Once a year, Halloween gives kids of all ages a chance to dress up and pretend they’re someone (or something) they’re not. Detroit native Chris VanDahl gets to have that Halloween experience nearly every night. VanDahl portrays Aerosmith’s lead singer and former “American Idol” judge Steven Tyler in the current production of Legends in Concert, playing now through November 18 at Bally’s Atlantic City.
Legends in Concert features an array of celebrity impersonators who look, move, and sound like the artists themselves. Along with VanDahl as Steven Tyler, the current Atlantic City cast features Lady Gaga, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Donna Summer. Each performer appears in an individual musical production segment backed by a live band and accompanied by dancers. The performances feature a brand new state-of-the-art set and production elements including sound, lighting, and signature video projection that replicates the iconic superstars.
The performers appearing in the various Legends in Concert productions come to the show from a variety of backgrounds. Some start in the industry as a celebrity impersonator, others hone their experience as a professional singer into a tribute to an artist they happen to resemble.
Even though VanDahl is also the lead singer for Aeromyth, one of the top Aerosmith tribute bands in the world, the word that best describes his journey toward becoming a Steven Tyler impersonator is “reluctant.”
In a recent telephone interview, VanDahl said he knew he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer from the time he was 11 years old.
“About the time I was 12 or 13, I went from being the monkey-face to the kid that looks like Steven Tyler,” VanDahl says. “The funny thing is, the first time I ever saw Tyler was on a VHS video and I thought, ‘Man, that is one ugly man/woman.’ If I’d only known then….”
In the early 1990s, VanDahl moved to Los Angeles to pursue his music career. He assumed the stage name Roxy Dahl and fronted a glam metal band called Cherry St. In 1993, Cherry St. released the album Squeeze It Dry on JRS Records.
The album sold moderately well, but more important for VanDahl, it caught the attention of Tracii Guns, lead guitarist and founder of the hard rock band L.A. Guns, which had a major label contract with Polygram Records at the time. Guns recruited VanDahl as his band’s new lead vocalist. Guns liked VanDahl’s voice, but he was afraid VanDahl’s appearance would draw the obvious comparisons to Steven Tyler.
“When I was young, [the fact that he looked like Tyler] worked out really well for me, but as I got older and was more serious about pursuing a musical career, it was kind of like a double-edged sword, because of the constant comparisons,” VanDahl says.
Upon joining L.A. Guns, VanDahl went through a physical transformation.
“I tried to alter my look,” he says. “At one point I had a Mohawk with dreadlocks down to my belt and multiple facial piercings. I wanted to create an identity for myself. The irony is that I’ve always had a great love for Aerosmith.”
With L.A. Guns, VanDahl recorded the 1996 album American Hardcore. Early in the recording process, VanDahl realized he’d made a mistake. Guns had written material that was more in line with heavy metal than hard rock, and wanted to take the band in that direction.
“That transition happened pretty much while we were recording the record,” VanDahl says. “Tracii woke up one day and had discovered bands like Down and Pantera, and suddenly that’s who he wanted to be. I thought to myself, ‘Oh this is miserable,’ but I had signed on that point, even though it wasn’t the record I wanted to be making.”
VanDahl remained with L.A. Guns for a subsequent tour in support of American Hardcore, but left the band shortly thereafter. He got involved in a few other musical projects, and even briefly tried his hand at acting before becoming disenchanted with Los Angeles and moving back to Michigan.
It wasn’t long before VanDahl was drawn back into music. An invitation to a gallery opening led to VanDahl meeting Kenny Olson, who had been Kid Rock’s lead guitarist. The two struck up a friendship and soon were forming a new band.
“I had moved back home from California to Michigan to get away from the music business, only to wind up in a band with Kenny Olson,” VanDahl says. “The band was called Pack of Wolves –it was Kenny Olson, Adam Kurry, who was the bass player for Candlebox, and drummer Shannon Boone, who had been in a popular Michigan band called The Howling Diablos.”
While writing and performing with Pack of Wolves, VanDahl received a call from Neal Shelton, with whom he shared a mutual friend. At the time, Shelton was portraying rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford in a Los Angeles-based Aerosmith tribute band called Pump.
“He introduced himself and explained that he had an Aerosmith tribute band and was looking for someone to fill the role of Steven Tyler,” VanDahl says. “As soon as I heard that I told him I was sorry but I didn’t think anything like that would work out. But he turned out to be a really cool guy and we maintained a long-distance friendship. He was a very persistent individual. He would call me every once in a while and poke me in the ribs about this Aerosmith project.”
It took three years for Pack of Wolves to run its course. VanDahl decided to return to the West Coast.
“I was out there a year before I went out to look at Neal’s band,” he says. “Finally he wore me down and I went out and checked it out. I had a really good time. But I told them if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right. By that I meant finding musicians who not only could play, but who also looked and acted like the guys in Aerosmith. That’s how Aeromyth was born six years ago.”
Aeromyth grew from being a $50-a-night bar band to touring internationally.
“We performed in Las Vegas a lot,” says VanDahl. “I started getting calls to appear at corporate events as a Steven Tyler impersonator. At one of these events at the Bellagio, I met Damian Brantley, who in my opinion is the best Michael Jackson impersonator in the world. Damien and I struck up a friendship and he told me about Legends in Concert.
“Shortly thereafter I got a call with an offer for a four-month contract in Vegas to appear in Legends in Concert. And that’s how I became part of the show.”
VanDahl says that once he embraced the idea of intentionally impersonating the guy that people had been mistaking him for his whole life, the transition was easy.
“I’m a one-hundred percent guy,” he says. “Once I committed to this, I fell in love with the whole idea, so I did my homework. The funny thing is, it wasn’t much of an adjustment for me. It was very subtle. I think my character works because it’s so natural for me, not because I work at it.
“I have a responsibility to represent my character – I guess I’ll call him a character because he is a character – but he’s also a brilliant individual,” VanDahl adds. “A lot of people don’t realize how intelligent he is. I have a responsibility to do him justice. I couldn’t do this in good conscience if I didn’t believe that if Tyler came to the show he would be impressed.”
It helps that VanDahl remains a huge Aerosmith fan. While he might get a kick out of playing a more obscure cut from Rocks, he says he keeps his audience in mind when choosing material for the Legends in Concert show.
“I’ve got over 35 years of music to choose from, so it’s kind of a tricky balance,” VanDahl says. “I’ve gone with a mix of the old and the new – songs like ‘Walk This Way,’ ‘Love In An Elevator,’ ‘Come Together,’ “Dude Looks Like A Lady,’ “Sweet Emotion,’ and ‘Dream On.’ When we take the show to Hawaii in December, I’m going to be adding ‘Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ into the set because we have a large Japanese fan base out there and that’s the song that they are most familiar with. So you try to consider your audience demographic.”
As a musician, VanDahl makes it clear that Legends in Concert is truly a live music experience.
“Some of the music requires a few backing tracks for things like horn sections or strings, but everything else is absolutely live,” he says. I play piano in the show, and we have a five- or six-piece band behind us. So you’re seeing a complete concert production.”
While Tyler has never attended one of VanDahl’s performances, the two have met. It was at a charity event for The MusiCares Musicians’ Assistance Program, which provides members of the music community access to addiction recovery treatment. The two men wound up face-to-face on the red carpet at the event.
“Tyler looked me in the eye and said, ‘It feels good, don’t it?’” VanDahl says.
“It wasn’t until we came face-to-face that for the first time that I fully understood why people would freak out when I was walking through an airport or a mall. For me was probably one of the most intense moments of my life.”
Legends in Concert plays now through November 18. Shows are at 8:00 pm Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, as well two shows on Saturday at 7:30 and 10:00 pm, and a special matinee each Wednesday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $32.50 for adults and $16.25 for children plus service charges. For tickets or more information, visit www.ballysac.com.