Sunday, May 27, 2012


I think one possible definition of the word "hero" could be, "mentor from afar". (This is not to suggest that all heroes are people you don't know, but for those of us musicians who grew up being inspired by the sounds and songs of people we'd never met, I think this an apt definition.)

Last night, my wife & I, along with a bunch of our friends, bandmates, and a few family members, got the chance to catch a rare performance by a few of my heroes. Toto played a free show in downtown Denver as part of the city's Day of Rock benefit. The band is getting ready for a summer tour in Europe and was playing the Mile High City as part of their usual parcel of warm-up gigs.

Toto's history is one that displays both the potential for success that serious musicianship has in the pop music world as well as the politics and inane media chicanery that can confound even the most celebrated of bands. The group has sold tens-of-millions of albums worldwide and released some of the biggest rock hits of the last 35 years, earning 6 Grammy Awards along the way. Nonetheless, the band was hung out to dry by its record company in the early '90s while other rock contemporaries like Van Halen, U2, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Aerosmith were permitted by the powers-that-be to stay on the airwaves and maintain their considerable presence in the American musical world. Alas, Toto has continued to record and release a number of fantastic albums as well as keep up their superstar status in Europe & Japan and has maintained a successful career based primarily in markets outside of their homeland. They are the rare group that has experienced phenomenal success both smack dab in the middle of popular music as well as outside of its notoriously small box.

But the commercial success of Toto is not at all what has made me such a devoted fan. The music, the playing, the performances, and the unending commitment to doing what they love makes them a diamond in the rough of the modern music scene. The resumes of the individual members should be enough to make any serious music fan sit up and pay attention - Steve Lukather alone has played on more than 3,000 records as a session guitarist. They are, pound-for-pound, the best pop-rock band I have ever been able to get my ears on, and they, perhaps more than any other performer or group, demonstrate what is possible within the genre of rock music and not just what is usual.

It was my fifth time getting to see the band, and there were still a few firsts for me -namely, seeing Joseph Williams front the group vocally along with Steve Porcaro on keyboards. It's been decades since both of these members have toured together with the band, and, due to David Paich's return, there were more founding members on the stage then there have been in years.

But there are two members of the group that stand out as particular heroes of mine. The aforementioned Lukather, a master guitarist and prolific solo artist in his own right, is one of the great rock performers not just of our time, but all time. He is a guitarist's guitarist, but still manages to keep himself accessible to those of us who don't know the first thing about strumming a power chord. Both as a name artist as well as a member of Toto, Lukather ranks in my personal pantheon of musical favorites.

And then, perhaps most notably of all, there's Simon Phillips. It's probably correct to call him the singularly most important drumming influence of my entire life. He was certainly not the first drummer I noticed and wanted to sound like when I played, but he has been the most important. There's a certain amount of similarity one needs to feel with someone he considers a hero; a common ground, a sense of ethereal or implicit camaraderie. Now, he might disagree upon hearing me play, but when I listened to Simon, he would perform the fills and grooves I felt like I would want to do in that particular musical circumstance. I heard my own creativity in what I heard him doing and, quite naturally, I heard what might be possible if I was persistent in the honing of my own craft. I heard the kind of drumming in Simon's performances that I wanted to hear from myself without any expectation of actually attaining his level of skill - he inspires me while simultaneously keeping me humble. (It's a potent one-two punch, to be sure.) And this, of course, has made listening to Toto these past years all the more special for me.

All this to say, it's important to have heroes. Especially in the all-too-subjective realm of music, (a world especially given to unearned overconfidence and misplaced egotism), a regular dose of true greatness is good to imbibe. It's good to be inspired. It's good to be blown away. It's good to be impressed. It's good to be humbled. But, perhaps, most importantly, it's good to have something to pursue beyond the obvious and temporal financial benefits that musical success can grant. It's important to have a standard to hold yourself to that you may never reach - it'll keep you going even when you accomplish a thing or two: your drumming may be good enough one day to help sell a few million albums and sell out a handful of tours, but this guy over here can play circles around you and you know it. So don't forget it. Keep going. Keep working. Keep learning. Never forgot that you're not the best thing since sliced bread and that's ok. These are the kinds of truths that heroes help us to remember.

And, sometimes, it just feels good to listen to great music.
Bands like Toto remind me I'll always have that.

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