Mia Karter often arrives onstage with her band already notes-deep into a Motown-ish groove.
That's not exactly out of the ordinary for a jazz singer, but she needs about every minute she can spare before shows like the one she's playing (and producing with Tommy Knutson of Nirvanish and Faux Show Events) at the Rococo Theatre on Friday, because it takes her about three hours to get ready for the type of closeup only other tribute act performers can truly understand.
"The reaction you get from fans is really priceless," said Karter, who will perform as Amy Winehouse after spending the better part of her afternoon getting into character of the late British singer/songwriter.
That includes the look, of course. Bouffant, yes. Cat eye liner, meowbviously. Tattoos, indeed. (She brings a collection of temporary tats that matched Winehouse's on the road with her.)
Fortunately for Karter, there are three other tribute acts -- Nirvanish, Purple Haze and Janis Lives -- on the bill with her band, the Winehouse Experience, who understand what she's going through.
The show, called Forever 27: A Tribute to Legends Lost, pairs four performances led by tribute acts of artists who died young -- age 27, specifically. So the Rococo will host music performed by tributes to Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Karter's Winehouse.
"That (27) link is just an excuse to bring these uniquely talented icons onto one stage," Karter said. "We don't really try to glorify that. It's more about, these are a fantastic group of performers and songwriters and they just happened to have this thread that ties them together."
A classically trained singer of arias and ballads in her youth, Karter got into the act about three years ago. She was performing in southern California with her cover band, Mia Karter and The Hits, and often sang Winehouse songs.
"I'd often do shows and people would tell me, 'Wow, you sound a lot like Amy Winehouse,'" she said. "And I had never really done a tribute band before, but I wanted to put together something that was Motown and had horns. And I had seen a couple of her live YouTube videos and just thought, wow, she had such a great show. So great for bands, because it's really musically inclined. The musicians get to do what they're best at. And it's really entertaining."
Karter is the first to say she does not sound exactly like Amy Winehouse, who paired contralto vocals with big-beat songs about dark places she knew ("Rehab," "You Know I'm No Good," "Stronger Than Me").
"She was a one-of-a-kind," Karter said. "So really it's more that we're both jazz singers. We come from jazz roots. And there's a style and approach to that, vocally, that is recognizable. And then, she had such a cool style and energy that people are really drawn to."
Those fans of the originals who remain drawn to the tribute acts, Karter has learned, are zealous ones. As a performer, she said, you have to reward that energy.
"When you do a tribute band, you really have to go into it with an understanding of this artist and a respect for their work," Karter said. "Because the people who come to these shows, they know every song. They know every word. They know everything about these people. They listen to their music. They connect with their music, and so they're very excited about it. They're emotionally moved by it. And it's a ton of fun, because the crowd is more engaged in shows like this than many other productions that I've been a part of. This is a really rewarding production."