Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra
The Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra RAWKS Up the Rock Opera
There’ve been numerous attempts to set up rock ‘n’ roll and musical theater on hot dates for decades. Sometimes it’s worked out better than others. But rarely anymore do you see pockets of a city’s local music scene and locally produced live theater community coming together in any longstanding relationship. Yet that’s what’s been developing for several years in Little 5 Points, where a loose assemblage of musicians, calling themselves the Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra, and the people at 7 Stages Theater on Euclid Ave. have collaborated on a number of increasingly ambitious projects. Their latest production, an original, multi-media, hard rock interpretation of the Dracula saga, will enjoy a short run at the small theater this month.
Is this the beginning of a movement, or just a lark? Are we on the cusp of a widespread, underground rock/theater revival? No way to tell, but as Rob Thompson – de facto leader of the Rockstar Orchestra and writer of Haus Von Dracul, – describes it, “for me, it feels so much like the stuff I loved about the punk rock scene in ’84 when I showed up [in Atlanta]. It was this bunch of creative people, they were off the cuff a little bit, but they were doing all kinds of creative stuff. I haven’t felt anything like that, except [with this].”
Punk rock? Really? I can sense your skepticism. But I’ve seen what this scrappy bunch can do, and it’s pretty nutty! It’s impressive yet not stiflingly professional. There’s an unpredictability to it that lends an edge most musical theater lacks. Personally, I’ve endured far too much flower-child shit like Hair and Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, the success of which in turn led to rock-oriented, Broadway-and-otherwise fare like the nostalgic Grease, the decadent glam-Frankenstein spoof Rocky Horror Show and, more recently, the glam/nostalgia combo meal Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Most of these things suck, if you ask me. They’re stupid as hell and they’re not cool. Rock music may be stupid, but the best of it’s at least somewhat cool.
For the most part, Thompson concurs. “I love musical theater, or the idea of it, but usually when I go to see it, it sucks! It just kinda half-sucks, you know? Why doesn’t it rock when it should rock? Why doesn’t it have that kind of force that it should have? I’ve never felt it, really. I’m always disappointed when I go to see Jesus Christ Superstar, and I look in the pit and there’s two guys with a keyboard, one guitar player, you know. It’s real disappointing to me.”
I bring up the one Atlanta precedent that comes to mind – the Indigo Girls’ 1994 production of the aforementioned Jesus Christ Superstar, which involved a cavalcade of Atlanta musicians and bands of the time. “Theirs was so folky,” he retorts. “I like some kick-drum, dammit!” He compares his approach more to classic, over-the-top Alice Cooper shows, or as much as can be done on limited budgets. “We’re definitely not making a slick, polished theatrical production with synthesizers. It’s kind of rough, but still really musical, ’70s style rock opera. It’s bringing in the things that seem the best about rock ‘n’ roll and bringing in the things that seem the coolest and best aspects of theater and trying to put those together in a package that…doesn’t get too full of itself in that sense of being artsy-fartsy, you know what I mean? Art being an excuse for bad performance is horrible to me. It always should be entertainment.”
In late 2005, when Thompson – then a co-owner of the Little 5 Points Corner Tavern – first assembled a rag-tag batch of fellow musicians to recreate Jesus Christ Superstar, lacking a venue for it, he approached 7 Stages. Unfamiliar with Thompson and apprehensive about taking such a chance, they turned him down, and he ended up doing it at the Five Spot. But during his meeting with 7 Stages Thompson inquired about the small café/bar space adjacent to the venue. The theater had partnered with numerous tenants there but nothing had really worked out. Thompson indicated that he could turn it around, and six months later, he opened Java Lords Coffee House & Bar there.
It was not an insignificant turn of events. The relationship between Java Lords and 7 Stages now is a close one, even though they largely attract different crowds. Theatergoers have access to Java Lords’ coffee, beer, wine, liquor and snacks before, during and after productions at 7 Stages. Java Lords, concurrently, has become a hub of ramshackle creativity in the neighborhood, a magnet and hangout for youthful oddballs and misfits. It’s kind of its own world, but one that’s had impact. “The Falcon Lords formed out of this place,” Thompson points out. “The Mermaids played their first show here.” In December I caught Ghost Bikini’s debut show at the Java Lords Christmas party in the 7 Stages lobby, along with a set by The Clap. And Java Lords’ Tuesday night open mics were, for a time, the most bizarre, anything-goes/open-to-everyone parade of raw (if occasionally less-than-competent), amateur talent you could experience in the city.
“Yeah, it’s been symbiotic,” Thompson continues. “Java Lords itself is like an enclave…it’s the closest place to a scene, a creative scene, that I’ve seen since I hung out at the Metroplex when I was a kid. I just went for it, and the same exact attitude that went into Java Lords is the same as is going into these [Rockstar Orchestra] shows. Bringing people together and allowing them to do what they can do, allowing them to fuck off how they wanna fuck off. And no stupid rules on top that don’t make any sense.”
“Java Lords, for sure, fits right in to the mission of what [7 Stages founder] Del [Hamilton] has done for the last 30 years,” offers the theater’s Stage Manager, Heidi Howard. “There’s just these open arms for whatever the artists want to create and make happen…To have this group here that is like an artist enclave, for people to come and write and create, and for us to collaborate and create shows together, is just so unique to America, specifically.”
Howard’s found working with Thompson on his projects to be fun and refreshing, if sometimes more undisciplined than what she’s used to. The first Rockstar Orchestra production on which she worked was 2006’s 666, which incorporated the music of Iron Maiden. “They said they needed lights, and I was like, ‘Whoaaaa – you need more than lights!'” she laughs. “I was always into metal and music growing up,” she adds, but a theatrical production necessitates order. “And sometimes with a rock ‘n’ roll group, it’s not so orderly! But that’s part of learning how we can work together, and figure out what we have to sort of make this process work.”
Other Rockstar Orchestra productions have included the warhorse Hair, Christmas with the Devil and the recent A Krampus Christmas. These have been increasingly elaborate affairs, involving additional actors, sets, effects and costumes. Dracul is their most ambitious to date, and in fact it’s only Part One debuting this month. Thompson’s entire two-part Dracula rock opera is planned for next year.
“Shane [Morton] and I talked about doing Dracula as a rock opera – we said this five years ago. Just for the love of horror and the old ’30s Universal monster pictures, and a love of rock ‘n’ roll,” Thompson recalls. “I wrote some stuff for it at that point, and then it got put on the back burner, and we did other things. [Then] Del was like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do it next year.’ That kind of gave me a deadline, so I had to get it all written.” Thompson will be playing Dracula, but not guitar in the onstage band, at least not until next year’s Part Two. “In the second act, I’ve got a real jammin’ part, almost like a comedy relief part where Dracula plays a guitar lead!”
Thompson, who also owns Holy Mother Tattoo with his wife Colette, has a few stints in local bands under his belt. Longtime headbangers may remember his thrash-metal group Ghost Story. Then there was a mid-90s band called Blistered. “Around that time I got a little tired of the…music scene, just going into the bars and seeing three bands, standing room only, it was just so regular,” he says. “It’s what kind of pushed me into musical theater. It seemed like something a little fresher, a different aspect of the same thing.”
The rest of the Rockstar Orchestra is a hodgepodge of local musicians and singers, old and young, mostly little known. There’s drummer Michael A. Robinson, of Death of Kings. Vocalist and guitarist Chris Love (who’ll portray Jonathan Harker in Dracul) rages in Quench and FYN. Bassist Steve McPeeks counts Fiend Without a Face, West End Motel and Nine Inch Neils among his regular gigs. Guitarist Frank Anzalone is a transplant from Jersey, and a fixture in L5P watering holes. Like Anzalone, vocalist Naomi Lavender, a barista at Java Lords, has been working with Thompson in the Orchestra since the first Jesus Christ Superstar; in Dracul she’ll be an innkeeper and one of the bloodthirsty count’s brides. Guitarist Sam McPherson plays with Lavender in an Appalachian music group called Muleskinner, and once gave a 16-year-old Thompson guitar lessons. And there are other, more familiar faces involved in their projects – Jim Stacy played a large part in Krampus Christmas, and Shane Morton (Gargantua, Luchagors,, the Silver Scream Spook Show, etc.) is always involved with the makeup and props. For Dracul, Morton’s also building miniature sets that will be filmed and used as larger backdrops.
“It’s been a long process getting here,” admits Thompson. “It’s taken years to get to a point where we have a good band of musicians who are from the rock scene that now totally understand theater. It’s really a group project. I wrote the lyrics, most of the lyrics. Naomi has started helping me with the lyrics as of late. I’ll write a melody line, and Chris comes in and does his thing to it, which is always awesome. Naomi’s done set painting, I’ve done set painting. We designed our own costumes. If somebody has an idea, we all listen to it.
“Every show is unique,” he continues, “which is also what I love about it. One of the things I love about live performance – and I never had it playing live with a band – but with a theater show, it’s like, it’s that feeling of a rollercoaster starting, and there’s no stopping it ’til it gets to the end. And I love that!”
Photo by S. Nicole Boroski.