Mason Swearingen and the Psychology of the Tribute Band
Musical career of Beginnings band member
Posted Jan 23, 2017
“Only the beginning
of what I want to feel forever.”
— from “Beginnings” by Chicago
Tribute bands are bands that love the music of a specific—and usually well-known—band and play only songs from that band in their live shows.
Mere mention of the term “tribute band” may induce eye rolls, sighs and other nonspecific condescension from musicians and fans who are simply too “real” to have time for a band who doesn’t play its own music.
But, in contrast to many bands that play original music, tribute bands boast an impressive touring schedule, playing throughout the year and all over the world at an array of clubs, festivals and casinos.
Is it because it’s easy to play the music of another band so any second-rate group of musicians can take the music, practice and make money off of it? Hell, that’s basically what wedding and bar mitzvah bands do anyway.
But a closer look reveals a deeper bond with the music and the fans who enjoy it. The simple fact of the matter is that tribute bands aren’t just musicians. They are fans just like us, and because they are fans like us, they bring the same level of enthusiasm and excitement that any of us would bring if we had the chance to rock out playing the songs of our favorite band.
More, tribute bands skip all of the difficult parts of following a band. When we go to a show, we want our rock stars to be a certain way. We don’t necessarily want them to “evolve.” If they have hit songs, we want them to keep playing those songs. If they have a style of music we like, we want them to stick with that style of music. And we want them to tour constantly—not just when they release a new album—because we love their music that much.
And tribute bands give the people what they want.
Most famous bands have at least one or more prominent tribute bands. In addition to a bevy of Elvis impersonators, the Beatles have Beatlemania Now, Beatlemania Magic, and many others. Led Zeppelin has Get the Led Out and Zoso, the late Barry White has the Barry White Experience, and Iron Maiden has the Iron Maidens.
And there’s also Beginnings, a tribute band dedicated to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Chicago. Chicago has been making music for almost 50 years, and boasts a number of classic-rock hits, ranging from “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” to “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.”
Beginnings, the group, which formed in 2002, has grown steadily, boasting 32 shows across the country in 2017—and that’s only through May.
To understand the mindset behind a tribute-band musician, I spoke with musician Mason Swearingen of Beginnings. And at the end of the day, I found a musician who, like every other musician, lives to play the music he loves, and has followed any opportunity he could find to keep playing.
Like many musicians, Swearingen—who was raised in Hendersonville, N.C.—learned about music from his family. Swearingen’s father was a musician, and his parents constantly had music playing at home.
“As long as I can remember, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play rock ’n’ roll and be in a band. Most of my earliest memories are of listening to the Beatles, [the Rolling] Stones, Allman Brothers, Motown, Chicago, Judy ‘Blue Eyes’ (Collins)—all kinds of different groups. I loved it,” he said.
“As early as 5 [or] 6 years old, I would dig through my parents’ record collections and spend hours listening to records,” Swearingen told me.
“My father also played bass and had a band, and my folks would throw parties and his band would play. I was totally enthralled with the instruments and amps,” he said. “It immediately spoke to me.
“I knew at a very young age singing or playing music was all I wanted to do.”
Swearingen learned how to read music and play a number of instruments, including piano, drums and trombone. As a teenager, he eventually found that singing and playing bass guitar were his passions. And like many other musicians, he learned by listening to and playing along with his favorite albums.
“When I was about 14, I finally talked my father into giving me one of his basses and an amp. From there, I was off and running,” Swearingen explained. “I never had bass/guitar lessons, but being able to read music made it much easier to learn songs, using sheet music and songbooks. I also would sit for hours playing by ear to albums and learning songs that way.”
Soon, Swearingen started his first band with fellow Hendersonville native and eventual Nashville-based singer-songwriter Matt King. “In high school, I started my first band, Dyonysis, god of wine & fertility. I was writing songs trying to emulate Van Halen and Kiss,” Swearingen said. “After I graduated, I talked an agent into booking us without telling him how old we were. I bought an old school bus, loaded all our equipment into it, and we traveled all over the Southeast, playing bars."
“We were playing in places we weren’t even old enough to get into.”
But when the band broke up, Swearingen was encouraged by his early success and moved to New York. He got a job at the now-defunct Tower Records, which only heightened his thirst for being a musician.
“I cannot overstate the creative cauldron that was Tower Records in the early ’90s. There was an endless library of music and an army of talented co-workers who were all exploring creative outlets,” he explained. “Many of my friends went on to be very successful screenwriters, musicians, artists, even record execs. It was just a phenomenal place to be.”
As time went on, throughout the ’90s, Swearingen was in several bands, including one called Gringo Love Show. Swearingen also studied voice with Don Lawrence, as well as Don’s father, Marty Lawrence. Through this experience, Swearingen felt that his musical and songwriting skills were improving—even winning Billboard songwriting awards for his work.
“I joined a singer-songwriter named Eric Stuart, who was represented by the same management company I was. He had garnered some interest by scoring an opening slot on the Ringo Starr All-Stars tour,” Swearingen said. “Eric piqued the interest of Peter Frampton, who ended up producing our album.
“Peter came down and played with us at a show in the Village and offered us an opening slot on his American tour. We ended up on tour with him for the better part of two years around ’98. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we sure did have a lot of fun. We also did a lot of growing up, learning about ourselves as musicians, writers and men in general.”
After years of playing original music, Swearingen found that playing original music simply didn’t pay as much as he’d hoped.
“My tenure with the Eric Stuart Band was winding down. I had been having some decent success, but I wasn’t making any money. One night we’re playing a show opening for Dave Mason at a club called the Downtown in Long Island, and this guy comes up to me after the show and says, ‘Hey, I like the way you play bass and sing. You wanna make some money?’ I said, ‘Why, yes, I do,’” Swearingen explained.
“He says, ‘Well, learn these 25 Billy Joel songs and come play with my band at such-and-such bar next Saturday.’ And I said ‘alright.’ That band turned out to be Big Shot, a very successful Billy Joel tribute band from Long Island. I spent the next three years playing three nights a week at every bar and backyard barbecue you can imagine.”
Eventually, Swearingen learned about the Chicago tribute band Beginnings. “Beginnings started out as a conglomeration of a few Long Island bands that included Mike from Big Shot. I was playing bass in his band but I wanted to be out front singing,” he said. “In a sense, we just traded places. He left Beginnings to focus more on Big Shot, and I left Big Shot and joined Beginnings. It worked out perfectly for both of us.”
And for Swearingen, being drawn more and more to Beginnings was about one simple thing; namely, the music.
“It all begins and ends with the music. Chicago’s music is just absolutely brilliant. To me, they are the ultimate band incorporating virtually every genre of music. Listen to their catalogue, and you hear rock, jazz, funk, soul, pop…There’s just so much depth. The orchestration of the songs is phenomenal between the horns, strings and rhythm section,” Swearingen explained.
“Then add in multiple lead vocalists. Their catalog runs the gamut of progressive instrumentals, beautiful three-minute ballads, rock anthems with searing guitar riffs and keyboard-heavy power-pop love songs. And it’s all done with brilliant songwriting. It’s the kind of music that makes you a better player for knowing it. Chicago gets branded as a ballad band, but take a look at the old live footage.
“They were a monstrous live rock band!”
Still, even after a positive experience with Big Shot, Swearingen was not initially thrilled at the concept of a music career in a tribute band. But as time went on, and he considered the changing dynamics of the music industry, in which bands make less money from record sales (as evidenced by the closing of Tower Records in 2006), he changed his mind.
“I was definitely hesitant to join tribute bands. After all, I think most musicians feel that playing cover songs is usually a starting point for a career, not an aspiration,” he recalled. “But take a look at the state of the music business today. Look at the diminishing quality of songwriting and musicianship. The tribute-band world is a great outlet. It’s a place where you can be as good and creative as you’re willing to make it.”
Part of what made the transition easier was that Swearingen saw that the musicians he was playing with were of a high caliber.
“And a lot of people assume that if you’re not an original artist or on a record label, then you’re just some novice wannabe. There are ridiculously talented musicians performing in world-class bands making a living doing the tribute shows, and there are actually members of famous original bands now working and playing in tribute bands,” Swearingen said.
“And performing the music of a band like Chicago, you have to have a certain level of skill and be willing to put in some serious time and practice to do it justice. Besides myself, we’ve got members who play with Blood Sweat & Tears, played in the Broadway musical ‘Rock of Ages,’ played with ‘American Idol’ finalists. The list goes on.”
But soon, Swearingen found that being part of a tribute band carried the same difficulties he faced in his original music bands.
“As we began to play more, there was the struggle of juggling the band and our day jobs and families. Some guys had to leave the band due to that conflict. It can be a heartbreaking decision. Balancing my day job with a full-time band is quite a feat and quite grueling at times,” Swearingen explained.
“There are local shows that we’ll drive up to a few hours back and forth after work. And a couple of times a month, I’ll work all week, leave work for the airport, fly out to a show, get up early the next day and drive a few hours to a second show, then drive to the nearest airport and catch the red-eye back to New York and go straight back to work.
“The summers can be even crazier. We’ll sometimes do five shows a week; go to work all day, try to beat traffic to that evening’s show, play for a couple of hours, load up, get home around midnight, then get up the next day and do it all over again. I do make every effort to stay ahead of schedule and meet deadlines so as not to fall behind at work.
“But it’s exhausting to say the least.”
Overall, the hectic schedule has taken quite a toll on Swearingen. “It’s not an easy thing to do, and it takes a toll on you psychologically as well as physically. The lack of sleep leaves you a bit dazed at times. I’m not as young as I used to be, so Advil is pretty commonplace for all the aches,” Swearingen said. “I have to keep myself very well hydrated, or I run the risk of losing my voice, and you can imagine how hard it is to eat well with a schedule like that. And during the quiet times, I’m reminded of all the years of loud music by the constant tinnitus ringing in my head.”
And as the band Journey said, ‘[L]ovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be.’ This has also taken a serious toll on family life. “I’m always missing family events or cutting visits short for the next show. I’m very lucky I’ve had my wife and best friend along with me for 25 years of this adventure, but it hasn’t been easy on her, either. Days and weeks away from home, missed birthdays and anniversaries all can take a toll on a relationship.
“I can’t tell you how lucky I am that she sees value in what I do and appreciates how much music is a part of who I am. Also, siblings, nieces and nephews seem to grow up in flashes, because so much time goes by between visits,” he said. “Seeing my parents and family getting older and realizing just how much I’ve missed is probably the toughest of all.”
And as the band’s popularity grew, Swearingen found that their problems grew as well.
“Beginnings has been together almost 15 years, and in that time, we’ve had many struggles. Early on, our struggles were making the time and effort to perform the music of Chicago on a professional level. We had to find all the right guys, and we had to find the right venues,” Swearingen explained.
“But with that success has come more and more struggles. We’ve struggled with terrible agents, greedy managers and seedy club owners, disagreements among band members about working nationally and the level of commitment that requires, what gigs to accept, hiring substitute musicians when scheduling conflicts arise and differing opinions on song choices. Then there are the really hard choices: the decisions about letting members go, about choosing quality of musician over personal friendships.
“Those hard choices have opened doors for us, but they have also left deep scars and broken relationships.”
But perhaps the most profound hurdle was coping with the death of founding member Phil Antonucci. “By far the biggest struggle came four years ago when we lost our close friend and founding member Phil Antonucci to cancer. It was a very tough time, and I miss him a lot. His passing sent the leadership mantle to me, and I honor him as I push Beginnings to a level we never imagined possible,” Swearingen said.
A special thrill for Swearingen has been the opportunity to meet most of the original members of Chicago and their families. And perhaps one of his favorite band moments was when former Chicago band musician Donnie Dacus joined Beginnings onstage.
“We were scheduled to play a couple of shows in Florida, and a mutual friend introduced us to former Chicago guitarist Donnie Dacus,” Swearingen described. “We invited him to come play with us for a couple of sold-out shows at the Savannah Center in The Villages, Florida, and he accepted.
“He came on stage and played “Feeling Stronger Every Day” and “I’m A Man” and the place just went crazy. Then he and his wife joined us for dinner afterwards. It was just a fantastic time. We’ve stayed in touch, and I’m proud to say I count Donnie as a friend of mine now.”
“Another night, we were performing in Florida, and after the show, a woman approached me and said she was Terry Kath’s stepmother,” Swearingen said. “She said she had loved our performance and that she thought Terry would be proud of Beginnings. That was a pretty amazing moment. Since then, when we play in her area, she comes out to visit and brings scrapbooks with photos and memorabilia about Terry and Chicago. It’s a very special friendship the band has with her.”
And the line between tribute band and the band whose music they are playing sometimes blurs even further.
For example, after years of playing in a Billy Joel tribute band, Swearingen’s friend Mike DelGuidice is now a member of Billy Joel’s band and plays regularly at Madison Square Garden. Tim “Ripper” Owens was in a Judas Priest tribute band before being called on by Judas Priest to be their vocalist in the mid-’90s. And Jon Davison, who was previously in a Yes tribute band called Roundabout is now Yes’ lead singer.
Taking both the hardships and the thrills of being in Beginnings, Swearingen wouldn’t change a thing.
“Professionally, Beginnings is the thing in my life I’m most proud of. The band has made me a better musician and singer, it’s made me more responsible and given me a real sense of self-worth. We’ve grown from a bar band into a legitimate rock ’n’ roll show with over 60 performances a year in major venues, performance arts centers, festivals and casinos all over the United States, and we’re still growing,” he said.
“We’ve performed in Disney and Las Vegas and all points in between, and a highlight for us…will be a weeklong stint at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, during February 2017. And over the years, we’ve had numerous world-class musicians join us.”
And Swearingen has no plans of slowing down. He is loving the life of a tribute-band musician.
“I love it. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of very talented people. I’ve made so many great friends all over the U.S., in all walks of life, that I’m always happy to see,” he said. “And I know how lucky I am. Trying to make a living being a working musician can be a thankless and humbling endeavor.
“Getting to travel as much as I do and make great music with great friends is really about all I can ask for.”