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SOUNDS ABOUT TOWN : Never Say Die : With their quirky fusion tunes as vital as ever, the Eraserheads are staging a reunion.

December 20, 1990|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Important bands never die. They don't fade away, either. They have reunions. A regional case in point: The Eraserheads, the quirky fusion band that swept the Santa Barbara music scene a decade ago, drifted apart as the members went in different directions.

Where are they now? Kei Akagi moved to Los Angeles in 1983 and quickly moved into the upper jazz ranks there, most recently playing with Miles Davis. Bassist Steve Nelson, now a fellow Angeleno, works with sound effects by day.

Larry Nass, the Venturan of the bunch, is a resident guitar whiz who, along with Nelson, has played with the off-and-on but ever-popular R&B Bombers. Drummer Tony Moreno still plays around Santa Barbara, as does trumpeter Jeff Elliot, who has lately been working in Les McCann's band.

But fond memories of the 'Heads' heyday stuck and the group has staged a few "reunions" in the last two years--the most recent last Friday night's scorching SRO show at Joseppi's.

When it was in full swing (and before four-fifths of the band was hired away by Flora and Airto), the Eraserheads were the most happening thing around. "Certainly," said keyboardist Akagi "it was the loudest band in town." No doubt, the Eraserheads qualify as members of that intelligently intense style, which guitarist John Scofield's young daughter calls "loud jazz."

On the afternoon before last week's show, the 'Heads were rehearsing at Joseppi's, dredging up the repertoire from the memory banks. Apart from a few missed turns, the music coalesced neatly. They ran through "Rodan's Revenge"--despite the title, a lyrical, Latin-tinged piece that toughens as it goes. Later, they discussed the order of the solo section for "Ladies of Quebec." "We'll sandwich it," said Akagi to Nelson. "You're the bread, we're the meat and you're the bread again."

The tunes are still vital after all these years. Have they just become embedded in the band's collective memory by now? Sitting at the bar, Nass joked, "We just played them until we were brain-dead and then they stayed there."

It all started right across State Street from Joseppi's at the legendary, now-defunct Baudelaire's, where drummer Moreno threw together a birthday bash 11 years ago. At the time, Moreno and Elliot were employed as part of Jimmy Messina's jazz-ish band, and Moreno wanted some after-hours diversion. The diversion amounted to too much fun. A band--with an irreverent, irrelevant name--was born.

If the band came as a blissful accident, a distinct band identity soon arose. How did they find themselves so quickly? As Elliot explained it: "More than any band I've ever been in, it features everybody's talents. It's the maximum of being in a band."

"I think it was just a chemistry," Nelson said. "It sounds corny, but putting these players together made for an instant sound. It was surprising to me the way it all worked, because we all had some different backgrounds."

As the group solidified into an ongoing entity, Nelson's creative machinery began working overtime and his distinctive original material dictated the flavor of the band's music. "Anything I wrote," Nelson commented, "I wrote specifically for these players. I've tried to do these same songs down in L.A. with other guys and it doesn't feel right, so I give up on it."

Another quality unique to the Eraserheads: the mixed crowd. Whether because of the built-in humor, the in-your-face energy level or the rock 'n' roll attitude, the band's appeal has always been wide-ranging.

"We sucked in a group of people who I don't think had been turned on to fusion before," said Nelson. "They were coming out for the music, flailing about on the dance floor and listening. When I wrote some of these songs, I was thinking about that.

"I come from a pop background and I wanted people to be able to remember melodies and be able to dance to it. I wanted people who weren't ordinarily into fusion music to be able to come in and appreciate it and not just hear a bunch of guys playing fast notes."

Was it also his intention to program humor into the music? "That's because there are so many knuckleheads in the band," he said. "You've got to write for that." Ah. The knucklehead factor. "It's true. Everytime we do 'Godzilla's Holiday,' the whole middle section sounds to me like a Doris Day movie--music by DeVol."

There seems to be a consensus among the players to keep the Eraserheads a sometime thing, to be fleetingly "reunited" annually rather than bucking for a ongoing project.

"See," says Akagi, "what happened was that we went through a serious period. We wanted to do something with the band. We started rehearsing intently and it lost some of the edge. Basically, I think the great thing about this band is that it's a live band, a playing band.

"If you try to streamline that and put that into a certain format or take some of the rough edges off of it, it's just going to lose some of its better qualities. That's something we found out. So the reunion format is actually working out very nicely."

"Yeah," adds Nass, "we rehearse for an hour and a half a year and then play the tunes. So if we mess things up, we've go a good reason: We never rehearse."

They didn't mess up. Approaching 2 a.m. that night, the 'Heads were still blazing. The band laid into "Godzilla's Mardi Gras" one more time before being put back on Nelson's shelf. Until 1991, anyway.

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