What if a person could go back in time to the night before that historic musical event on a pig farm in upstate New York — Woodstock? What if a budding blues musician had this crazy dream of playing with some of music's greatest artists throughout time right in his own living room? But what if all of those greats were linked by a tragic common denominator making that dream seemingly impossible? And what if that dream became reality if only for a night on stage?
That is the premise and the spirit of a show called the "27 Club" returning to the Riverside Resort Wednesday-Sunday, June 5-9. And that thing these artists all have in common? They all died at the young age of 27.
While their time on this earth was short, their artistry created a musical impact that continues long after their passing. From Robert Johnson to Amy Winehouse, their contributions to the musical landscape deserve to be more than a footnote on a page in history.
So the idea materialized — because of this unique coincidence — these artists became members of what music lovers deemed the "27 Club." While it's a club in which no one chooses to be a member, it served as the inspiration for this show, created to shine a light on these artists and the music they left to the world.
Last year, the "27 Club" show came to the Riverside Resort for the first time and those of us from the Laughlin entertainer who saw the show were seriously blown away by the powerful vocal ability and blues guitar shredding skills cast members effortlessly demonstrated.
The show blends theater and music rather than the formulaic parade of one look-and-sound alike after another typically seen in many ensemble tribute shows.
For one thing, the producer Kenneth Rexrode, puts the music in the hands of musicians who know what to do with it, seasoned veterans who know their way around guitar chords and demanding vocal ability. It wasn't about finding someone who looks the part, but musicians who bring every nuance of these artists to the forefront. On the other hand, if artists happen to look like the people whose music they are performing, that only sweetens the musical pot.
Rexrode is also a writer with the Six String Society, a San Diego-based troupe of musical performers and actors who perform a variety of shows in a variety of genres. Many of those artists also perform in the "27 Club" show. The music will be front and center, and while there's no getting around the ever-present common denominator, the show is anything but sad and morbid.
Those of us who saw the show didn't see it as dark but an honest tribute to their music and talent still remembered to this day. However, the show coming back to town will look a little different.
We talked to Kenneth Rexrode about the Six String Society, the performers and the show they bring back to town. Here's his take…
Talk about the show you're bringing back to the Riverside this time.
We're just getting really excited about the shows out in Laughlin and a couple things are different. Somebody made the comment, "not everybody looks exactly like who they're playing," and that's kind of hard to do. But the way it's worked out though, is that I have this awesome guy, Austin David, who's gonna be doing Kurt Cobain, who was in the most recent shows we did in San Diego last month. He looks like Kurt Cobain, and sounds like him.
The young fellow who performed as Jimi Hendrix last time, was a young guy, Anthony Cullins. He's 18 and actually graduating from high school the week we're in Laughlin. He's getting ready to go to college and he got accepted to the Berkley School of Music. So I was able to get a "real" Jimi Hendrix impersonator by the name of Anthony Aquarius, his stage name. He's actually played with Leon Hendrix (Jimi's brother), and he used to live in L.A., but he lives in Georgia now, and he's coming out for these shows. When he walks on stage, every fiber of his existence feels like Jimi Hendrix … it's crazy.
The Amy Winehouse character, Whitney Shay, just won Artist of the Year here in San Diego, and she signed a big record deal with a German label last month. Her career is on it's way, she'll be in Europe next year, she even has the same tattoo Amy Winehouse got — she's as close to Amy as you can get.
Casey Hensley is our Janis Joplin — and Casey's just Casey, you know? She's larger than life in everything she does. Once she starts singing she doesn't need the round glasses to do justice to Janis — even though she has the round glasses. She just won the Best Blues Performer of the Year in San Diego.
What about the rest of your cast members and musicians?
Robin Henkel, a San Diego blues legend, is our Robert Johnson. Jody Bagley, is our co-host, he is our organ player who sings "Light My Fire," and he'll be backing everyone in the show. I made him the music director a few months ago. He tours with other people and he's incredibly talented. He probably has the best soul voice in San Diego and then he plays this Hammond organ and that's the thing that keeps it cool. There's nothing that sounds quite like that Hammond organ.
Athena Espinoza is an actor and our co-host, Gino Matteo, our guitarist, will be playing on the Amy and Janis' set. He's an international touring performer most recently with Sugar Ray and Rayford. Evan Yearsley, is the drummer, Jonny Viau plays saxophone and Mark Campbell plays bass.
Sounds like a lot of talented people have emerged and become known because of the Six String Society.
We've all really grown together in San Diego and Six String has put them on the map for San Diego people. They've won their own awards and that helps the Six String because I'm able to say I have the artist of the year and we have the blues performer of the year. It's a lot of really awesome energy.
Will the show have the same premise?
Yeah. We're tweaking it a little bit but it'll start with Robin Henkel as the Robert Johnson character telling the story and playing the Robert Johnson stuff. Why do we start with Robert Johnson? He was the first member of the 27 Club. Then it cuts away to the living room. What's fun is, I'm able to rewrite the script based on who's doing what a little bit, but it's absolutely going to have that same the night before Woodstock feel, for sure. What's gonna be cool is that I've got this newer female co-host and she's like a real trained actress. The fellow who's going to be the male host is Jody Bagley and it's gonna be his apartment. He'll be like, "I don't want to tell you how it's gonna go, I want you to see if for yourself." It's about him dreaming of playing at Woodstock with these people and Jody plays on everyone's set. He's the only musician that's on everything. So it'll be like his dream coming true. It'll have this mystical and magical feel, so everyone's super excited.
You have a unique approach for bringing all of these different artists of different eras into one place. How did you go about that?
How do you bring in all these acts together and it feels like one? By having the theater like a living room — that brings it all together, and we tell the story. Otherwise it would be like a showcase … well, next up is Janis, next up is so and so — that's not what we wanted to do. That's how I crafted the Six String, it all feels like the juicy one thing, but there's a lot of moving parts to make it feel like that.
Word is getting out about how good the shows are, which is not a bad problem to have. Is there an ultimate goal for the "27 Club" show?
I think ultimately my goal eventually is to get it to Vegas as a residency. And I feel it will end up there. It might take some time, but we've just got to keep the momentum going and keep getting new people and fans, and just keep doing it in front of people, that's the best thing we could do, you know?
We have a lot of new fans in San Diego — we've been doing the show almost five years. In the beginning it was like there almost wasn't a second show because there was only 35 people there. But it was a really great show, and there are some of those people who were at that first show who will be out in Laughlin. So we've built the thing up, and it speaks for itself locally, everyone knows in San Diego that Six String is synonymous with quality and it has the best performers in San Diego and beyond in it. The goal is how do we share it with the world? Let's take all these magnificent people and go other places with them. I'm just so driven to make sure every show is great, to make sure people know about the shows so they go well for the performers and everyone. It's been a lot of fun.
What is the music scene like in San Diego these days?
San Diego is quietly, in certain genres, becoming this emerging, diverse community and I think in 10 years, people will think of San Diego like they think of Austin, Texas, kind of this eclectic thing in music. San Diego's brand — in my mind and most people agree — is our diversity. The Six String runs parallel with the San Diego brand. We have this incredible blues scene, our blues community is by far better than any thing in L.A. or Orange County, and I don't know of anywhere else west of Memphis. There are lot of blues people in our community, they tour all over the world, they just happen to live here. Six String offers a certain camaraderie. It's great to have your own individual career, but it's also fun to be a part of something bigger and different. People performing with different people, it's given all of them a chance to work together, and just have some fun and perform something different.