passion. "I know I'll never be lucky enough to see the Man in Black perform live on stage, which is sadly the case for so many other people, especially his new generation of younger fans, so we try to resurrect a little bit of his magic each time we perform."
McCauley is, of course, not the only singer here to spend his evenings and weekends mimicking world famous musical maestros. With ticket prices to see real deal stars in the flesh continuing to soar in price year-on-year, cover bands and tribute acts are living the dream, selling out venues across the country like never before.
"I think people in Northern Ireland just enjoy a good night out, seeing a good live show, and that's what we provide," offers CC Houlihan, an award-winning Elvis impersonator who regularly performs, and often sells out, venues large and small, including The Belfast's Grand Opera House and Empire Music Hall.
"There is a wealth of musical talent here," CC adds, "which we should all be proud of. And for my part, I just can't wait to get out there with the band each night, no matter where we're playing, and pay tribute to the King."
Newcomers like John Paul are now competing with long-term performers for gigs, but, according to Donna Stewart, a 44-year-old Dolly Parton tribute act from Lisburn, the current demand is high enough to ensure that there are plenty of gigs to go around.
"Country music, for example, is popular everywhere," says Donna. "With my show, you're guaranteed a great night's craic, dancing and singing along with a drink or two. How could you not love it? Even people who say they don't secretly do."
Donna first saw Dolly Parton perform in London's Royal Albert Hall in 1983, a televised concert that she has since watched countless times. "I still use some of the songs and script from that show," she admits.
"I've been performing on stage since childhood, writing, producing and directing all sorts of shows, and playing principal roles, so I've always found accents and singing styles relatively easy to replicate, but with Dolly it's much more than just singing like her.
"She has a unique style, which I copy with the help of costume designer Sandra MacComish, and I tell the story of her songs before performing each, as she wrote them herself and they mean a lot to her. To do a decent tribute, you have to be prepared to research the role, really get to know the artist. Anything else would be an insult."
While there are those who come into the world of tribute performance and go without leaving much of a trace - johnny-come-latelies who naively assume that a simple affection for their chosen artist is enough to see them through a night of underwhelming renditions in bear pit clubs across the country - for the likes of Donna, John Paul, CC and others of their ilk, it's a serious business peopled by authentic performers who love what they do.
"I've recently had bad results from an MRI scan on my back," Donna reveals, "that won't allow me to continue with the full shows, but I'll keep doing spot appearances, shared shows with other tribute pals and I have some really exciting plans for the future. I just adore singing Dolly's songs, and I'm not the sort to let a tiny thing like a spine stop me."
Aside from a keen interest in their music, and a willingness to put on a good show no matter the occasion, sound and visuals are, of course, essential components in sorting the amateurs from the profestionals.
Rownan McCully, from Londonderry, is a 45-year-old Bono impersonator who has been performing as the Irish rock heavyweight since the early Nineties. He was able to establish a successful career as a tribute artist due to the quite uncanny physical resemblance he has to Bono - right down to the strong chin and thick, wavy black hair - while his singing voice is also remarkably similar to the Dubliner's distinct vocal sound.
"When I was at school," Rownan recalls, "at about age 14, everyone started to tell me that I resembled Bono, even the teachers, and my father used to sing, 'There's a guy works up in Derry thinks he's Bono.' I fell in love with U2's music in the mid-Eighties and have loved everything they've brought out ever since.
"For me, sounding like the artist is the most important thing as a tribute act. For others, it's the look. It's really about balance. You need the complete package to really pull it off."
And he has certainly had that. In 1992, he beat off stiff competition from a wealth of other Bono impersonators to bag a role in U2's Even Better Than The Real Thing video, mimicking the main man himself, and was subsequently invited onstage during the band's famous Zoo TV tour, at Wembley and elsewhere, along with a cast of other U2 lookalikes. He looks back on a career emulating his musical hero with great pride.
"Although I don't perform as Bono much nowadays, if I'm asked for the odd charity event, I will," Rownan says. "I don't think I will ever stop playing music, whether the fiddle in a trad band or just singing a song at a party, but my run performing the music of U2 will stay with me forever."
Adele impersonator Kimberely Hamilton, from Glasgow, meanwhile - who regularly wows audiences at the Cabaret Supper Club in Belfast with her pitch-perfect renditions of Someone Like You, Rolling In The Deep and more of the Londoner's award-winning songs - advises wannabe tribute artists that only practice makes perfect.
In order to bag an agent or join the roster of a money-making entertainments company, for example, performers should spend as much time as possible learning their chosen artist's back catalogue inside out, working on their stage presence and crafting their all-round copycat experience before promoting themselves to a wider audience.
"I'm with F3 entertainments, which is really big on getting all the details right," the 32-year-old explains.
"For them, it's not good enough for me to just put on a dress and lashes and go out and sing the songs. I have to get Adele's Cockney accent right, the physical gestures, the way certain bits of the songs are sung distinctively like Adele as close as I can. It's the same for all other tributes on their books."
When all of the jigsaw parts are in place, however - the voice, the costume, the look, the band, the stage craft and the promotional materials - it all comes down to having a good time, both for the performer and the audience. "We enjoy paying tribute to Johnny and June's songs," John Paul remarks. "Yeah, I dress in black and try to capture Cash's Arkansas drawl as best I can when singing, but it's all part of the experience and the fun of it all."