The Best Gigs I Ever Played In - by Pete Vogel

Poor JCE didn’t know the Pandora’s Box he would open by sharing his favorites list.

I imagine that a good percentage of Pencilstorm readers are working - or formerly-working - musicians and I imagine all have some wonderful stories to share about gigging.  When JCE originally posted about his top ten list, I knew this would snowball in many different directions: best concerts, worst concerts, near misses, etc. I thought I’d take a stab in another direction - which will probably lead down yet another path - and this is aptly called: The Best Gigs I Ever Played In.  Here she goes:

June, 1983 – Some Dive Bar in downtown Louisville, KY (The Toll)

The most famous band I ever played in was The Toll: I joined them while still in high school.  I met Brad Circone at a party (he was dating a classmate), and he asked me to join the band. I was actually a 9-to-5 punker and a total phony: I would meet up with the guys, jam to Clash and Sex Pistols tunes, then go home and crank up Ozzy and Zep.  I didn’t dare tell my bandmates about my ‘double life’ because I’m sure they would lynch me.

Myke Rock was our tour manager at the time; he booked us a Sunday night gig in Louisville, KY.  It was our first out-of-town gig, so I was both excited and nervous. We left on a Sunday afternoon: the band took two vehicles to the show, and we drove the six-hour journey from Columbus to Louisville.  We arrived at the downtown club at dusk and were shocked and disappointed that only three people showed up. Brad was pissed.

“Look—we just drove 6 fucking hours to play for these people, so we’re going to give them a show they’ll never forget!”

It’s amazing what raw anger can do to a punk band: we raised the roof that night.  Everybody was on top of their game: Doug Marrah (bass), Rick Silk (lead/rhythm guitar) and Brad (lead vocals, rhythm) put on a show for the ages for these three punk rockers in attendance. The crowd was beyond elated that we didn’t phone it in for the paltry turnout; they loved every minute of it.

I’d just graduated from 12 years of Catholic school so I was a little nervous about what transpired next: one of the female punkers came back to the dressing room and sat on my lap.  She had green hair and her breath was a toxic mix of alcohol, cigarettes, weed and lord-knows-what. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was a former altar boy and recent grad from Catholic high school.  

“I like drummers,” she said.  I wasn’t sure what to say back, so I mumbled something stupid like: “I like girls.”

We left the club around 3am and drove straight back to Columbus, arriving Monday morning around 9am.  We were groggy and despondent over the gig, but it was the trip of a lifetime and the best gig we ever played while I was part of the band.

I moved to LA in 1984 because I thought The Toll weren’t going anywhere.  While I struggled to make a name for myself in Hollywood, my former mates were signed to Geffen Records.  I left California in 1985 only to have my Cali roommate - Tommy Caradonna - sign with Lita Ford.


August, 1998 – Some Campus House Concert (The Balance)

The Balance was a six-piece jam band that I played with for three years (1997-2000).  It was a unique cast of characters that liked the “idea” of being in a band more than actually “being” in a band (i,e.. more bong hits than rehearsals).  The band was comprised of Rick Bahner (vocals, acoustic guitar), Huston Wolfe (bass), Ralph Evans (percussion), Mark Deffet (lead guitar), Kevin Deffet (harmonica, banjo) and yours truly (drums).  I always wanted to be in a jam band because you only had to learn three songs. That makes for an easy gig.

We were hired to play a house concert before house concerts were a thing; it was a campus party and it was summer quarter…..meaning we could play until all hours of the night.  The band actually rehearsed for this show and we were beginning to sound like a band, not just drunken stoners with instruments.

We always handed out percussion at our shows (shakers, tambo, bongos) and that night we had an enthusiastic crowd that was really interested in finding a groove with us.  We placed congas and bongos around the room, brought extra shakers and tambourines with us, and really engaged the crowd in becoming “one” with us.

[Caveat: Huston talked me into taking an ecstasy pill that night.  I thought my drug-taking days were behind me, but I was in a pretty chill mood so we split a pill between us.]  

The band really grooved and the crowd grooved with us.  There were some 40 or 50 people at the party and about ten of them were playing along with us.  We’d start into a groove on an old classic tune - “Ain’t No Sunshine,” for instance - and before you knew it, the groove transcended the band and spilled over into the crowd.  People who had never played an instrument in their lives were suddenly transported by the rhythm of the music and were jamming alongside us. It was truly magical—it was our own private Woodstock.  

We played until 3am; every song lasted 20 minutes.  No cops ever showed. [We figured if they did they’d simply grab an instrument and play along—that’s how magical that night was.]  We did lengthy versions of all our songs; the girls all danced and giggled, the guys jammed along with the band and it was an out-of-body experience for all those who were present.

ps. Ecstasy may have contributed.  

At the end of the show—while we were packing away our stuff—Mark Deffet said out loud: “We weren’t playing music tonight.  Music was playing us..” Amen.

August, 2000 – Barrister Hall (Brotherton)

I quit working with The Balance in 2000 because we were only capable of playing two good shows a year.  The other shows were ill-fated attempts at keeping any one of our alcoholic, stoner bandmates sober for the entirety of a gig.  Mission unaccomplished.

John Bolzenius introduced me to Kevin Brotherton, a clean-cut teetotaler who was seriously interested in playing good music.  He came from the Stevie Ray/Eric Johnson school of bluesy improvisation, so it was nice to play with someone who truly cared about tone (and sobriety).  He used to plug a Fender Twin along with a Marshall stack into an A/B switch and when he blended the two amps together it sounded like Neal Schon on “Lights.”  Fucking tone freak.

We added a bass player - Mark Cantwil - and I pulled double duty on drums and keys.  As a power trio it was fun to put out as much sound as possible; Mark had great vocal chops, Kevin had a huge guitar sound and I bought a new set of Yamaha Recording Customs for the sole purpose of trying to get the largest sound out of the smallest size drums (mission accomplished).  

Being in a power trio is fun—everyone has to work really hard.  Kevin was an average vocalist, but when he and Mark sang together it was really full.  We had a big sound for a power trio and it was very challenging to pull it off. And there were far less headaches dealing with three schedules as opposed to six.  

Barrister Hall was running a rare Sunday Night Rock Series for a while back in 2000, and we were hired to play one of its premiere shows.  We were very excited about being in the upscale club, where jazz, bourbon and cigars generally flourished. Unfortunately, the night of our gig only four people showed up.  We were so pissed about the lousy crowd that we took our anger out on our instruments. We blasted through original after original, jamming out instrumentals and playing as loud as we could.  The show was so much fun for those four lonely souls that the bartender actually stage-dove off the riser and broke a chair at the end of the show!

Thank God we didn’t have to drive home from Louisville at the end of that gig.

July, 2010 – Akron Italian Festival (Stadium 11)

I never really enjoyed playing in cover bands until I joined Stadium 11.  I had worked with two of its members back in the day -James Paat and Bob Mains - and they were top-notch musicians.  We assembled a setlist within a couple of practices, brought in Cliff Stanton and Mike Matko on vocals and bass, and within a couple of months were out playing big-time gigs.  

Stadium 11 fell together so quickly that we hardly had time to process it.  We all loved classic rock, so for us to cobble together 30 tunes only took two rehearsals.  The songs were a part of our childhood, so we didn’t have to work hard to get the arrangements in order.

James booked us a gig in Akron at the Italian Festival, we were opening up for a Journey cover band.  We knew Akron was rebounding from a tumultuous recession, but decided to play the gig anyhow. We thought it would be a total bust: drive two-plus hours to play for a dozen folks at a crappy event.  We drove up separately on a Friday afternoon and when we reached Lock 3 - a renovated space downtown - we couldn’t believe our eyes: There were thousands of people already milling about, the weather was perfect, and Lock 3 is essentially Akron’s version of Columbus Commons.

We arrived at the stage and a half-dozen roadies helped us with our gear.  They gave us bottled water and a dressing room. The roadies moved all our equipment to the stage and assisted in setting up.  As showtime approached, between 8 & 10,000 people were sitting on the side of the hill, ready to embark on some classic rock from these out-of-towners.

We hit the stage in full stride.  Adrenaline was high. Even though this was a new crowd, we knew they would like the songs.  We dove into cover after cover: “Too Hard to Handle” by the Black Crowes; “Roll With the Changes” by REO; “Alright Now” by Free, etc.  As we played song after song, the crowd slowly moved closer and closer to the stage and by the time we played “Kashmir” they were putty in our hands.  

We played 90 minutes without stopping and every song was better than the last.  We could hear the music wafting off the buildings in the distance and bouncing back.  People were dancing, milling about, getting closer and closer to the stage. When all forces come together like this: perfect weather, perfect setting, perfect stage, perfect crowd, perfect sound—magic truly happens.  Everyone was at the top of their game: James on keys, Bob on guitar, Cliff on vocals, Jeff Taylor (Mike’s replacement) on bass and yours truly on drums.

After the show, an older gentleman came to the front of the stage and whistled for me to come over.  I was a little nervous, he looked straight out of “The Godfather” with his jet-black hair combed back like Elvis.  I’m half-paisan, so I just imagined he was a long-lost relative coming to greet an old cousin.  

I cautiously wandered to the front of the stage: “What’s up?” I asked, guarded yet friendly.

“I just wanted to tell you that was the best rock drumming I’ve heard in 20 years.”  

“Wow…” I said.  “Thank you…I really appreciate that.”

I was embarrassed that I was nervous greeting him, because all he wanted to do was make my day.  What a kind soul—what a wonderful thing to say. What a perfect night.

Before the show began, I noticed an elderly hippie couple sitting in the center of the audience.  They both wore long white hair, tie-dye shirts and Lennon sunglasses. They looked to be in their mid- to late-60s.  I was concerned they wouldn’t like our set: we rock’n’rollers might be too loud and large for their tastes, but as we strummed the first chord they immediately got to their feet and remained there, dancing to every tune.  For the entire 90 minutes they never sat down, and grooved from one tune to the next.

Cliff and I decided to accost them after the gig to thank them for their enthusiasm and energy.  We walked up to them, shook their hands and said: “Thanks so much for dancing to our entire set. You totally made our day.”

The couple looked at each other, then back at Cliff and me.  The hippie guy furrowed his brow and said to us: “Who are you guys?”

August 2009 – Woodlands Tavern, Columbus (Matt Monta & The Hot Coal Band)

Playing with Stadium 11 was fun, but original music was still my passion.  I longed to play in a band that cared about original music, and Matt Monta answered the bell in 2009.  

He was fronting a band - The Hot Coal Band - but their drummer, Slim, was having back surgery and needed a replacement.  They asked if I’d sit in on a couple of gigs while they found someone else. Of course I jumped at the opportunity; even though I was a decade older than everyone else, I felt relevant playing with the young kids at all the cool spots.  

The Hot Coal Band was outstanding: Matt on guitar, harmonica and vocals; Bree Frick on cello, percussion and vocals; Andy Shaw on bass and trumpet; Chris Shaw on fiddle, mandolin and percussion and yours truly behind the kit.  We did 90% originals in the spirit of Johnny Cash on crack. It was pure magic.

We reached our pinnacle opening up for Deb Landolt and the Drifter Kings.  It was a packed house at Woodlands on a beautiful Friday night and the double billing was as good as advertised—which we did a lot of for that show.  

The gig itself was a blur: I could barely remember the details of the show, but it was 80 minutes of in-your-face rockabilly that featured everyone in the band.  I believe the only cover we did was Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” and we simply destroyed every song. The crowd whooped and hollered, danced all over the place and the venue was at fever pitch by the time we left the stage.  I remembered thinking to myself: “This is the beginning of something truly special.”

The band reached their peak that night.  A couple months later Andy left the band.  Two months after that Chris was gone, too. We hung on for another year with replacements but it all fell apart by 2011.  Go figure. A band that I thought would survive a decade was dead and gone within two years. Ugh.

There are many honorable mentions, but these five stood out because I distinctly remember the magical feeling I had after each show.  I will carry those memories to my grave. I’m looking forward to others’ posts! - Pete