Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

Archive for Ross Rowley

We thank Ross Rowley for given the Harmonaires their due – April 29, 2009

Ready to be put out to pasture? Horse pucky!

If you think you’re too old to perform music, you just haven’t been inspired by your peers. Too many times, musicians “retire” from performing music in public as they age past their “golden” years. Of course, the golden years for them is somewhere in their late 30s. With so much emphasis on youth in America, who can blame them for feeling inadequate?

No, this is not going to be a diatribe about Britain’s Got Talent/YouTube sensation Susan Boyle. My ladyfriend and I took her boys, aged nine and 14, to see The Humboldt Harmonaires Barbershop Chorus spring concert at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts. The theme was “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” and yes, familiar cowboy songs were on the agenda.

The Humboldt Harmonaires have been performing since 1962 on the Northcoast. Now, I would imagine the average of the members is somewhere near 65 years of age. So, singing “I’m An Old Cowhand” seemed pretty appropriate. There are a few young singers, who if they didn’t possess a strong constitution for embarrassment, would never admit to performing in a barbershop chorus. And there is one man, Glen Woods, who is nigh on 94 years old and may have been around when barbershop was invented. All in all, they put on one heck of a good show.

Sure, the presentation was corny. It’s barbershop harmony for goodness sake. But, that’s why you go to see barbershop groups perform, isn’t it? It’s good to see humor injected into music. Too much of today’s angst-ridden and angry musical scolding by introspective shoe-gazers becomes tiring. At least, for me. There are times I want to forget my personal problems and just laugh. The Humboldt Harmonaires and their offshoot quartets like Mirth First! and The Banana Bunch (a quartet with appeal) provide the humorous aside when needed.

Oh, did I mention they can also sing quite well? You see, as these gentlemen aged, they didn’t give up on music, they embraced it. What you should also know is each year they give a $1,000 scholarship to a student who plans on continuing his or her music education. How many other musical groups around town offer that? Personally, I don’t know of any. This year’s recipient of the scholarship was high school senior Otis Harriel of the ArMack Orchestra. After receiving his scholarship, he performed solo for the audience. The young man showed us his tremendous skills on the violin. His performance medley showcased classical strains featuring exquisite use of harmony counterpoint, difficult arpeggios and forays into jazz violin before topping the performance with a rousing rendition of the fiddlers chestnut, “Orange Blossom Special.”

True to form, as both a violinist and fiddler, Otis Harriel brought the house down. I’m telling you, the old coots in the Humboldt Harmonaires sure know how to spot talent!?

The guest artist for the spring concert was the comically gifted Riff-Raff, a truly professional barbershop quartet from Los Angeles. Were they corny? My God, YES! And the audience loved every minute of their show. But, beyond cornball antics and sight gags, they were some of the best harmony singers I have heard in my life. Again, the over-the-hill Humboldt Harmonaires sure know how to spot talent. Perhaps, it’s their age. Older and wiser. Been there, done that. Or, they could adhere to the adage that; old age and treachery always defeats youth and skill.

Go see the Humboldt Harmonaires sing on opening day of the Humboldt Crabs at the Arcata Ball Park. They say singing the National Anthem may be the only time they’re guaranteed a standing ovation. Not true, gentlemen, not true.

Ross Rowley – Why do musicians hang it up after their formative years of playing music?

Why do musicians hang it up after their formative years of playing music? I’ve seen it all too many times. Local players will come to a crossroads in their lives where the pull of married life, the raising of kids or the responsibilities to their job takes them away from a talent they had excelled at.

I’ll grant you, continuing to play music, in a dance band setting especially, can be quite trying. There are the long hours associated with the night of the performance. A typical evening can run as long as seven or eight hours, not including travel time when playing in the far reaching areas of Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties. There is the situation of alcohol abuse when in proximity to an establishment that places an emphasis on selling booze. And there are the social situations one may become embroiled in when out in the public eye.

Every show business personality has its own set of groupies, that’s for sure. I’ve seen Humboldt Crabs groupies and I’ve seen Redwood Acres stock car groupies, too. Those worlds are pretty similar when someone has a skill that others would like to draw themselves closer to in intimate ways. Do surfers have groupies? Do stage actors have groupies? Do snow boarders have groupies? I’m going to guess, yes. And what about radio personalities? The answer seems certain.

After years of performing, most times at a hectic pace, the joys of playing music can become secondary to the grind. Between the drudgery of setting up and tearing down of equipment and the late hours, “the scene” also holds a host of hazards known only to those who are caught up in the cast. Whether or not, “the scene” has chased a good many players from the music scene, depends on the inner strength of the individual, I guess.

And age plays a part, too. Professional athletes have a limited career span. Former national champion tri-athlete Mike Pigg will tell you that as he wound down his professional career while in his 30s. That’s why senior leagues in say, softball and bowling exist. They’re designed for the joy of playing the game without the pain. There isn’t a senior league for bands, though. Not really.

We’re very lucky to have a large group of senior members of the musical community still performing. (If you’re over 50 and are eligible for a subscription to AARP’s Modern Maturity, then you qualify. Even if you still attempt to don those leather pants on Friday night.) Some of these senior members are battle-scarred veterans with years of playing under their belt and still performing between 35 and 50 times per year. Take my word for it that is a fair amount. It wasn’t that long ago when bands were playing 100 nights per year while gainfully employed in a day job. That will wear you down both mentally and physically giving you pause to wonder whether hanging it up could be an option.

A lot of these senior players have decided to stop performing except for on rare occasions. Sometimes, their own egos pull them up onto the stage and other times, they want to give it one more Hail Mary to relive their glory days. (And, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that)

I think the perfect venue for many of these players is the Sunday afternoon garage jam at one of their former band buddies’ houses. The gigs start at 2 p.m. and rarely go past dinnertime. There’s cold beer and snacks and the wives, girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends tend to leave them alone to while away the hours playing music for pure enjoyment.

Many times, players will acquire brand new equipment or purchase that vintage dream instrument, usually sanctioned by a spouse, now that he or she is finally able to afford it. Playing on it once a week suits them just fine. At times, their project combos or reunion bands will venture out to perform at a wedding, usually for one of their own kids, or they’ll book a set at the North Country Fair, Arcata Fourth of July festival or the Trinidad Fish Festival. It’s really good to see them out and playing.

I had a discussion with a fellow who had just come off the road with the likes of Bon Jovi, Lionel Richie and Earth, Wind and Fire. I asked him if he was seeing young musicians out there working in that capacity. He hadn’t. He was amazed that the road bands and crews are all well into their late 40s and 50s. We wondered if this is the end of a generation. Would the next era, the next Rolling Stones, the next AC/DC’s, the next Aerosmith bands exist? Bands that continued performing well past their half-century mark. He surmised, “Well, if they do exist, who are they?” He sure wasn’t seeing them. The senior bands that are out there are working the casino circuit, Branson, Missouri, Las Vegas and not so oddly, the jam band festival circuit.

Old rockers never die, they just find a more comfortable place to play. Playing music shouldn’t’ hurt, but sometimes it just does. I’m not sure why Neil Young, in his song “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” on the album Rust Never Sleeps wrote, “It’s better to burn out, than to just fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted him in his impassioned note found at the scene of his death. Perhaps that’s a very prophetic view for most musicians. And then, there’s B.B. King.

My, my, hey, hey, Ross’s column is here to stay. (Apologies to Neil Young for that one.)

Ross Rowley waxes poetic – from the Feb. 18 issue

There really is nothing like a community dance. A dance like the one held last Saturday night at the Arcata Community Center. The Arcata Volunteer Fire department has been holding these dances for a 125 years. The Arcata Hook and Ladder Company #1 held its first dance on Feb. 21, 1884.  Not only are they a means of supporting the fire department, but also they are as important for socializing in Arcata as the Farmers’ Markets and Arts Arcata!. The Fireman’s Ball/Valentines Day dance is a nice little look into the microcosm of Arcata’s blue-collar residents. Hard working, responsible folk, those blue collar volunteer fire fighters.

To see the Arcata Community Center filled with so many folks for a dance is inspiring. Perhaps, people do still go out, even, if it is just one night per year. And, Valentines Day adds that little special something-something to the evening.

I wish Randy Collenberg were around to write about it. He would cut to the chase. If circumstances were different, I know I would have seen Randy and Dannette cutting a rug last Saturday night. They were pretty fair dancers, too.

A community dance really leans toward socializing. Some of these folks don’t get to socialize very often. Sure, there’s a couple of minutes of catching up in the supermarket or sitting down with other adults during youth sporting events, but a dance, especially a Valentines dance, beckons back to a time when the husband and wife and other couples were first courting. Maybe stemming from going out on dates to the Ramada Inn (North Coast Inn) in its heyday.

At the Arcata Volunteer Fireman’s Ball, you can also see families from the Blue Lake, Manila, McKinleyville, Bayside and Trinidad Fire department crews all joining in on the fun. Lots of visiting. A lot like they did in high school.

Last Saturday evenings’ dance was a 21-and-over affair due to the alcohol being served. And, that’s right. You don’t want teenagers messing up a good thing with their youthful temptations.

But, I have to tell you about an event our band played a week earlier also at the Arcata Community Center. It was a fundraiser for the Fieldbrook 8th grade class trip to Catalina. Teacher Bruce Hart uses his annual 50th birthday party as a trick to get his former and present swing dance students out for a big get-together.

It’s amazing to see both beginning and advanced dancers all weaving amongst each other without causing dance floor fender-benders. The real joy is watching the high school and college dancers tearing up the floor. Their vim and vigor, and unseeingly endless stamina, make them a delight to watch.

If your son or daughter doesn’t enjoy team sports, offer to send them and their friends to a swing dance class. They’ll be getting the proper exercise and they’ll meet new friends and curiously, romance may spring out of it. Then, in 20  years, they too can ditch their kids to attend the Arcata Volunteer Fire Department Valentine Fireman’s Ball.

Traditions like that still happen. Just ask any old Arcata family.

Ross Rowley brings a touch of class to the Eye’s Scene pages more weeks than not.

Ross Rowley – Appreciating the absurd, remembering the lost

Feb. 3, 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the airplane crash that took the lives of Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Buddy Holly. Such a great loss in the rock and roll culture during that time. All in their 20s, they were so young, just at the beginnings of their careers.

Death is tragic. But, it is an even more bewildering tragedy when it comes at one’s own hand.

I awoke from a terrible dream on Feb. 2 being haunted by the images of three young men, 20-something musicians in Humboldt County, who took their own lives. This dream was so vivid. Robb Rierdan, Nick (Faulkner?) and Geoff Simpson were sitting on barstools at the Victorian Inn in Ferndale. I approached them to say hello. I uttered, “Everyone thinks you’re dead.” Robb turns to me, gives me a big hug and answers, “Yes, I know.”

Geoff Simpson was the drummer for Rolls Rock, one of the leading local bands of my high school youth years. They were quite a gifted trio featuring Ron Corbett, Rob Ruiz and Geoff Simpson. When they played in Willow Creek during the summer of 1978, all of the girls swooned at this handsome trio of Eureka/Arcata rockers. And, they were good. Very good. Ron went on to a successful career of singing and management in the studios of Los Angeles.

Rob Ruiz is in the Bay Area and plays music with other local Humboldt-to-San Francisco transplants. Rolls Rock played, looked and were rock and roll in a late 1970s sense. They had a soundman and a manager. Hey, at that time, that was a big deal.  Geoff Simpson was the very colorful, very gifted drummer for the group. Quite amazing really, almost with a Keith Moon type of demeanor. In many, many ways. Not long after the break up of Rolls Rock, Geoff committed suicide.
Nick Faulker (I believe that was his last name) was the singer for a very popular Humboldt County band by the name of Mason-Dixon. They played in the style of southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchett. The band of veteran musicians found Nick playing the folk singer circuit, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar and singing blues. Nick had a huge presence.

In short time, they became the big draw band on the North Coast. They were the local favorites opening for the Allman Brothers Band at Redwood Bowl in 1980. Nick was the focus of the band with his huge voice and persona. But, along with the notoriety came elements of the early 1980’s rock scene. On a misguided notion to go rafting on the Trinity River in early March after staying up from a night of partying, Nick and the band’s manager never made it past the Burnt Ranch gorge with its class five rapids. Both were drowned.

Robb Rierdan played in a couple of Panache-zine era bands. He represented the post-punk scene here. No rules, do-it-yourself, brash. He played in the band Audio Wreckand later, Candy Muscle. His loud, uneven guitar style was like no other. Candy Muscle consisted of just guitar and drums. That was enough instrumentation to say what they had to say.

Beyond music, Robb was an accomplished artist. His swirling pop-art works are stunning. I know nothing about art, but to me, Robb’s work was such a refreshing change from the constant landscape and still-art safety we see from his local contemporaries. The majority of the artwork I got to see he used fluorescent paint, the kind used for blacklight posters.

He discovered that viewing his paintings with 3-D glasses put another spin on his creations. He wondered where he could get 3-D glasses. Oddly enough, I had a box of 200 glasses that I had acquired somehow, somewhere. He accepted my gift; that’s where we made a connection. Musically, Robb and I were worlds apart, but we both appreciated each other’s sense of absurdity in both art and music.

The last time I saw Robb Rierdan, he was selling copies of his latest Candy Muscle CD from an Easter basket. We were both inside of the Salvation Army store looking at the oddities the store had to offer. We made our cash for CD exchange right there in the knick-knack aisle. It was a nice little moment.

He died of a heroin overdose a little while later. I had no idea he was a substance abuser. I should have known when I witnessed his snot-slinging, obnoxious, drunken antics at his friend’s wedding reception. He was making a complete ass of himself. In retrospect, all he wanted to do was to sit in with our band and make a joyful noise.

Rest in peace, Richie, J.P. and Buddy… and Geoff, Nick and Robb.

Don McLean really said it well with his tribute to the 1959 airplane crash and the day the music died.

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singing this will be the day that I die. This will be the day that I die.

Ross Rowley: Set Up and Tear Down – Jan. 9, 2008

New Year’s Eve. The night more amateur partiers pour into bars and clubs than any other time of year, except for maybe, Halloween. After playing music for so many New Year’s Eve parties, the celebrations all kind of blend into one another.

Although, one year stands out most in my memory. Read the rest of this entry »

From the print edition, Dec. 16, 2008

Josh Duke on the Absynth Quintet.

Ross Rowley on playing the Freshwater Market.

Jennifer Savage on ‘A Very Playhouse Christmas’

From the print edition – Ross Rowley’s varying degrees of good timeness

The days getting shorter. Autumn colors are on full display as the leaves begin to fall. Four-wheel drive pickups, loaded with firewood, roll down the highway. It can mean only one thing; the harvest dance must be near.

During the 1960s, I don’t recall a harvest dance being held in the Trinity Valley area around Willow Creek. The community dances, put on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, were held during the summer months. The VFW owned the hall and served soda pop inside while all manner of alcohol was consumed out in the parking lot. Read the rest of this entry »

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