After speaking by phone to David Fishof, former sports agent turned music representative, author and promoter and Rudy Sarzo, author, bassist and 3D animator, who gave me the low down on his brilliant career, I was completely intrigued with the concept of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp; where rock solid musicians would mentor, rehearse cover tunes and create original music together with “campers” over a long weekend. A concert on Sunday evening, where all the “campers” would perform with their “counselors” made the event even more exciting.

The camp has been going strong in London and the American coasts, and will feature Roger Daltrey (The Who) in New York, January 12-17 and Tommy Lee (Motley Crue) in the Bahamas, February 17-20, 2011 (rockcamp.com) next year, but because so many Midwesterners flocked to those coastal camps, at added travel expense, Fishof decided to debut the camp in Chicago, the weekend of November 19-21st. Finally, the date had arrived and I was asked to be a “fly-on-the-wall” reporter.

The camp was held the weekend before the biggest American shopping day of the year, “Black Friday” and the family-oriented Thanksgiving holiday. But, both annual events were the furthest thing from the mind here. There is undeniable energy in the air at this industrial strip of property boasting a five-story rehearsal space and gargantuan loading dock called ‘The Music Garage’.

A Plexiglass showcase of brilliantly, coloured electric guitars and related music gear engage the senses as you first walk in the door. If you’re obsessed with rock stars and the brass tacks of performance, if you’ve always wanted to bang a tambourine or learn that classic rock riff from a musician who has played everything from the most hellish dives to startling arenas, you’ve come to the right place.

To commemorate this Chicago-based first, Fishof will breeze in the door with special guest, Dickey Betts (The Allman Brothers) tomorrow, but for right now “the heat is on.” Counsellors such as Kip Winger (Winger), Mark Hudson (Ringo Starr, Aerosmith), Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreatis (Guns 'n' Roses), Mike Arturi (Lovin’ Spoonful), Mitch Ryder (Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels), Joey Molland (Badfinger), Ant Glynne (Yes), Rudy Sarzo (Blue Oyster Cult, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne) and Ty Dennis (The Doors of the 21st Century) are engaged in rehearsal with international “campers”.

I soon find that being a “fly-on-the-wall” isn’t so easy when Kip Winger pushes a mike in front of my face, after I ease into his studio. I can’t complain, though. Who wouldn’t want to sing the infectious chorus of Alice Cooper’s precocious, anti-establishment anthem ‘School’s Out” with one of the band members?

On the ground, running, Shari Soultree sprinkles the term “magic” around generously when defining the camp’s mission. Like a resident fairy godmother, the slim brunette and detail-oriented site coordinator, calms the nerves of first-time campers and counselors.

She offers them hot coffee, quiet spaces and words of reassurance. Doubling as a band manager, Soultree, who has a kind smile and laughing eyes, recognizes that the camp’s debut in Chicago this season, represents a milestone. Unwilling to rest until the event exceeds expectations; Soultree becomes the go-to professional, flitting in and out of doorways, making introductions and monitoring traffic.

Long-haired bassist Rudy Sarzo says seriously, “I can see in your face that your eyes start rolling.” His every physical move is intently followed by a core of avid players. “I just want to hear that one note that’s going to transcend, that sound, youthful and angry, but I want that note that’s ageless; I want you to connect with the soul.” Directing his thought-provoking comments to a young guitarist, at the edge of his seat, he enunciates in slow motion, “You’re playing a note.”

“Go back in time. Keep playing that note and you will connect with it,” he promises. “I want you to play an emotion.” To prove a point, Sarzo talks about musician Steve Vai who fasted for three days before performing. Connecting with his band members through direct eye contact, Sarzo elaborates candidly about the physicality of performance. Momentarily backing off, he assures the young performers, “I don’t expect you guys to all turn into B.B.King. Connect with the band, connect with the crowd,” he adds.

“I’ve really learned to back off the dynamics, take that one note and it just pops,” responds a young guitarist. Sarzo nods and moves in closer. “I’m trying to share a collective experience of thirty years, I always treat the camp as a band,” he reminds them. “Look at it through a drummer’s eyes. We’re talking about pushing molecules.”

Serendipity rules. Suddenly another well-regarded bassist, award-winning Bill Dickens, peeks through the door and waits for a break in the conversation. Spotting him and then quickly breaking into a smile, Sarzo excitedly introduces Dickens to his group. “This is the man who showed me the fundamentals of slapping,” Sarzo exclaims excitedly.

Bill Bunkers, of Oak Park, Illinois, runs a marketing agency. Monday morning he’ll look at budgets and go back to assuming his role as a dad… But, these everyday responsibilities drift away as he enjoys a father’s day surprise from his wife. His spouse wanted to give him a gift that he “wouldn’t return.”

This unassuming band member has no desire to be a flaming rock star - he “just wants to be a better musician” and convincingly claims that this is a great opportunity “to focus on a passion, and to be with folks who do this for a living in an area where we’re not doing it for the money.” “He’s a really nice guy,” is how he describes his counsellor Sarzo, adding, “I was hoping to get him.” Bunkers felt Sarzo would be most sympathetic.

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Mitch Ryder’s brown fedora casts a dark shadow against his dazzling white tambourine. Lovely Helly (Helly & her NorthernDaze Caravan Band) pushes her palms against a monstrous conga. The rest of the band fills in as they sing an original song, 'Flag Still Flies', which was co-written by Ryder’s manager Jeff Miller. As the chorus repeats, Ryder sings higher-pitched melodies above the refrain. “Do you want me to sing harmonies?” the exuberant singer asks.

Ryder, famed vocalist of ‘Devil with the Blue Dress On’ pulls me aside. “It’s a skeleton crew. We’re working without two members.” You wouldn’t have guessed it. A quasi-reggae beat picks up. Helly kicks her black boots against the ground like a wild stallion and picks up more melodic steam. It’s a miracle that this gorgeous Liverpuddlian blonde and her guitarist boyfriend Andy, met up with music professionals at the Liverpool Cavern. That night, the impoverished musician only had one CD left. Consequently, she wrote her band’s name and the message, ‘free to a good home’ on a scrap of paper, attached it to that CD, and snuck it into the VIP room.

Luckily, Miller, whose band, Alias, Smith and Jones, was looking for alternate members, found the CD that night and also discovered that Helly and colleague Andy were looking to join forces with new musicians. Flash forward - Miller coaxed the Liverpuddlian duo to join him at this year’s camp and the resultant band hope to recruit a mid-western audience. (www.myspace.com/northerndaze)

Miller jokingly recounted how, as a youngster, he and his friends used to imitate the British accent of his favorite musicians. The animated guitarist was amused to find out that Helly and friends were equally enamored with the American accent; more specifically, with a particular American dialect. “We used to imitate the Beatles and Helly used to talk like the Beverly Hillbillies,” he laughed, describing their “yin-yang” relationship.

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In the dining area, several bands have announced their names: Famed Grand Funk Railroad founder Mark Farner’s band is called Just the Tip,” The Cherry Pinchers becomes Mike Arturi’s (Loving Spoonful) moniker and Sarzo’s entourage has selected the macabre “Not Dead Yet.”

Arturi’s group keeps Chicago blues in vogue, by streaming 'Fantasy Blues' which brandishes a punk-pop twist, above a twelve-bar, instrumental framework. Strains of 'Purple Haze' thrash from Joey Molland’s (Badfinger) studio. Sarzo, whose band members remain visible through the window of the eating area, stops for no one. His lean arms point to rapt campers as he viscerally demonstrates concise downbeats and pulsing melodic lines.

Contrasting musical styles clash and swirl from closed studio doors. No-nonsense riffs merge with blinding backbeats. Stinging quarter notes collide with staccato bass lines in unbelievable bursts of energy; breathtaking sound bytes flood the fifth floor.

Sarzo could be in the Guinness book for hardest-working musicians. He’s not swayed by the irresistible goat-cheese vegetarian options – he chats with a few pals and greets some new faces. He’s warm and friendly, but you can tell he’s anxious to get back to work. But, not everyone is willing to dismiss a much-needed respite. Gripped by reality, Ty Dennis brushes past me, asking, “Where’s the food?”

Ty Dennis is the drummer for the reformed Doors. Vocalist Shannon, seventeen, is dark-haired with fragile features. Tandem guitarists shred and the serious bass player rests on an amplifier. A blonde guitarist with a gleaming red electric asks for clarification. A muted-orange, vintage poster of the Rolling Stones at Toad’s Place adorns the wall. Dennis expects this band to tighten up their strums.

Shannon wears a pale green guitar pick around her neck, which screams out from under her plaid shirt. “I’ll conduct it on stage Sunday. I’ve got nothing better to do,” Dennis jokes, referring to his band’s repertoire; making light of their limited rehearsal schedule,

“You were singing perfect,” he says to shy Shannon. Still gripping his sticks, Dennis sits down. Shannon, whose eyes sweep the floor initially, smiles. Meditatively absorbing the percussive hits, she closes her eyes and sings with hesitation. Slowly, her self-conscious image dissolves and her youthful energy crystallizes. This transforming moment is what the Sunday night audience won’t see. The demure singer discovers her voice deepening with confidence. After Dennis motions to the other members, they collectively top off the Smashing Pumpkins cover, 'Cherub Rock'.

“Just give me a look when you’re done,” says the now laid-back bassist. He wears a grey Nehru shirt. His dark eyes settle on Shannon’s silhouette. Though much-needed eye contact begins to bond the players, the set list is still sketchy.

“Top, sure?” says Dennis. The riff that, moments ago, seemed so alien, steels its way into the souls of the quintet. Shannon, her inner-beast unleashed, looks stunning. Her brunette hair falls over one side of her face. The bassist shoots a glance across the room to set up a complicated tempo change. “Let me out….” sings the rejuvenated front woman.

Drummer Kevin Christensen (At Latl) bangs his bloody heart out. A hypnotic groove pulsates. Across this miniscule room, the ensemble performs with the efficiency of a tight-knit military band, yet a riveting sense of improvisational energy shines through.

Joey Molland’s campers perform a thundering rendition of ‘We Will Rock You’. Arturi is a curly-haired, denim-clad. friendly guy. You’d never guess he was a famous musician – his topic sentences centere on those around him. All in all, the rockers have an equal interest in the campers; what they hope to achieve and why they love this music. 'Purple Haze' is the “song du jour” that leaks through closed doors of the endless corridor.

The singer getting in touch with a primordial tone; the guitarist whose axe had been collecting dust in the closet until now, the unsung, middle-aged mom whose life has become inundated with the demands of others; they filled the rooms with enthusiasm. This is the essence of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp that you have to see to believe. These defining moments can only develop through trust and grit and immense dedication.

How can a room full of strangers from all walks of life feel chemistry and create music in a singular weekend? Even after several hours, one piece of the puzzle fits together: fulfilling fantasies requires work and imagination. “It’s not the sound,” says Rudy Sarzo. “It’s the communication.”

But, it’s also the back stage communication that makes it all run smoothly. Dominick plays guitar and bass and has worked with RRFC in London where the bands recorded at Abbey Road Studios. As the camp’s production assistant, in charge of equipment, sound and various other responsibilities, this muscled, jack-of-all trades works 14-16 hours per day. It’s worth it all to see the campers come alive, though. Before he got back to work, he couldn’t resist putting his ear to the door of Arturi’s room as shuffle rhythms rang out furiously.

Andrew Ladner, Mark Farner’s guitar tech, has a job which requires constant hours of details as well. “I set up his gear and make sure guitars are maintained. During the show, if he (Farner) has any issues, he communicates through me. I make sure his gig is where it needs to be,” the Nashville resident explains. “I’m as close to Mark as I can be; stage right,” he adds, describing the physical setting.

Being on top of things, though, can be a challenge. “Making sure things go according to plan, making sure the show runs smoothly is a team effort. Everyone has to pull their weight. I make sure they’re happy and don’t have stress, not eating too much. There’s all this free food,” he says, scanning the well-stocked buffet table of fruit, cold cuts and granola bars. Ladner has been asked this question again and again: “When will Mark Farner reunite with Grand Funk? “They’re all able, willing, touring,” he affirms.

During a master guitar class, Mark Farner explains the changes he’s seen in the industry, but adds his own take. “Our music is powerful and that’s why the powers that be control the airwaves and control the perception; the only way to overcome that is love.”

“Who you are as a person comes out of that guitar,” he says to some rapt, casually-dressed, male musicians. “Cop some licks, but don’t lose track of who we are. Here’s a little vibrato thing,” he says. To contrast, he plays the same progression without using vibrato. “Even on a flat-top guitar, when you’re given a vibrato, it fills the room. You gotta have some vibrato,” he concludes, adding that bass players “don’t have vibrato.”

Farner, the quintessential showman, has always attracted fans through his free-spiritedness. “I ripped that shirt off. People went 'yeah'.” That works. Maybe I could get them to look. Just like little kids; I want them to look at me. It’s a love I have for the fans. We’re close-knit type of folks; we’re sensitive,” he explains, catching the admiring glances across the room.

Farner plays ‘Heartbreaker’ which consists of “slamming power chords.” He plays a melodic run, leaving a “hole” for just the snare drum. That intentional riff allows time for that snare to go “whack.” “My whole set is built on dynamics. I’m getting to be pretty good at it now,” the long-haired entertainer says, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Dickey Bett’s straw hat tightly covers threads of silvery-white hair. His snake-skin boots skid across the polished floor. As special guest artist, he doesn’t flinch when being followed by a cadre of campers and photographers. Andy and Helly play a skiffle rhythm. Betts stretches his guitar strings to the heavens – his faded denim shirt heaves under the god-sent vibrations. Fishof introduces Betts to the players. “You just have to see it,” he says, under his breath. This is what happens before the grand finale and it’s exciting as hell. ‘Whipping Post’ inspires nostalgia.

Lariyah Daniels, a model and vocalist, originally from Poland, is in seventh heaven. She describes playing with the icon. “It was a feeling that went from here to down there. He said, ‘it was nice to meet me. ‘Nice to meet me?’ You’re the celebrity. He’s the friendliest man in the world,” she added.

Betts signs guitars with silver-spiked markers and shakes the outpour of anonymous hands before packing up his gear. “Have fun tonight,” he drawls, his tattoos glistening.

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THE CONCERT

Poker dealer Manty is a guitarist and first- time camper who is having the time of his life this weekend. “It’s like having the same dream, over and over,” the slim, smiling man explains, as we chat near the bar at Chicago’s swanky House of Blues.

Helly is up soon after a DJ named Bird and David Fishoff explain the evening’s schedule. “Anyone from Detroit?” Ryder asks, as his band assembles. “I didn’t think so,” he responded after little audience response. Winger’s band take the stage and a friendly blonde sings ‘Southern Man.’ Winger fills in with piano, making sure not to out shadow the campers. Soon, strains of the crowd-pleasing, ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ floods the hall. During Joey Molland’s band performance, a toddler is raised-up on shoulders. His green sign reads: “You rock daddy. Bloody Hell!”

An autographed guitar is brought to the stage area. Those who bid on the instrument will help cover costs for Mark Farner’s son who recently underwent treatment for a serious fall. Within moments, a thousand dollars is raised and we’re told that Farner promises to invite the bidder backstage for some photo opportunities and thanks.

Ty Dennis beams as his band, with Shannon leading, rocks hard. It’s Shannon’s very first stage appearance and the hesitancy of the early afternoon is a distant memory. She wears casual clothing; sneakers, a tee-shirt and jeans and looks entirely focused on the Smashing Pumpkins hit heard earlier.

Mark Hudson, wearing a signature outfit of loud, red trousers, flowing shirt and a beret watches drummer Jamie Sokolow who has brought a screaming entourage. ‘Not Dead Yet’, Sarzo’s troupe, is lead by a dark-haired Canadian, Shawn Sandburg, just 17. Sarzo slaps the bass furiously, his studded belt gleaming as he quickly changes tempo. They play their original tune, ‘The Addiction.’ “He’s adorable,” says a woman with glasses, who resembles Tina Fey, about Sandburg.

The Cherry Pinchers have several players from Canada, too. The curly-headed, guitarist from Montreal, Simon Costa is a killer musician who wears a leather vest and Kiss T-shirt. He discovered the art of songwriting this weekend during Hudson’s workshop. “Time is not an issue when you are here. Experiences; great stories, great people, wonderful musicians come together and make priceless music for those who want to learn,” is how Costa, who had unexpectedly won tickets to the event, described his “life-changing” experience.

The brunette and youthful, lead singer wears red garters and a black corset. Their rendition of ‘Wooly Bully’ is highly-charged and brings the house down.

Hudson proclaims, “If something’s going to happen on stage, you put up your fist; it's the fist of love!” and laughs fill the room.

Betts takes the stage to play ‘In Memoriam of Elizabeth Reed’ which features tandem guitar parts. He collaborates with the happy Glynn. “Do you want me to play more?” Betts asked, after the audience goes wild.

“I’m a southern man. He’s a southern man. I want to shake his hand,” says a brawny guy who taps me on the shoulder. He hopes to make contact with Betts tonight and knows the man’s entire repertoire. Unfortunately, he wants to recite the entire Betts discography and wants to clue me in on some related gossip. It’s endearing, but somewhat distracting, but I tell him to inch up ahead of me, to maybe grasp that famous hand before it’s too late.

The handshake never materializes, but “southern man” goes away happily. The encore was ‘Ramblin’ Man’ to which the enthused male peacock of the night, Hudson, adds a jangly tambourine.

Moments earlier, Mark Farner strutted across the stage. “I hope you brought your dancing shoes,” he says, winking to some pretty girls. As he sings, ‘Closer to Home,’ a stunning, display of lights circle the room. Other moments of sublime madness included Mark Hudson’s heady, ‘Long Tall Sally’ and the raucous Lennon-McCartney tune, ‘I’m Down,’ Ryder singing, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and “Zig Zag” fleshing out keyboard riffs during the melodic ranting of ‘School’s Out.’

What made the night exceedingly special was the constant interplay between the rock stars, who ran in and out providing vocal backing and sharp rhythmic touches.The evening ended as the full regalia of stars exploded into a non-stop jam session.

Rock and Roll Fantasy Camps will be happening in the Bahamas and New York City featuring Tommy Lee and Roger Daltrey in 2011.


The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Etienne Monroy.

















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