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School of Music student looks back on rock 'n' roll summer

October 13, 2011

It was a surreal moment for Keith Kelly, a doctoral student in ASU's School of Music. The lyrics he was singing were from Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,’’ and the guy next to him on stage was Ringo Starr, with his All-Starr Band serenading thousands of concertgoers at the June 11 Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, Norway.

And that was just the fifth stop on what would be a 50-city, 10-week world tour. On tour, Kelly played saxophone and flute with an internationally known rock band, met rock icons, worked on his dissertation, and came home with maybe one of the best “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation” stories told at ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Not to mention, there is the beard he grew in order to fit in with the band, which he is contractually forbidden from naming.

The tour began and ended in California with performances at some of the world’s largest music festivals  – from Beijing and Shanghai in China to the Glastonbury in the United Kingdom and the Wercther Festival in Belgium. There were gigs at clubs in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Berlin, and packed houses in Austin, Dallas, New Orleans, Boston and Brooklyn. The band even snagged an appearance (its fifth) on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Besides the unforgettable moments of singing with Ringo Starr and meeting Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (“Crazy,’’ Kelly said), he also learned a lot from the daily reality of "being on the road" that involved living with 16 people and occasionally sleeping on shelves, living in hallways and always hanging with the band and crew.

“Working with ‘artists’ can be very difficult,’’ Kelly said. “As much as I think of myself as an artist, I am still a pragmatist.

“But the artists really are something different. Being in a rock 'n' roll band, well, nothing can prepare you for that. Playing is important, but you are entertaining people and that is your primary job,’’ he said.

“The other job is to be a good hang. You have to live with people ... all day, every day and work with them. You have to find some way to get along. And ‘bring it’ every single show,’’ Kelly said.

As the tour wound its way through Asia, Europe and the United States, Kelly found a gold mine of information for his dissertation about how middle school and high school students learn to play jazz.

“Most of the people that I met and worked with had significant music experiences as middle school and high school students, most of them outside of the formal music education system,” he said.

Rock musicians think about music differently than School of Music students in the Herberger Institute think about music, he said.

“For a rock musician, it is sound. It is replicating. It is about the ability to have many voices, to be able to recreate lots of different guitar sounds, for instance. It is further even than jazz musicians.

“Rock musicians know they have to entertain, to be genuine. They repeat themselves, but they are always trying to garner reactions from the audience. There is always a discussion about the audience.”

They also carry an impressive database in their heads, from obscure nuggets like who played drums on some minor R&B album to being able to play a sizeable portion of the Led Zeppelin catalogue off the top of their heads.

“They can play most of the instruments in the group, they can memorize two hours’ worth of music and play it almost perfectly every night – with no warm up (and) almost no practice.’’

As coordinator of jazz studies at California State University/Stanislaus, Kelly finds his students nonplussed about his summer gig. “They think it’s cool and that’s pretty much as far as it goes,” Kelly says.

But what does resonate with students is his deepened appreciation for what he considers one of the most sublime roles on earth: being a performing musician.

“My favorite musicians are those who surprise you with their experience, their ability to say ‘yes’ to circumstances that might seem extreme and those who play with joy and a truly unique voice,’’ he says.

Kelly has exchanged the stage for the classroom, but it, too, is a venue he relishes.

“Folks who are true cornerstones of their community are not those who have never left their area or peer group, but those who left and chose to come back,’’ he says.

“Going on the road was awesome. Going to college is cool. But at some point all of those adventures end and you have to see about helping the next generation of adventurers.”