'Nostalgia' bands draw reliable crowds, spur economic activity

Feb. 3—Classic rock band The Guess Who took the stage last night at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg, belting out hits such as "American Woman" and "These Eyes."

Nostalgia is the primary draw for bands of a certain vintage who are looking to capitalize on the magic of classic rock's heyday. Sometimes, as in The Guess Who's case, an original member of the band is involved. Other times, it's a band paying tribute to their musical idols.

Either way, their popularity helps to fuel local economic activity, according to venue owners and concert organizers.

"Our show with Almost Queen had nearly 1,200 attendees, and the theater seats 1,367," said Teresa Baughman, interim CEO for the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, which manages The Palace. "(Led Zeppelin cover group) Get the Led Out performs here regularly."

Baughman said when she started working with the Westmoreland Cultural Trust nearly three decades ago, Greensburg didn't exactly have a bustling downtown food scene.

"As the theater has developed over the years, there are easily a half-dozen places now where you can go within walking distance," she said. "Economic development spurred by the arts has been one of the goals of the cultural trust."

Proximity to The Palace was one of the reasons Invisible Man Brewing owner Sean McLaughlin opted to move from North Pennsylvania Avenue to part of the former Rialto building a little over a month ago.

"Business has been really great," McLaughlin said. "There's been a noticeable bump since moving here compared to our previous location, and a lot of people going to shows at The Palace stop in."

In fact, McLaughlin was hoping to sneak up the street to catch Get the Led Out when they played The Palace shortly before Christmas, "but we were busy with a lot of the people going to that show," he said. "So busy, in fact, that I wasn't able to get over there and see them."

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Gary Latshaw of Latshaw Productions has been booking shows at The Palace for decades. And, while his company initially shied away from tribute and cover bands, he said, "the customer dictates what they want to see, and there's certainly a market for tribute acts. It goes all the way back to Elvis impersonators."

Latshaw estimated that the value of Palace shows to the local economy is in the millions of dollars.

"We're booking hotel rooms for the performers. We've brought in busloads of people from Ohio who all go out to eat and visit other places during the day," he said. "I met a doctor who flew in from Austria because he wanted to get great seats to go see Amy Grant. And once someone like that gets their plane ticket and flies in, Greensburg's a real bargain and there's a lot to do."

'Recreating an experience'

Dr. Tony DiCesaro, 57, of Whitehall used to perform with Bon Journey, a Bon Jovi and Journey tribute group. These days, he manages the band.

DiCesaro said the passion that musicians have for the bands they cover makes all the difference.

"One of the best 'cover bands' I ever saw was Foreigner," DiCesaro said. "There was only one original guy left in the band, but they paid homage to the original group and did those iconic songs so well."

In late January, Three Dog Night packed the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead despite having only one original member, singer Danny Hutton, in the band.

The Greensburg SummerSounds series often fills St. Clair Park with thousands turning out to see bands like Chicago tribute act Leonid & Friends and Fleetwood Mac tribute Seven Wonders.

At The Palace, Baughman said the trust tries to bring a varied mix of entertainment, split between modern acts, orchestral performances, holiday shows and nostalgia groups like The Guess Who.

"We try to keep our tribute bands scheduled during the week, to save weekends for bigger headlining acts, like the Little River Band and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd show we have coming on a Sunday," Baughman said.

In addition to the Palace, other venues like Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Warrendale and the Lamp Theatre in Irwin feature a healthy dose of '70s and '80s tribute bands on their event calendars.

As more and more members of the baby boomer generation retire, DiCesaro said, they're looking back fondly at the music of their youth.

"Music fans have spoken about what they like and want," he said. "We're all aging, and we're not going to see The Who out there smashing guitars anymore. But we can see these bands."

DiCesaro said the draw of classic rock tribute acts is twofold.

"My son, for example, is 17 years old and tells me, 'I wish I could have seen some of those bands.' He can't, but there are a lot of groups out there doing a really good job playing this music that defined a generation," he said.

And for the generation who got to see the real thing?

"There are memories attached to that music and a visceral, emotional reaction people have to it," DiCesaro said.

Latshaw agreed.

"Music speaks to people on a uniquely strong level," he said. "It takes them back to a particular place and time. We book tribute acts that travel internationally, and they're very, very talented musicians making an artistic statement with their costumes and performance.

"They're recreating an experience that's no longer possible with many of these classic bands," he said.

Only one founding member of The Guess Who, drummer Garry Peterson, is in the group's current lineup.

Two former members of the band, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, filed a 2023 lawsuit alleging the current lineup is misleading fans and is "little more than a cover band."

But while the lawsuit has yet to play out in court, longtime fans didn't seem to mind whether or not the band that took the stage Friday night was the "authentic" Guess Who.

Patrick Varine is a TribLive reporter covering Delmont, Export and Murrysville. He is a Western Pennsylvania native and joined the Trib in 2010 after working as a reporter and editor with the former Dover Post Co. in Delaware. He can be reached at pvarine@triblive.com.