The author onstage at RRFC.
Big Dreams: Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp and David Fishof
You might not know David Fishof, the founder of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, in the way you might know of a Robert Plant or an Eddie Van Halen, but he certainly knows a thing or two about rock ’n’ roll stars and concert events. Fishof has had a long, illustrious career, first as a sports agent and then live show producer including bands such as The Association, The Turtles, The Monkees, Hermans Hermits, and The Byrds. He also went on to produce “American Gladiators Live Tour,” “Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band” tours, and the British Rock Symphony featuring Roger Daltrey of the Who, Alice Cooper, and Jon Anderson of Yes. Suffice it to say, David knows how to assemble the right music people in the right place and produce a stellar event!
Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp (RRFC) actually started back in 1997 and has slowly and steadily grown through a labor of love to encompass multiple kinds of experiences, including three-to-five-day Destination Camps with big-name rock stars; Rock Camp 101, a two-day beginners course; Rock Star For A Day; and corporate team-building events.
On scanning the RRFC schedule earlier in the year, there was a standout session… Jeff Beck and The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson both slated for the April 18-21st 2013 Destination Camp, which included a chance to perform with Beck and get a VIP performance from Wilson—two living legends in one session. Given that Beck’s version of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” is well, my all-time favorite guitar song (and incidentally written by Stevie Wonder) and Wilson’s Pet Sounds (1966) is arguably one of the most influential records in recording history, this was a no-brainer. After a flurry of emails and a chat with RFCC directress Erin Calhoun, all-round rock goddess, the travel plan was hatched, booked, and the stage set for a musical adventure of a lifetime.
Viva Las Vegas! Arrival and Welcome Night
After a short flight from San Jose, California to Las Vegas, during which I read a few chapters of Dave Fishof’s inspiring book Rock Your Business, I dropped my case off at the MGM Grand, and grabbed the RRFC shuttle van to RRFC HQ, a 10-minute jaunt from the MGM.
RRFC has a close affiliation with MGM Grand and the Rouge Bar/Lounge; in fact, Scott Kornfield, RRFC’s Director of Marketing, joined from MGM Resorts, so that’s where the many of the campers elect to stay and also where the Saturday and Sunday night band performances take place, but more on that later.
The RRFC HQ is located in an industrial estate not far from the strip and is fairly sedate looking from the outside, save for the scripted RRFC logo above the door. But first appearances can be deceptive. Once inside, you pass walls and halls decked with rock photos and memorabilia and enter a warren of rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, and live performance area with stage, backline, P.A. and multicamera recording system.
Around 50 campers gathered with their instruments for de-briefing and camp counselor and band assignments in the main performance/auditorium area. The camper demographics for this event were 95 percent guys, with a few wives and girlfriends along for the fun, and the age group spanned around 30-70, with a skew around late 40s and 50s, which might not be a surprising given that Beck is 69 and Wilson 71.
The welcome-evening entertainment featured the camp counselors led by musical director Kip Winger turning in a kick-ass performance of rock classics including The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to rally the attendees and get everyone suitably amped and in the mood for an incredible magic carpet ride of music, connection, friendships, and performance.
To crown the evening, it of course wouldn’t be Vegas without some sizzle and glamour, which was brought in spades by the lovely and talented ladies of Bella Electric Strings (www.bellastrings.com), led by Nina DiGregorio. These ladies are not your grandfather’s sedate quartet: Bella Strings rock the tight dresses, stiletto heels, electric instruments, and distortion pedals—glamour pusses with fiercely technical chops and shimmering solos. Their distorted violin solos caused some jaw-dropping and serious shrinkage of the guitar egos in the room.
Camp counselor Joe Vitale shows campers how it’s done.
How RRFC Works: Counselors, Rehearsals, Recording, and Performances
In order to assemble a bunch of random musicians from all over the globe at various musical skill levels, instrumentation, and performance egos into coherent bands that can actually competently perform with real rock star talent is truly an art in planning, patience, and prayer. This is where the RRFC framework of socialization, band-formation, and counselors comes in. Essentially, the first day is about matching the right people with the right bands, and then as cohesive bands evolve, the next few days progress from rehearsals into set lists, preparation for recording, and finally live performances.
The RRFC Master Schedule:
Thursday: Meet the Counselors, Band Assembly and Rehearsal
Friday: AM and PM Rehearsals, Evening Jams
Saturday AM: Rehearsal, Recording, PM Jams with Jeff
Saturday PM: Night At The Rouge—Band Performances
Sunday AM: Rehearsal, PM Brian Wilson/Beach boys
Sunday PM: Night At The Rouge—Band Performances
Monday: Goodbyes and Homeward bound
Each day was basically a 10AM-10PM day of rehearsals and evening counselor jams, with a catered lunch and beers provided by RRFC. Saturday and Sunday nights went still later, with every band performing at the MGM Rouge bar; this was not an event for those who like to turn in early!
The RRFC camp counselors (or bandleaders/musical directors) were universally awesome people: talented, humorous, musically gifted, and with the patience of Job. The counselors are truly the magical-human-musical-glue that brings RRFC to life; without them, it would be just a bunch of guys jamming and ego-shredding and then getting awestruck with the kind of middle-age hero worship that would make Miley Cyrus or Bieber fans look restrained.
RRFC attempts to make this whole process easier by sending out set lists in advance, for those who want to practice some songs so they arrive ready to play. For better or worse, I didn’t get the memo, so walked in completely “dry.” I was assigned to Room 4 and dutifully waded in to a room of musical strangers to meet and greet, dust off our chops, and figure out exactly which Jeff Beck songs we could all play.
Drummer Joe Vitale was our RRFC counselor, group leader, musical director, ubu imperator, and performance coach. All credit to Vitale, both as an amazing musician with a track record of stellar tours as a drummer for huge stateside classic rockers such The Eagles (not easy to share that duty with Don Henley), and as a stellar and extraordinarily patient mentor, leading us through the arrangements with a smile, helpful suggestions, coaxing, encouragement, and constructive critique.
Playing with a drummer as talented, inventive, and tight as Joe made everyone in the band feel that relaxed confidence you get as a musician with an A-player in the band, which progressively pulled the band’s tightness together.
Hanging in a RRFC rehearsal room.
The Audio/Music Gear: What You Get/What To Bring
RRFC isn’t an Ocean Way-style recording facility, as some might imagine. RRFC is primarily oriented for live performance and rehearsals, so is built more around the rehearsal/performance-space design model. The rehearsal P.A., amp, and keyboard backline and headphone amps were mostly courtesy of Electro-Voice and Roland, who are clearly the primary audio/music partners in the RRFC initiative.
Each rehearsal room was equipped with P.A. system, four mics/stands, drum kit, keyboard rig, guitar, and bass amp. The recording room was basic but optimized for rapid live recording; it featured a Roland electronic drum kit, pedalboards, and M-48 live personal mixer/headphone-distribution system so each band member can quickly dial in monitor mixes and an entire band can track all instruments simultaneously with perfect instrument isolation, in the same room, in one take.
The main performance area/auditorium is essentially set up like a small club venue equipped with a raised stage, backline, and small-venue P.A./amplification, along with live desk, multiple fixed cameras, and live HD video mixing system, which allows the A/V performances to be captured and mixed on the fly.
Since I elected to not haul gear, I took a risk on exactly which keyboard rigs RRFC would have available. The keyboards were all Roland RD-300NX, which had a great action, were super easy to tweak/transpose, and offered decent stage piano, B3, and clavinet sounds—all the essentials for playing rock songs.
Of course, most of the guitarists, bassists, and sax players elected to bring their personal “dream-weaver” high-end instruments so there were a lot of coveted vintage Gibson Les Pauls and Paul Reed Smiths floating around the building.
Getting ready for the big gig.
Saturday: On Stage With Jeff Beck
Saturday arrived with some trepidation. We weren’t well-rehearsed, we didn’t have a band name, we hadn’t chosen the final songs, and we didn’t know which time slot we’d be performing in, so it was all well, “rock ‘n’ roll.”
After a lot of rehearsal banter on various nonsensical band names, we landed with most consensus and least groans on “The Porch Cats.” (For those not well versed on Beck’s early career, that represented our reference/tribute to The Yardbirds.)
The performance slots for the day were drawn and each band was allocated an afternoon time slot to perform with Beck in the main auditorium and have it all captured in audio/video for posterity. We landed a perfect middle slot, with time for Jeff to warm up and for a couple of early bands to crash and burn in nervous idolatry.
All that remained was to choose exactly which of the six songs we now had under our belts in varying degrees of competence to actually play. Now this song choice wasn’t quite so simple as just choosing your “best” songs, since we had to factor-in the intelligence we had gathered poking our noses in and listening to what we had heard all the other bands rehearsing around the building. No point choosing a song that everyone else was going to do, or that some other band was rocking far better! This was where our complete lack of pre-planning and getting the “approved” set list worked in our favor since we’d chosen songs we individually liked without any reference to the original list so had no overlap with others.
After surprisingly few band arguments, threatened exits, thrown instruments, or drummer spontaneous combustions, we all agreed on “Superstition” and “Rock Me Baby” as the tow track we’d perform with Jeff, since these seemed to be most unique to our band and had decent keyboard parts for me!
The moment we’ve been waiting for! Jamming with Jeff Beck.
Live with a Legend: The Porch Cats featuring Jeff Beck
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, we got the call to get ready for our entrance into the auditorium to take the stage with Beck. Each band performed with the artist, with only their own entourage allowed inside for the performance, so no band gets to see or hear any of the others’ performance until the videos are distributed many weeks later. This element of surprise and secrecy all adds to the build-up and mystique…and then in a moment, we were filing up the stage stairs, shaking hands with Beck, plugging in, and then calling Beck the tunes.
Beck of course delivered a religious set of uniquely Beck solo work and shredded in biblical proportions as we all banished stage nerves and relished the moment of musical glory of backing up arguably one the finest purveyors of the electric guitar since Hendrix. “Rock Me Baby” and “Superstition” were perfectly imperfect, locked together with our collective passion, the aura of Beck, and the cosmic anticipation of that unique moment in time and space. Everyone pulled together to play their part and experience the musical presence of the master.
Afterwards, Beck graciously posed for copious pictures with the band, all shortly to be destined for family albums, home studio posters, guitarist-friend-envy, and Facebook. I can honestly say, there was a real gut sense of elation and achievement that one feels rarely in life, like being on the winning team in a major sports match, starting or IPO’ing a company, or meeting the love of your life. Such is the longevity, potency, and power of rock stardom.
The Porch Cats onstage at the MGM Rouge.
The Porch Cats: Live In Vegas at The MGM Rouge for two nights only!
Coming down from the high of playing with Beck was not something you ever want to end, but the day was far from over: The Porch Cats still had to perform that night at the MGM Grand. The MGM Grand Rouge Bar (http://www.mgmgrand.com/nightlife/rouge-bar.aspx) is the venue for all the RRFC band performances, with each band getting a 20-minute set; the event is open to the public.
This makes for several hours of entertainment and a chance for all the bands to meet each other, hang out, and celebrate the whole RRFC experience over a few drinks. RRFC also videos and records every band performance, which is part of your “take home” package, and this content is delivered to you a few weeks after you get home, after the RRFC have a chance to work their magic on the post-production/editing.
We elected to play some standards and crowd-pleasers that we a) could all easily perform and b) enjoy playing without complex arrangements or changes. These two critical factors left ample room for dubious cocktails beforehand!
The Rouge bar gets packed with Saturday revelers, bachelorette parties, and all kinds of people out for a good time, and the Vegas crowd are not shy about getting up, shouting out, and dancing, which all adds to the slightly surreal club-performance vibe.
And so we ran down the set list below, word was, Beck himself dropped into the bar to hear a few songs, and we all fell into our beds later that night, floating on a sea of performance relief and dreams fulfilled!
Our Set List:
Rock Me Baby
Born Under A Bad Sign
Brian Wilson and the author.
Sunday: Good Vibrations . . . Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
Sunday was a recovery day for many; after the elation of playing with Beck and the Rouge performance at the MGM and then shutting down several bars with the counselors (be very careful if you ever go drinking with Spike Edney!), there were a lot of fragile musos.
Hangover or no hangover, there was musical work to be done. We decided to switch out a couple of songs for the Sunday night set and had to polish those, so the Porch Cats spent the morning tightening a few little nice intro/ending parts, courtesy of Joe Vitale.
Sunday afternoon was the VIP performance and a meet-and-greet with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Who knows how many more times the band will play all the classics together, so we were very fortunate to get a close-up, personal, intimate performance that included “Good Vibrations,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” and “California Girls.”
It was amazing to listen to this jukebox of hit songs, some of them a half-century old, and hear how beautifully crafted they are and how well they stand up as works of art.
After the Beach Boys show, Wilson generously posed for pictures with the camp attendees, and the posse all headed off to the MGM Rouge bar for goodbye drinks and to set up for the final RRFC band performances. Dave Fishof joined us briefly onstage for the final curtain call and to congratulate all the bands, and then it was finally time for a last cocktail and hit the sack… “Elvis had left the building.”
The Porch Cats savor a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Monday: Leaving Las Vegas
As I boarded the plane home, slightly hungover, with a few days’ stubble, and clutching my RRFC schwag bag full of assorted souvenirs, I reflected on the whirlwind weekend… meeting the stellar RRFC team and cast of counselors, assembling a band of strangers (and now friends) from scratch, arranging/learning brand new tunes, playing with Jeff Beck, performing live at the MGM in Vegas, getting an exclusive VIP concert and meeting Brian Wilson. Not exactly something you get to do every weekend.
The “whirlwind” experience is indeed the whole point of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp…it’s all about that once-in-a-lifetime blowout to meet and play with your rock heroes. You have to hand it to Dave Fishof…it’s a big vision, fulfilling musical dreams with the elite of the rock industry for those of us who are still rock stars in our heads and hearts, though life may have intervened to take us off in new more down-to-earth directions!
No matter what you do for a living now; if you are a beginner, mid-level, or experienced musician; play bass, keys, guitar, drums, or sing; if one of your all-time rock heroes signs up to headline an event at RRFC, this is a bucket-list fantasy weekend you absolutely must dip into your savings for, and go live the dream!
Interested in jaming with superstars? Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp and our sister magazine Guitar Player are teaming up with guitar legends Joe Perry, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson, for an itinerary includes two performances, recording sessions, and interactions with the Guitar Player editors. For more information, visit rockcamp.com.
Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp: Links, People, and Info