Herrera said his first encounter with tribute bands was when a friend introduced him to an AC/DC tribute in the mid-90s.
"I was just blown away. I started fantasizing about who I would do," he said. "I took inventory and said, 'Well, you're a lead guitar player, your ethnic background is Mexican, it's gotta be Santana."
A longtime fan of the rhythmic rock group, with its trademark three-man percussion section, Herrera teamed up with his stepson, who learned to play the congas for the project. Residents of Palo Alto at the time, their very first public show was at Gunn High School. From those humble beginnings and several lineup changes later, Caravanserai has gone on to a lucrative career, performing 30-50 shows a year all over the western U.S. And the line between the "real" Santana and the tribute has been blurred, thanks to collaborations with a variety of founding and contributing members (Adrian Areas, son of original Santana timbale player Jose "Chepito" Areas, is currently a percussionist with Caravanserai; other Santana members work with them on a regular basis).
"We're the only Santana tribute band that can claim that we have DNA from the original Santana," Herrera said. "I'm very proud of that. Originally I was, like, this guy in my garage with a dream. Now I'm playing with guys in Santana."
Herrera has only met Carlos Santana once so far, and, when he introduced himself as the leader of Caravanserai, he said the maestro responded with one simple word: "Beautiful."
With two of its members deceased and the band broken up long ago, seeing a Beatles tribute act may be as close as many folks can get to seeing the Fab Four live. Despite sharing a last name with the late-Beatle George, Drew Harrison plays and sings the part of John Lennon in Beatles tribute The Sun Kings (thesunkings.com), who this year will perform on June 14 as part of Menlo Park's summer-concert series.
"I've always been a Lennon nut," Harrison said. Like many musicians, Harrison first fell in love with the music of The Beatles as a teenager and remains a passionate fan to this day. While some tribute bands use costumes to try to impersonate the artists they cover, Harrison said that's not The Sun Kings' style.
"No wigs, no mustaches, no phony accents. It's all about the music. We spend a lot of time getting under the hood of these songs," Harrison said. "No offense to the people who do the theatrics — more power to them," he added. He named Lennon's "Dear Prudence," off the "White Album," as his personal favorite from the band's more-than 200 songs, most of which the Sun Kings have mastered during their 15-year run.
Because the goal is to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, bands paying tribute to best-selling acts with a built-in fanbase seem to be at an advantage for scoring the coveted summer gigs.
"In my experience running our concerts in Menlo Park, cover bands (tributes included) typically draw a slightly larger crowd than bands playing original music," Menlo Park Recreation Coordinator Matt Milde wrote in an email, adding that overall sound quality is the most important factor in the selection process.
The value of tribute bands, Harrison and Herrera said, is part nostalgia, part cost efficiency and part the pure joy of hearing long-beloved music in a live context.
"Some of these bands don't exist any more. If you could see The Beatles today, you probably couldn't afford a ticket anyway," Harrison said. "The way classical music is still listened to and heard, people go to symphony halls and orchestras ... to recreate music from 300 years ago because it's good music," he said.
Harrison also makes original music under his own name and said that he's not resentful that The Sun Kings are responsible for the lion's share of his musical success.
"It's certainly easier to book The Beatles than it is to book Drew; Drew hasn't written a Beatles song yet that's sold a million copies," he said. "I'm 55 now. If I was 25, I'd probably be a little more cynical about it, but being a little older I'm just enjoying it for what it is." All his fellow Sun Kings are "pleasantly obsessed, the way I am," he said. "I feel very fortunate. I get to play Beatles and make people happy."
For Harrison and Herrera, playing in a tribute band is more than a way to pay the bills. It's a way to keep alive and be a part of the music that has inspired them for decades, and a way of blending their identities as fans and as artists.
"It's a huge honor to be able to replicate (Santana's) guitar work for me, and I work hard at it; it's given me a life," Herrera said. "We love this music from the bottom of our hearts. Every time we play it, we're having an experience that means something to us."
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