Second set: Real rock provided by Mark Thomas Quinn
Commercial radio stations, we know, can change without any advance warning. In fact, to tip listeners off to upcoming changes is an invite for the most die-hard fans to start “save the (blank)” campaigns, which few radio executives want to deal with when deep-sixing an underperforming format. So it wasn’t a big surprise, exactly, to hear that 100.3 fm, dubbed “Generation X Radio” for two years, was going through major change, with a pre-Memorial Day shift to “The Brew.”
With no DJs in place, The Brew (owned by Clear Channel) began simply enough, promising listeners 6,000 commercial free songs. Except, of course, for the interstitial breaks that take place every one, or two songs, which pimp the new station and its flagship morning show, the painfully unfunny, syndicated “Bob & Tom Show,” last heard on KSHE 95. If there’s a connection between the stations, it’s deeper than just the thread of “Bob & Tom.” The Brew, based on a couple weeks of listening, seems interested in giving KSHE listeners a second classic/hard rock station, cutting things off in about 1991, or so, with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” a young whippersnapper compared to the remaining tracks.
National Basketball Association teams, it’s said, need three superstars to rise to truly elite levels, though franchises with two stars and some top-notch complementary players can compete for championships. In these beginning days, The Brew’s tight playlist suggests that listeners are going to get no small amount of Def Leppard and AC/DC, clearly the two acts that’ll dominate the station going forward. Their starting lineup appears rounded out by this trio: Guns n’ Roses, Journey and Van Halen. Their 10-band bench and taxi squad adds: Styx, Sammy Hagar, Aerosmith, Motley Crue, Poison, Metallica, Rush, KISS, the rare female in Pat Benatar and, almost inexplicably, Eddie Money.
Now, there’s a world for ya, Eddie Money rivaling, even besting: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.
Welcome to St. Louis, a town that loves its classic rock. Even in weird versions such as the above.
Mark Thomas Quinn is not especially surprised by arrival of The Brew, even as he’d just become familiar with the station within the last week. And, truly, if anyone in St. Louis would have a good idea of the popularity of classic rock in our region, it’s this guy. Though he might define the idea of “classic” differently than The Brew’s programming robots.
“It doesn’t surprise me a bit,” Quinn says. "I just think it’s a classic rock town, in general. There was a golden era to it. I consider that to be 1965-75. It’s a time that just can’t be replicated. Who knows if songs written today will hold up in 40 years. I’m not sure they will; I know I’m not hearing much new that will stand the test of time. That golden decade was a really different time, less formulated, allowing bands to be true artists.”
A matter of roots
Like a lot of young rockers growing up in St. Louis, Mark Quinn listened to the staple station, KSHE-95, as he became of aware of music.
“I’ve gone full-circle as far as classic rock,” Quinn says. “When I started out, that’s what I listened to. Then I got into the whole alternative scene, when I never wanted to hear a Boston or a Journey song ever again. It’s all about the songs, it’s about good music. I’m dating myself here, but I have 25 years of paying gigs. Before that, my mom was driving me to gigs. I’ve been playing consistently since the mid-’80s and even after that whole ‘90s alternative period, I’m listening to the classics. It really did go full circle for me.”
But Quinn’s relationship to music isn’t just a casual one. He’s well beyond being a simple fan.
Just shy of a decade ago, he joined Joe Dirt and the Dirty Boys Band, a group that nine years later is still donning the wigs and sleeveless tees for gigs at bars and casinos all over town. Though the group lay claim to a certain anonymity (with Quinn cast as the leader, Joey Dirt), few folks around the local music scene are unaware that half the group (John Pessoni and Jerry Jost) are members of The Urge, while Kevin Gagnepain’s a founder of (the late) Stir and the still-running El Monstero.
Which is another group that Quinn’s part of, serving as the vocalist of the band since 1999, a time that predated the group’s mastery of Pink Floyd. They started out a cover band, the alter-ego of Stir (plus Quinn), who played classic rock/prog cover songs until the Floyd set took over. These days, they’re a staple of The Pageant’s December calendar, selling out six dates a year, while adding summer shows for the first time in 2011.
And, as if that’s not enough, Jimmy Griffin and Pessoni, among a small handful of others, joined forces with Quinn in 2006 for Celebration Day, an every-February weekend tribute to Led Zeppelin that headlines a two-night stand at The Pageant.
Working days at the South City guitar boutique Killer Vintage, Quinn’s surrounded by music, in what he calls “a candy shop for musicians." But when asked what other cover/tribute bands he thinks “get it right,” he’s almost unsure of the remaining field.
“It’s funny,” he says. “When I’m not playing out, a bar’s the furthest place from where I want to be. When I’m not playing, that’s not what I wanna be doing.”
Instead, he day jobs at Killer Vintage, which is chock-full of battle-tested guitars, basses and amps. In his free time, he’s a commuting motorcycle rider, spending time at a property in Potosi. And, pretty much every day, he practices hot yoga at the Bikram studio in Clayton. On Monday, as we chatted, he kept nipping at an oversized water bottle, saying “this is what I do everyday, to keep hydrated.
“I guess I went through a self-destructive period,” he says. “Now I’m into my fitness, staying healthy. It’s hard to do all this (music) on a daily level if you’re out partying.”
Plans and unplans
From 1989-94, the Quinn-fronted Lexx Luthor was one of a dozen bands that came to define that moment's Laclede’s Landing scene. The group, he says, was a “Black Sabbath meets Led Zeppelin thing, a precursor to the whole grunge scene. Who know what might’ve happened if St. Louis got discovered, instead of Seattle? We really had a healthy music scene going on at the Landing back then.”
After a couple of other original projects came and went without too much fanfare, he slid into his second, longer career as a cover/tribute vocalist. Each of the situations came about through slightly different situations, but the run of them together has him playing to about as many people as any musician in town. He says it “amazes me, that I’m still able to do this at a pretty high level at 45.”
The challenge, in some respects, is just keeping track of the all the lyrics. His bands, together, have at least 100 songs in their catalogs; and he says, “I have to admit, it's a struggle. It’s just memorization. It's not easy, yeah, but learning the lyrics is a part of learning the songs.” (Ironically, Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” played on the Killer Vintage satellite radio, just as we started talking about Led Zep’s lyrics.)
Of Celebration Day’s place in the pecking order, Quinn says, “I think the guys out doing this (tribute thing) on a consistent basis really do respect one another. It’s an insular town. What’s a good way to put it? People know each other and respect each other. We try to have our own space and everybody else has their space, as well. With Celebration Day, it’s all Zeppelin. We’re huge fans of that band and that era, and we make this a tribute show as dead-on as we can get, right down to the amps.
“Working here absolutely helps,” he says of Killer Vintage. “We’ve got all the stuff from that time period. The tones are right, the looks are right. It’s the last week of February every year. And we’ve picked out the creme of the crop of local players. It’s essentially a core from El Monstero, with me, John Pessoni and Jimmy Griffin. We’ve got Cubby Smith of Dr. Zhivegas on bass and Dave Grelle on keys. We have about three weeks of rehearsals going into it, but they’re an intense three weeks.”
KSHE 95 present El Monstero: A Tribute to Pink Floyd
When: 7 p.m., July 14
Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
Tickets on sale at Livenation.com
The El Monstero experience also calls for three weeks of nightly rehearsals, but the staging is so much more intense that the group basically take up residence in a Chesterfield office complex, with a full stage, which allows them to approximate the shows as closely as possible in the rehearsal setting.
“It’s a big-time production,” he says. “It started out as a one-time gig at Mississippi Nights. The band Stir had recorded their second album, but were in a holding pattern. They weren’t allowed to perform as Stir during that period, and they created this to play around town. They hired me as singer, and we started to play around and added more Pink Floyd as we went. The Floyd sets got more lengthy, so we decided ‘let’s just play a whole Pink Floyd show.’ And from that point on it’s grown exponentially, that’s for sure.
“The production is just enormous,” Quinn adds. “The costs are astronomical. That’s what people don’t understand when they ask if we’d ever take it on the road; we’d need a corporate sponsor to do that. Every time we do pyro, it’s like watching dollar bills burning in the air. But we’re lucky to be able to get the best and brightest from the industry to help us. At The Pageant, we’re very comfortable and we’re able to pull off the six nights there.
"Now, we just started doing summer shows last year, with the first one at Jefferson Barracks. It was pretty overwhelming, with over 8,000 people. It was great for us, but they didn’t have the amenities to handle it. They ran out of beer, water, toiletries. This year, we’re moving it to Verizon, where it’s all set up and we don’t have to worry about trucking things in. We can just put on a good show.”
Quinn jokes that the Floyd fans “are like Trekkies. They’ll go regardless of where we’ll play.”
They also provide something that original bands can’t really guarantee. A couple things, really. A good paycheck is one.
“I’m not opposed to doing an original project,” Quinn says. “But you have to have the exact right lineup. It’s critical. It’s tough to find the right people with that vision. And when it’s your thing, you’ve got a band that you’re trying to pay. That’s got to be that commitment level there for everybody.”
And the payback from playing with some of the top musicians in town is another draw to the tribute life.
“There are certain nights,” he says, “when you’re right there with your fellow musicians and you’re locked in. You’re a unit.”
And the crowd? When it comes to playing in a tribute show, to an audience of fans who are adoring the music, that might be the best feeling of all.
“I get energy from the crowd,” Quinn says. “It’s a circular thing. I’m putting out energy and and I’m receiving it. On nights when the energy’s not coming from the crowd, it’s hard to give back. But when it’s there, it’s palpable. You can feel it. Absolutely. The hair stands up on your arms. That’s what keeps you coming back, those chasing-the-dragon moments.”