The Buzztones’ Show of Excellence

Way back in 2002 I put together a band to play covers of some of my favorite music. Then as now I was especially into mid 60s garage, psych and proto-punk. In addition to that music’s vitality and immediacy, much of it had the handy benefit of also being relatively easy to play. I put out a “casting call” ad in our local altweekly and found a drummer, some guitarists and (more or less) a bassist.

While a fuller account of that band’s story is found elsewhere, one particular memory stands out from the rest. As it happens, it was the band’s first public performance. Once our lineup had settled (though it would mutate greatly over the few years we were together) it was time to pick a name. We dubbed ourselves the Buzztones, though we would soon surrender that name upon learning that a relatively well-known group was already using the moniker. Oddly, that group was (is?) a Christian rock group, so musically there was little or no overlap. The name would eventually have to go.

But for that first gig, Buzztones we would be. And so it happened that in our small city, the public school system ran an annual showcase of talent called The Show of Excellence. A talent show — not a competition — the annual event featured students K-12, teachers, faculty and other school system employees strutting their stuff onstage.The vibe was very much that of an old-fashioned variety show. You might actually see plate spinners, puppeteers, and the like. I recall one year a third-grader actually took the stage with a barstool and microphone, and did stand-up comedy for his three minutes of fame. And of course there were plenty of piano solos, ranging from “Three Blind Mice” to Rachmaninoff.

The show always packed ’em into the auditorium. Each act got three or four minutes, tops, and the show runners did a yeoman job of keeping things moving: the time between acts rarely extended much beyond a minute. A full evening’s entertainment — and then some — was enjoyed by all.Buzztones

Or by most. Truth be told, most adults were there to see their own kids, plus a few others. Beyond that, the audience dug it when it was good, and politely endured it when it wasn’t. With thirty or more acts on the bill each year, it was inevitable that — no mater what your likes and dislikes — you’d witness plenty of both.

But back to the Buzztones. When we first got our little collective together, we found that we had too much of some things and not enough of others. I handled keyboards and vocals, and Mike held down the drum seat. But beyond that we initially found ourselves with four guitarists and no bass player. One of the guitarists quickly dropped out when it became clear we wouldn’t be covering the Doobie Brothers or Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But that still left us with three. One of them (Dave) was clearly a lead player, and another (Tommy) was a solid electric rhythm guitarist with a real affinity (if not knowledge) of the music, and he was willing to go home and woodshed each week to learn the songs.

The third guitarist was more of an acoustic player. I had invited him in primarily because he could sing. But at this stage in the band’s development, we needed a bass player. Never having actually done it before, he stepped up and said, essentially, “Well, it’s only got four strings compared to the six on my guitar. I guess I could do it.”

Now, musicians reading this have already sorted out where this is going. Bass guitar is not the same as guitar. It’s a completely different thing. It’s more different than the contrast between piano, organ and synthesizer in some ways (to use an analogy to which I can readily relate). But he gamely gave it a shot.

He didn’t own a bass guitar (nor did three of his eventual five replacements, but as I’ve said, that’s another story) but he was willing to use mine. In 1987 I had bought an early 70s Epiphone bass in a pawnshop, so with a bit of resoldering it was pressed into service. He did spring for an awful bass amp, though. So that’s something.

The band had a rocky start. Not rocky in the rock’n’roll sense, but rocky in the not-so-smooth sense. The musical chemistry wasn’t quite right, and as I’ve said, it would change drastically before we would make any real headway. But we did manage to craft a few serviceable cover versions, enough for a gig.

Well, a short gig. A very short gig. An extremely short gig. One lasting, say, two songs. Now, to be fair, the span of time described in this little anecdote is all of a few weeks. A month at most. So it wasn’t like we were awful; we just didn’t have time to get very good.

What we did have time to do, however, was get that gig. The bassist, as it turns out, was at the time a teacher at my son’s elementary school. So on audition day the five of us trundled up to the auditorium, set up our instruments and cranked out a tune. To our great surprise, we got onto the bill.

Yes, we would be the only rock act on the program. There was a very cool dad-and-son drum duet on the bill, but that actually leaned more in a jazzy direction. But when it came to sheer rock and roll, we were it. For reason having more to do with logistics than quality, the Buzztones would be scheduled to appear last, to close the evening’s festivities.

Honestly, we had no idea how we’d go over. We figured that some of the parents would dig our style, and that the novelty of seeing one of their kids’ teachers up there rocking out would add to the enjoyment. But we really didn’t know what to expect.

Nor did the audience. After the other twenty-nine acts did their thing, it was time for the Buzztones to unleash their 60s rock’n’roll fury on this now-weary audience. As is typical with an event of this type, a certain number of people had already left, adhering to the I’ve-seen-my-kid-perform-so-let’s-go school of thought. But the room was still perhaps three-fourths full: several hundred people. And as is also typical for these kinds of things, lots of young kids — primary grades, mostly — were down in front.

Buzztones Have you even been to a school function involving the public address system? I’m not counting high school football games (games…games…games…). I’m talking instead about the indoor auditorium/gymnasium PA systems. I don’t know who makes those things, but they seem to exist in a world apart from the sort of equipment used, well, everywhere else. The equipment is not, shall we say, designed to project a rock vocalist over the roar of a Fender Mustang, Gibson ES-335 (copy), Epiphone bass, (ersatz) Farfisa organ and 1965 Ludwig drum kit. So with that in mind it was decided that the Buzztones would really go garage and run my mic through one of our amplifiers.

Now, anyone who’s even been in a band, helped a band set up, or even just watched a band prepare for a gig knows that it takes some time to get things placed onstage. Even if nothing (other than vocals) is getting miked, there’s still the matter of dragging the amps onto the stage, getting the x-stand for the keyboard, and assembling the drums. Even if the drummer puts everything together offstage ahead of time (as Mike did), the band needs a good twenty minutes at a bare minimum to get things set up.

Thanks to the understanding and generosity of the show runners, the Buzztones were given double the normal amount of time to set up before the curtain was raised on us. Yes, we got two minutes to set up. Two minutes from the moment the previous act vacated the stage. Two minutes to get everything onto the stage, plugged in, turned on, tuned up and ready to go. Two minutes. I still laugh when I think about it.

We somehow did it. When the drapes pulled open, there we were, resplendent in our sartorial mishmash. The Buzztones had yet to establish a defined identity (or much else) but for this event we went the sorta-faux hippie route. Or at least some of us did. The second guitarist, drummer and bassist all sported love beads and loose-fitting dashiki-type affairs. The lead guitarist, clever iconoclast that he was, wore plaid pants, a Hawaiian print shirt, and black and white saddle shoes. Me, I decided to wear what is fondly (or otherwise) remembered as the Melted Creamsicle Outfit. I had taken a white t-shirt and white jeans (those were hard to find, I tell ya) and tie-dyed them using only orange, yellow and a bit of red. At the time, my hair was halfway down my back. We were an odd sight for a school function, no doubt.

Being in a hurry to cobble something together for this three-minute gig, we chose to cover the Monkees hit “I’m a Believer.” It ain’t hard, and it has enough pop appeal that we figured it’d go over okay. What we didn’t realize was that the song was undergoing a huge revival at the time: the latest Shrek movie featured a cover of the song, performed by (I think) Smash Mouth. Okay, big deal, right? So maybe the kids will know the song too. Good, right?

Here’s where we got a surprise, and it’s one that people still talked about eight years later. Those kids down front screamed. I don’t mean little yelps. They screamed at the top of their lungs, and jumped up and down. For the first and likely only time in my life I got a very tiny idea of what it might have been like to attend a Beatles concert. The high-pitched screams were deafening, even over the noise blasting from the stage.

No, we weren’t all that phenomenally good. I told you. But these kids just plain loved hearing the song. It’s safe to say none of them had ever seen a real live rock band (even a mediocre, just-formed one) in their short little lives. So the thrill of hearing a song they liked, played pretty much as it was supposed to be played, and at considerable volume, brought shrieks of delight.

We got quite a kick out of it, too. Even though the lights were on me, I could still see well into the crowd. Beyond the squealing kids, I saw literally dozens of people making hastily for the exits. I suspect that had more to do with the volume of our performance than the relative quality of our playing. One, we were most certainly exponentially louder than anything else they had heard that night, especially since we were completely in control of our own volume. Two, this being a small city in the Appalachian Mountains, the preferred musical genre tends to involve fiddles, washboards and banjos, not fuzz pedals.

The band went on to bigger things. We played in front of more appropriate crowds, people who understood and appreciated our crate-digger’s approach to covers. We ditched the silly hippie getups and put together a more stable lineup. We recorded an album’s worth of songs, and even included an irate phone message left by my next door neighbor (“Can you turn your music down? It’s terrible. It’s really bad.”). But in many ways we never topped the excitement of the Show of Excellence.