2007 NAMM Show Report
Survival Of The Fittest
by Shawn Perry
Last week, I wandered the aisles of the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, marveling at porn stars and the wide selection of fascinating products and, uh, accessories of the trade. This week, it's all about NAMM where the people — my people — marvel at music-making stars and the wide selection of fascinating gimmicks and gadgets of the trade. Both shows, like so many conventions, are bright, beautiful, bountiful, and bigger than any sustainable life force outside the building they occupy. Everyone's happy, rapping it up loud and proud, shaking hands, exchanging business cards, grabbing free pens, key chains and mints, asking for autographs and commitments to more business and what's happening that night and where's everyone going. The food is suspicious and overpriced, yet detrimentally delicious in a simple and salacious way. The similarities don't necessarily end there, but you get the general idea.
The bevy of half-clad babes in Vegas left a profound impression I will not soon forget. The Winter NAMM show, on the other hand, is habit-forming and nearly impossible to avoid. I know where every company that matters exhibits; I know where my friends and acquaintances congregate; I know where to park and avoid the rush; and I know where most of the parties take place, although that seems to get trickier and more political every year. Most importantly, I know when I've had enough and it's time to go home. This year, I chiseled that practice down to an art.
I live about 30 minutes away from the Anaheim Convention Center, and drive by it every day, on the way to the office. The NAMM show is a familiar and welcomed event for me during the adjustment phase that takes place for many of us in January. I fear if I miss it, something will go seriously awry. Actually, I skipped the show when they moved it to the L.A. Convention Center a few years back. Reports I read said it wasn't nearly as enjoyable as the party across the street from Disneyland. You can devise your own conclusions.
This year, I'm making the most of my NAMM experience, without reenacting any past counterproductive moments. I won't spend a dime at the Hilton, which is more than I could have ever expected. I won't stay out too late or drink too much, which just makes sense when you realize the expanse of the convention and its multiple offerings. I accomplish what I set out to accomplish; I talk to some great musicians, look over the toys, pick out a few novelty items for my wardrobe and shoebox, and witness some stellar performances.
I jump into the deep end with a soiree at the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. They have free wings, little skewers with pieces of melt-in-your-mouth chicken, crunchy celery, funky cauliflower, and microbrew beer, so how can I resist? Not to mention, they're giving away free blank Maxwell CDs, Guitar Player magazines, and a 300-page book all about the bus called Come Together written by Mark Garvey, with a forward by Yoko Ono Lennon. Garvey is here, at the party. I imagine Yoko is in New York City, plotting her next course of action using her late husband's name.
The entertainment doesn’t quite measure up to what it said in the invitation. Bassists Billy Sheehan, Jeff Berlin, and Stu Hamm were supposed to boil the bottom end with a grinding jam session, but an electrical malfunction pretty much killed that. Construction at the Marriot Hotel, which forced the bus from its usual location to a narrower passage, may be the culprit. Nevertheless, Sheehan tells me he has another commitment and can’t stick around. Berlin coils up cable and makes idle chatter. I don’t even know if Hamm showed up.
One man who did — whom I actually thought was scheduled to join the bass trio — is former Eagles guitarist Don Felder. He’s introduced by John Lennon Educational Tour Bus executive director Brian Rothschild amongst much fanfare. But instead of picking up an axe and strumming a few random chords of “Hotel California,” Fender talks about a recording session and video shoot he’d done that day with a group of kids. As anticlimactic as the video is, played out before the gathering of stunned onlookers and press agents, it’s enough to incite my interest in the real star attraction of the night: the burly sky blue bus itself.
After a short inquiry, Rothschild welcomes me aboard and I cautiously enter this one-of-a-kind multimedia studio on wheels. I breeze through a moderate kitchen/waiting area and pass a triple-decker bunk bed. This, I'm told, is where the house engineers sleep. They travel over 65,000 miles a year, opening the bus door to kids far and wide in search of the lost chord.
At once, I’m in the studio/control room. The set-up is relatively straightforward: what appears to be Roland V-drums in the corner and a smattering of top-of-the-heap recording processors, harmonizers, amplifiers, computers, monitors, and a console filling out the rest of the room. This is where everyone from Al Jarreau to the Black Eyed Peas has cut tracks. Jesse Jensema, one of the resident engineers, gives me a full account.
“We tour around the country for 10 months out of the year providing thousands of kids with the opportunity to come on board and work with some of the latest and greatest technology that’s available on the market,” he explains without missing a beat. “We help them to write and record an original song and make a music video, which we author to DVD. Every kid that leaves the bus will have their very own Maxwell CD and music video DVD. And the best part is that we do it free of charge.”
Sounds like a good deal to me, where do I sign up? We chortle about that one for split second as I quickly make haste, paying my respects to Felder on the way out. I drain one last Sammy Adams and hit the road, knowing full well that I have barely sampled NAMM in its glorious consumption. I’m not actually here for that.
I want to talk to those special vintage rock stars that filter in and out of the musical circles hovering over the NAMM show floor. It’s nothing I haven’t done before, but it’s always a challenge. As the younger guys and gilrs get into the game, many of the people I’d admire are staying away, retiring to golf courses in Florida, and counting their blessings with every scant royalty check.
Friday On My Mind
Bushy-eyed and roaring to go, I gather up my tools and hike the block or so to the convention center. After a snapping a picture of the mighty NAMM sign flying over the convention center’s entrance — looking pretty much the same as last year — I flash my badge to the nice men and women in the orange smocks, find a bag for my swag, and set off for my first appointment of the day: a press conference at Peavey featuring guitar wizard Joe Satriani.
Peavey, as usual, is a popular and heavily infused destination. I drift past the company’s founder Hartley Peavey, who’s being interviewed by some stiff wearing a tie, and into the showcase room where other members of the press patiently wait before a small stage. My buddy Junkman, a regular contributor to Vintage Rock and popular DJ on KNAC.COM, is in field reporter commando mode and working his way into position. He hands me a pass for the Paul Reed Smith concert at the Grove of Anaheim taking place tonight, and tells me Cactus, Pat Travers, and James Brown Band are playing. “It starts around seven,” he whispers. That sounds about right to me.
Satriani removes his dark glasses and scans the throng of reporters before him. “This amp has an ultra dynamic range. It’s touch sensitive. You can bring it down to a whisper. I ended up using a prototype on the title track of my next album.”
He goes on to list cool features like the preamp volume with tone control, a buffered effects loop, a classic tremolo circuit, a single input with an XLR output, and its balls-to-the-wall sound, all within a compact 25-pound cabinet, soaking wet. At this point, I’m wondering when he’s going to plug in and let 'er rip.
Moments later, I see Graham Nash at the Martin Guitars exhibit and claw my way to the front. “Our manager Gerry Tolman was tragically killed just over a year ago and Martin wanted to honor him with a guitar,” Nash says, holding up the beautiful acoustic in question. “Everybody in the band is completely floored by this guitar.”
The CSN Gerry Tolman Special Edition Tribute guitar features the CSN logo, originally designed by the late actor Phil Hartman, inlaid with pearl beneath the classic mother-of-pearl Martin & Co. logo on the headstock. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Young all contributed their own designs for inlays on the fingerboard including a schooner at the 5th fret (Crosby), the Southern Cross at the 7th, 8th and 9th frets (Stills), a heart with wings at the 12th fret (Nash), a broken arrow at the 15th fret (Young), and a small cats eye at the 17th fret. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this guitar go to the Tolman estate to fund college for his two children.
At this point, NAMM madness is at full throttle and the floor is flooded with flesh, so I attempt to make a mad dash down the hallway toward the escalator, but keep getting sidetracked. I bump into drummer Alan White and ask him how he’s doing. “Just signing a lot of autographs,” he says. Hitting the road with Yes any time soon? “Probably not until next year,” he assures me and off he goes, to sign another autograph no doubt.
Of course, no NAMM show is complete without a visit to Ernie Ball. So I take a few steps sideways to have a look. I can’t quite make out the theme of this year’s booth, although there’s a big stage where before I have seen pirate ships and western saloons. Deep Purple’s Steve Morse is autographing pictures that feature him with his MusicMan signature Steve Morse Guitar, a mainstay in the company’s stable since 1985. That’s what happens when you’re inducted into Guitar Player magazine's "Gallery of the Greats" after having been voted "Best Overall Guitarist" for five consecutive years.
Even so, Morse is as cool and forthcoming as ever. I remind him of a piece I did a few years back called Steve Morse: The Hardest Working Guitarist in Show Business, and he proceeds to give me a rundown of his nonstop schedule. “Tonight, in just a few hours, we’re going down to San Juan Capistrano. The Steve Morse Band is opening for the Dixie Dregs. We have both drum sets set up, and both drummers get together and do an incredible piece. Tomorrow we’re in San Diego, and then Phoenix on Sunday.”
I've seen this package before and am regretful I hadn't made plans to go this year. Attending the Paul Reed Smith show is still the plan for the night, but the idea of heading down to the Coach House for a little Morse magic is a temptation I find hard to resist. I zero in on Steve's world with Deep Purple. "We're going out in about a month and a half. Italy, France and the U.K. France has really turned into a big market for us. And we just got back from India."
I wish Morse the best and set off for my next tentative appointment, which is down in the basement. One quick right and there I am: Manne Guitars, where I hope to speak with another man whose part of Deep Purple lore: Glenn Hughes. As it so happens, Hughes and Pat Travers are hanging out, having their pictures taken, and soaking in the adulation.
Hughes, always a pleasant chap, shows me his Soulmover Glenn Hughes signature bass. “We’ve been working on this for a couple of years and I’ve been playing it solidly for the last couple of weeks.” I ask what’s happening on Planet Hughes. “We’re just about to go out on another six-month tour. The bummer is I don’t get to play the country I live in, the States. My new album is coming out in a couple of weeks, but to break America is really difficult. Classic rock artists don’t have big results here, especially when you leave a big band and go solo. In Europe, it’s different. My desire is to play America, so we’re looking at a couple of gigs in the summer. I’ve played all over the bloody world, I just want to play here.”
I’ll see Hughes later that night, but for now I jet back up to the main floor and straight over to Dean Guitars where the hard rockin’ lifestyle is embraced, swallowed, and spat out without any shame whatsoever. Three years running and the company is still mourning the loss of Dimebag Darrell, but at least the Dean girls are smiling and making themselves available for pictures with desultory flyboys clinging to superstar delusions. Around the corner, Rudolf Schenker, Leslie West, and Michael Angelo — the real superstars — are signing posters for the faithful.
Just as Rudolf trots away to do an interview, I approach the Mountain man, who’s here to endorse his Leslie West Signature guitar, with a limited edition run of only 100, all signed by the guitarist. The guitar faintly resembles the single cutaway Les Paul Junior West became known for in the early 70s. It boasts a two-tone vintage sunburst mahogany body and includes special Dimarzio Leslie West pickups with volume knobs that go to 11. “Dean and myself really worked hard on this,” he says proudly. “It’s really some guitar.”
When Schenker returns, I get the skinny on his latest activities. "I'm doing some signings here for Dean Guitars," he tells me. He directs my attention to the posters, which feature the guitarist holding Dean's Schenker Brothers V, a stunning tribute to the Flying V's Rudolf and his famous sibling Michael are attached to. With a limited run of 200, the guitar's fingerboard is inlaid with mother-of-pearl Schenker flames and a custom "S" shaped tailpiece. "It sounds great," Rudolf informs me as he dashes off his signature on another poster.
As for the Scorpions, Schenker says, "we're recording in L.A. and will be on the road later this year." After a quick inspection of Michael Angelo's new quad guitar (how on earth does he play that thing?), I feel the itch of hunger and walk out into the early evening coolness and straight to the local Denny's for a club sandwich. A couple of Heinekens later in my suite, and I'm ready for a night of music at the Grove of Anaheim.
Always a class operation, Paul Reed Smith Guitars rolls out the red carpet for a special West Coast James Brown Memorial Concert. The James Brown Band performs a funk-filled set that resonates strongly with the audience. The highlight of the night is when Paul Reed Smith himself trots out on to the stage to bestow upon Daryl Brown, son of James Brown and the band's leader, a special edition PRS guitar. "We are playing this concert in memory of my father," Brown said in a released statement. "We are very proud to share the music and to continue to celebrate my father's life."
In addition to The James Brown Band, the evening’s line-up also features appearances from Pat Travers, Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre and Doane Perry, ex-Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti, ex-Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden, and Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, the latter band closing the show.
I’m in seventh heaven, sipping a brew in the backstage tent and eavesdropping on various stories from the night’s host of rock luminaries. I see Glenn Hughes again and ask him how the remaster of Deep Purple’s 1974 album Stormbringer is coming along. “Great, but it won’t be out for another year,” he winks before trotting off.
I later corner Barre and Perry to get the scoop on Jethro Tull. They tell they’re preparing for another tour, but have no plans for a new album. When it comes to new Tull records, the waiting is the hardest part.
Junkman arrives and fills me in on a special event at the Hilton he just left: the unveiling of Eddie Van Halen’s famous red-black-and-white striped "Frankenstein" guitar from Fender. The famed guitarist, looking a bit long in the tooth, but otherwise on top of his game, did a few two-handed tappings for the astounded assembly, announcing he’s “very honored to actually be with a company that gets it.” Well, yeah — that’s why they’re still one of the biggest guitar manufacturers in the world. Considering the fact that Eddie built his original Frankenstein for less than $150, and Fender priced the replicas at $25,000 a pop, selling out the limited run of 300 in a few minutes, I’d say they “get it” and then some.
Junkman and I walk me over to Matt Allen’s tricked-out ice cream truck, a backstage bastion at many of the Grove’s shows, for a Good Humor Bar. He later asks Carmine Appice to sign the truck’s autograph-filled wall. I finally pay for a beer, exchange a few tales of the day’s conquests with Junkman and Frankie Di Vita, a DJ with KCAL FM, and catch a few numbers with Pat Travers, Carmine Appice, Jim McCarty, and Tim Bogert. I take my leave, missing Cactus, even though I saw most of their members play before I left. Knowing I need to rest my weary bones for Saturday, I'm glad to be out of there. My mission is moving along nicely.
Every Man Has A Right To A Saturday Night Bath
I spend most of Saturday, assisting Andrew Todd interview various acoustic guitar manufacturers. We hit Collings, Taylor, and Martin, and I come away knowing there’s a lot more to engineering an acoustic guitar than just slapping wood and wire together.
Along the way, I bump into Will Lee, longtime bass player with the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show With David Letterman, who’s chatting it up with E-Street guitarist Nil Lofgren. “The NAMM show is the biggest candy store in the world for musicians,” Lee tells me. I ask if he’s there on behalf of any particular manufacturer. “I’m representing positivity,” he announces before stepping away to explore the second floor occupied by Gibson, Fender, Taylor, and a few quiet and low-key piano exhibits.
Later, I hit the one area of the convention center that often seems in neglect for much of the show: the domed arena. Built in 1967, the arena was pretty much all there was to the convention center until the city expanded the facility with its multi-level, exhibit halls. In the late 60s and early 70s, Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and even the Osmond Brothers played the arena. I saw a Rick Wakeman concert here in 1975. These days, it serves as the home to the Anaheim Arsenal, an expansion team in the NBA Development League.
During NAMM, lots of sound, lighting, and effects companies utilize the arena’s expansive dome to highlight their wares. I saunter over to the Ulitmate Ears, who make in-ear stage monitors used by the Rolling Stones, Metallica, and U2, and spy famed rock journalist Lonn Friend signing copies of his new book, Life On Planet Rock. Having met the legendary editor of the infamous, now-defunct RIP magazine the previous week at AVN — he used to work for Hustler back in the early 80s — I ask him about his previous visits to NAMM.
“I used to come here in the 80s and 90s with RIP magazine, set up a booth, send girls out in these little ripped T-shirts. They would bring Bon Jovi, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, and Motley Crue by. That’s how we built our presence,” he muses. “So, I’ve always had a fondness for this convention.”
Lonn regales me with his latest activities, which includes time spent on his new book. “The last few years I disappeared into my world, writing my memoirs. The book is sort of two dimensional. It’s about the 80s and 90s, when I ran RIP and was on Headbanger’s Ball. I witnessed the loudest period of rock history from the inside. It had a lot to do with the development and explosion of those bands, kind of like Almost Famous for the metal crowd. It’s also a memoir about growing up as a fan. The Beatles, the Who and the Doors are all there, and they’re remembered with affection because that’s where I came from. I use the metaphor of rock to take the fans to a higher place.”
So, if the book is made into a movie, who will portray the writer? We jump back and forth between Robert Downey, Jr. and Paul Giamatti. “Robert Downey is in and out of rehab, and I’m in and out of reality, so we have that in common,” Lonn remarks as he autographs a copy of his tome for me. I bid ado and head back to the main exhibit hall for one last gander. On my way out, I stop by Paul Reed Smith to talk with Martin Barre, who had told me the previous evening that this was the first time he’d ever been to NAMM. And his impressions?
“I thought I would not survive in this atmosphere, but I really like it,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of nice people and friends. For some reason, I thought it would be crazy, but walking around today, I enjoyed myself.”
Martin is scheduled to do a quick signing and then he’ll board a plane en route to his home in merry old England. I shake his hand, wish him well, and that’s a wrap for me at this year’s NAMM show.
After a tasty and filling Italian dinner, I manage to avoid the Hilton by getting an invite to the House Of Blues for a Schecter Guitars bash featuring Type O Negative. Any reservations I have about this band are quickly absolved as they lumber through a stirring set that keeps me entranced and on the edge of my bar stool. A couple of shots of Jägermeister, a few more small cups of Stone Pale Ale, and I’m off to the races. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me bring my camera in, so I was unable to preserve the moment in pictures.
I sneak out as quickly as I came in, jump in my car, and within five minutes, I am in the safe confines of my suite. My feet ache, my ears are ringing, and I could use a good scrubbing. I sit down on the edge of my bed and fade away. I wake up at 4 AM and scoot into bed. Seven hours later, I check out and drive home. Mission accomplished.