The dude looked like Steven Tyler. And he ended up in an Aerosmith tribute band
For nearly 30 years, landscaper Neill Byrnes has played the part of the Aerosmith frontman in Draw The Line. For some hard-core fans, he’s just as good as the real thing.
It’s a sauna. Uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe the combination of heat and humidity that’s turned Sherburne Gymnasium into a sweat lodge.
And yet there’s Gina Sirois, eyes closed, frantically thrusting her fists in the air. The cafeteria manager from Connecticut is among a few hundred mostly middle-aged women and men who’ve come to Sunapee tonight to relive their adolescence — and, for many, the experience is rapturous.
The moms and dads are enduring the swelter to hear the hits of Aerosmith, the hard rock relics whose two principals, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, met in this sleepy New Hampshire town as teenagers five-plus decades ago. But that’s not Tyler strutting around the stage in black-and-white striped bell-bottoms, hoisting the mike stand above his head like Excalibur, and the bare-chested dude throttling the Les Paul isn’t Perry.
That doesn’t matter to Sirois. Or to Cheryl Cuddy, who drove up from Dedham to see the Aerosmith tribute band Draw The Line steamroll through a set of classics and deep cuts, everything from “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk this Way” to “Sight for Sore Eyes” and “Lightning Strikes.”
“They’re amazing. I’ve probably seen Draw The Line 50 times,” shouts Cuddy, an Aerosmith superfan whose calf is adorned with a tattoo of Tyler’s familiar scarf-draped microphone stand. “Neill can do Steven 100 percent. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
She’s referring to Neill Byrnes, a Hingham landscaper who’s been moonlighting as a rock ’n’ roll mimic for 27 years, parlaying his uncanny resemblance to the Aerosmith singer — he has the same feline features and, like Tyler, the lips of a much younger woman — into a second career as a frontman. Byrnes has sung “Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” countless times — at casinos and corporate parties, in clubs, on cruise ships, and, tonight, in a stifling school gym to celebrate Sunapee’s 250th birthday.
“I’m always right up front and it’s always like Steven Tyler is singing to me,” says Carol Hanson-Morgan, 59, a self-described “rock chick” who made the 130-mile trip from West Bridgewater. “These guys are the whole package.”
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Tribute bands are big business, and it’s not only rock royalty like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones who’ve spawned a small army of sound-alikes. Even lesser acts, from Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers to Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain, have imitators.
The Ontario-based Booking House Inc. represents dozens of these acts. Co-owner Roger Lapointe says some strive to be clones of the original artists — not to fool the audience, but because the outfits and mannerisms of, say, Elton John are as essential to the experience as the songs — while other acts focus strictly on the music.
“The most important thing is that you sound like them, for sure,” says Lapointe. “Nobody goes to see a Doobie Brothers tribute show and says, ‘Where’s the Michael McDonald look-alike?’ ”
The Fab Faux, a Beatles tribute act whose ace musicians include Conan O’Brien’s bandleader Jimmy Vivino and Will Lee, the bassist in David Letterman’s longtime house band, have been performing note-perfect Lennon/McCartney covers for 20 years. But they don’t dress up: There are no moptop wigs or “Paperback Writer”-era black turtlenecks.
“We bring the records to the stage, not the stage to the records,” says Vivino.
The business model is unambiguous: Nostalgia sells. It’s safe to say the septuagenarian Rolling Stones will never again play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on a small stage for a reasonable price, so venues like the 500-seat Regent Theatre in Arlington regularly book Satisfaction/The International Rolling Stones Tribute Show, and crowds flock to see Chris LeGrand, a 55-year-old former electronics salesman from Dallas, move like Jagger.
But few tribute bands have been at it as long — or do it as well — as Draw The Line, whose first show was at the Sons of Italy in Braintree in 1991. Byrnes, the only remaining member of the original lineup, admits it’s a demanding and sometimes grungy gig, but he’s not ready to give it up.
“I figured I wouldn’t stay in it long,” Byrnes says, meeting recently for an iced coffee at The Derby Street Shops in Hingham after a full day manicuring the lawns of million-dollar homes. “But you don’t make any money creating your own music. We found a niche and wanted to do it the best we possibly could.”
Off stage, Byrnes is pretty much the opposite of a rock star. To supplement the income he makes performing, he mows lawns and, in the winter, plows snow. The 49-year-old father of four often wears a black baseball hat, his hair pulled back in a shaggy ponytail, to avoid awkward encounters with Aerosmith fans.
“It keeps me grounded,” he says of his day job. “It’s just work.”
Byrnes might not be in a band at all if he didn’t look so much like the Aerosmith singer. The resemblance has always been striking. Kids in his neighborhood used to wonder if Byrnes might be secretly related to Tyler. While he doesn’t have the icon’s cadaverous physique, a woman at a Dunkin’ Donuts once fainted because she thought she was in line with a world-famous rocker.
“We’ve actually gotten calls from Steven [Tyler], thinking we were telling people they’re related,” says Byrnes’ ex-wife and the band’s manager, Tricia Byrnes. “I said, ‘Look, we can’t help what these loopy people want to believe.’ ”
Early on, the likeness was something of a curse. After a handful of hit records in the 1970s, Aerosmith was ubiquitous on the radio. But Tyler began abusing cocaine and alcohol, and his performances grew evermore erratic. In 1982, when Neill Byrnes was 13, the singer famously collapsed onstage at the Worcester Centrum while singing “Toys In The Attic.”
“When people first started saying I looked like him, the band was kind of a mess and it was derogatory,” says Byrnes, who speaks softly, without any of the crowing or hyena-like cackle of his alter ego. “But then they cleaned up their act, and it was very flattering to be associated with him.”
Byrnes played some bass in high school — he idolized Kiss — but he wasn’t serious about music, and majored in psychology at Northeastern University. In the summer of 1990, with Aerosmith about to play at Great Woods — the amphitheater in Mansfield now called The Xfinity Center — radio station WAAF (107.3) held a Steven Tyler look-alike contest at a bar in Brockton. Byrnes’s girlfriend at the time, an ardent Aerosmith fan, encouraged him to enter.
Byrnes resisted — “I wanted nothing to do with it. I’d had enough of that in my life” — but his girlfriend plied him with beer and dressed him like Tyler. Byrnes lip-synched “Hoodoo/Voodoo Medicine Man,” his favorite song on Aerosmith’s 1989 record, Pump, and he won easily. His reward was a limo ride to and from the show, two tickets, and a backstage meet-and-greet with the band. He also had to wear the Tyler get-up again.
“So there I am, feeling like an idiot because I’m wearing Spandex pants,” Byrnes says. “I looked like Steven Tyler, but I smelled like stale beer.”
That brief meeting was unmemorable. Tyler was sober and his handlers made sure he didn’t linger too long with those who weren’t.
A year later, a South Shore cover band called Mass Production was looking for a new singer and invited Byrnes to audition.
“I walked in and, before I sang a note, jaws were dropping,” Byrnes says.
But when he did sing a note, it wasn’t the right one. By his own admission, Byrnes was horrible. He couldn’t come close to replicating Tyler’s rasp or range; regardless, the band liked his look and wanted him.
So Byrnes booked time with vocal coach Mark Baxter, who’d worked with Tyler before and after Aerosmith’s 1987 comeback album, Permanent Vacation. Baxter, who has an office in Revere, gave Byrnes exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles in his vocal folds. He also helped him overcome his anxiety about performing.
“Our culture is steeped in the belief that singing is a blessed event that’s only available to the gifted. Those who dare to change their non-singer status are tormented with imposter syndrome,” says Baxter, whose clients have included Aimee Mann, Peter Wolf, Gary Cherone, and Grace Potter.
Mass Production saw an opportunity and seized it, promptly changing its name to Draw The Line — the title of a 1977 Aerosmith LP — and a tribute band was born. There are others — the Las Vegas-based Aeromyth and a Canadian act called Aerosmith Rocks — but Draw The Line has the advantage of being from Boston, where Aerosmith got its start in a cramped apartment at 1325 Commonwealth Avenue all those years ago.
Byrnes and the band built a following by playing fierce shows at clubs like The C Note in Hull and the Ranch House in Marshfield. “We wanted to create an experience: What was it like to see Aerosmith back in the day,” says Byrnes. “When you go to an Aerosmith show, it’s more than the music. There’s a sexual energy. We wanted to create that feeling.”
It took time.
Byrne’s ex-wife, Tricia, remembers being at shows and saying, “You have to make them think you want them even if you don’t. You’re creating these women’s fantasies. Make them believe it.”
Tyler and Perry, who were both living part time on the South Shore, saw Draw The Line in the early days, and were encouraging. In 1998, WBCN deejay Nik Carter raved, “I’ve seen Draw The Line. They are Aerosmith.”
Sincere or not, Tyler and Perry, who wrote most of Aerosmith’s songs, benefit financially every time Draw The Line takes the stage: Performing-rights organizations like BMI and ASCAP collect fees from bars and concert halls across the country and share that money with songwriters and publishers. (A few bands are less benevolent. The Eagles, for example, have a legal team that prevents tribute acts from posting performances on YouTube and demands a modest per-show recompense.)
As Draw The Line has improved, so has its asking price. The band, which rehearses in the basement of an accountant’s office in Weymouth, now earns between $2,500 and $10,000 per show, and once in a while more. Last year, when the health and wellness company Plexus Worldwide wanted to create a spectacle to roll out a new weight-loss drink, it paid the band $25,000 to perform at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. But that is not the norm. Of the 100 or so shows Draw The Line will perform in 2018, many, like the Sunapee sestercentennial, pay the minimum. Each band member gets a guaranteed rate, but after expenses and the manager’s 20-percent share, no one is getting rich, which explains why Byrnes still cuts grass in the summer.
“You live and die by the gig,” he says. “Like, we might be working this weekend, but then not working next weekend. So where’s the money coming from? Shows get canceled, venues close. There’s no residual income.”
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Guitarist Jim Dennis, who paints houses when he’s not playing the part of Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, is Draw The Line’s longest tenured member after Byrnes. (He joined in 2001.) Dennis says the band has never sounded better, but it’s exhausting. Because Draw The Line has a big following in the Rust Belt — in August, the band played dates in Grantville, Pennsylvania; Kettering, Ohio; and Decatur, Illinois — there are a lot of 14-hour van rides and overnights in sketchy motels.
“The music’s really good, but, honestly, I do it for the feeling you get when you look out and know you’re making people forget their problems. That never gets old,” says Dennis, 50, pausing to retrieve a bag from his cluttered car parked outside Shelburne Gymnasium.
“Playing ‘Love in an Elevator’ for the 350th time? That might get old, but seeing the people’s reaction doesn’t,” he says.
Aside from Tyler and Perry, Draw The Line has the blessing of others in the Aerosmith orbit. Ray Tabano, a childhood friend of Tyler’s and one of Aerosmith’s original guitarists, occasionally comes out for the encore; David Hull, who toured with Aerosmith when the group’s bassist, Tom Hamilton, was treated for cancer in 2006, is a part-time member of Draw The Line; and Perry’s sister, Annie, a massage therapist in New London, New Hampshire, is a big fan of the band.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? These guys take it very seriously,” she says. “If you close your eyes, geez, they sound an awful lot like Aerosmith.”
Annie, who occasionally sings backup at Draw The Line shows, has seen several different guitarists masquerade as her brother, but she thinks Gino Caira, who joined the band full time in 2012, is the best yet. Caira, who works as a landscaper with Byrnes when he’s not imitating Perry, is a pro. He might prefer to be making original music, but no one is paying to hear him play his own stuff.
“I wouldn’t be filling this place,” Caira says, eating corn chips in a locker room at Sherburne Gymnasium that smells overwhelmingly of hair spray and sweat. “The way I look at it, this could lead to something more. It’s already made me a better musician and I’ve met some incredible people.”
Phil Cefalo, the spiky-haired stay-at-home dad whose heavy backbeat approximates the thumping style of Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer, agrees.
“When I was younger, we’d look at cover bands like this and think they were a joke,” says Cefalo. “But, I’ll tell you, I’ve got friends who’d absolutely love to be in my situation.”
Opportunities to see the real thing, meanwhile, are dwindling. Tyler turned 70 this year and, at the moment, the band’s only scheduled appearances are a series of high-priced concerts next year at the 5,200-seat Park Theater in Las Vegas.
For zealots like Cheryl Cuddy, whose bedroom is filled with Aerosmith memorabilia — she has a quilt made from old concert T-shirts — Draw The Line will do just fine.
“I’ve seen them so many times, they probably think I’m insane, but they’re awesome,” says Cuddy, who works at Star Market in Dedham. “And they’re wicked nice guys.”
CHECK OUT DRAW THE LINE
Video from Red 13 Studios
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It’s nearly show time in Sunapee.The band members, dressed as the respective characters they’ll play onstage for the next 90 minutes, gather in an alcove by the locker room door. Caira raises his hands like a conductor and the band sings, a cappella, the coda of one of Aerosmith’s biggest hits: “Love in an elevator, livin’ it up when I’m goin’ dooooooooown.” Unsatisfied, Caira has them do it again: “Love in an elevator, livin’ it up when I’m goin’ dooooooooown.”
“Better,” Byrnes says.
The band then makes its way to the stage, walking past a card table arranged with Draw The Line merchandise, a modest collection of photos and T-shirts. Harrison Byrnes, the singer’s 14-year-old son, is sitting behind the table staring at his phone.
“I’m just glad none of my friends are able to see him perform,” he says. “Having my dad dance around in Spandex is not what I call bragging rights.”
Onstage, Byrnes dons a pair of oversized sunglasses and strikes a pose as the band plugs in. A moment later, Draw The Line roars into “Make It,” the first song on Aerosmith’s first album, and the crowd, of course, goes nuts.