Over the last ten years, we have had the opportunity to put some fantastic musicians in front of our students. Living on the north end of US 45 makes importing high quality musical programs an expensive proposition. In many cases, we have been able to partner with the Ontonagon Theater for the Performing Arts, but it still costs money to put on a concert for our student body. The answer to the obvious question, “Why would you spend money to hold a concert for the Ontonagon Area School students?” has always been pretty simple (for me, at least): “Why not?”
I got my first taste of this type of event back in eighth grade when our principal surprised us by introducing the assembly we were about to see as a rock band. A rock band! Principal Brady was a suit and tie wearing, no nonsense type of principal. It was rumored that if you started a fight in his school, you would end up wearing boxing gloves and he would give you the opportunity to ‘take a shot at him’. Everyone knew that he had been a Golden Gloves boxer in the Army but who would be dumb enough to take him up on the offer? Of course, there were those who bragged that they would love to ‘take a shot at old Bill the principal.’ The toughest kid in my neighborhood had to do this ‘box the principal’ routine only once and all he ever said about it was ‘don’t ever make me do that again’. That was good enough for me. Even though he wasn’t an exceptionally tall man, he cast a large shadow and we didn’t challenge his authority. To see him on stage with a microphone in hand introducing a rock band assembly program was, to say the least, unexpected. Who knew ‘Boxing Bill’ liked music?
The core of the band in question was the MacDonald brothers, Gordon and Warren. Their father owned MacDonald’s music store which was the source of my drum sticks and lesson books when I first started taking drum lessons. Up until that moment, I didn’t know that my classmate Warren even played the drums (he wasn’t in the junior high band) or that he had an older brother who played bass guitar. You will pardon me for not remembering who the other two musicians were or what they called themselves. I can’t remember if Warren had a cool red or blue sparkle drum set, but I do remember that they filled Kaufman Auditorium with a wonderful wall of sound. I also recall there were a lot of adoring females making their presence known. It wasn’t as frenzied as we had seen when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it was enough of a reaction to make the rest of us ‘wannabe’ rock stars jealous.
The first touring band we were able to put in front of our students in Ontonagon was the Detroit area blues band Measured Chaos. In 2003, bandleader Al Jacquez and I had struck up an internet conversation about a CD I had ordered from Al’s label (33 ? records, home to his other band Savage Grace) but never received. In the course of our discussion, he asked if I would be interested in a CD by his new band (Measured Chaos) and I in turn inquired what it would take to get them to Ontonagon for a show. It took a couple of years, but we were finally able to schedule a show at the Ontonagon Theater in June of 2005. Despite the long haul (and the subsequent drive to Traverse City right after the show), they had so much fun that they started trying to book a return engagement. The effort was somewhat complicated by the departure of their original drummer, Bill Gordon, who moved to Georgia for employment purposes. With his replacement, Frank Charboneau, and guitar player Mark Tomorski, both living in Los Angeles, it is more than a little bit of a commute for them to tour in Michigan! In 2008, their tour plans gelled and a return engagement was set for late May.
This concert would take place while school was still in session, so I approached the school administration about bringing the kids to a matinee at the theater. This would involve transporting some three hundred students in grades six through twelve to the show and back, thus chewing up a good chunk of an afternoon. Did I mention that exams were also scheduled to start that week? Of course, there was the problem of selling a ‘blues band’ to a bunch of kids who heard ‘old guys music’ when the subject was broached. With most of the logistics solved on our end, it was time to inquire how the band felt about it. There may have been some hesitation on their part, but when one travels from Detroit for two gigs in at opposite ends of the Upper Peninsula, having a third one certainly helps pay for the gas. We assured the band (‘the kids will love it’) and the kids (‘it is live music, give it a chance’) that a good time would be had by all.
The last detail was to tell every guitar player, drummer and singer in the school that they had ‘reserved seating’ in the front two rows. With the house lights down, this ensured that the band would see a bunch of smiling faces in the stage lights. Al had done school programs on his own, but never with a full band so we wanted them to feel welcome. Being the first show in their summer tour, Al offered to make it ‘educational’ by explaining how they worked with the theater staff to get the sound and lighting right, and “we could do a little ‘Q and A’ if you would like”. The gig was on and it all sounded great on paper, but even great sounding ideas can fall flat on their face. We counted the days until the great experiment rolled into town and hoped for the best.
The band seemed a little bit tight when they started as witnessed by the rather serious look on guitarist Tomorski’s face. Mark has a fun, goofball personality and to see him crank into his first solo with nary a smile on his face told me this was going to be ‘business first, enjoyment later’. All my concerns flew out the window because halfway through Tomorski’s first solo, I looked over and laughed out loud at the great big smile that stretched ear to ear on Tommy Croteau’s face. As a four year WOAS DJ and an avid guitar player, I knew if Tom was having fun, it was going to be alright.
The band played a solid show but the telling moment came when the house lights were brought up for the ‘Q and A’ section. The 2005 show had a good house, but not anywhere close to capacity. When the band saw the theater full up to the balcony, they exchanged happy smiles as they fielded a few questions about life in a touring band. As Al said later, “Man, we wouldn’t mind starting all of our tours in Ontonagon!” As the kids waited for the buses to shuttle them back to school, a good size mob of them surrounded the band for autographs. Drummer Frank Charboneau had a great time talking drums with some of the front row guys and was surprised how many budding musicians were on hand. Tommy C’s summation: “Best school assembly ever!”
Since this 2008 show, we have been fortunate to co-host concerts with Kitty Donohoe of Ann Arbor, the Los Angeles based trio Trees, and most recently, last spring’s concert with the Flint based Rusty Wright Band. Rusty and Laurie Wright, like the other bands, have expressed an interest in doing another show for our students if they are in the area. For our part, we would have a very hard time saying ‘no’ to the idea. As always, we like to feature music by the artists who have graced our local stages and our regular listeners will vouch for the amount of airtime they all get. Keep your ear on WOAS-FM 88.5 or www.woas-fm.org and we will continue to pump out music from the fine bands that found time in their busy schedules to share their music with our students.