[l1]S[/l1]ince moving to Sacramento in May 2003, I’ve gotten to know a few of the local bands. One, though, has become an extended family, welcoming my Best Beloved and I into their family, which has, in some cases, been together for as long as I’ve been alive.
Every member of The Gene Thorpe Band is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word; all have their own unique brand of wit; and all bring an intense passion for music and performing to every single gig. They love the music as much as I do—didn’t think that was possible!
If you’re anywhere in the Sacramento area, these guys are a ‘must see’—the music, the musicianship, the show, are worth a bit of travel. Their schedule is always posted at their website.
Let me introduce you to the guys:
Skip Craun – Drums, lead and backing vocals
The band’s ‘skin specialist’ as Drew likes to call him, Skip is the heartbeat of the Gene Thorpe Band. More than just pounding out a time signature, Skip interacts with his fellow musicians, working his runs and fills around their own, augmenting the snap and pop they deliver. Complex beat patterns never confuse the rhythym; he realizes that his service as a metronome for the rest of the band is critical to a snappy, professional performance. When to play; when not to play – Skip knows the value of a well-placed pause during a tune, but he’s also the first to fill a silence between songs if Gene or Drew isn’t providing the patter.
One of the band’s four lead vocalists, Skip covers Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” better than the original, and turns in solid renditions of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and John Cougar’s “Cherry Bomb” among others. A strong baritone, his mellifluous voice is a perfect harmonic complement to Gene’s when they’re doing country influenced rock or a three-part harmony with one of the other gents.
Skip is also an accomplished guitarist. Ask to hear his Elvis Costello impression. You’ll be impressed.
Ron Barringer – Bass, backing vocals
The ‘skyscraper of love’ (at 6′ 7″) declares “I’m not a musician!” His listeners respectfully disagree. A passion for the blues tinges Ron’s playing, lending a smoothness and solidity to tunes some of which, in their original recordings, endured less musical bass lines. Like Skip, Ron isn’t satisfied with just providing a rhythym. You’ll hear very little of the simple ‘alternating bass’ common to garage bands; rolling back and forth between two complementary notes. Instead, that entire fretboard gets a workout, with runs and fills up and down and side to side. At the same time, the sound is so laid back you’d swear Ron plays ‘strolling bass’ instead of the ‘walking bass’ of the old blues tunes.
Ron’s teamwork with Skip creates the solid foundation necessary for the others to build on. Ron also plays banjo, guitar, and drums, and has worked with Gene off and on for more than a decade.
Ernie Apodaca – Lead guitar, trumpet, lead and backing vocals
Blazing through lead after lead, Ernie puts his stamp on each song he performs, yet respects the originals so much you’ll never mistake them for anything else. Playing the only Hohner electric guitar we’ve ever seen, Ernie swoops sweetly through the oldies one minute, then fires frantically through rock’s latest and greatest the next. Watching him during practice sessions, it’s clear his knowledge of music has both breadth and depth.
As a vocalist, Ernie is comfortable with oldies, country, rock; doing his best Willie Nelson or belting out “La Bamba” (a favorite with the fans) he seems to smile to himself every time he sings. Quietly dignified, Ernie brings a touch of class to every tune he touches.
Drew Sallee – Saxophone, cowbell, tambourine, chimpta (musical fire tongs – we’re not kidding!), lead and backing vocals
Powerful vocals, an imaginative sense of melody, an unerring ear for rhythym, and a sharp wit make Drew a force to be reckoned with onstage. Every song he sings feels more intense, more fun, more important than you remembered. His cover of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” may be the band’s most requested tune, and rightly so. Drew evokes the same deep emotional reaction as the original; no mean feat when you’re covering the Great Irish Troubador. Wailing his way through Susan Tedeschi, roaring through “Susie Q” like a hurricane, growling at, in, and about Joe Cocker’s “Unchain My Heart” – Drew Sallee is a master, delivering that ‘what a great time we had’ feeling every time he performs.
Between vocal efforts, (and when he remembers to remove the mouthpiece cover), Drew is a true danger on the sax. While he can lay back, augmenting the rhythym or creating a mood, his horn seems to enjoy being in the spotlight, and Drew spoils it rotten. His solos are at once passionate and melodic, flowing smoothly from phrase to phrase or wrenching every ounce from those notes unlucky enough to get in his way. He’ll even give ultra-brief music lessons: “What’s the lowest note you can play on a sax?” Honk! “Nope!” Jamming it against his left leg, he gets a half-tone lower note by muting it with his thigh. His final solo during the fake finish of “Shotgun” is stellar.
When the tune doesn’t call for sax, Drew is always ready to fill in with one of the many percussion instruments laying around on the floor. He’s extremely proud of his chimpta, an east Indian instrument created from a pair of fire tongs with brass disks attached, as on a tambourine.
Gene Thorpe – Guitar, keyboards, lead and backing vocals
Gene Thorpe has been part of the Sacramento music scene for decades, both as a performer and an entrepreneur. His versatility astounds nearly as much as his modesty. While you don’t often hear Gene play a lead during their shows, when he does, it is always polished to perfection, whether it’s a sweet solo from the 50s, or a blistering blues riff. His sense of timing is immaculate, putting just the right bounce or pep into the tunes.
Gene says he likes to learn a new instrument every few years. His keyboard skills have progressed to the point that he’s now doing gigs specifically as a keyboardist. Gene often alternates between keyboard and guitar during a tune that really needs both, providing support to his boys however it’s needed.
As a vocalist, Gene’s understated grace sweetens many an oldy, but he can growl out the blues with the best of ’em. His knowledge of harmony and musical composition is largely instrumental in creating the band’s unique arrangements of the tunes they play. Gene is also a bit of a mentor to the other band members, finagling just a little bit more out of each performance, leading the guys through one spectacular show after another. And, as Gene says, it works both ways—he’s constantly motivated by (and learning from) the outstanding abilities of his bandmates.
Gene’s classic Rickenbacker 12-string causes particular envy in some circles. Lucky for us, he loves The Birds, and uses his Ricky to good advantage when covering Roger McGuinn’s timeless ballads and arrangements.
The band plays many private events, but they’re working on a more public schedule. They’re playing this Friday, December 19th, at my local pub, Beermann’s Restaurant in Lincoln California. They’ll be making a few more appearances in the Empire Ballroom at Beermann’s, which is not only a lush and elegant venue, but musically spectacular. Whether you’re looking for a great night out or looking for a great band for your event, The Gene Thorpe Band delivers—every single time.