If you’re a fan of classic rock and read Guitar World or any of the other music magazines out there, I’m sure you’ve seen the ads for Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy Camp.
Brian Wilson, Jeff Beck, Roger Daltrey, Bill Wyman and Ace Frehley are just some of the members of rock royalty who have shared their stories and talents with Rock Camp attendees since its founding in 1997.
"People look at us and say, 'They have fun. They have freedom.' And music is the last great freedom we have left," the Who's Roger Daltrey, who has taught at the camp, told USA Today in 2008. That just about hits the nail on the head.
Just last week, I was at the Gibson showroom, which is housed in the old location of New York City’s famed Hit Factory, working on some demos. It’s usually a pretty quiet atmosphere, but that day the studios were overrun with people in a way I had never seen. I saw some familiar faces, so I asked what was going on and discovered Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy Camp was in town for the week.
After chatting with some of the organizers and catching up with Rock Camp founder David Fishof, who has worked with sports stars and rock luminaries like Ringo Starr and the Monkees, I found myself in a rehearsal room with some campers and Wallflowers, Foo Fighters and session keyboardist extraordinaire Rami Jaffee, jamming on songs by the Allman Brothers, Cream and Bob Dylan.
“This is a unique, out-of-the-box experience,” Fishof told me. “We have some of the biggest names in rock who are adored onstage getting down at the ground-floor level of creation with their fans. And besides, there’s nothing cooler than singing a Who song with Roger Daltrey.”
But if your impression of Rock Camp is CEO’s and wannabe rockers waiting for an audience with their favorite guitar god, you’ve got Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy Camp all wrong. The campers I met were just as serious about learning and experiencing what it’s like to play with top-shelf musicians as they were to attend the Q&A later in the week with Kiss’ Peter Criss.
Jaffee, for instance, has worked with Johnny Cash and Jakob Dylan and played London’s Wembley stadium with Foo Fighters, but he says Rock Camp can be even more inspiring and fulfilling.
“What are those experiences if you can’t share them?” Jaffee asked me during a break. “I’ve got a teacher’s soul. I feel like I learn as much from the campers as they learn from us. But taking someone who has only shredded along in their headphones or played to a perfect drum track in their garage to learning to listen to what’s going on around them — the give and take of what making great music really requires — is really tremendously fulfilling.”
He’s right. In Studio 3, Jaffee and I walked a group through the various parts of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider." While Jaffee worked with the guitarists and bass player, I chatted with the drummer. I suggested he move to the ride instead of the 16th notes on the hi-hat he’d been playing, and to anticipate the kick drum on the three beat.
He showed me a chart he had prepared at home before getting to camp that didn’t jibe with what I was suggesting. We talked a bit longer, and I suggested he try to see what fit with what the other guys were playing and how they were playing it. When we went back to jamming and he struggled with the part he had charted and moved on to what I suggested, I could see it was like a lightbulb going off. The groove fell into place and the song started to come together. He beamed at me. I felt great.
On the second day, I visited Jaffee’s assigned “band,” consisting of guitarists Alan Bennett, 65, of Washington, D.C., and Kyle Purwin, 18, of Los Angeles; Mark McNary, 50, and his teenage sons, Luke and Max, of Denver on bass, drums and guitar, respectively. After listening to Jaffee lead them through progressively developed versions of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” in which everyone chipped in, I chatted with the elder McNary.
“We all like the same music, so that’s the easy part,” McNary told me. “But at home, I’m always the one calling for practice. This is a bonding experience, for sure, but I know it’s also something we’re going to look back on later as something really special.”
As I wandered the halls, I listened as legendary drummer Joe Vitale — who has played with everyone from the Eagles to CSN and Peter Frampton — took his campers through the fine points of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” with patience and precision. And later I was blown away by what I heard in the old Hit Factory’s large Studio 6 live room; 10-year-old Ben Bluestein was wailing soulfully on guitar, leading a group of middle-aged campers like he was Duane Allman reincarnated.
“This is my third camp,” Bluestein told me afterwards. “I’ve been to camp in Vegas twice and now New York City. It’s great. It makes you better on timing and songs and playing with a band.”
But even at 10, Bluestein is honest about what drew him to the guitar. “I love music and I wanted to learn the songs I love. And you get chicks.”
For more about Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy Camp, visit its official website.
Jeff Slate is a NYC-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He founded and fronted the band the Badge for 15 years beginning in 1997 and has worked with Pete Townshend, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Steve Holley, Laurence Juber and countless others. He has interviewed and written about everyone from the Beatles and Kiss to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock and roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles. For more information, visit jeffslate.net.