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The Ultimate Superfans: Tribute Bands That Really Rock

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They're called phonies, posers, and knock-offs. But the hard-working fans in tribute bands deserve a little respect. Maybe after reading these tales of "fake" rockers who really rock, you just might change your tune.

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Just like a "real" band, a tribute act has to stand out from the crowd by offering the audience something unexpected. One popular novelty is a band made up of members of the opposite gender. For example, AC/DShe is an all-female version of AC/DC. Other hit all-female acts include, The Romonas (The Ramones), The Iron Maidens (Iron Maiden), and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). For some, the gender-bending twist allows the audience to overlook the band's lack of musical skill. But for others, they have nothing to hide.

Since forming in 2004, Lez Zeppelin, an all-female tribute to Led Zeppelin, has become one of the most respected tribute acts playing today.

They've played all over America and Europe to standing room only crowds, and to thousands of fans at outdoor festivals like Bonnaroo. They've been featured on MTV, VH1, CNN, and even graced the cover of SPIN. Pop culture philosopher Chuck Klosterman has said their "replication of these songs is 80 percent flawless and 99 percent awesome." He goes on to say they might be the most powerful all-female band in rock history. To further solidify their reputation as the real deal, the ladies released a self-titled debut album in 2007 under the guidance of Eddie Kramer, a legendary producer who has made albums with Jimi Hendrix, KISS, and five records with the real Led Zeppelin. Not bad for a knock-off band. Here they are in action:

But girls aren't the only ones who just wanna have fun. Rad Bromance, an all-male Lady Gaga tribute band with a rock n' roll slant, has been winning audiences over with their musicality and party-like stage show since they formed in December 2009. Although most acts' meat and potato gigs are at local bars, the members of this group couldn't get through the door; some of them can't even drive yet. The five young men, between the ages of 15 and 18, met while performing as part of The Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, a hand-picked group of teenage musicians who tour the U.S. playing classic rock at festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. With their unique, tongue-in-cheek take on Gaga, the self-managed group is already selling out small venues and moving up to bigger shows across the east coast in 2011. Here's the band's version of "Poker Face":

Little People, Big Performers

If you watched Super Bowl XLIV this year, you probably remember rockers KISS playing alongside smaller versions of themselves in a Dr Pepper commercial. That little person band was Mini KISS, a groundbreaking act that's been around a lot longer than most people think.

According to founding member Joey Fatale, Mini KISS started in 1996. The inspiration came to Joey as he was packing up his apartment to move and came across his old KISS albums. Now, 14 years and over 20 band members later, Mini KISS is hotter than ever, appearing in the ad with KISS, as well as a playing a packed schedule, hitting music festivals, halftime shows, and private events across the country.

But like any great band, Mini KISS has had their personality struggles within the group. When the original drummer, Tim Loomis, was fired from the act, he started his own KISS tribute band in 2006, Tiny KISS. Of course this angered Fatale, who claimed Loomis stole his idea and the two groups have been embroiled in a feud ever since. Now, fours years later, Tiny KISS plays a regular gig as part of Beacher's Madhouse at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, one of the most popular shows in Las Vegas.

With both bands enjoying plenty of success, it appears the world is big enough for two little KISS bands. And there's still room for other little people groups, such as singer Terra Jole, who performs as both Mini Britney Spears and Mini Lady Gaga, The Black-Eyed Pee Wees, and the Little Legends show, which was a huge hit on the Vegas Strip a few years ago.

Keepin' It Real

For some, being in a tribute band is little more than a good gig until something better comes along. But for others, it becomes a way of life. And for a very select few, a tribute band can lead to the best gig of all - fame and fortune. Either way, the experience can forever change the lives of those who truly love the music they play.

In the UK, one tribute act's on-stage persona is so important to them that it has become their new identity. Joliet Jake Blues and Elwood Jake Blues, the stars of their own continuously-touring Blues Brothers tribute show, had their names legally changed to match the characters they emulate from the 1980 classic film. Their new names appear on their driver's license, as well as their passports, and they even got permission to leave their sunglasses on for their photo IDs, claiming the glasses were a "permanent fixture" on their faces. When their passports recently came up for renewal, they were told that new regulations will force them to take off their shades for their next photos. Although the duo are appealing on religious grounds as they believe they are "on a mission from God."

When lead singer Rob Halford left the pioneering heavy metal band Judas Priest in 1991, fans were devastated. Looking to pay homage to his favorite group, Tim Owens helped form a Priest tribute act, British Steel, a few years later. The band played with moderate success, but not enough for Owens to quit his day job as an office supply salesman. Then, in 1996, word came that the remaining members of Priest were looking to get back into the studio, so their search for a new lead singer began. A couple of fans sent them a grainy videotape of British Steel performing in a local bar and, the next thing you know, Tim Owens had become "Ripper Owens," lead singer of Judas Priest. Over the next few years he recorded four albums with his new bandmates, but then Halford returned in 2003, and Owens moved on. If this all sounds familiar, then perhaps you saw the 2001 film Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg, which is loosely based on Rippers' story.

While Ripper Owens' situation might be unusual, it's not entirely unique. For example, Tommy Thayer replaced original "Spaceman" Ace Frehley of KISS in 2002 when Frehley decided to leave the group. Before that, Thayer had played the part of Frehley in a KISS cover band called, Cold Gin. Benoit David was the lead singer of a Yes tribute band when Jon Anderson, lead singer of the real Yes, fell ill. After the group saw footage of David performing, they asked him to come on tour until Anderson could return. As Anderson's health has continued to decline, Yes has made David a permanent part of the band. They'll soon be recording their first album together.

Fight for Your Right to Party

Unfortunately, not all artists believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In April 2009, Bon Jovi's lawyers sent a letter to the all-female members of Blonde Jovi, demanding they change their name to avoid confusion with the real band. Rather than fight the power, the ladies changed their name to Blonde Jersey. However, the name change killed their momentum in the club scene and they disbanded shortly after.

Thankfully, Beatallica, a band who plays Beatles tunes in the style of heavy metal legends Metallica, had an unexpected guardian angel when Sony Records, the copyright owners of much of the Beatles' catalog, came a-knocking. Lars Ulrich, drummer for Napster-suing Metallica, came to the aid of the tribute band, even asking his band's lawyers to help mediate an agreement. Beatallica was allowed to stay intact and Sony lightened up once Ulrich convinced them that the small-time group was using the songs as parody, so fair use laws applied. Have a listen:

There are at least 40 known bands who pay tribute to ABBA, but if Universal Records had their way, that number wouldn't be so high. In June 2010, Universal threatened legal action against 15 tribute bands for sticking too closely to their Swedish roots. Groups like Abba Mania, AbbaDabbaDoo, and Abba Queens will have to change their name or close up shop to avoid confusion with the original pop act.

If it's not the original group suing a tribute act, it's a tribute act suing another tribute act. Just last week, Beatles tribute band The Fab Four sued Beatles tribute band The Fab 4 in federal court, claiming the numbered group was trying to leech off the reputation of the Four's 14-year career. The suit claims that ticket buyers could be confused, thinking they're buying tickets to The Fab Four, when in fact they're buying tickets to The Fab 4. You know, on second thought, this is getting a little confusing...
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If you were to start a tribute band, what group would be your inspiration? Ever been to a really great tribute show? Tell us all about it in the comments below.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.