Chris Aaron Comes Home With Bandallamas
By Jim Lundstrom
Mark that date down if you want to be part of an incredible music event at Waterfest. No, not headliner Loverboy, though certainly some people will show just to hear the Canucks do “Working for the Weekend.” (Wonder if lead singer Mike Reno still wears those red leather trousers…). The real show that night is Bandallamas, a veritable who’s who of musicians but featuring the Valley’s own Chris Aaron on guitar and vocals.
On stage with Chris:
Rob Wasserman, bass (David Grisman, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Ratdog with Bob Weir, Elvis Costello, etc…)
Richard Davis, bass (Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, Dexter Gordon, Ahmad Jamal, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and many more).
Victor DeLorenzo, standup drum kit (Violent Femmes, Theatre X, Ash Can School)
Wally Ingram, drums (Timbuk3, David Lindley, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and many more).
Pauli Ryan, percussion (Garbage, U2, Sun Volt, Buddy Miles, Michael McDonald, Luther Allison, and more)
Ken Saydak, keyboards (Johnny Winter, Otis Rush, Willie Kent, Lonnie Brooks, Sam Lay and more).
Bobby Bryan, guitars and vocals (The Mighty Balls of Fire, Keb Mo’, Lowell Fulsom, Louie Bluey, and more).
In short, many lifetimes of musical experience will converge on stage, all working to make Chris Aaron’s dream project a reality. It will also be a CD release for Eye to Eye, a new two-disc CD by Bandallamas, mostly recorded in a three-day period at a Madison studio in March 2009.
“The last year and a half has just been finding the funding to get it all edited and mixed,” Aaron said. “I did a lot of it myself, making sure everything is right. I’m really proud of this. The whole process has been a crazy long story.”
Aaron has been living in Denver since 2006 when his wife, Lisa Bethke, took a job there.
“I’ve been playing on a lot of records for other people this year and I’ve been working at a studio, and doing other things, like making sure my children are taken care of, macho house husband. Very important,” Aaron said.
Aaron and Lisa restimulate their Wisconsin roots every June by helping longtime pal pat mAcdonald with the annual Steel Bridge Song Fest, an event that brings musicians from around the country to Sturgeon Bay for a week of songwriting and recording before a weekend of live shows. It turned out to be a literal bridge for Aaron and many of the musicians he is now working with.
Aaron’s fiery guitar and blues-based music have always been pleasing crowds since the ’90s, and more than once it seemed he was about to bust out of the crowd and onto the national scene, but it just never happened.
It was his wife who suggested a change might be for the best.
“Lisa said to me a couple years back, you’ve been doing the same great music the same way for a long time. If you want to have different results, why not do the same great music a different way? I was like, yeah, I think you’re right,” Aaron said.
He mentioned the idea to his pal, percussionist Pauli Ryan, who thought it was a great idea. He called his pal, drummer Wally Ingram.
“So Pauli calls Wally Ingram and says, ‘Wally, let’s go to a Packers game in Denver’,” Aaron said. “That’s Wally’s weakness, Packer games.”
It was a Monday Night Football game (“Bret threw an 80-yard touchdown to win the game, it was great night!” Aaron recalls). Ingram showed up in Denver two days before the football game, and as if it was meant to happen, they went out to see the band Banyan, with Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction on drums, Willie Waldman on trumpet and Rob Wasserman on bass.
“We go down there and got talking to Rob for about an hour after the gig,” Aaron said. “I asked what he’d been doing and he said he was working on this Woody Guthrie thing. When Woody died, he left all these songs with no music, thousands of song lyrics. So the family has asked Rob to find artists that are cool to put music to Woody Guthrie lyrics.”
Wasserman asked what Aaron does. He replied that he’s a musician and added that for the last few years he had been working with the Steel Bridge Fest.
“I said I had the pleasure of working with all these great musicians. Jackson Browne is one of those,” Aaron said. “Rob goes, ‘Oh, I wanted Jackson Browne to do some Woody Guthrie.’”
Aaron connected Wasserman and Browne, and then thought he’d ask Wasserman if he’d ever be interested in doing some recording and maybe even some songwriting.
“I end up sitting in a hotel room with him and Wally Ingram in San Francisco for a week, and I wrote the music for the album with those guys. It was really cool. We recorded all the songs in November (2008) in a hotel room. Rough, not for the album, but all the ideas were on there.”
Then in March of 2009 the entire band was assembled in DNA Studios in Madison.
“We recorded about 70% of the record in three days. A double record, 18 songs, three days. It was pretty insane,” Aaron said.
He describes two of the songs as “epic jams” that feature Wasserman and Richard Davis, who has been teaching at UW-Madison since 1979 and had both Wally Ingram and Pauli Ryan as students at one time.
“If that’s not a one-two punch, I don’t know what is!” said Victor DeLorenzo of the two bass giants. “That was one of Rob’s dreams, to be able to record with Richard Davis. And for me, primarily being a real heavy jazz musician, I’ve got so many recordings that Richard Davis has been a part of, and he played a lot with my favorite drummer, Tony Williams. I have the utmost respect for him and when I was playing with him, I just had to keep pinching myself and looking at him, going, Oh, my god, I’m playing with Richard Davis! I have to thank Chris and the guys for that opportunity. It was really a pleasure.”
But he also recognizes he’s part of a pretty unique unit.
“I like playing with these guys because we have an added feature which is something different for what you consider to be a blues band, and that is that we have three world-class percussionists – this is, if I can include myself – playing in the group,” DeLorenzo said. “Pauli Ryan, who’s playing percussion, he’s played with Garbage and a whole bunch of people, and my friend, Wally Ingram, who’s playing sit down drum set. He’s played with all kinds of West Coast people, from Sheryl Crow to Jackson Browne. And I play a standup drum system. I have three drums that I play and cymbal. I kind of fill in the cracks of what Pauli and Wally are doing. It has taken on a cohesive shape in a short amount of time. I think we’ve only played live together three times. It’s always been a blast. It’s really fun to see this percussion interaction and how it affects what’s going on with the guitarists and bass players. Normally you have one drummer in a blues band, and that’s more than enough. Here you have three guys jumping around pounding on stuff. It adds a whole other thing to it. I’m hesitant to use that word jam band, but it does kind of come into that realm a bit.”
Aaron and DeLorenzo met at the Steel Bridge Song Fest, three years ago when DeLorenzo was working with singer/songwriter Danielle Gasparro. Aaron was working as a recording engineer for the songwriting recording sessions that take place during the fest.
“We went to a studio where Chris was working, and he did some overdubs for us. We started hanging out and talking and I realized he was an acquaintance of Wally Ingram. I’ve known Wally over 20 years or so. It was one of those things where one friendship led to another. We all talked about doing some recording together, and that yielded the recording session that we did in Madison. That has now presented us with a double album that is coming out. That got Chris interested in doing some live shows, and some promoters were interested in it.”
One of those promoters is Michael Dempsey, who runs Waterfest and wanted Bandallamas to be a part of this year’s 25th anniversary celebration.
“Chris Aaron is an automatic draw for Waterfest, much like Vic Ferrari and Road Trip,” Dempsey said. “Fans were always there. They would stand in the mud in the rain and rock to Chris. He always covered and then some. We paired him two times with Eric Burdon and that tandem was a killer show. So Chris has been part of the Waterfest Family for 20 years.”
Dempsey said he caught wind of Bandallamas “before Chris even coined the name.”
“Once we got on the phone and got just halfway through the Bandallamas roster we knew we had to find a way to make it happen for the Waterfest 25th,” Dempsey said. “Then we gravitated to opening act purgAtory hill (with pat mAcdonald and melaniejane) to open and set this experiment up for proper consumption.”
Even though Bandallamas is technically an opening act on this particular, Dempsey said they will be given a full concert set up to 90 minutes.
“We suggested that the event be captured on DVD to memorialize the assembled star power and provide a My Space/You Tube vehicle to help drive awareness and interest in the band and the new release,” Dempsey said. “There are bus loads of fans coming from all over the state and beyond to participate in the history of making the DVD and these musicians all on stage at one time. It is going to be a riveting performance. Waterfest is rooting for Chris and the highly ambitious Bandallamas project. The legacy continues to build in a big way.”
“This is a one-off for this summer,” Aaron said. “We’re booking for the fall, winter and next summer. I just wanted to bring it home. This is my home. I didn’t even know if the album would be out in time for Waterfest, but Mike Dempsey was like, man, I really want to do this. I talked to the guys in the band. Everybody seemed cool with it. And Waterfest is such a great gig. So we decided, if we do do it, let’s do it as our only Bandallamas gig this summer. We will be doing more, but this band is a behemoth to move around and not cheap.”
After the Waterfest show, the party moves down the street to Becket’s, where Bobby Bryan will host the house band with Bobby Evans on guitar, Mike Underwood on drums and Steve Smith on bass, while the rest of the Bandallamas meet and greet.
Anyone with a Waterfest wrist band gets into Becket’s afterglow and gets a free pint of beer and $2 drinks. A separate room in Becket’s is reserved for up to 75 VIP guests. For $105, VIPs receive a Waterfest ticket, a limited band poster, the new double CD, VIP lanyard pass with download card, Bandallamas T-shirt, two drink tickets for Becket’s, and, Aaron promises, “The coolest meet and greet and signing opportunity with all Bandallamas musicians performing at Waterfest – priceless!” Sign up for VIP status at http://llamas.doubledowndev.com .