Never mind the 2003 Jack Black movie or the current Broadway musical, the Reock and Roll Revue is the real “School of Rock.”
Since 2008, when Hamilton resident Tom Reock and an assembly of the area’s best rock musicians got together at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater to present the classic Beatles 1968 “White” album in its entirety — live — the Reock and Roll Revue has schooled music lovers in an array of rock gems from the 1960s and ’70s.
In later years, taking on such treasures as the Who’s anthemic rock opera “Quadrophenia,” The Band’s “Music From Big Pink,” and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Deja Vu,” the Revue has not only brought great music to the audience, but Reock has specialized in creating multi-media presentations that give rich background to the rockers themselves.
He researches and locates video interviews that delve into what the artists were thinking as they were writing and recording, and news clips that help paint a picture of what was happening historically and socially at the time the music was being made.
“I’ve always wanted to teach people about music, so these shows give me a great opportunity to do just that,” Reock says, adding that it’s only natural considering that, “according to my mother, as soon as I came out of the womb I was strumming along to Peter, Paul, and Mary.”
This summer the Reock and Roll Revue tackles Jackson Browne’s 1977 album “Running on Empty.” Celebrating five years at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theater, the Reock and Roll Revue will perform two shows only: Saturday, July 16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 17, at 2 p.m.
Reock and Roll’s homage to Jackson Browne, one of the most influential songwriters of the last four decades, is divided into two parts. The concerts will open with the group performing selected songs from Browne’s first four albums, along with video footage and other history behind the music. The second part of the show will feature Browne’s fifth album, “Running on Empty” in its entirety, and as close to the original as the musicians can muster.
The album was an unusual effort for Brown, the singer-songwriter. Somewhat like a musical journal of life for a traveling musician, the material was written and recorded on the road during a 30-city tour that had taken place in the previous year. Some of the songs were recorded bare-bones-style, in hotel rooms, backstage, and even on the tour bus.
“It falls into the category with what we usually do, since it’s a classic rock album, although we stretched things a bit timewise into the later 1970s,” Reock says. “But it’s still the heyday of the album, and that’s what launched this whole Reock and Roll project.”
Baby Boomers surely remember growing up, waiting for a favorite artist to release an album, even camping out in front of the record store to be one of the first to acquire the new release, “and you listened from the beginning to the end,” Reock says. “We didn’t have social media to check in with our favorite artists and find out what was going on in their lives. You found out from the songs they wrote and sang.”
“That’s why the entire album format really spoke to me,” he adds. “As for ‘Running on Empty,’ it was live, which isn’t unique in itself, but is different because it’s a live album of material that had never been played before.”
Usually a band or individual would go into the studio and create an album, and a couple years later might release a live album of songs the audience knew well.
But Jackson Browne had (and still has) a special following of keen listeners, sensitive enough to really hear and absorb his new songs, as though he was a poet introducing new writings.
“He recorded every night and then, after the tour was over, picked the best (takes) and released them, and it outdid all his previous albums,” Reock says. “But the most unusual thing about ‘Running on Empty’ was that it had a live, hit single, the title song, which is very rare.”
Reock reflects that before “Running on Empty,” much of Browne’s work had been profoundly personal, often sad. However, some of Browne’s earliest material, including “Doctor My Eyes” and “Rock Me on the Water” was much more upbeat. Browne also co-wrote the California-rock anthem “Take it Easy” with the late Glen Frey.
Clyde Jackson Browne was born in October, 1948, in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father, Clyde Jack Browne, was an American serviceman and journalist with the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper. The family moved back to the United States when Browne was three, settling in his grandfather’s home, the elegant Abbey San Encino in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles. As a teen Browne was performing live, singing songs in local folk venues even before he graduated from high school in 1966.
After graduation Browne joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for a while, and then headed east to New York City and Greenwich Village, where he was a music writer and critic. His romance with Nico, the German-born chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, helped color her first album “Chelsea Girl,” for which Browne co-wrote songs and played guitar.
He was also writing his own material, which would be recorded by such folk-rock stars as Tom Rush, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, and the Byrds. Recording and releasing his own songs wouldn’t happen until his eponymous debut album in 1972.
“He had some hit singles with the first album, but the next albums didn’t have so much success,” Reock says. “On these albums, Browne went deep (with subject matter), and they weren’t chart-toppers, but by ‘Running on Empty,’ Jackson Browne had a cult following.”
“So for the first half of the show, we’ll bounce off his early career, tell stories, and show video clips and whatnot,” Reock adds. “We have some interesting video of Jackson Browne explaining about writing songs, about recording, how the musicians he worked with influenced his songs. Then we’ll take a break and the second ‘act’ of the show will be the whole ‘Running on Empty’ album.”
Although the Reock and Roll Revue retained the same core of musicians and vocalists for years, the personnel has changed in this most recent incarnation.
“It’s been a little hard to get everyone together this time around, as everyone is doing a million other things,” Reock says.
Longtime guitarist and vocalist Mario Di Bartolo had to drop out of the project when he bought Monmouth Music in Red Bank, but Reock says veteran guitarist John (Johnny) Bushnell stepped in at the last minute to play guitar and sing. “He’s a world-class talent, phenomenal,” Reock says, praising all of the personnel highly.
Jerry Steele will handle vocals, pedal steel, and acoustic guitars, and fiddle. Reock’s brother-in-law, Hal Jordan Ketofsky, will play bass guitar and sing. Bud Belviso is the other keyboardist, and he also plays guitar and sings. Steve Schupsky is the drummer for the current lineup; Bob Demetrician will play percussion and sing.
For backing vocals, Reock has recruited the talented and busy Lisa Bouchelle, as well as his niece, Lindsay Ketofsky, who happens to be a big fan of Bouchelle’s.
“Their voices blend so well, they sound almost identical,” Reock says.
Rounding out the Revue is special guest Michael Slom on vocals, on “loan” from the classic rock and soul band Kindred Spirit.
Reock and his friends might be better known for their no-nonsense classic rock sound, handling such muscular material as the Who’s “Quadrophenia.” But they can also go mellow, and exploring Jackson Browne’s music gives them a chance to do so. It’s also an example of Reock’s own across-the-board love of music.
“I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon, and I love all kinds of music, from jazz rock fusion such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra to smooth jazz, like Grover Washington Jr.,” he says. “In fact, in the late 1970s I was playing smooth jazz, as well as writing a lot of originals. I didn’t start playing classic rock and covers until my late 30s, when I joined up with Ernie White.”
“But music was always my calling: I think my first paying gig was at the Willows Swim Club in Kendall Park when I was about 12,” Reock says. “My pay was probably a hot dog and a soda.”
Reock grew up in Kendall Park. His father, Ernie Reock, is professor emeritus at Rutgers University, and worked in the Rutgers Center for Government Services for 42 years, most of that time as director.
“My dad is 92 and, although he’s been retired for years, he still goes into the office three days a week,” Reock says. “He also comes to all the shows, and I feel so very lucky to have him around. Being a musician, I am still kind of a child.”
His mother was the late Jeanne Reock, who had been president of the South Brunswick Board of Education in the late 1960s, then a lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Both parents loved music, Reock says, and he remembers that there was always music playing in the house. He took classical piano lessons as a very young child, but admits he has retained only basic piano skills.
Like so many others in his generation, Reock saw the Beatles’ American television debut, on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964, and that was it — he knew he wanted to make music his life.
“I played almost every other (rock) instrument, but I settled on keys,” Reock says. “I ended up on piano because I was terrible on the other instruments, and I was the only one of my friends who owned a keyboard.”
“I admit I am not the most technically proficient musician,” he adds. “But I have a knack for conducting and arranging, and I surround myself with phenomenal musicians, always have.”
After graduating from South Brunswick High School in 1976, Reock started to pursue his dreams of making it in the music business and hit the road briefly, but didn’t get to California as he had hoped.
He came back to central New Jersey, and through tenacity, natural talent, and the help of a collection of dedicated friends, Reock has been able to be a working musician for several decades.
When he is not planning the annual Reock and Roll extravaganza, Reock plays frequently with White and other friends, and also runs Squirrel Ranch Studios, a small recording studio in Hamilton, which assists musicians of all kinds.
The Revue gang also rehearse at the studio, where they are welcomed by Reock’s wife, Fiona, a passionate music lover herself, and “the best band wife anyone could ask for, always supportive of what we’re doing,” he says.
Reock admits that he had never really been a big Jackson Browne fan before putting the current show together.
“I thought his songs had the same melancholy sound, and my ex-wife used to drive me crazy playing his music,” Reock says. “But I was pleasantly surprised when I started going through the material, charting it (for the band), working on arrangements.”
“I have a newfound appreciation of Jackson Browne’s music and his style,” Reock says. “I’ve been going through the videos and interviews, hearing about how he wrote with a social conscience, and especially how well he wrote about love — and he wrote from both male and female perspectives. Jackson Browne has turned into an interesting character to me.”
Reock and Roll Revue, Kelsey Theater, at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. Saturday, July 16, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 17, 2 p.m. $25. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/ReockRollRevue. 609-570-3333 or www.kelseyatmccc.org.