For those fortunate to have experienced the musical excursions of family members Tim, Tamara, and Andrew Grefe, whom annually join forces with vocalist Stephan Gaus and instrumentalist Carter Roberts to assemble together impeccable benefit concerts for The Saginaw Choral Society, several certainties that run in tandem with these performances is that the experience will be equally ambitious, meticulously crafted, and undeniably surprising.
For the past three years Grefe, Gaus, Grefe & Roberts have dedicated countless hours mapping the often complex and tricky musical textures involved with paying homage to the works of accomplished artists such as Crosby Stills & Nash, The Eagles, and with last year's One Hit Wonders, a litany of two dozen divergent vocal groups populating the top of the Hit Parade charts over two decades.
And for each of the past three years, these landmark performances have drawn sold-out crowds and cemented the reputation of this musical collective as a chorus of talent willing to dedicate countless hours towards faithfully creating whatever sounds emanate from the stage to polished perfection.
Insofar as they join forces but once a year to engage in these musical showcases, the pivotal question is simply what can they do next to follow-up the standards set in previous years?
The answer to this million dollar question exists in the form of Running on Empty, which will showcase songs by bands as varied as America, The Allman Brothers, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mach, John Mayer, and Santana, to name but a few; yet is also reflective of the quandary this extended musical family confronted when deciding how to top the excursions of prior years.
“Initially we were going to focus on performing the music of four bands,” explains Tim, “but as we started looking at the material the names of other artists started to surface, so this morphed into the idea of putting together a program consisting of material that many people have requested us to play over the years, which we could also identify by packaging it together in certain catchy segments. Basically, people were surprised at how well the material worked with the various bands that we featured last year, so requests started coming in, which is kind of how we started this year's project.”
While they are always guarded about revealing too much in terms of actual songs and enjoy the element of surprise involved with not revealing specific set lists and titles, Tammy enthusiastically outlines the thematic textures of the show.
“We'll start out with a set called the 'Four B's',” she explains, “which will concentrate on artists like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Blues Brothers, and so forth. Then we will move to a set called 'Way to Go', followed by a clever one that we've labeled 'Double Stuffed Oreo', which ends the first half of the show with a little soul.”
“After the intermission we'll start the second half off with 'A Wild & Crazy Guy', followed by 'Earth Wind & Wildfire' and 'Doctors & Doobies' and then close it out with Tim's favorite set, which is called 'Women We've Done',” smiles Tammy. At which point Tim playfully interjects, “Between you and me, there aren't that many of 'em.”
“For our encore we've labeled that set 'Four Bucks a Gallon', which also fits into our 'Running on Empty' theme; and when you look at everything together, there is a nice symmetry to it all.”
Obviously, considerable time and thought was invested not only into assembling this series of performances, but rehearsing everything to note-perfect perfection. To which Tammy adds, “We think this may be our best show ever.”
“We have some great musicians joining us this year,” states Tim. “And the reason this may be our best show ever is because Stephan and I have very little to do with it,” he laughs. “In addition to Carter Roberts and my son Andrew, we've added Steve Nyquist from Sprout on drums, percussion; Ryan Fitzgerald on stand-up bass, electric bass, guitars, keys, and sax; Jeff Hall on keyboards and sax; of course Tammy on keyboards, plus we have a few surprise guest musicians. So when I say that Stephan and I are getting worked off the stage and that the music is getting better and better because of it, I'm totally serious. And Stephan would probably agree with that assessment.”
“This is probably the biggest band we've ever featured,” continues Tim. “Of course Tammy is basically our keyboard player, and I'll be doing guitar & banjo, but Jeff will handle synth keys, organ, sax, and flute, we have Steve doing guitar & lap steel guitar, in addition to his drum work; and everybody is singing. This is a wonderful addition to the band, because Steve is a great singer, so it's truly a bonus having his involvement.”
“We always try to do each song as close to the original as we can and this material can get very complex, so it's important to have some solid 'utility' players in the line-up,” states Tim.
One interesting choice in the musical line-up of covered artists is a song by Bruce Hornsby. “We picked one of his songs because he wrote us a lot of letters and kept texting Carter all the time,” explains Tim. “Eventually we just told him we would do it,” jokes Tim. “And we'll also be adding Drew Parent who is coming up from Detroit to play additional Latin percussion, so we'll be tackling some serious Santana. In all honesty, this is one of the strongest bands we've worked with.”
Given the considerable amount of time and countless hours that goes into rehearsing these performances, have they given any thought of going beyond the annual Choral Society fundraising performances to take their show on the road for additional appearances?
“We've been asked and have had a lot of requests,” explains Tim, “but the thing is that this is a big band and honestly, it would be too expensive to take a band like this on the road. Besides, all of these guys are so busy it's been a challenge just to coordinate all the rehearsals and get 10 people together at the same time. Trust me, these guys aren't sitting on their hands in their spare time.”
With the conception and preliminary plans for Running on Empty starting back in January, I'm curious as to what the experience of working with these accomplished family members has been like for newcomers to the fold like Nyquist.
“It's been very enjoyable for me,” he explains. “I'm more accustomed to playing cover songs by learning the chords and then having the band do the song their own way, but with this group you are forced to analyze the song and pay attention to the details of the song in order to nail it note-for-note. When you listen to a song analytically, you hear different things going on and to me it's amazing what you don't hear when you're not listening for it. Basically, you have a better respect and understanding for those recordings when you start taking them apart.”
“We knew back when we tackled the Crosby Stills and Nash performance that we were up against it,” interjects Tim, “so when we turned to The Eagles I thought that would be a piece of cake. But when you start wading into it you realize how intricate and evolved they are. In many ways, they were more complex that CSN and I realized that for years I was selling The Eagles short as a band.”
For Carter Roberts, who has dedicated his own time to this endeavor since the get-go, he manages to work rehearsals into the mix of his fulltime job, in addition to performing every Sunday with Marty Viers at the Steinhaus in Bay City. In addition to guitar, he plays electric bass, mandolin, and banjo with the group. “I wouldn't trade this experience for the world,” he notes, “because not only is it a lot of fun, but I've learned a lot of new music over the last four years.”
“Carter has a great ear for music,” reflects Tammy, “and he allows all the textures and phrasings remarkably well. Both Tim and I are extremely impressed with the depth of the musicians on stage and the resources they bring to us.”
“All the personalities are very cool together and for me it's neat to be around a guy like Jeff Hall and watch him do his craft,” concludes Tim. “ Carter is a heavy duty theorist like Tammy and Jeff, and then you have theoretical morons like me. Carter and Steve have to be a conduit in a way, so when you stick those two ends together, it's a very cool thing. Plus Tammy is learning more about playing in a band. She's more classically trained, so moving away from visual concepts into feeling the timing is a new thing for her in a way.”
“But bottom line: the chemistry of this band is great.”
Running on Empty with Grefe, Gaus, Grefe & Roberts will take place March 29-31 at 8:00 PM at Pit & Balcony Theatre, 805 N. Hamilton St. in Saginaw. Tickets are $24.00 and all seats are reserved. Call 989-753-1812 for tickets and additional information.