The Ace of Clubs
Had Trevor Rabin been alone when he headed down to L.A.'s Roxy recently to catch Steve Stevens in concert, the latter-day Yes guitarist probably would've gone unnoticed for the night. While Rabin is well-respected among serious six-string students, his long rocker's hair and boy-next-door looks don't exactly make him stand out in a crowd. But Rabin decided to bring along a couple of buddies who left him no choice but to share the spotlight. There, tossing back beers and talking shop with Rabin, were none other than reigning string king Eddie Van Halen and rock's venerable studio specialist Steve Lukather. It was a seating arrangement just begging for a corner of the "Random Notes" pages in Rolling Stone. And Rabin's record company, of course, was overjoyed when the photo- op-waiting-to-happen wound up there.
Eddie and Steve are just the kinds of pals his bosses wish Rabin would have taken out on the road with him in support of his first post-Yes solo album, Can't Look Away. "Management's idea was to get some bigger names," Rabin says from his home in Los Angeles. "They said, `You know all these well- known guys. You should get this one and that one, and we'll sell tons of tickets.' But I said, `No. That's not what this album's about. We should get people who are right for this thing, good players who are simply into the music.'"
Rabin, after all, had already had his fill of the "big-name" baloney. After eight years of virtually continuous touring with Yes, the guitarist began to view it as an "overkill" exercise in brand-name durability. So when it came time to play live in support of Can't Look Away on his first-ever solo tour of U.S. clubs, Rabin decided to go with the Brand X factor.
Retaining Can't Look Away's drummer Lou Molino as timekeeper in the new back-up band, Rabin added Mark Mancina, the best of about five or six keyboardists auditioned, and Jim Simmons, a Phoenix bass player better known to most Valley music fans as the owner of Chuy's, the popular Tempe club.
At the time, Rabin was impressed with the bassist's playing and personality. Now, Simmons just might go down as the tour's most valuable player because of his experience as a club owner.
"I'd never actually done a club tour," admits Rabin. "And for the past eight years with Yes, obviously I've done nothing but major arenas. So Jim, owning a club, really helped me scale my thinking down. He's been very useful."
Indeed, as Simmons explains it, he came aboard Rabin's road show just in time to steer it off a virtual highway to hell.
"Not only had Trevor never done a club tour," Simmons says over the phone from a rehearsal room in L.A., where Rabin has been working his crew eight to ten hours a day for the past five weeks, "but his management company had never done a club tour either. So when we first started getting together with the management and the production staff and talking about what we were doing, I found out they were planning to go out on the road without taking any of their own equipment. 'Cause the clubs were telling them, `Oh, don't worry about gear. We've got a P.A. We've got lights.'" Simmons lets loose with a hard-bitten laugh of experience. "I said, `Wait a minute here. There's something you don't know about.'"
Suddenly, Simmons found one of his all-time guitar heroes and a big-time L.A. management team hanging on his every word. "I had to tell them that if you're going out to back up an album and you wanna get people talking about the music and wanting to buy the record, you don't go in and use the club's P.A. 'Cause in ninety percent of the cases, it's junk. Even Chuy's system is not big enough to handle Trevor Rabin and the way we're gonna be playing. And ours is better than most."
Ironically, after ten years of running a nightclub like a musician, with an emphasis on musicians' needs quite uncommon in the bar business, Simmons found himself embarking on his first cross-country rock tour thinking like a club owner.
"It's funny, but I think my biggest contribution to Trevor has been to keep reminding him that he'll be playing on stages the size of the drum riser on the last Yes tour," he chuckles. "I mean, musicians always say the transition from clubs to big arenas is a tough one to make. But it can be just as tricky going from arenas back to small clubs."
WHEN JIM SIMMONS and his wife, singer Nancy Jackson, first took over ownership of the old Chuy's Choo-Choo on Mill Avenue ten years ago, the idea was to see if a nightclub could actually be successful, in Simmons' words, "without always looking for ways to rip musicians off." A professional musician since his high school days, Simmons had finally tired of playing music for shifty club owners full of empty promises "where it was always a battle just to get the money that they told you you'd have to begin with."
By simply placing their love of music over their love of money, Jim and Nancy were able to eventually make plenty of both, although Simmons admits that as the need to make a living on his bass playing eased up, he became a lot more selective about the people he played with.
"Mainly, I went for the jazz stuff," Simmons says. "I went out with Ben Sidran, Slide Hampton, Sonny Stitt. Short West Coast jaunts, you know. California and Arizona trips."
The Trevor Rabin stint, Simmons' first extensive U.S. tour, was something the long-time Yes fan simply couldn't pass up--even though the offer came at a busy time, just as he and the missus were opening their third "version" of the Chuy's club, just 100 yards away from the old location but more than twice as large.
"Trevor's like the boy next door, yet he's a world-class guitarist," Simmons gushes. "He's like none of the so-called `stars' I've had to deal with as a club owner, who turn out to be really not very good players but very petty people. You know, what they lack in ability they make up in attitude."
It was Rabin's lack of ego, Simmons claims, that made him so receptive to his bass player's input. "He listened to my warnings about using club equipment, and as a result, me and the other unknowns in the band--who've all spent our lives in clubs--really got him geared up to do this right, bringing along all our own equipment. . . . I told him, `As long as you don't take away any seats and tables, club owners will let you pile up anything onstage.'"
According to Rabin, who admits he thought there was some kind of unwritten law against bringing your own gear into clubs before Simmons and company set him straight, the advice sounded a kind of liberty bell. "I went whole hog," Rabin says. "We're now taking a semitrailer full of gear on the road. It's like a mini-arena tour in clubs."
Rabin's equipment orgy made it necessary for more than the arena veteran to work on scaling down his big ideas to club size. "The equipment Trevor's got together is geared towards arena sound," Simmons exclaims. "So all of a sudden I've got this huge bass rig, because we've got all these manufacturers' sponsorships. They're showing up every day with boxes of stuff to give us. And naturally, it's been very challenging for all of us to have, all of a sudden, a hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment at our disposal and have to learn to play it quietly."
Whether or not Simmons and his fellow club rats will manage to keep their big-time boss' sound down to size, the Tempe jazz-haunt honcho is confident the state-hopping hitch with his favorite Yes man will prove well worth his time away from the store.
"We'll be playing some very famous clubs that are really legendary in the business," Simmons notes. "Like the Bottom Line in New York, the Park West in Chicago, the Ritz in Detroit, the Bayou in Washington, D.C. It's really pretty exciting."
Will Jim Simmons, the club owner, be tempted to spend more time talking books than hooks with the managers of these renowned watering holes? "I doubt that I'll have time," he sighs. "But it'll be fun just to see the clubs and meet the people that run 'em."
For his part, Rabin can already see one advantage of having a club owner in the band. "At least when we play Chuy's," Rabin cracks, "there'll be one less promoter to deal with!"
Suddenly, Simmons found one of his all-time guitar heroes and a big-time L.A. management team hanging on his every word.
Rabin admits he thought there was some unwritten law against bringing your own gear into clubs before Simmons set him straight.