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Tue, June 18

Rock history alive and well with the Retrofitters

PRESCOTT - The air may have been chilly in Brett Miller's Prescott garage Tuesday night, but the music was red hot.

"I try to get musicians that are at the top of their game," said Chris Berry, lead guitarist and vocalist for swamp-rock band The Retrofitters. "I look for a high caliber of players."

One look at the band tells you they've been around the block a time or two. Berry has been playing in garage bands and with megastars since 1969.

Miller, who plays electric piano, started his music career in 1962. Tim "Dr. Tim" Whitcanack, has been playing bass since 1966, and Jim Moorhous has been banging his drums since 1965.

Berry started the Retrofitters in 1992 in San Francisco as a house band for the year's Grammy nominees' party.

"The original band included members of Jefferson Starship, Sly & The Family Stone, The Allman Brothers, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Eric Clapton's group and others," Miller said. "We were all musicians who had always wanted to play with each other but because of our commitments to our other bands, rarely got the opportunity."

The idea of a revolving band with musicians from other big-name groups caught on like wildfire, and Berry found himself playing with people that he used to pay to go see.

"In 1994, the band relocated to Los Angeles where the revolving-door format continued," Berry said. "The L.A. group regularly consisted of members of Greg Allman's band, Stevie Ray Vaughan's, Capt. Beefheart, Edgar Winter's group and even Rick Parnell, the drummer for Spinal Tap and Atomic Rooster."

In 1995, Berry moved to Prescott. One of the first people he met was Dr. Tim, and the two immediately hit it off.

"I didn't plan on being a musician, I wanted to be a brain surgeon," Dr. Tim quipped.

"That's funny, I wanted to be an astronaut," Miller added.

Although the band is as entertaining in between songs with nonstop banter and jokes, usually at their own expense, once they start playing, it's all about the music.

"We're just a bunch of old geezers playing swamp boogie," Dr. Tim said.

Their southern rock influence comes across loud and clear, and the resemblance to some Allman Brothers songs is uncanny. Their instruments are as basic as their music - guitar, drums, bass and keyboard - and they play with intense joy.

However, Miller does not play his piano - he assaults it.

"You don't see many barrelhouse piano players," Berry said.

"It's the old New Orleans style," Miller explained. Indeed, during Tuesday night's rehearsal, Miller hit one key so hard it popped out of the keyboard.

When the band takes a break, they tell war stories and drop names of famous musicians they've played with, such as Bruce Springsteen.

"I was playing with Danny Orr early one afternoon at Matt's Saloon around '91 or '92, and no one was in the bar, and Danny said, 'Hey, there's the boss,'" Moorhous said at the beginning of another "been-there-done-that" story. "I thought he meant the owner of the bar, and he says, 'No. It's 'The Boss' - Bruce Springsteen.'"

Sure enough, Springsteen and a couple of bodyguards had just strolled into Matt's to stretch their legs after a long motorcycle trip. He liked what he heard from Moorhous and Orr and asked if they "wanted to jam" with him.

"As soon as the word got out that Bruce Springsteen was playing at Matt's, stores up and down Whiskey Row locked their doors and filled the place up within 20 minutes," Moorhous remembers.

"He was just a regular guy, and he had a big heart. He heard that 'Bubbles' the bartender had cancer, and he ended up paying for her operation."

"I wish he'd take a look at my piano," Miller said to laughs.

The Retrofitters do not play many bars and rarely play on Whiskey Row. Berry, who owns Sara Cares Center and Thrift Store in old town Humboldt, prefers to play benefit concerts and use the band's talents to help others.

In April 2010, he formed the nonprofit Sarah Cares Foundation and has played benefit concerts for nearly every family involved in a tragedy since then. His latest project is to help the John Bass family, whose uninsured house in Dewey burned down about three weeks ago.

Berry and the boys are playing a free concert from 7-10 p.m. Friday at Guido's Pizza, 150 S. Highway 69, in Dewey. Berry hopes the audience makes liberal donations to the Bass family.

And, just in case you miss the Dewey gig, the Retrofitters are making a rare appearance on Whiskey Row from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 4-5, at Hooligan's Pub, 112 S. Montezuma St., in Prescott. To talk to Berry about the band or his nonprofit foundation, call 928-227-3645.

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