Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Best Band Ever

I can blame it all on one Karla Jayne DeVito. She of Mokena, IL. A friend recommended that I go see her in concert with a band called Goodnight Louise. She didn't take over the stage that night. She owned it. A high-stepping, song-belting vamp on one hand; sonorous balladeer on the other.

Some months later, she called me from Boston. She was involved in another project. They needed a drummer. Would I like to give it a shot? I would play with her in a vial-laden alley in Bed-Stuy.

I trundled up 95 to The Hub. I met Karla and six others sardined in the dining room of a three-decker on a Saharan day. The band didn't show me any songs, but, in their wisdom, snipped passages for me to assay: regal rock, gnarly punk, hints of funk. Plus skatey-eight other feels. Three excellent instrumentalists, plus four on vocals.

This was Orchestra Luna.

That night in Kenmore Square, I received my first dose of Luna-cy. Not just music, but poetry, dance, costume changes. A mêlée on stage. Songs about Tennessee Williams and kids on the short bus. I was sold.

The band arranged for me to bunk in with their publicist, Diana Reddy, and her mom, the learned, soigné Sigrid Watson. I had made some "cheat sheets" for the songs, trying my best to decipher them from board cassettes. The pieces defied musical notation. Sometimes, I'd have to wait for a body to fall (or wings to flutter) before we would launch into the next part. I ended up with a sheaf strewn with arrows, doodles, arcs and covenants. It presaged a Hogwarts textbook.

Somehow, I ended up absorbing the myriad movements. A few weeks into my stint, we played at CBGB, the dung-infested home of new music of the day. As I schlepped a hi-hat and music stand into the venue, a vulpine-looking guy from the Tuff Darts said, "What the fuck is THAT?"

The band, at the Rusty Nail in Amherst, MA: Seated, far left: Peter Barrett•; arc in rear, l-r: Rick Berlin (nee Kinscherf, Bob Brandon, Liz Gallagher, Steven Paul Perry•, Karla Jayne DeVito, the author; groveling: Chet Cahill•
• deceased

The gigs rolled in. We were the punk/theater/vagabond/commedia dell'arte darlings of the eastern seaboard. I learned to deal with songs that careered through multiple grooves, sometimes skidding on the edge of the road, but never falling off the cliff.

The octet itself was a clump of Legos. If Gumby had designed them. The parts would meld together in an odd formation, then split apart and reassemble, sometimes within the same piece.

Bob Brandon, years before a reliable electric piano was invented, held down the keyboard end masterfully, jumping from etude to rag to Jerry Lee. Chet Cahill stood tall with a Rickenbacker bass that could at once soothe, keen and growl. Steven Paul Perry simply shone on guitar. He was one the few players I knew who could play melodically and then kafkafy magically into a death-metal reaper.

Peter Barrett, up with our "front four," could be a wife-beater in one song and a failed Superman the next ("flattened on the sidewalk like a frying pan"). Weighing about as much as a damp jockey, he would contort, distort, bug-eye and slither through traffic jam onstage. Liz Gallagher, often the sultry soubrette, supplied the musky alto voice, rounding out OL's harmonic mishmosh. She served as the perfect foil for the brash, impulsive Karla DeVito, who could kick a Camel from an onlooker's maw at any moment.

Front and center, this seemingly rudderless ship was masterfully guided by Rick Berlin (nee Kinscherf). Lanky, lean and full of gusto, he wrote many of the songs ... and sang them as if he had to leave a part of his soul onstage. Able to move his limbs and hair in five different directions, he would grasp the mike as if it were a lifesaver, barely able to stay afloat within the tune. His boundless energy and willingness to work without a net set the standard for us other seven.

Holding us together were Lennie Rosengard on sound and Mike Scopino on everything else. Still, during my first few weeks with the band, not everything was smooth sailing. Especially offstage. Enter one Billie Best, a longtime friend of Karla. Instantly, she became our drill sergeant, fixer, tampon finder at 3 am, bully and dear friend. I subsequently met tour managers and other staff who couldn't come close to matching her nerve, guts or organizational skills.

Somehow, we made it to our gigs. Big shots would come see us. Max's Kansas City. The Ocean Club. And nearly every club of note in Beantown and Cambridge.

Then we were selected to be the pit band and chorus for the Jim Steinman play, Neverland. A rockish Peter Pan musical, the event was slated for preview at The Kennedy Center in D. C. I didn't realize that when we were playing songs like "Bat Out of Hell," millions would be listening before long.

However, the album deal that had loomed so large on our horizon never materialized. I had recently flown out to LA to play on a friend's album. This is what I wanted to do. In the hardest decision I've ever had to make, I gave the band my notice.  The parting was teary, bleary and difficult. I was glad that the best gig came last: a memorable concert at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.

After moving to the Coast, I got my wish. Sessions started coming in, along with tour work. No more lugging my drums around. Playing in stadiums. Limos, autographs, women. My own road digs ... and not in a ramshackle hotel, where OL would pancake four to a room.

I rubbed elbows (and worked with) Ronstadt, Rebennack, Midler. I drank with Tom Waits. A record went gold.

But something was missing. As OL soldiered on, through days of Luna and The Berlin Airlift, I often reminisced about the band.

We lost Peter Barrett, Chet married Billie, but also left us too soon. Steven also succumbed recently. Karla, you know about. Rick's Nickel & Dime band out of Jamaica Plain continue to amaze. I think his spark is indelible. Addendum 4.21: Karla has informed me that Mike Scopino passed some years ago. He of the sharp wit and the "get it done" attitude.

I am grateful for the photos and other ephemera that have resurfaced. I write now. The picture above served to jog my memory and force me to sit down and tap out this little piece.

I realize, now more than ever, that I will never recapture the magic, the verve, the sheer effrontery and especially the art that was Orchestra Luna. Luna was, simply, the best band I ever played with.

And they ... were ... fabulous.



5 comments:

  1. A long overdue H&H tribute to a band whose short, but special time together left an indelible stamp on not only the lives of its members but on each and every one of its intensely loyal and rabid fans, who still rave about them, and will probably pass their memory of them down through future generations.

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  2. Ace, thank you for this post. It was a special time, and I remember it fondly. Like so many other things, my brother Peter led the way for my own immersion in music and performing. I doubt I would've done it on my own. I'm still at it, still inspired by him and those times. Tim Barrett

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    1. Tahnks, Timmy. Your bro was a one-off.

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