At the time that Joe Vitale put out his Backstage Pass
memoir in 2008, it took 29 chapters to cover a career that began officially more than 50 years ago when he attended Lehman High School in Canton and joined a band called the Knights. The rock ’n’ roll bug bit the young drummer after he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show,
and he picked up the bass guitar to take his first shot with the Knights.
He quickly found his way back behind the kit and by the beginning of the ‘70s, he was on the road with Ted Nugent launching into a rock ’n’ roll journey that’s carried him through the decades all of the way to present day. Vitale has an impressive resume peppered with no shortage of rock and roll legends — including Crosby, Stills and Nash, Peter Frampton, John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the Eagles and, of course, Joe Walsh.
Vitale and Walsh both did stints in the Kent-based band the Measles at separate points, but it would be a little while longer before the pair found themselves in a band together, meeting up in Colorado to record the debut Barnstorm album with Vitale on drums and bassist Kenny Passarelli. Released in 1972, the album marked Walsh’s first post-James Gang recordings and launched the next phase of his career. Vitale co-wrote a pair of songs with Walsh on the album and also added additional vocals, percussion and keyboards on the album. The two musicians have continued to collaborate and work on each album that Walsh has done since then.
They’re back together again as Walsh prepares to launch his first full solo tour in several years with a pair of sold out shows at the Packard Music Hall in Warren on September 16 and September 18. As Vitale shares during a recent phone conversation from tour rehearsals in California, the upcoming run will feature a unique setlist that will please both casual fans and the diehards.
“We’re digging way deep into the catalog and doing songs that we haven’t played in years and years,” Vitale reveals. “Some we’re playing that we’ve never played, so it does take a little bit more rehearsal. And then what you do is the ones that are givens, like ‘Life’s Been Good’ or ‘Rocky Mountain Way,’ we already know those and you brush ’em up and just go over them. That’s not where you really put all of your effort in — it’s all of the new stuff and revisiting old stuff.”
He says Walsh has wanted to do this type of show "for a long time."
“But in and out of Eagles tours, you know, when the Eagles play and then he’s got some time off, he goes out a little bit," he says. " [But] I don’t think he’s had the luxury of free time to think about a lot of this and finally he [does], because the Eagles are taking some time off, Don Henley’s out on a country tour [for his new album Cass County]. So Joe’s finally kind of a free agent for a while. All of the sudden, he’s got a nice broad amount of time ahead of him where he can really think about stuff instead of just jumping off one tour and jumping onto another. There’s one I can at least tell you that we’re doing that we haven’t played probably in 30 or 35 years and that is ‘Mother Says.' That’s off the first Barnstorm album and that is a big production number and it’s really fun and it sounds so good and it’s so fun to get back to playing that song again. I really don’t know why it got off the list for years, but I mean, he’s got a lot of material. And you know, the more albums he made, the more material he acquired. But this one, we’re revisiting and it’s really, really cool. The band plays it really well. What we’re doing on this show, it’s almost 50 years of music, because we’re going way back to the James Gang [material] and through all of his solo albums and the Eagles stuff. It’s quite a span and quite a cross-section of his entire catalog.”
He says that they’ve rehearsed a large amount of material — more than the set requires — which will give them extra songs to rotate in and out of the setlist as the tour progresses. He also thinks that there’s a good possibility that the short run of tour dates could lead to more shows next year.
“I think he didn’t want to dig in too deep,” Vitale says. “But he does have the luxury of some time off now and you know, the first leg of this tour, we’re only doing just slightly into the Midwest and mostly East Coast [dates]. And you know, there’s a big world out there. He’s really happy with the band and he’s really having fun and that’s the most important thing. I can’t imagine not playing L.A., Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, all of the bigger cities. I can’t imagine not playing Cleveland — that wasn’t on the list. So in other words, I think there’s going to be more shows. We’re all hoping [for that] and I think there will be.”
The touring, Vitale says, will hopefully be the spark that leads to Walsh’s next solo album.
“Once we’re out there and working on material, I’m hoping for another record. He’s due for another record. And it will be really good. It’s always good to make a record after you tour. You’re inspired, you write on the road and you try these songs live sometimes — that’s the best way. We used to do that all of the time. Most bands did. I don’t think they do that as much anymore. We used to write songs, work ‘em out at soundcheck and play ‘em live! C’mon, give it a shot! You can look at the faces on the people and if they’re digging it and you get a great big applause, then you’ve got something going there. If it’s like, ‘Eh,’ then it needs work. But before you go into the studio, it’s really advised to try them live to see if these songs even get across to the people.”
Vitale’s drumming is an important element of getting those songs across — he has a commanding presence behind the kit that also manages to feel casually laid back. He says that there are a variety of important influences that helped him to develop his style.
“I started out with jazz guys and jazz guys used to drive big bands and I learned that years ago from my teachers that you have to be in the pocket, but you have to take charge and drive the band sometimes,” he says. “And then on into early rock ’n’ roll days, I noticed that people like Ringo, Keith Moon, people like that that really had a driving presence in the band and even though Ringo was pretty laid back at times, he did stuff that if you pull the drum tracks out of some of those songs, the songs go away. It’s a commanding drum part and yet it wasn’t over the top. I learned that my job is more than just to keep time, it’s actually to direct the dynamics. When the drummer gets loud, the band gets loud, when the drummer gets soft, the band gets soft. So you’ve got quite a bit on your plate there to deal with and so I’ve always tried to be like that and it’s worked out really well. because the dynamics are so important. A lot of bands just play at one level and the rock and roll stuff doesn’t always have to be on 10 — it doesn’t have to be that loud. It can come back and then get loud again. All that sort of stuff, they [can] teach that to you, but until you apply it to a band, you haven’t learned anything yet. You know, they make funny musician/drummer jokes that we’re not musicians, well, we really are musicians — we understand the music and we’ve got a lot of control in our hands for what the band sounds like because I’ve heard bands that weren’t that great, but the drummer was really great, so the bands actually sound pretty good, but they’re not that good. So drummers are really important to have first of all, most importantly, is the pocket, and then dynamically, to guide the band through, if the band is supposed to get louder, you’ve gotta push ‘em and you’ve gotta pull ‘em back when it’s supposed to get soft. I’ve always tried to play like that and I still do. That’s the way I play.”
In addition to the touring and possible recording with Walsh, Vitale continues to add chapters to his own career proving that his Backstage Pass
is far from finished. He’s working on some film music for 2016, projects that came about thanks to a nice featured spot as the bar band drummer in Meryl Streep’s latest movie, Ricki and the Flash
. The Canton native was thrilled to get the call from director Jonathan Demme about the movie, even though he was naturally a bit skeptical that it was really Demme giving him a call.
“Jonathan called me, he said, ‘Hi, this is Jonathan Demme,’ which at first, I did not believe it was him, but he said, ‘I’m looking for an Italian drummer named Joe for a film I’m doing with Meryl Streep.’ That’s a lot to take in in two seconds, that sentence. I’m like, ‘Okay, who is this really? And how did you get my phone number?’ He laughed and after a few bits of conversation, I could tell, ‘Oh, excuse me — this is real!’ So I went to New York and met with everybody and got the gig. We started rehearsing and we rehearsed for two weeks and filmed for six weeks. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”