Review of Buddy Rich Memorial Concert

Hammerstein Ballroom, 10/18/2008

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It took Neil Peart to get me to New York City — well, at least a concert with Neil Peart. Having never been there, Neil's performance with the Buddy Rich Band was the perfect excuse.

It all started in February this year on a drive home from work. My friend Monica Z, with whom I've shared many Rush-related travels, called and said, "I've got fourth row, dead center tickets for Neil's Buddy Rich Concert!"

"Buy them!" I said without hesitation. Even though I wasn't committed to going to the concert at that point, I liked the idea of having great tickets.

Friday Night in Queens

Fast forward eight months. Friday night, 11:00 p.m., Jamaica, NY.

After a long flight from Seattle, I was sitting in a Super 8 motel room, talking on the phone with Michael D.F. Lowe, who runs NeilPeartDrumsticks.com. He was on his way back to his Newark hotel after watching a full rehearsal of the Buddy Rich Memorial show. Michael and I had been talking in e-mail for a few years, and I'd wanted to meet him in person when we were in the same city. We agreed to try and meet the next day, when Monica and I would be in New York City.

In addition to meeting Michael, I'd also planned to meet two local people I'd talked to in e-mail, Neal Scanapico from Brooklyn, and Roman Dino from New Jersey, who were also going to the concert on Saturday.

Before the show

Monica and I arrived in Manhattan early Saturday morning and went sightseeing right away. New York overwhelmed me with its endless canyons of skyscrapers and energy. We spent most of the afternoon in the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) viewing some of my favorite paintings, including Van Gogh's The Starry Night and Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. During the day, we confirmed plans to meet Neal Scanapico and his girlfriend Sue for dinner before the show — and maybe Michael D.F. Lowe.

After a short rest in the hotel, Monica and I walked down 8th Avenue to 34th Street. We met Roman and Sue upstairs in T.G.I. Fridays, across the street from Madison Square Garden. It's always a little surreal to meet someone you've only talked to in e-mail — or even on the phone. Roman and Sue were nice and easygoing. I found I had a lot in common with Roman, including a love of drumming, music, and airplanes.

After dinner, we walked to the venue and waited in line outside the venue. The wind was cold, and I was glad I'd brought coat. I noticed that many people had brought along drum heads, cymbals, and other stuff — presumably to be signed by one or more of the performers. I hadn't even brought my camera, as it wasn't clear if photography would be permitted (and I wanted to concentrate on the show).

Inside the Hammerstein

Once inside the venue, we walked past the merch and sound booths to our seats. The Hammerstein Ballroom, built in 1906, is located in The Manhattan Center on the bottom floor. There's another ballroom upstairs called The Grand Ballroom and two recording studios as well. I thought the building was definitely showing its age, even though it's supposedly known for its elegant appearance and good acoustics.

While this was a Jazz concert, the stage screamed Rock & Roll. Above stage right and left hung huge speakers; behind the speakers an array of multi-colored stage lights; and behind those a large video screen. Just to our right on the floor, high-definition cameras practiced swooping over the crowd. A smoke machine started to breathe backstage.

Roman ended up sitting only a few seats away from where Monica and I were sitting, so I continued to talk with him. I also got a chance to meet Neal Scanapico and his brother-in-law Bobby Ryan, and finally said hello to Michael D.F. Lowe.

Tommy Igoe

Almost right at 7:30, the show started with some video footage of Cathy Rich talking about this concert and Buddy Rich's legacy. Tommy Igoe, the lead-off drummer, also had some video footage. The only time I'd seen Igoe was on an instructional drum video, but I learned before visiting NYC that plays and directs The Birdland Big Band every Friday. (I also learned that many of the big band musicians who were playing at this show also play at Birdland with Igoe). Igoe was obviously comfortable in a Big Band setting, playing with solid technique that would have made Buddy proud. I was glad Monica brought some extra earplugs for me, because it ended up being pretty loud in that fourth row.

An interesting side note: At the beginning of the show, Carrie Nuttall (AKA Mrs. Neil Peart) sat right behind me with Matt Scannell (of Vertical Horizon). And no, I didn't try to talk to her.

John Blackwell

I'd read about John Blackwell and knew he was on the short list of great R&B drummers (he recently released a new Master Class DVD). He actually reminded me a lot of Gerry Brown, with his groove, power, and showmanship. He had a China cymbal mounted behind him that made for some interesting visual accents. He twirled his sticks, but, like Gerry Brown, the twirling seemed to almost be part of the beat.

His "open" left-hand leading style was reminiscent of Billy Cobham and Carter Beauford (most drummers playing on a right-handed kit lead with their right hand). I also saw Blackwell use Johnny Rabb's Freehand technique, which enables a drummer to play rolls with one hand.

Blackwell played one of my favorite Jazz tunes called "Nutville," which Steve Smith played at another Buddy Rich Memorial show. He played a double-ride beat with rolling tom-tom accents that was just beautiful.

Like Igoe, Blackwell addressed the audience at the end of his set. He thanked all the people who had supported him, including his family sitting in the audience, and came off as a very modest, sincere guy. And then he talked about the loss of his daughter Jia (in 2004) — and he was clearly choked up. Someone in the crowd said, "She lives through you," and Blackwell acknowledged the comment. I read in the program later that before every show Blackwell takes off his hat and says, "Let's go get 'em, Jia!"

Donnie Marple

This 21-year-old drummer, the winner of Guitar Center's 2007 Drum-Off, stunned the crowd with his creative and beautifully-played solo. As a drummer and frequent Guitar Center shopper, I've seen Drum-Off advertisements and wondered who actually won. Now I knew. Some of his tricks included: one-handed cymbal chokes, playing behind his back, throwing his sticks while playing beats, and pretty amazing fluidity (at times he reminded me of Dave Weckl). I'll be interested to see where he takes his drumming. You can see a video of Marple here.

Terry Bozzio and Effrain Toro

This was my fourth time seeing Bozzio. I'd seen him in Seattle during the 1990s with the band Polytown, as well as two Guitar Center drum clinics. His playing was always, in a word, mind-blowing. I'd learned a lot about orchestrating a drum solo from his first instructional video. He uses a large kit with tuned drums and cymbals to play melodies, and has perfected the art of the ostinato, where a hand or foot holds down a rhythm while the other limbs solo over that rhythm.

With the Buddy Rich Band, Terry played some big band arrangements of Cartoon Network themes, which was an interesting idea. Ironically, it seemed like Bozzio's gargantuan kit (scaled down for the concert) seemed to hold him back with the Buddy Rich Band. And while I enjoyed hearing Bozzio play with percussionist Effrain Toro, I think it diminished Bozzio's ability to stretch out in his solo sections. It's almost as if Bozzio felt that doing his usual melodic drum solo wasn't appropriate in this setting. It was still great to see him play again.

Intermission

During intermission, Monica and I walked downstairs. I ended up meeting Neal Scanapico and his brother-in-law Bobby Ryan. Neal was the one who gave me the idea for the Postcards from Neil section of this site. We had a nice talk about what we thought of the show so far and other stuff. Bobby told me about one of the great perks of being a NYC firefighter: Whenever you need to park in Manhattan, you just leave your car at one of the fire stations!

Behind me, Monica was talking to Bill Banasiewicz, a good friend of hers and also someone I'd met on a few of these Rush journeys. Behind them was Carmine Appice, the famed drummer of Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, Jeff Beck, King Kobra, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Ted Nugent, Ozzy Osbourne, and many others. He looked the same as the picture of him on his book, Realistic Rock, with a fu-man-chu mustache.

Set 2: Tommy Igoe

We got back to our seats to see Tommy Igoe play more tunes with the Buddy Rich band. He seemed to be the "house" drummer. Cathy Rich said that Igoe would be taking over as the Buddy Rich Band leader.

Then Lorne Wheaton, Neil's drum tech, started adjusting Igoe's kit, getting it ready for another drummer to play it.

Peter Erskine

After Lorne finished adjusting Igoe's kit, Cathy introduced surprise guest Peter Erskine. I have to say I don't know too much about Erskine's work, except I know that he's a superb Jazz player and, like Steve Smith, is also one of those drummers who can play in just about any style. He played in Weather Report, although by the time I got around to listening to that band Omar Hakim had replaced Erskine.

Erskine played with the Buddy Rich band with the kind of confidence and technique that looks effortless. He didn't show off, but just played time in a beautiful way. (I learned later in a Neil Peart "News, Weather & Sports" update that Neil had been taking lessons from Erskine before this concert.)

Nick Rich

This was the first time Nick Rich had played with his Grandfather's band. He'd recently been showing up in pictures with Neil Peart, and had appeared in Neil's books as a minor character for years. The last time I'd really seen him was in the video from the 1992 Buddy Rich Memorial Concert, when he was just a kid.

While I thought Rich's playing was good, his wardrobe, tattoos, body piercings, and Michael Jordan-esque tongue gymnastics were distracting. Once I looked beyond that, I could see a fire in his eyes that definitely reminded me of Buddy. In many of the pictures I've seen of this concert, he almost looks like Buddy sitting behind that kit.

If Nick Rich continues playing the drums and learns to channel the famous Buddy Rich fire into his drumming, I think he has the potential to do great things.

Chad Smith

While I can say I'm a fan of Chad Smith's (his groove from Under the Bridge inspired me in the 90s), I'd never seen him play. Like Neil, Chad is a drummer in a very successful rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers (21.5 million records sold compared to Rush's 25 million). Chad is also a multi Grammy-award-winning drummer, with both the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other projects he's played on, like The Dixie Chicks.

From the moment Smith came out on stage, I realized he was an entertainer. While his intro video played above him, he threw sticks at his larger-than-life image. On stage, he made me laugh with practically every measure of music he played. (I was close enough to see his facial expressions.) He'd explained on his intro video that playing with the Buddy Rich band scared him, and I could see him powering through the songs with the bravado that's made him an arena-rock drummer. When he made a mistake or dropped a stick, it didn't seem to faze him a bit.

Smith's choice of music was great, including the Chili Peppers' "Dani California" to the Focus song "Hocus Pocus" (which gets the award for audience participation) to "Birdland."

When Smith was done, the audience was happy and charged up for the finale: Neil Peart.

Neil Peart

After a long video intro where Neil explained his involvement in several Buddy Rich projects, Neil appeared on the stage in a vest and matching African Prayer cap. He acknowledged the audience's applause. I was close enough to see a hint of nerves behind Neil's eyes, but then he dove right into the music. Replacing the "house" bassist Will Lee was Neil Peart's friend, Jeff Berlin, who appeared to be reading music most of the time.

His first tunes, "Love for Sale" and "Time Will Tell," were songs I didn't really know, but it was fun to watch Peart navigate through them. His playing was understated — which I found a little surprising, given Peart's usual style. After the first song, I saw him breath a sigh of relief before taking a drink of water.

By the time he got to the third song, "Cottontail/One O'clock Jump," two songs I knew well, an anticipation was building in the audience. We all knew his drum solo was coming. And once he launched into his solo, the real fire seemed to return to Peart's playing. The solo was reminiscent of what he played on the Snakes & Arrows tour in both structure and pacing — an improvised section, a "Drum-Also-Waltzes" section, a "Floating Snare" section, a "Quadruplet" section, and a few rhythms that seemed a little different. There were no cowbells, which is probably the first time I've heard Peart solo without them. His drums sounded great. The audience erupted at the end into a standing ovation.

Neil launched into the last song, a big-band version of Rush's "YYZ," with the Morse code on a single crotale (I assume mounted on the bass drum). It was a real treat to listen to a new arrangement of "YYZ" and watch Peart play the song on a smaller kit.

When he was done, all the drummers came out and took a bow. Neil went around and shook a lot of hands in the band, and hugged Nick Rich. It's obvious that they're close.

Coda

Afterward, I spotted Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy on our left side (he was signing a drum head for someone) and Monica ran over to talk to him for a moment. I talked with Michael D.F. Lowe and Roman, and then we headed outside into the cold NYC night. Monica and I talked with B-Man outside the Hammerstein, and then Monica and I headed off into the night in search of a good NYC hotdog. Like the rest of my NY trip, the concert was a feast for the senses. Walking in the cold air and talking with Monica was a nice way to reflect on what I'd just seen and unwind.