Tuesday, January 19, 2016

NAMM 2016: Singer Keith St. John Remembers Ronnie Montrose With Tribute Show

When I was offered the opportunity to interview Ronnie Montrose in 2011, part of my research was listening back to the many records his magnificent guitar playing appeared on. Naturally, I started with the 1973 Montrose album, the group’s debut with Sammy Hagar, Bill Church and Denny Carmassi. That record is hailed as a major landmark, a template for tight, economic, hard rockin’ records from Van Halen, Iron Maiden and dozens of other heavy metal bands from in the 1980s. That’s only part of it.
After you comb through the early stuff with Van Morrison and the Edgar Winter Group (that’s Montrose playing guitar on “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride”), there's solo albums and Montrose’s other group Gamma. That’s a whole adventure unto itself.
In 1976, after Hagar and Church left (or fired, depending on who you ask) Montrose, and were summarily replaced by Bob James and Alan Fitzgerald, I saw the new lineup perform twice, both times opening for KISS. I picked up both the Warner Brothers Presents and Jump On It albums, and scrolled back to discover the debut and Paper Money.
After Montrose broke up, Ronnie Montrose issued his first official solo album, Open Fire, a giant leap forward from his previous work. I told Montrose I thought it was pioneering instrumental guitar album, and he modestly refuted me with, “Well, let’s not forget Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, which influenced me heavily.”
Montrose had a difficult time accepting credit and appreciation for his musical achievements. I suspect that played a role in his mental state when he took his own life on March 3, 2012. But the legacy is still there, and more and more people have refused to let go. In fact, the love and admiration for Ronnie Montrose is more alive than ever, thanks in large part to the excitement surrounding Keith St. John’s concert tribute to the guitarist, Ronnie Montrose Remembered.
The show is set to take place on Saturday January 23, 2016, at the Observatory Theatre in Santa Ana, California — just down the street from the annual NAMM Show that will be popping in Anaheim. St, John, who sang with Montrose for 13 years, will be joined by several A-List rock and roll luminaries, including Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), Brad Gillis (Night Ranger), Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Gilby Clarke (Guns N Roses), Tracii Guns (L.A.Guns), Doug Aldrich (Whitesnake), Derek St Holmes (Ted Nugent), Jeff Young (Megadeth), Jeff Scott Soto (T.S.O.), Troy Luccketta (Tesla), Jimmy Degrasso (Ozzy Osbourne/David Lee Roth), Mitch Perry (MSG, Lita Ford), Jimmy Paxson (Stevie Nicks) and many more.
As the singer told me, Ronnie Montrose Remembered presents a rare opportunity for a special cast of musicians to pay homage to Ronnie Montrose and his music. “We have a combination of guys who cut their teeth in the 70s, more of Ronnie’s contemporaries,” the singer explained. “And then we got guys more influenced by Ronnie who really did their stuff in the 80s.”
Montrose was previously honored at the 2012 concert Ronnie Montrose – A Celebration of His Life in Music, which featured members of Montrose and Gamma joined by Joe Satriani for a career-spanning set that was later released on DVD. St. John was there too, but Ronnie Montrose Remembered is really his baby.
The singer met up with the guitarist in 1998, and they worked closely together — writing, recording, rehearsing and playing live — through 2012. “I met Ronnie because he was sniffing around in LA looking for someone to write with it. Our good buddy (keyboardist) Ed Roth introduced us,” St. John fondly remembers. “When we met up, it was pretty much instant. Just the two of us in a room, hanging around with guitars, writing. The first year, that’s all we did.
“There were times we worked together, on and off. When he had that little cancer battle, it was a devastating to all of us. He was going to hang up guitar completely. But then it was a real positive shock to see him hit the ‘Go’ button again. That was a dramatic time.”
This is what makes Ronnie Montrose Remembered “very emotional and close to the heart” for St. John. “I think that’s one of the reasons it took me this much time to do a Los Angeles memorial tribute to Ronnie. His death had a little bit of mystery around it. He had been battling cancer, and as you know, unfortunately, he took his own life.
“There’s a lot of taboo around that, so I think a lot of us who were close to him — really close to him — sort of backed away from each other for a while. We were, at least for a year or two, on a break. Now that break is over. We’re all in a spot where we’re all coming together and there is nothing but positive vibes.”
The idea of a memorial for Ronie Montrose came about after St. John was approached by a promoter to put something together around the NAMM Show. “I thought for a second, ‘Hmmm…’ And then something in the back of my brain went, ‘Bingo…it’s time.’ Sure enough, I called Ronnie’s wife and a few other people, and we had a powwow and agreed to do it.”
When I asked the singer about details of the program, he was deliberately ambiguous. “The Who’s-Playing-What is, I think, the surprise,” I’m assured. “Suffice it to say, after we got the bulk of the players, at least the ones we announced early on, I was just looking at everybody live and looking at some old footage of us playing live, meaning the old Montrose playing, and trying to figure out who would best suited for what song.”
Clearly, for an event like this, cooperation is key, and St. John says that so far, everyone’s been fairly flexible and willing. “When somebody like Brad Whitford from Aerosmith calls up and says, ‘Hey man, what do you got in mind?’ And I say, ‘What do you think of this and this?” And it’s like, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I thank my lucky stars every day that that’s the way it’s been.”
Many of the guitarists have expressed an interest in tackling obscure Gamma material — “tunes I don’t even know,” St. John laughed. “I’m like, ‘What record’s that on?’” While Gamma music remains to be seen or heard, there is little doubt the first Montrose album will get the most attention, though it’s still up in the air as whether any former members of Montrose will show up.
I asked St. John if calls had gone out to Hagar, Church, Carmassi, Bob James, Alan Fitzgerald, or, for that matter, Edgar Winter or Gamma singer Davey Pattison. “A few of those names you mentioned are on the fence,” St. John revealed coyly, adding, “I haven’t been able to get a hold of Bob James. He probably lives closer to the venue than anyone.”
With more names announced and interest sky-high, the singer is confident the roster will bear fruit for all in attendance. “There is a good chance of surprise guests,” he said. “At NAMM, everyone shows ups everywhere.”
In addition to the full spread of guitarists, bassists, drummers, and singers — St. John, Jeff Scott Soto and Derek St. Holmes are the only three vocalists announced at press time — the night will also include a presentation, produced in part with Guitar Player Magazine, of the Ronnie Montrose Rock The Nation Award, bestowed to one male musician and one female musician between the ages of 10 and 18 “who best exemplify the stellar drive and love of the guitar that Montrose tried to instill in children throughout his life.”
St. John said this is something Montrose would have relished. “It’s going to be one of those beautiful moments. One thing that man loved to do was discover undiscovered talent.”
If St. John has any say in the matter, the winners will most definitely get up and play afterwards. “I expect these kids to do a good job throwing down that night.”
Looking back, St. John had hopes that he and Montrose would release new music and carry on touring. There’s definitely some unfinished business on the singer’s part, and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of revisiting some of the work he and the guitarist did.
“There’s a lot of stuff lying around, that’s kind of untouched,” he said. “The energy was a little unapproachable for awhile surrounding Ronnie’s passing. But now, with this big event that’s growing like crazy, I think that now maybe some of us who were involved might come together after this event, and see what we have to put together.”
In the meantime, Ronnie Montrose Remembered is ready to bring back those classic Montrose songs for the participating musicians and an appreciative audience, alike. I can tell that I'm ready to “rock the nation’ and get on my “bad motor scooter and ride…”
- Shawn Perry