Second Set: Zebra. A love affair in three takes
All classic rock concerts are not created equally. This much we know. Some acts take to the road every summer, half filling hockey arenas and concert sheds, with roadies and groupies still a part of their every concert experience. Others take a more modest approach, selling their own merch off-stage to small, but adoring, audiences in clubs that seat in the low-hundreds. And while we can’t say there’s a sport-specific season to this kind of thing, we’ll (accurately) suggest that it’s summer when the acts come out of hibernation, dusting off their leather trousers for another run at glory.
If the calendar doesn’t specifically agree, it’s summertime in St. Louis. And we know this because Randy Jackson of the band Zebra turned up at the House of Rock last weekend for a show that featured nothing more than his voice, his 12-string guitar, a box full of merchandise and a pocket full of covers. If every other Friday and Saturday night at the club features local cover bands, cranking out the hits of yesteryear, the appearance of an actual, hit-making rocker from the day was enough to make the club advertise the line “this is not a tribute!” on their website and calendars.
These days, Randy Jackson tours the country under three guises. There are very occasional shows by the band Zebra, which enjoyed a commercial heyday in the mid-’80s, before its career was gunned down by Nirvana and the SubPop minions. There’s his job fronting symphony orchestras, gigs in which he plays the role of Robert Plant and sings a night of orchestral Zeppelin covers. And then there’s the bread-maker: his solo show.
This last version of the Randy Jackson experience is what about 125 people were treated to at the House of Rock last Saturday night, the well-coiffed frontman of Zebra playing his songs, alongside an unusual variety of covers, including a vast selection of Beatles-related material including selections of the Fab Four’s solo work.
The dance floor stirred when he began to strum “Something in the Way She Moves,” the James Taylor chestnut bringing the lovers out for a spin. The crowd was appreciative, but perhaps a bit more curious when he performed “Drive,” a soft-rock classic by The Cars. The diehards were moved when Jackson played Zebra’s own work, like “Bears,” a prog-tinged cut that speaks of bears awakening from a winter’s hibernation in the woods. This is the kind of track that turns on the true believer.
If only I was a member of their tribe, of Zebra Nation.
Alas, I’m, at best, a late convert. And probably the worst kind of fan there is: the appreciator of the one-hit wonder.
You’re lucky if you can remember the specifics on your relationship to any song. During January 2011, I wrote a few pieces for Euclid Records’ “Lockwood & Summit” blog. It also happened to be around the time when I had a musical epiphany. Here’s how it went down, according to the World Wide Web:
St. Louisans might (but probably won't) know of a little bar called The Little Bar. The name derives from the fact that The Little Bar is a really little bar. So much so that a few years back, when freelancing for the local daily, I was working on a story about little bars and requested an interview with the owners of The Little Bar. It made sense to me. But at The Little Bar there's already a crowd, a ready source of income, a daily arrival of mopes who want to sit inside and discuss the world's events in peace and without a bunch of hipster newcomers. I was shushed away and told "no" on the article, though, over time, I have once again infiltrated the space and have enjoyed the $1.25 Natty Lights and smoking-mandatory ambiance.
Say this about The Little Bar, safely: The jukebox is usually in play. Not to say that the music is always of the top-shelf variety, but there's sound on the PA more often than not. And you'd be safe is figuring that this deep-South City tavern gets a goodly share of classic rock pumping through the house on a daily basis, with pinches of R&B and an occasional jolt of hair metal.
A couple months back, I was sitting at the bar, just minding my own business, idling with a newspaper, when a track cut through the clutter of chatter, ringing the tiniest of bells in the recesses of my mind. After puzzling over it for a few minutes, it dawned on me that I could look at the jukebox to figure out what the song was; sure enough, in the dying seconds of the song, the revealing info was this: band, Zebra; album, "Zebra"; song, "Tell Me What You Want." My mulleted years rushed back into focus and I was hooked for days, watching, then re-watching, the class video for "Tell Me," which featured every conceit fancied by video directors in 1983, including a Playboy Playmate who'd go on to become a Housewife of Orange County.
The story above is true, even if I headlined the piece “Guilty Pleasures: Zebra.” A year-and-change later, I’ve come to peace with the fact that there’s no reason to feel guilty about loving a song like “Tell Me What You Want,” a song that broke at exactly the moment when prog, hair metal and new wavey-pop combined into one glorious, radio-ready stew. It’s the kind of song that a tribute band could run with, if they were smart enough to tap into the collective unconscious of St. Louis rockers.
Enter Superjam and Part II of my love affair with “Tell Me What You Want.”
Already enjoying the original version of the song, on repeat play, I came into the world of Superjam in early 2011, the band playing three-sets nightly, all of them culled from stadium rock’s finest hour: the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There’s a definite St. Louis vibe to the material, too, as some tracks (“Never Been Any Reason” by Head East, for example) play to STL crowds with a little extra meaning. Asking the members of Superjam what works about “Tell Me What You Want,” what the trick is to bringing this piece of air-guitar action to life, two of them responded with enthusiasm.
Jeff Gallo plays bass for Superjam and handles the high parts on “Tell Me.” He wrote back: “It's just one of those songs that hits a wide range of folks. We were wondering of it would work, and one night (then Superjam drummer) Joe Meyer and I were at the Tin Can. The song came on and everyone started singing that chorus: 25-year-old lesbians, jocks, 50-something's ... I just knew it would work. It is incredibly challenging to sing, but definitely has a ‘wow’ factor. Although I don't put it in the set when we go outta town. I think it's region appropriate. Kinda like April Wine’s stuff.”
Eric Lysaght, the group’s guitarist and also a mainstray in Pay the Cobra, Tiny Cows and Salisbury agrees with Gallo. With one major difference: “Man, I wanted to see that show! ‘Tell Me What You Want’ is written in classic Zeppelin form. Starts out slow, with Randy singing in his regular voice, and builds into that badass riff and screaming in falsetto. Throw in a killer solo with lots of power bends and you got a hit! I think the key to the song is the riff and the title/chorus constantly repeating until it's burned on your brain. Everyone can relate, it’s really catchy, and the band is killing. It's one of those tunes that makes me want to roll a joint and drink warm draft beer. It’s my favorite song that we play and should definitely be on the list at every show!
(P.S. that last bit was for Jeff...)”
Part III of my relationship with “Tell Me What You Want” just happened. This past weekend. It’s a story of love partially unrequited.
Over the years, I’ve caught Rush at Riverport, their giant, inflatable rabbits swaying in the breeze. I’ve witnessed the sights and sounds of Survivor at AJ’s, where the group treated the crowd to an eight-minute version of a night-closing “Eye of the Tiger.” There was that time catching Somerville/Scorfina at Union Station, the group gloriously ringing up the KSHE Classic, “Your Eyes.” My experiences at the Rib America festival are legion, heading Downtown for Loverboy, the Monkees, Barry Williams as his alter ego Greg Brady, the Fixx and Kansas. It’d be a lie to say that I was there to catch all the songs by all those bands (or, more accurately, all those songs by the versions of those bands that tour).
This was best-illustrated by the Night Ranger set at Ribfest in, oh, about 2009. With a storm brewing, the band was delayed in reaching stage, then played into its sixth song when a torrential rainfall began to pour, coming in a surreal, sideways angle. Before the rain hit stage, the band was already gone; they were looking westward, saw what was about to hit their electrified workplace within the next minute, then dropped their guitars for a sprint to the dressing room, without so much as a “See ya, St. Louis!” And without, sad to me to this day, a sing-along-ready version of “When You Close Your Eyes” or “Sister Christian.”
On Saturday night, there was a bit of delay in leaving the house to see Randy Jackson of Zebra, who the club said was slated for a 9 p.m. start. I’m not going to point fingers or get upset about that stop for caffeine at a highway-side gas station. There’s no point in hanging onto these things.
But, in reality, we walked into the House of Rock at 9:17 p.m., with Randy Jackson of Zebra about a minute into “Tell Me What You Want.” It was jarring. A sort of sensory overload. A good, old-fashioned brain-scrambler. This is the song (the 100% guaranteed song!) that everyone in that room wanted to hear, and he was dispatching it early in the set.
Perhaps that was some type of tacit agreement between the performer and his audience: You came to hear this song; I’m going to play it to your satisfaction; if you need to get home to drop your sitter an hour early, you now have the opportunity. And then he played for another hour-and-a-half, with no break, before we threw in the towel.
There’s disappointment here, no doubt. But there’s also promise. It’s summertime in St. Louis. There’s talk of an upcoming April Wine show. There’s rockin’ to be done. Unashamed, guilt-free rock’n’roll, my friends.