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Cutting the Fat

The bass player for the tribute band Fat Benatar walks us through a band's musical menopause.

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As there can be only one Highlander, there was only supposed to be one Fat Benatar show — one glorious, sloppy, epic rock 'n' roll party. The debut of Fat Benatar took place at the much-missed Hole in the Wall in the winter of either 2000 or 2001, depending on whom in the band you ask, and how many beers he or she has had. Thanks in no small part to my amazing work on bass, it was, to paraphrase David Lee Roth, a “stellar presentation.” But due to the microscopic size of the venue and the unexpectedly plentiful crowd, more folks were turned away than got in — many of them friends and relatives. In order to right this wrong, we scheduled another show at the old Bandito's a few months later. As for the rest of the sporadic gigs we've played over the last few years, we offer no excuse save this: Sometimes a dead horse just needs one more ass-whipping, and then another, and so on.

But that was eight years ago (or seven), and any self-respecting tribute band needs to know when to hang it all up. Are you listening, Rocket Queen? With the exception of Fat Benatar herself, the rest of us in the band are, like many in Richmond's music scene, creeping up on 40. When I run into contemporaries from other bands such as Maki, a great, underappreciated power-pop band, I always ask: What's up with the band? With the familiar sighs and shrugs I've seen in my own mirror, they tell me they haven't played in six months, or that they've been working on the same record for two years.

My favorite band in town, RPG, Richmond's answer to the Stooges, shames me with its commitment to rock 'n' roll. When I visit its Web site, I see tour dates in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, and wonder how the hell the band does it. The last time I saw them play at Alley Katz, though, they had replaced the replacement bassist — one more time and they're in Spinal Tap drummer territory. It's a sign of the times. Rock 'n' roll is a young man's game.   

Ours is the usual story, far from artistic differences, torrid intra-band extramarital affairs, our drummer's brave battle with meth addiction, or some other irresistible rock clichAc: As we approach midlife, we can barely get a practice together, much less a show. Plus moving, grad school, work and family have finally become somehow more important than kicking out the jams in John's parents' basement and getting wasted on beer and noise.

In truth, there have only ever been two reasons to come see our band. One is China Oxendine, aka Fat Benatar. She is a rock 'n' roll diamond, formed by the pressure of equal love for Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Journey, Bad Brains and Van Halen, and Pat Benatar, her musical idol as a child. I met her in the mid-'90s; we both played in bands and had drunken talks about doing a Benatar tribute. But I was skeptical. I respect Pat Benatar as a vocalist, but it would be disingenuous to call myself a fan. Besides, there's no doubt that playing in a tribute band is an act of artistic compromise and, on some level, an admission of defeat. But I can say now that it's fun as hell. And, if you make her songs just a little bit faster and sloppier, they have great potential to kick ass.

But I assumed the Benatar tribute would remain a drunken dream until the night we found ourselves in the basement hitting the first big E-chord of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” None of us had any idea China could actually sing. Though a Hampton Roads transplant, she was, and still is, an institution in the Richmond punk and hardcore scene. If Exhume or Mouthrot ever reunite, go see her. If not, you can definitely catch her chugging Pabst at the next thrash show. Bow before her.

The other reason to see us is our stoic lead guitarist, Curtis Nunnally, aka “the Jammer,” or, alternately, “the Squealer.” I've known Curt since he was around 5, as his older brother has been one of my best friends for most of my life. We started playing guitar at about the same time, and he has always been vastly better than me, and I will never forgive him for it.

The rest of us have just tried to stay out of their way and not embarrass ourselves. Scott “Skins” Schiltz may well be the world's most passionate drummer. (Notice I did not say “best.”) Rhythm guitarist John “the Axer” Hessian is, for whatever reason, the reckless heart and soul of our band, and he sort of knows a few of the songs, too. As for me, I long ago accepted the plight of the bass player. It's like being the long snapper on a football team; people only notice you if you suck. The three of us, along with Curt and a few other friends, have been playing music together for almost 20 years. Whether this is a sign of deep friendship and loyalty or stunted personal growth is definitely up for debate. I choose to believe the former.

Hopefully we'll stay stunted and friendly after this social experiment is past us. But even though we are no longer capable of the sacrifices that rock 'n' roll demands, for one last night we are going to rock you. We are going to rock you so hard that you'll stay rocked long after we're gone. For two reasons: One, we want to humbly thank all who have supported us for the closest thing any of us has ever experienced to the rock 'n' roll fantasy that still lives in our hearts. And second, we owe an apology and perhaps a refund to all who attended our recent show at Cary Street CafAc. We totally stunk it up. Sorry.

For those of you planning on coming, here's what you have to look forward to: dry ice, costume changes, confetti, a headache, ringing ears, laughter, your hair smelling like cigarette smoke for days, tears and a kick-ass rock concert. However, we're not going to play “Sex as a Weapon” or “All Fired Up” no matter how many times you ask, so don't. Those songs suck. For those of you not coming, may the Gods of Rock take pity on your tiny withering souls. S

Fat Benatar's farewell show is Friday, Dec. 12, at Alley Katz at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5. Call 643-2816 or visit www.alleykatzrva.com.

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