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Feature Thu Apr 07 2011
When it comes to hyping a crowd, David Krueger's a pro. "Are you ready for music?!" he asks the roomful of students at Chicago's Vaughn Occupational High School, as the Arts of Life Band (of which the charismatic Krueger is a member) prepares to take the stage for an afternoon performance.
The answer is yes.
"All right, let's boogie!" he shouts, eliciting laughter from the students. If anyone was a little sleepy, post-lunch, they're awake now. Krueger takes his place onstage among the group and they launch into their opening number, "Get This Band Going."
"Let's get this band going...get this band going," they sing, slowly picking up tempo. A drumbeat kicks in. One member, Jean Wilson, sporting an eye-catching sequined jacket, adds her own propulsive percussion. Then bass, guitars, and keys join in, filling out the sound and building a palpable energy. Reaching a crescendo, the instruments suddenly pull back and vamp while bandleader Ryan Shuquem introduces everyone: vocalists David Krueger (Davey Ray), Mike Marino (M-Dog), Christina Zion, and Christianne Msall; vocalist/percussionist Jean Wilson; lead guitarist Andrew Martinec; rhythm guitarist/vocalist Matt Dohnal (Dr. Matt); multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Miranda Stokes. The band also includes singer Kelly Stone (not present for the Vaughn HS show), drummer George Lawler, and bassist Taylor Hales, and occasionally other local musicians fill in for the rhythm section.
If you've ever had the privilege of seeing the Arts of Life Band live, you know that once the ensemble has gotten going, they're a veritable locomotive of energy and enthusiasm barreling down the tracks. Their original songs, including those featured on the new album Around and Around, traverse genres--rock, rap, disco (etc.)--reflecting both the songwriters' divergent musical tastes and the group's willingness to experiment. How do they put it all together? "Magic," says Martinec.
(left to right) Greg Ginn (Black Flag), David Krueger, Christina Zion, Andrew Martinec at Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest (photo courtesy Arts of Life Band)
The band's set at Vaughn includes the freewheeling call-and-response jam "Around the World," a rap song, "Happy and Proud" (in which M-Dog reps people who make him happy--namely, Eminem, 50-Cent, and "girls like Hilary Duff"), and the super catchy crowd-pleaser "Shark Attack," (which doubles as a cautionary tale: "Don't go in that water! Don't go in that water!") It's a feat to capture the energy of a locomotive and the catchiness of "The Loco-Motion," but the A of L Band somehow manages just that.
Full Tilt Boogie Band
The band is a program of the Arts of Life, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational art programs for adults with developmental disabilities. The organization operates two visual art studios, one in Chicago and one in Glenview. When Shuquem came on as Artistic Director, he noticed "a desire of people [at the Arts of Life] to do music." There was some music happening within the organization already, but not in any formalized sense.
"I thought doing a band would be the easiest model for me, because I've done that forever," says Shuquem, who has played in circus-punk marching band Mucca Pazza, among other groups. "I never went to music school. I took lessons here and there, but I learned the most from being in a band--as far as relationships and how to play and how to work with everybody."
Since its inception in 2006, the Arts of Life Band has been a collaborative project between artists with and without disabilities. They work together on songwriting and arrangements and rehearse regularly at CPE Sound. Miranda Stokes, one of the original members and a former intern of Shuquem's, coordinated the band's first recording, a self-titled CD released in 2008. The next year, the band was included on a compilation, Wild Things, released by British punk rockers Heavy Load. Featuring more than 30 bands comprised of members who have disabilities, the comp shone a spotlight on an international community of rock and rollers with intellectual disabilities and has helped these artists gain a wider listenership.
On the local level, the Arts of Life Band has played at schools, fundraisers, and rock clubs like the Empty Bottle and Double Door. "The best part is when we get down and boogie," Krueger says.
A few weeks ago, the band boogied at the Hideout to celebrate the release of Around and Around. The new album combines two different recording sessions from 2010 — a raw, spirited basement session at Coach House Sounds and a more polished studio session at CPE Sound. At the Hideout, the band performed songs from the record and debuted a music video for "Shark Attack," which playfully illustrates the unforeseen dangers of swimming in Lake Michigan. ("He's got big shark teeth and a nose to smell blood!" Just sayin'.)
They Will Rock You
"I got into guitar when I was seven years old," says Matt Donhal, the band's newest member. "My brother played, so I just started mocking him. I mocked his finger movements and chords, and that's how I started playing."
Donhal cites James Taylor, Eric Clapton, and the Drifters as musical inspirations, and says that through the Arts of Life Band, he hopes to gain experience performing so that one day he can launch a solo career. "My art is my music," he says matter-of-factly.
George and Kelly - Sandro photo shoot (photo courtesy Arts of Life Band)
All the members share an obvious passion for creative expression, and "Davey Ray" Krueger is no exception. When one of the students at Vaughn High School asks him how long he has been an artist, he answers "All my life!"
And how long does he plan to stay with the organization? "The Arts of Life is gonna keep me for another 2000 years!" he says with a grin.
What distinguishes the Arts of Life Band from many other groups comprised of adults with disabilities is an emphasis on rocking out. As you'd expect from a band that describes their sound as "danceable party music with a rock edge," they're loud and uninhibited, with each member interpreting the songs as he/she sees fit. Stone nods, Msall swings her hips, Zion sways feelingly, and Krueger (arguably the band's Iggy Pop) occasionally takes a knee or flings himself on the floor--to emphasize a lyric perhaps, or just because he feels like it.
What distinguishes the Arts of Life Band from many other bands in the industry in general is a refreshing lack of pretension. Matt Baron, who recorded their Coach House Sounds session, aptly describes the group as "a big breath of fresh air in the Chicago music scene." Whether or not you dig songs about puppies, babies, summertime fun, and being from Brookfield (all themes to get hyped about, in this writer's opinion), you'll appreciate the Arts of Life Band's infectious energy and collaborative spirit.
The A of L Band is recording again in May and plans to attend the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, either performing in some capacity or talking to other artists for their RockSteady Interview Series). Check out the band's music by purchasing their albums on CD Baby or sampling songs on their MySpace page. For starters, I recommend listening to the calamitous "Shark Attack," and for starting your day off right, check out "Good Morning America" (a personal favorite).
[Laura Pearson is a freelance writer specializing in arts and culture journalism. She has contributed to Time Out Chicago, the Chicago Reader, Punk Planet, Proximity, and other publications. She edits Chicago Artists Resource, a project of the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs.]