Friday, May 31st -- The day starts way earlier than I'd like, and the driver of the shuttle that will be hauling my ass to SeaTac Airport is much more jovial than my three hours of sleep have prepared me for. Still, this driver hands me a most propitious omen for the start of my latest adventure--he slaps a cassette of Garrison Keillor routines into the van's stereo, and for the next half-hour we're all regaled with the saga of a bewildered Lake Wobegon couple on holiday in the alien climes of Los Angeles.
Thus girded with this sweet bit of entertainment, I make my way into the maw of the commercial airline system, to emerge some hours later, rumpled and plane-weary but still jazzed, into the San Diego sunshine … erm, well, sorta sunshine. Okay, overcast. Once again the Seattle weather has followed me down here. But still, I'm in San Diego, dammit, and ready for a musical escapade of major proportions.
I'd been down here only six weeks prior, to hear Bob Tedde's labor-of-love side project The Steely Damned kick ass in their usual and delightful way. And during that visit, Bob made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I was informed that on Saturday June 1st, he would be leading his main band Rockola and a whole herd of orchestral and Indian musicians through a 35th-aniversary live-without-a-net performance of the Beatles masterpiece "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Then, as if the prospect of catching this once-in-a-lifetime gig wasn't tempting enough, Bob went and sweetened the deal by offering to let me crash at his house for the weekend of the show. I struggled, but resistance proved futile. Let's face it, anything that Mr. Tedde does music-wise, I've become a complete and willing fool for.
Also during that last San Diego jaunt, Bob's Steely Damned co-conspirator Peggy Totzke had presented me with a copy of a deceptively demure-looking CD by the name of "Dancing." This was my first exposure to the music of the amazing Mike Keneally, and it completely and totally tore my head off. So imagine the added jolt to my already stoked system when I found out, a few days beforehand, that Keneally was going to be guesting with Rockola for the Pepper gig. Let's just say I probably could have flown down to San Diego under my own power, without the aid of America West's damfool over-booked Airbus. Probably would have been a helluva lot more comfortable too … but I digress.
Anyway, I now escape from the Planet of the Airports, point my rent-a-Neon down I-5 Avenue, and shortly find myself pulling up at the Tedde residence. Things are kind of in kicked-anthill mode there--Bob and various helpers scurrying to and fro, trying to nail down the gazillions of last-minute details still remaining before the show, and fighting off Murphy's Law which has been kicking into overdrive all week long. Just one example: one of the local TV stations had recorded an excellent segment on the Pepper gig and planned to air it on Thursday's 6pm newscast--only to bump it at the last minute in favor of a breaking news story about a car chase. The segment did run without a hitch the following night--but if another news-grabbing car chase had dared to raise its ugly head, Bob joked, he and the other Rockolites were ready and willing to head out on the highways and personally head it off.
Oh yeah, and just to add to the insanity, Rockola has a whole other gig this very same Friday night--seems a local church had booked the band for a fundraiser fiesta eons before the Pepper plan had been hatched and booked for Saturday. So off the band dashes to this church gig, with myself in hot pursuit--along with Bob's old school buddy Rob who flew in from Ohio just for the event (see? I'm not the only one whack enough to fly cross-country for a Tedde extravaganza!). Despite the looming pressures of the next day's events, this church gig goes off splendidly. As the parishioner who booked the band proudly proclaims, this is a church that likes to party, and they proceed to do so most righteously as Rockola works them through their repertoire of classic 60s material.
The show done with, Rob and I make our way back to Bob's house, to discover he's beaten us back and is holed up in his studio with someone, working out some more last-minute thises and thats. I hang out, and eventually the studio door swings open to reveal that the someone in there with Bob is none other than Mike Keneally himself. I burble something hopefully not-too-incoherent at Mike about how much I'm digging his work (I think I manage to say that his music is turning me on fully as much as Steely Dan, which for a king-hell raving Danfan like me is probably the most massive compliment I can come up with--but it's the God's honest truth, folks, and to all of y'all out there who have not heard Keneally's stuff and did not click on the link when I gave it before, you need to get yer browsers over to his site right away and check him out, dig? I'll wait ...)
Anyway, Mike is very gracious in the face of my giddy fangrrl attack, for which I am most grateful. And we all hang out for a little bit and shoot the breeze and watch some truly weird late-night TV, and then Mike and Bob vanish back into the studio to work into the wee hours on a few more thises and thats, and I wander off to crash, and that's all of Friday for me.
Saturday, June 1st -- The day of the show dawns bright and clear, the sky a perfect cloudless blue. Another houseguest, Kevin, helps Bob's intern Richard load gear into the van. At nine-ish AM, those two head out at 90 mph up those Cali freeways, with me vrooming after them as best I can in the rent-a-Neon (Bob will be following a little later on his own).
We arrive at the venue: the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. This is a brand-new and gorgeous theatre complex, sporting a beautifully-designed 1450-seat performance space. I follow Kevin and Richard in through the backstage door, make my way across the stage and out to front-of-house, and take a seat. One by one the band members arrive and set up: Larry Grano, drummer and vocalist; Doug Booth, bassist and vocalist; Mark DeCerbo, guitarist and vocalist; special guest Tony Karasek, Indian instrumentalist and sometime Ravi Shankar sideman; special guest Mike Keneally, multi-instrumentalist secret weapon; and finally Bob Tedde, guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, and specialist in front-man mayhem. I should mention here that all four of the usually clean-shaven Rockola regulars are sporting mustaches--dressing the part is part of their gig, and so they've all been working for weeks on growing some Beatles-esque face fuzz just for the show, to the great amusement of themselves and others.
The orchestra isn't arriving until after lunch break, but the entire upstage region is already occupied by a big riser for them. Downstage is packed as well--two acoustic pianos (one grand, one upright); three electronic keyboards, full drumkit plus a free-standing floor tom, a whole separate riser for Tony's sitars and tablas and zither and etc.; God alone knows how many guitars both electric and acoustic; all the assorted amps and monitors and effects pedals for all of the preceding; plus random assorted other gimcracks and gewgaws (including an alarm clock and an old 60's-era phonograph with spindle, on which more anon).
I've been through many tech rehearsals with the chorus I used to sing with, so I know what a pain in the ass they can be when you're in the middle of them. Despite (or maybe because of) that, I still find them endlessly fascinating to watch, so I settle in for one helluva show before the show. Setup, soundcheck, rehearsal, more soundcheck, more rehearsal. Monitors get fussed with; feedback gets chased down, lighting cues get worked out. And slowly but surely, magic begins to emerge, as the songs these guys have been sweating over for weeks begin to reveal themselves to me.
One of Rockola's great strengths, besides their general strong musicianship and attention to detail, is their vocal prowess. Bob and Mark both have fabulous pipes, and Doug and Larry are no slouches in that department either, and when they all pile into the Pepper harmonies together the blend is a thing of beauty. Further, they all have a knack for vocal impressions--I can close my eyes and get the eerie sensation I'm hearing Lennon or McCartney or Harrison or, bless me, even ol' Ringo. It's a unique skill, and man do they know how to work it, and I'm hearing it work right now as they start to rehearse in earnest.
Lunch break comes and goes, and the orchestral musicians and their conductor arrive and set up. More rehearsing, more nailing down of details--as Keneally points out to me during a free moment, it's always interesting when you try to get orchestral and rock musicians playing together, their musical language might as well be coming from whole different planets ("okay, let's pick that up at the bridge" … "um, I believe that would be section G, measure 147 … "). Also getting worked on is some vital blocking--the Rockolites are covering a lot of different parts between them, and sometimes have to do quick changes from one station to another between songs or even within the same song, and as I said the stage is jam-packed with gear to clamber over and around. And so it goes, and so it goes …
… until 6:30 pm when the ushers come on duty and clear the house. Meaning me. Amscray. Into the lobby until the doors officially open.
S'okay. I take the opportunity to check out the show's official commemorative poster, already on sale. Another characteristic example of Rockola devotion to detail, the poster features a parody of the Sgt. Pepper album art in which all those famous faces have been replaced by people dear to the hearts of San Diegans in general and Rockola in particular. (By the way, the poster as well as the whole show is a fundraiser--all proceeds going to a local children's hospital.)
Then I roost somewhere and watch as all the people start to pour in! Somewhere in there I learn from Bob's assistant Stephanie, who's been working with the box office, that a crowd of over 1200 has materialized for this show. And as I sit in the lobby and shamelessly eavesdrop, it's obvious to me that there's lots of long-time Rockola fans in this crowd (not to mention a goodly contingent of Keneally "Forheads").
Doors open, and I make my way to my seat. I discover I am sitting next to Tony Karasek's spouse, the delightful and charming Shailini Karasek, and we have a lovely chat while we're waiting. The house fills up, and fills up, and fills up--and then Rockola files in and the audience goes nuts--and it's Showtime!
First comes an opening set in which Rockola and company perform orchestra-backed selections from other Beatles albums, including "Here Comes the Sun," "Something" (Doug on vocals to great effect), "Strawberry Fields" (Doug doubling Larry on that floor tom for some thunderous percussion on the chorus), "Penny Lane" (fabulous piccolo trumpet solo on this), "Glass Onion" … plus they throw in "Birthday" in honor of several people celebrating that day, including Peggy Totzke's daughter Emma. Then there's a brief intermission while the Rockolites disappear to climb into their full Pepper regalia …
… and as the lights come back up, the crowd laughs as they identify the sound effect coming over the PA: that old-style spindle phonograph, heavily miked, as it drops a slab of vinyl onto the turntable and slides the needle into the groove … and then that famous big-ass backbeat and dirty guitar riff ring out, and we're blasting off into Pepperland.
Many are the splendid moments that stick in my mind from this show. Just to name a few: the opener version of "Sgt. Pepper," complete with big cue cards asking the audience to supply the applause and laughter SFX, requests with which they gleefully comply; Bob immediately thereafter sliding in at the grand piano to play and sing "With a Little Help From My Friends (and nailing Ringo's plain-and-simple vocal tone); the beautiful harp playing on "She's Leaving Home," a song I can never listen to without getting all mushy teary-eyed; the bravura keyboard solo by Mike Keneally on "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," in which he reproduces in real-time that song's originally totally-studio-majicked psycho-calliope ending; Bob, Mark, and Doug all hunkered down over sitars on "Within You Without You" (they'd been taking lessons from Tony the K for weeks beforehand); Bob in full music-hall effect as he knocks out a joyful "When I'm Sixty-Four;" all the funny-wonderful animal-noise synth patches in "Good Morning, Good Morning" (quip from Bob: "No animals were harmed in the making of this song!"); the whole symphonic spendiferousness of "A Day in the Life" (complete with alarm-clock solo by a grinning Keneally) ...
... and throughout the show, the audience simply loving it, leaping to their feet for one standing ovation after another, to the point that, even after the guys play their planned encore of "All You Need Is Love," neither they nor the audience is ready to call it a night.
So, Bob and the guys do the only logical thing under the circumstances--they pull a classic Rockola seat-of-the-pants thing, bid farewell to the orchestra, and keep playing more Beatles. (Quip from Doug: "This is the part of the show where Bob tells us what we're playing next.") My notes get a little wonky at this point--who the hell wants to be taking goddamn notes when there's fun shit happening on stage?--but I do have to mention a knock-out version of "Hey Bulldog," plus a terrific rendition of "And Your Bird Can Sing" featuring Bob and Mike together on the guitar solo.
And then it's over.
As I watch a spontaneous reception line of well-wishers queue up to congratulate an exhausted but triumphant Mr. Tedde, it dawns on me that what I've just witnessed tonight is perhaps the single best statement of Rockola's whole raison d'etre. They are none other than the real-life version of that fabled Lonely Hearts Club Band--the act San Diego has known and loved for lo these many years, bound up with a network of friends and family who were all here tonight either on stage or in the seats. And that's not only a beautiful thing, but in my opinion an incredibly important thing .. 'scuse me a moment while I clamber onto my soapbox ...
Okay, I know that I'm preaching to the choir here, but I can't help it, it runs in my blood so to speak so bear with me: In an age in which the vast majority of pop music is so much prepackaged target-marketed no-talent pablum, nearly devoid of soul or musicianship or any sense of its own history, let alone any organic connection to the consumers on whom it's foisted, here is a group of musicians who not only knows what and how to play, and why to play it that way, but plays to an audience that connects with them as hometown heroes, like all the local celebrities on the show's poster. They're performing a vital function, acting as a desperately-needed oasis of reality in a synthetic desert. I'm all the more blown away seeing as how I stumbled into this magical circle almost by accident, following my fangrrl lust for Steely Dan until it led me to The Steely Damned and on into all the rest of this network. And I've got to say, the more I get to know about these musical magic-makers, the more I want to thank whatever whack-ass rock-n-roll deity led me to them.
And, of course, major buckets of thanks to Mr. Bob Tedde and Rockola and Company. Yer all beautiful, man. Keep on rockin'.