Superstar Rookie

The first ever Superstar Rookie show arrives the same night as a torrential downpour, easily the worst rain seen all summer. Even so, I walk up to Café Bourbon Street from our house, hopping over puddles because Alan’s at work and I’m not sure who else would give me a lift right this minute.

I spotted a couple different flyers of theirs on High Street earlier today, and when I arrive, Dan hands me a pair of official band stickers. They’re black and white, with the band name in lowercase block letters, and an image of a boy pointing up at the sky. Bandman’s got on a 3-piece suit and below that, a Superstar Rookie tee shirt, a little bit of additional advertising. These are available for purchase for the low, low price of $10, and you have to hand it to Bandman and company, they really did their homework promoting every angle of this puppy. Beyond all that, though, Dan’s mania knows no bounds, and this is great to see, someone with this much genuine enthusiasm for playing music.

I’ve always told him he should put together an act called Dan Bandman’s One Man Band, but based upon that instrumental demo he played for us a few weeks ago, these Superstar Rookies will rise above the novelty status of my tongue in cheek suggestion. Since the night we met for drinks at Café Bourbon Street they’ve formally agreed upon Brandon Tuber as their singer, have crafted lyrics and vocal melodies for their songs. Brandon never sang in any capacity before this but Dan always felt Tuber was the right person for the job, and eventually convinced him to accept it.

So they also managed to convince the old man who owns this place to host his first ever rock show. He wasn’t sure it would pan out financially, but as he paces around tonight behind the bar, I swear I can spot dollar signs floating around in the pupils of his eyes. The bar is wall to wall people, all of them having paid the three dollar cover charge for admission, most dropping untold wads of cash for drinks.

He’s jacked the house lights up to a more sensible level for the show, subduing the creepy, murky green and orange glow his tavern usually bathes in. The piano’s gone, too, making room for more tables, never to return. Though no live music has ever saturated these walls before it’s clear there will be plenty of it in the near future, as many nights a week as the old man thinks he can turn a buck. It must seem like a grand epiphany to him, this occasion, the registers overflowing with cash.

Customarily a middle aged dive bar, the clientele has reconfigured itself as a hip, happening hot spot. A sea of eighteen to twenty five year olds flying from one table to the next, everyone knows everyone here, we’re all friends from back home coming to root our local boys on. Though alive with activity, I somehow manage to pin down one booth unoccupied in the center of the room and slide my body into it. A perfect vantage point to track the who’s who of everyone in attendance, as I kick back and take a look around the room.

Ben Kick, now a hardcore heroin addict, nods off at a table in the corner. Despite his troubles he’s doing better than many of us are in some respects, for somehow the seedier fringe of any society attracts a certain element of gorgeous females. This explains how he’s landed Tiffany Miller as his girlfriend, a megawatt babe these days, tattooed and streetwise sexy. She sits beside her man, kicking him underneath the table whenever he drifts asleep, though each time his eyes snap open for only a moment before he nods off again.

Dan’s roommate Norman and his brother Jose Flores are here, pleasant Filipino kids I worked with at a fast food restaurant in Mansfield about five years ago. Ron Fry and Jeremy Wendling, two more casual acquaintances from my high school days, are among the paid attendance as well. Steve Simmers is accounted for, too, another chum from back home. He is also covered in tattoos, and sports a wild mane of shaggy black hair, but despite his appearance and occasional zany comments, he’s the most genuine and harmless character you could ever hope to meet.

Dan’s making his rounds, glad-handling his constituency, and in so doing slides into my booth. This is the point at which he slides me the stickers, in fact. I mention having spotted a couple of their flyers earlier today while goofing around on High Street.

“Yeah, we made up four different kinds,” he says, nodding his head.

“Hey, I dig the three piece,” I tell him, when he stands to move on to the next party, kiss some babies or something. He flashes me the patented Dan Bandman smile, all squinty eyes and white teeth, laughs and tells me thanks.

My eyes drift repeatedly to Seresa, behind the bar tonight and assuredly netting a small fortune in tips. Looking just as lovely as the first time I met her, attired in tight, sparkling clothing that accentuates her impressive frame. She floats through the room with a deftness bordering on astounding, cataloging each drink order and delivering it without flaw, never mind the oceans of bodies she’s squeezing through.

“Why aren’t you drinking?” she asks in passing my table.

“Running low on funds,” I tell her with a grin.

Minutes later, she wordlessly sets a beer down in front of me and walks away without breaking stride.

“Thanks!” I call out behind her.

“No problem,” she turns around and smiles.

Secret Of Flight are the opening act, another – you guessed – group of former cronies from the Mansfield region. Some of them I think still live up there and have driven down just for the show. Dave Kemp, on bass, I know recently made the move to Columbus, but I’m not sure about Chris Hostetler and Jamie Ferguson, the vocalist and guitarist respectively, whereas I don’t even know the drummer at all.

Running into all these familiar faces is cool and everything, but it feels like a frantic dash in some respects, strained attempts to make meaningful contact with everyone in the space of a couple hours, all the while taking in a rock show. Really it just highlights for me that I’m not the only tight lipped character, for most of these guys don’t have much to say, either. Despite having gone to high school with Ferguson and Kemp and meeting Hostetler through some of the other dudes, like many of our friends they’re mellow, laid back fellows who guard their words and as such it’s difficult even for a marginal friend such as I to describe them in any more detail. They’re like Fry and Wendling, or for that matter Kick before the lurid details of his drug problems, meaning they’ve always just been around but I don’t know anything about any of them.

Secret of Flight begins their set, and the words pleasant surprise fail to serve them justice. Kemp’s bass lines are incredible, fluid and unique and melodic as hell, made all the more amazing in considering that he’s almost too wasted to walk. Meanwhile Ferguson’s got this fantastic guitar sound, flowing smooth as water and bright as a hundred watt light bulb. Hostetler doesn’t have the most dynamic range in the universe maybe but does make the most of it, wavering between the familiar speak-to-shout-to-speak dynamic made famous by a number of other independent bands. Still, it fits the music well, and though neither he nor the drummer are particularly jaw-dropping tonight, they provide a steady backdrop for the instrumental heroics of Kemp and Ferguson.

Earlier this summer, Dan played had played their demo for us at a house party, at a time when the band was still an instrumental trio. I liked it, but at the time ruffled some feathers by suggesting it was kind of power poppy, a little heavier but in the vein of early Cheap Trick.

“Cheap Trick,” Bandman had scoffed, shooting me a dark glance as he ejected the cassette.

I suppose at least one band member is bound to be offended, or at least find it ridiculous, whatever comparisons you make or genre you suggest. It’s best to say you dig it and move on. A week or so after that, a bunch of us are sitting at this very bar when Dan tells me they’ve settled on the tentative moniker Superstar Rookie. I think it’s great and suits their sound like a well-oiled kick drum, but on that day, at least, he was having second thoughts, worried that it might not fit their aesthetic.

As Superstar Rookie launch into their opening song, I recognize that Dan had been correct in scoffing at my power pop label for their music. They’re a little too loud and a tad bit sloppy for that designation. And as such, he might have been correct in suffering second thoughts and considering the band’s name a mismatch for their sound – but I don’t know, I still kind of like it anyway. Besides, it isn’t as if their direction is even etched in stone as of yet.

“The whole half time breakdown thing we learned from Copper,” Dan will tell me later, and cites, when I ask, the chorus of A-Ha’s Take On Me as an example, the way the music briefly slows down to half speed before revving up again. “That’s a trick he taught us.”

And aside from this conscious signpost, they lace in covers from multiple eras alongside their still relatively new originals. Beyond Dan and his three piece suit on guitar, my good friend Travis Tyo functions as bassist, with this burly redheaded guy Dave Copper manning the drums and the new recruit Brandon singing, by every indication a ball of nerves, terrified. The stage is adequate in size but not much beyond that, yet to their credit both Dan and Brandon make the most of it, canvassing both ends, jumping around, infused with as much animation as this limited arena will around.

In sound they are sloppy and unprofessional as hell, yet somehow make it work, winning you over in much the same manner as the neighborhood mutt. Call it the old Bandman charm – he and Travis have been at this together stretching clear back to our scholastic days, both in Mansfield and Columbus, and their seamless unison combined with Dan’s obvious enthusiasm make for a compelling combination. Travis smiles and rides his bass lines but even he can’t take his eyes off the guitarist, by all rights it’s the main attraction here.

Copper’s a powerhouse phenom with more chops than any other drummer I’ve seen around town, yet appears bored behind the kit, his face expressionless and detached from everything else happening on stage. As for Tuber’s vocals, he’s somewhat shaky and not nearly loud enough, and also displays this amusing trait of turning red in the cheeks when he sings, face and vocal inflection both reminiscent of a teenage kid arguing with his mom. But the lyrics and in fact the band’s song structures in general suggest something unheard of before, a new composite sound, a resolute avoidance of cliches.

Alan shows up halfway through their set, munching on a submarine sandwich he’s purchased at an undisclosed gas station. The more fast paced our lives become the worse the quality of our food gets, it seems, and this vile creation I’m watching him inhale represents the latest link in his diet’s de-evolutionary chain. After putting in a two to ten shift at the airport he’s stopped home only long enough to change, and now we stand in the back of the bar because he’s still too wound up to sit down.

Excuse me, Steve Simmer says, stumbling up to Alan and me as if we’re complete strangers, my eyesight’s not very good. Is that Dan “Three Fingers” Bandman playing guitar?

This question is so bizarre on so many levels that it’s best to not even attempt thinking about it. We mumble a response in the affirmative and he thanks us while shuffling away, though not before Alan hands Steve the remains of the noxious sub. We share a laugh over the whole peculiar encounter, my roommate and I do, from his acceptance of the sandwich to his efforts across the bar of pawning the sub off onto Ben Kick and Ron Fry. Ron in fact punches Steve in the arm at last as if telling him to piss off, at which point Simmers finally gives up the ghost and tosses the offending sandwich aside.

“Three Fingers Bandman?” Alan finally gets around to wondering aloud, “what the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“I have no idea,” I admit.

The only possible explanation I can divine is something to do with the three piece suit Dan was wearing at the beginning of the show. But the suit’s long since history, as Dan strips down to just the dress slacks and a white Superstar Rookie tee shirt. Now he’s sliding across the stage on his back as he reels off a guitar solo, grinning at this obvious homage to a cheesy rock era gone by.

He laughs at my comparisons to Cheap Trick but there’s definitely an element of the overblown 70s here, and the glorious 1980s, too, but just a touch. Handclaps and singalong choruses colliding against a crunchy guitar tone familiar from eras past. An indie rock pedigree buffered against Copper’s dexterous drum patterns with a dash of Replacements-esque sloppiness thrown in the mix, manifesting itself in the way they’ll start a song over if anyone hits a bum note. One selection features Brandon reading a favorite book passage through this megaphone, thus flipping over the last stone they might have left unturned in their quest for the perfect sound.

After a short break, the band returns for an encore. Whereas their main set features strictly original material, here they veer into the familiar land of time tested covers, beginning with Just What I Needed by the Cars. For this one Brandon enlists the audience, coaxing them into shouting out each chorus by holding his microphone above the crowd, a move met with thunderous, roaring approval. But now that we’ve heard the thunder here comes the lightning, knocking out the bar’s power supply just as the band kicks into Just Like Heaven by the Cure.

We fidget in snickering silence for a few moments, waiting for the juice to return and end this evening proper. When it does some five minutes later the Superstars eschew wrapping up their Cure tribute and instead opt for a much more modern tribute, closing out the night with a Built To Spill song I fail to recognize. Then the show’s over and they’re putting away their equipment and as we congratulate the four members on a job well done, Ron Fry and some of the other fringe characters are hamming it up on the microphone, eager for a portion of the spotlight. Amusing as this is Alan and I wave to everyone else and disappear down the road, off to a keg party across town.

In summation, Superstar Rookie had put on a good show, though they’ve understandably still got some kinks to iron out. Truth be told, while I wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone, the secret in the opening band’s name might be that I unexpectedly liked them a little better. Secret Of Flight launched into the stratosphere tonight, but then again this was Bandman and the guys’ first time out, and much better things are forthcoming from them.

By the time their second gig arrives about a month later, held at the Northberg Tavern on High Street, they’ve augmented the lineup with a lead guitarist, Tony Bair. Thus begins a schizophrenic patch of sorts, in which they’re attempting to decide whether this fifth member belongs or not – although in my mind, the answer is a resounding yes.

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