Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation
Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner: Lead Guitar
Paul Barrosse: Vocals, Guitar
Brad Hall: Vocals, Guitar
Rush Pearson: Vocals, Bass, Guitar
Rockin’ Ronny Crawford: Drums, Percussion
Maurice “Mr. Mo” Cleary: Vocals, Guitar, Ukulele
Casey “Casemo” Fox: Vocals
Tom “Wolf” Larson: Saxophone
Steve Rashid: Vocals, Keyboards, Harmonica, Horns
The First Rockme Reunion
In the summer of 2004, it had been 16 years since the band of buddies who called themselves Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation had made loud, beautiful music together. Not since we gathered for an impromptu jam session in Ron and Syd Crawford’s Evanston backyard in 1988, after the Q&R Studio sessions to record songs from the Hall & Barrosse musical “Rock Me!” Since then we’d all gone our separate ways, pursuing careers in television, radio, recording, theatre, academia, professional rock n’ roll, and the Renaissance Faire mud pit.
The Rockmes who had been pushing thirty in ’88 were closer to fifty in ’04 — when our leader (and oldest member of the band) Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner, sent a simple yet fateful e-mail to his bandmates…
Paul, Brad, Rush & Rockin’,
Pia has an LA business trip planned for late August. I’m thinking of tagging along — if we can do a brief Rockme Reunion. What do you think of some basement or garage rock long about August 27th or so?
After so many long years of band inactivity, the effect of Riffmaster’s e-mail was as electric as his Fender Stratocaster: the catalyst for Rockme regeneration.
Thus, on two hot August nights in the 50th anniversary year of Elvis Presley’s revolutionary hit record, “That’s All Right”, the band assembled at Clear Sound Studios in Chatsworth, California for the first Rockme Reunion. After one remarkably productive evening of rehearsal on Thursday, August 26 – our families and friends jammed into the cramped studio (reminiscent of the friendly confines of the John Lennon Auditorium) for the kind of instant rock and roll revival and dance party that none of us had experienced since the Rockme Diaspora.
The band (and certain of their progeny) rocked, the kids (older and younger) jumped, spirits (alcoholic and metaphysical) flowed, and the laughter grew all night long – as did the volume of Riff’s guitar. It was an evening of mayhem, memories, magic, and old-school rock & roll. That night, Riffmaster & the Rockme Foundation made Southern California a little louder – and Rockme hearts a little lighter. As Maurice “Mr. Mo” Cleary wrote afterward…
“Seeing Rockin’ and Rush anchoring down the rhythm section through their nodding and smiling made the years fall away! Hearing and watching Paul sing, scream and sell those Rockme lyrics, while not colliding with anyone, demonstrated the agility and coordination of the true rock obsessive. Having Wolf play the crucial sax lines put it all together. Of course, having the mighty Riff driving us forward with his blistering, pentatonic, ear shattering, string breaking technique was the icing on the Rockme cake. And the quizzical looks Brad and I would exchange regarding the proper chord sequence, revealed the basic improvisational nature underpinning the Rockme legend.”
And Rush observed…
“It all felt so normal. It was if we weren’t there in Clear Sound to have a reunion after a 16 year absence, it wasn’t as if we were playing to reminisce, it was as if we had somehow either traveled back in time and were having normal practice back at the JLA, or that we had forgot to have one of our rehearsals back then and were having it last week.”
Birth of the Band
Twenty-three years before the Chatsworth Reunion, in 1981, Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation was born as the house band for the nascent Practical Theatre Company. The Post-Punk New Wave was still flowing, and there was a rock n’ roll and rockabilly revival going on at the time, fueled by the emergence of roots-rocking artists like Stray Cats, Rockpile, and Robert Gordon – but you wouldn’t know it from a glance at Billboard’s top ten 1981 chart hits.
2. Endless Love (Diana Ross & Lionel Richie)
3. Lady (Kenny Rogers)
4. (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon)
5. Jessie’s Girl (Rick Springfield)
6. Celebration (Kool & The Gang)
7. Kiss On My List (Daryl Hall & John Oates)
8. I Love A Rainy Night (Eddie Rabbitt)
9. 9 To 5 (Dolly Parton)
10. Keep On Loving You (REO Speedwagon)
Aside from the John Lennon track listed at #4, Brad Hall, Rush Pearson and I weren’t dropping the needle on any of these top-ten hits on our stereos. We were spinning Elvis Costello, The Blasters, The Fabulous Thunderbirds — and Tom Waits when we were in a mellower mood. And of course, we dug Brian Setzer’s Stray Cats, Rockpile (featuring Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe), and Robert Gordon, whose scorching live rockabilly set we witnessed on Northwestern’s lakefront during the annual Armadillo Day celebration. Given our enthusiastic embrace of the countercultural nature of Armadillo Day, I still can’t remember if the seminal guitar legend Link Wray joined Robert Gordon on stage that day, but he did in my mind. And, as they say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Brad, Rush and I had played around with rock and roll during our college years together, and we’d combined our Beatle-ish musical stylings with our Monty Python-esque comedy sensibilities in our early work at The Practical Theatre. But it wasn’t until an unassuming guy named Peter Van Wagner was cast as an actor in one of our shows at The John Lennon Auditorium that we actually formed a real rock n’ roll band.
Peter was not only an amazing guitar player – he was from an earlier rock n’ roll generation: among those very first American kids who picked up guitars when the Beatles came to America. Not only did Pete see The Fab Four play Shea Stadium – he was even at Woodstock!
The fact that Pete was a living, breathing (and yes, sweating) link to these two mythic cultural watersheds was nearly as impressive as his incredible guitar playing. To us, Pete Van Wagner was more than just an actor with a ready laugh, a head of thinning hair, and an encyclopedic knowledge of guitar riffs – he was a legend in the making: The Riffmaster.
Soon, Pete, Rush, Brad, and I were joined by the PTC’s technical director, Tom “Wolf” Larson, on tenor sax and my old high school bandmate, Tom “Beefma” Kalicky, on baritone sax, and were were eventually backed by a drum-beating boy wonder named Ronny Crawford. The mellifluous Casey Fox chimed in on harmonies and introduced us to great new records from roots-rocking bands. I’m sure Rush knows the specifics, but somehow, probably owing to our 8-member size, we wound up calling ourselves Riffmaster and The Rockme Foundation.
For the next few years, we played a lot of parties for Practical Theatre events and Northwestern frats, street festivals like the annual Body Politic bash, Taste of Chicago (where we met one of our great heroes, Tom Waits), and gigged around Chicago, playing north side bars like Tuts, Fiddler’s Green, and Crosscurrents, the Belmont Avenue home of the north side theatrical avant-garde.
Despite the fact that Brad and I were hired by Saturday Night Live in 1982 and lived part-time in New York City, the Rockme beat went on. In fact, the very last thing we did before leaving for New York was to play a Rockme gig at the Chicago SubGenius Convention. I have fond but aching memories of lugging my guitar and Fender Twin Reverb amp through airports, as we traveled back and forth between New York and Chicago to play gigs like our concert at Evanston’s Varsity Theater, opening for our SNL colleague, Eddie Murphy.
Which is not to say that the Rockmes were confined to Chicago and New York City (where they recorded in 1982 and gigged in ‘84 after the PTC’s Off-Broadway debut). In 1983, the band embarked on its World Tour of Cleveland, Ohio. Actually, Cleveland and Kent. Most of the band bunked down at my parents’ house, where my mom fed us all like kings morning, noon and night – and late, late night, too.
On our “World Tour”, we played a couple bars in The Flats (including a gig at Biggies, captured by Ron Crawford, above), a couple clubs in the Cleveland suburbs, and one near the campus of Kent State University. Before the gig in Kent, I took my bandmates on a tour of the infamous spot where Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students on May 4, 1971. You could still see the bullet holes in the buildings and sculpture on that historic corner of the campus. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…”
Throughout these years, the band was regularly recording original songs (and a few select covers) at Q&R Studios on Ridge Road in Evanston. Fellow NU alum and drummer for The Front Lines, Steve Jarvis, introduced us to the studio and engineer Justin Niebank. In time, Steve Rashid followed Justin at the control board, and with his mad keyboard, harmonica and horn-playing skills, Steve helped usher in a whole new era of Rockme recording.
Here’s a sampler of Rockme recordings to download (click on title):
I Wanna Be There (Barrosse)
New Orleans (Barrosse-Pearson)
In The Summertime (Cleary)
Gallery Girl (Van Wagner)
I Forgot (Van Wagner)
With Riffmaster, Rockin’ Ronny, Steve, and the occasional but brilliant contributions of pianist Larry Schanker — the Rockmes could boast four real musicians: a dangerous level of legitimate musicality for a rock n’ roll band. And somewhere along the line, Maurice “Mr. Mo” Cleary, Pete’s oldest and dearest friend, moved to Evanston and joined the band – bringing with him his Rickenbacker guitar, his ukulele, and his vast mental storehouse of rock & roll arcana.
In the mid-80’s, the Rockme Foundation continued to make the kids jump at Jimmy G’s (Bubba George McClellan’s blues club on Northwestern University downtown campus), at parties in the PTC’s Piper’s Alley Theatre and later, in Bo May’s commercial production studio, also in Old Town. Meanwhile, until 1985, we were still rocking the tiny John Lennon Auditorium, which had evolved into The John Lennon Athletic Club. But by 1986, with various band members pulled out of town by gigs in television, theatre, mud pits, and rock and roll, it became time for Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation — like Cream, The Beatles, and The Band before them — to say goodbye on their own terms.
We played what we thought would be our swan song in the summer of ’86. Billed as The Last Straw (a satiric nod to Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, chronicling The Band’s final concert), our last show was held at The Vic Theatre on the corner of Belmont and Sheffield on Chicago’s north side. With “Bubba G” McClellan as emcee, and all the big time rock show effects and pyrotechnics the Vic Theatre could offer, it was a truly fabulous and festive farewell.
Two years after The Last Straw, most of the band got together to portray Doctor Guitar & The Hit Men in “Rock Me!” the musical. “Rock Me” was The Practical Theatre’s contribution to our guru Sheldon Patinkin’s New Musicals Project at Columbia College – and on August 1, 1988, it was performed in a concert reading at The Apollo Theatre.
Rock Me! (Lead vocal by Megan Mullally)
Rock & Roll Widow (Featuring Bonnie Sue Arp & Victoria Zielinski)
The “Rock Me!” concert reading was triumphantly received that August night by a sold-out house filled with the best and brightest lights in Chicago theatre. I don’t think any of us thought it would be nearly two decades before the whole band would get together again.
The Reunion Era
16 years later, Riffmaster’s surprise e-mail inspired the 2004 Chatsworth Reunion, but it would be another three years before the loss of Mr. Mo’s kidney – and the marriage of my oldest daughter, Maura — served as rallying points for another Rockme reunion.
Kidney Fest 2007 was a reaction to the news that Maurice “Mr. Mo” Cleary had been seriously ill and had undergone an operation to remove a kidney. The idea was to regroup in Chicago to play a benefit concert for Mr. Mo – though any benefits that ultimately resulted were probably far more spiritual than monetary. The invaluable Terry Barron and the stalwart Wolf Larson handled the logistics – and the incomparable Scott Vehill, impresario of the Prop Theatre, lent us his space for the evening. Steve’s wife, Bea Rashid provided us with her dancing school studio to rehearse – and Kidney Fest came off without a hitch on June 17, 2007.
A few days later, Mr. Mo wrote, “My recovery [both physical and emotional] was given the best boost an orphan can get, I was surrounded by the people I love and play music with [and for]. Well it’s the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love. I knew I’d celebrate, but last weekend I realized they were right: All You Need is Love.”
A few months later, On October 7th, Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation reconvened to make one of my long-imagined dreams come true: rocking at the wedding of my daughter, Maura. Maura’s wedding to Nicolas Fournier at the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu was a storybook affair, and The Rockmes’ brief but heartfelt set that evening made it all the more memorable.
From our version of Rockpile’s “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll)” to my duet with Maura on the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” to our emotional cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” – it was the kind of event where it’s clear you’re in the right place at the right time – with the right people gathered around you.
And, oh yeah, the bedraggled boys in the band got together and did it all again at our house the next evening!
After the events of 2007, Rockme reunions have become an annual event. In April of 2008 (as many of us in the band were hitting the half-century mark), we assembled at Steve Rashid’s fabulous home studio for what we called “Woodshed at Woodside”. For a long weekend, we laid down the first original songs we’d recorded in 20 years. To hear some of the Woodside tracks, check out the Rockme Foundation MySpace page.
Rockme CD’s are available at CD Baby: Click here.
The next year, in April 2009, we got together in New York City to party at Ron & Syd Crawford’s house on Mott Street. The threat of rain dampened our plans to rock on the Crawford’s roof (a nod to Let It Be) — but it did not stop our third annual reunion in a row.
Rather than risk collapsing the Crawford’s roof, We played for family and friends at Smash Studios in midtown Manhattan. With Fat Dave Silberger, Terry Barron, Marie Snyder, and so many wonderful East Coast NU alums and children of the band rocking the night away with us, it was clear that Rockme fever was as contagious as ever – making it inevitable that plans for Rockme 2010 would have to be made. And so they were.
Rockme Reunion 2010, Monday May 17th at SPACE in Evanston. Be there to help us celebrate 29 years (ohmigod, that’s almost three decades!) of glorious rock & roll fellowship with Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation. And come ready to dance!