By Rich Varrasso, DJ for Music Insider Magazine and Bikers Inner Circle at BICradio.net
It was a brisk 62° California evening, Saturday, January 19th. I took a trek to the deep east bay town of Concord- a rock and roll jungle approximately 50 miles east of San Francisco. A music club called Vinnie’s hosted a full presentation show of three bands in a cabaret style not often seen in clubs of this day and age. Vinnie’s is one of the only clubs left that truly care about the bands and what they are creating. The lifted stage is substantial and they carry their own PA system with soundman, essential for a proper concert atmosphere. Only three blocks from BART, it was enticing to take the one hour train from the south bay so I could relax and prepare for a driveless night of unlawful drinking, remembering that many gigs with Leonard, driving home with one eye closed and a miracle hand on the steering wheel. BART was the way to get to Vinnie’s.
After being greeted by a couple of very pleasant 8 foot tall giant yellow jacketed doormen, I entered the club to see it already jam packed and I was very pleased to see a lot of the old-time faces you would see at a Y&T or Eddie Money concert. The folks actually got dressed up and came out to this gig. When there are high heels, glittery miniskirts, and poofy hair, you know the gig’s gonna rock! Johnny’s wife, Heather, was swamped at the merch table so I was immediately greeted with a kiss and put into action. No- not selling T-shirts or CDs- she needed a Dewers on the rocks with a twist but couldn’t leave her station. Of course I obliged and waited in the 3 deep bar crush for her drink.
I grew up with Leonard Haze and Johnny Gunn. Leonard lived in the east bay area where all the Y&T boys grew up and went to school. We never knew where Johnny Guiterrez grew up, but he was always at every gig with his guitar. We all hung around together making music and going to parties until bands started forming to play the local club scene (which at that time was flourishing). Groups like Y&T, Eddie Money and Tower of Power sprouted from these clubs to become headlining acts at Winterland and other BGP events.
The age of concert bands started with Leonard and Johnny becoming the senior innovators. Leonard’s kick drum style helped land Y&T into the top of the heavy metal heap and songs like “Shakin” and “No Control” made Johnny Gunn a viable resource in the studio and on stage as well. Of course we all knew each other, but like football teams, we were often in different camps. Traveling worldwide, these acts would cross paths on the road but at home the musicians would meet in the local clubs and cross pollinate at jam nights or side projects. This is how Leonard and Johnny became such close friends.
Forward past a couple of decades or so and a lion’s share of the world’s biggest name acts have hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area and it’s because of clubs like Vinnie’s that also nourish the small crowds and baby bands.
The show opened with Raymond Anthony doing an acoustic set. Being a recording engineer, Raymond is now performing as a singer songwriter. The Billy Martini Band took the stage to warm up the crowd with his infectious brand of high octane rock ‘n roll. With albums out since 2007, this band has become one of California’s premier cabaret acts, complete with dancers, driving beats and bone crushing guitar riffs; the perfect band to set up the headliners.
After a fast masterful set change by professional technicians Jesse and Darren, the HazeXperience was set to play. Before the headliners came on stage there was a huge anticipation. After all this was a newly formed band of some very talented and famous musicians that bring world-class to our own Hood. This was the second gig for this band now on the road promoting their new CD “Not Purple”. An experiment almost 25 years in the making, the excitement backstage was like a playground of little kids. Johnny and Larry had their best guitars tuned and shined up to play but even more impressive. Leonard darned a new T-shirt to match his always red headband.
Taking the stage, the crowd went wild to hear their starting song “Magnus Opus”. Accompanied by keyboard substitute Steve Salinas, our friend Stevie “Keys” Roseman couldn’t play these gigs due to an auto accident that broke his fingers- a terrible fate for a keyboardist. Our heart goes out to him. The band continued to showcase the new CD with songs like “Trouble”, “Everybody’s Laughing”, and “It’s Me Again”. Linking to Leonard’s signature drumming was bass player Larry Hart to complete the tight rhythm section needed for Johnny to take license for his huge sounding guitar parts and tasty integral leads in between most of his lead vocals.
Being an “East Bay Thang” the band flowed through their set with premium audience reaction. There was dancing and hollering in between songs like old home week when heroes return to the stage. When you go to a concert for the HazeXperience, you actually live through the experience!
Gracing Leonard’s Y&T heritage, the band did a fantastic version of “Dirty Girls” into “Ain’t Got Nuthin’” and finishing with Eddie’s hit song “Shakin”. Everybody stayed around for the meet and greet with merchandise inventory being hard hit by the now convinced crowd of HazeXperience fans. On my way back home on BART, I still couldn’t get enough, so I was able to listen to more songs and read their bio on www.HazeXperience.com; I also pressed the LIKE button on their Facebook page to alert my friends and show my face there. I got a free CD out of the deal (to play on my radio show) but they said it’s available on iTunes. I wished them luck when I left that evening but really they’re passed that and well on their way to the big concert stages. Where’s Bill Graham when you need him? He would have been proud of his boys. You may listen to my show and hear their songs on www.bicradio.net nightly at 7 p.m. PST.