It's an average Saturday night at a sports bar in Chino Hills: frat boys chug beers while a man sings back-to-back Creed songs at the Karaoke lounge, but in the next room over something very different is about to go down. As the excitement builds, my friend and I grab our drinks, and head over to a live music venue attached to the bar by a smoke-filled patio.
After a reasonable cover fee and a hand stamp, we enter the door to a sea of leather jackets, good hair, band t-shirts, and every kind of person you could imagine all there with one intention: to rock out to the hits of Iron Maiden. Amps crank, mics are checked, and a gruff mans voice cuts through the chatter of the crowd with an authentically enthused and unexpected message: "HEY! Women RULE!" The curtain opens to 5 women in full command of their music and the audience. Note for note, line by line, the Iron Maidens deliver rock solid renditions of heavy metal classics, garnering love, respect, and plenty of rock hands in the air from a mostly male audience.
This scene may seem like something out of heavy metal feminist fan fiction, but Southern California is home to an active and thriving metal tribute scene that boasts multiple lady shredders who play everything from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin. Bands like DIA, Motley's Crew, Stormbringer, and many others feature women in their line-ups and local all female acts like The Iron Maidens, Black Sabbitch, and Lady Zep, have made a name for themselves as some of the best tribute acts around. In the words of Project-UFO guitarist, Dave Gold, "Females are happening in the tribute scene."
Women aren't just replaying the hits of metal bands of yore, they're forging their own identities; reinventing the aesthetic of the music they love while staying as true to originals as possible. If you close your eyes, the spot on vocal stylings of Kirsten Rosenberg and rapid-fire guitar solos of Nikki Stringfield and Courtney Cox will make you believe you're witnessing early 1980's Maiden. The heavy grit and groove of Melanie Makaiwi's Bass prowess take inspiration from Geezer Butler, while injecting freshness into classic Sabbath. Lady Zep's Marija Krstic-Chin busts out a goosebump-inducing Theremin solo on "Whole Lotta Love," that gives Jimmy Page a run for his money, while Leanne Lagoyda conjures Bonham through shuffles and back beats on a bright orange Vistalite kit. The women of the Southern California metal tribute scene are on-point and a force to be reckoned with.
Masculinity has informed metal, but the women who pay tribute don't let gender limit them. Guitarist Sara Marsh, formerly with The Iron Maidens now with Doom Crew, noted that most of her "role models are men," and in efforts to emulate their style and sound she had to adopt some of their traits. "Head banging and thrashing about on stage," along with "aggressive and in your face [attitudes]" became part of her stage presence. Some artists don a more traditionally feminine persona, wearing sexy clothing as part of their stage show, like Courtney Cox of the Iron Maidens who shreds arpeggios wearing bra tops, never missing a note. Their fearless attitudes and precision chops have reinvented metal norms and have won over audiences of men who consider themselves metal purists. "When I think of heavy metal I think of men and testosterone" says metal fan Ray Flores of Whittier, "and to see a female tribute band that pulls off a set, or out does the original band, is amazing."
The women of the Southern California metal tribute scene are some of the most talented in the business. When bassist Wanda Ortiz of The Iron Maidens isn't touring the world, she's in the orchestra pit with Orange County's South Coast Symphony Orchestra. Miiko Watanabe, bassist for Lady Zep, has recorded and toured with artists like Gwen Stefani and Dave Navarro. The women of the Southern California tribute scene have received accolades for their mad skills, this week Metalholic listed their international Top Female Drummers in Metal, and included Iron Maidens drummer Linda McDonald and Black Sabbitch drummer Angie Scarpa among their ranks.
The tribute scene is music focused, drawing mega fans devoted to experiencing their favorite songs the way they were meant to be: live and loud. Fans like Bryan Medina care about the musicianship, not the gender of the band. "The reason I go see the Iron Maidens play," says Medina, "is because they are the best. They play Iron Maiden's music with a raw live energy, while managing to be incredibly refined in their technical prowess." The tribute scene is a space for super-fans of all genders to nerd out. "I am an encyclopedic nut when it comes to Black Sabbath," says Scarpa. "I hate seeing a bad Sabbath cover so we work very hard to make the most difficult to please fan happy."
The women love the challenge of performing high-stakes, complex songs. "They don't call Bruce Dickinson the Air Raid Siren for nothing," says Iron Maidens frontwoman Kirsten Rosenberg (aka Bruce Chickinson). "There are a few notes in every song that are a challenge. The hardest part is remembering all the lyrics, especially in epics like "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Lady-centric tribute bands' attention to detail and commitment to excellence have even won the respect and admiration of original artists themselves. The Iron Maidens received a thumbs up from Steve Harris while touring in Mexico, and Black Sabbitch were invited by Ozzy Osbourne to open for him at the inaugural Ozzfiesta festival later this year.
While there is mostly love and respect for the women of the metal tribute community, sexism occasionally rears its ugly head. "Many people have [the] preconception that women cannot play this style of music competently," says Ortiz, "so it's always fun to see the surprised looks when they see us pulling it off!" The stigma against women playing heavy music continues to exist, even for established acts. "It can be frustrating [when] you are constantly being challenged to prove yourself even after establishing success," says Melissa Jane Dichiera, vocalist for Lady Zep. Some have been on the receiving end of questionable behavior, like Marsh who was working her bands merch booth when a man approached her to autograph his exposed genitals; "Unfortunately," as Marsh joked, "there was only room for initials." Battling misogyny seems to be an unspoken undercurrent of the scene, where women form bonds over their shared love for the music and quick wit. "Because of our common experiences, it has been a very supportive, family-like environment," says Krstic-Chin, "with respect, intuitive communication & subtle humor."
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"I have faced adversity, but who hasn't?" Says Lagoyda, who believes sexist attitudes in metal are a reflection of social norms, not the scene. Linda McDonald, aka Nico McBURRain, attests that "female musicians are generally more accepted [now] than they were 10 years ago," but acknowledges that there is still work to be done. Despite the sass they may face, their technical skill and attention to detail are undeniable. The women of the Southern California metal tribute scene continue to rise above; kicking ass and taking names one sports bar, sparkled bra, and shredding solo at a time.