GUTS returning bigger and better

By Cory Frye
Lebanon Local

When Guitars Under the Stars first launched at Cheadle Lake Park in 2014, it was a simple but raucous two-day affair with some respectable local and major-league slingers on its bill.

Eight years later — minus a pair of cancellations plus, y’know, that whole COVID thing — it’s back and somehow even bigger, with a more ambitious eye on a larger expanse of Heaven.

First of all, it’s not just a festival anymore. That’s happening, of course, with the usual impressive array of talent. But now it’s more multitiered.

Organizers have stretched it to a long weekend of four days (July 27-30) with the Guitars Under the Stars Music Experience music camp, or GUTSMXP, where young aspirants huddle with name experts in myriad fields, from basic performance and songwriting to album and stage production, even promotion — everything under the professional-muso sun.

The handpicked faculty’s a veritable who’s who of volume: guitarists Larry Mitchell, Christian Martucci (Stone Sour, Corey Taylor), Chris Poland (Megadeth, OHM), Jason Bieler (Saigon Kick; he’s also a vocalist), Mark Heylmun (Suicide Silence), Phil Demmel (Vio-lence, Machine Head), Monte Pittman (Ministry, Madonna), Brandon Cook (Black ‘n Blue, The Loyal Order), Dave Cothern (Ron Keel Band), Travis Larson (Travis Larson Band, Clinician), Eric Barnett (Points North), Raymond DiGiorgio (Raymond DiGiorgio Group) and ED to Shred; bassists Mark Mendoza (Twisted Sister), Stu Hamm (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai) and Jennifer Young (Travis Larson Band, Clinician); vocalists Jeff Scott Soto (Journey, Sons of Apollo, TSO, Steel Dragon) and Ron Keel (Keel, Steeler; he also plays guitar); drummers Ernie Iniguez (Suicide Silence, Whitechapel) and Kyle Baltus (36 Crazyfists, The Loyal Order); journalist/musician/producer/executive Thom Hazaert (we’ll meet him later) and producers/engineers Toby Wright and Randy Burns.

This culminates in an all-star stage jam with many of the above personalities plus select pupils to wrap Friday night’s Metal Hall of Fame induction, where Burns — sessions-helmer for such blistering slabs as Megadeth’s “Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?” (1986) and a respectable chunk of Kreator’s repertoire, from “Extreme Aggression” (1989) to “Under the Guillotine” (2021) — and Wright, the man who propelled Metallica’s “ … And Justice for All” (1988) to crossover greatness with producer Flemming Rasmussen and steered Alice in Chains’ multilayered “Jar of Flies” (1993) and titular 1995 album to Grammy Award nominations (not to mention handling Korn’s bruising one-two coldcocks, “Follow the Leader” [1998] — “Freak on a Leash,” anyone? — and “Issues” [1999]), will be feted for their contributions to the form.

The festival itself runs Friday and Saturday, July 29-30, with a first-night lineup of Ron Keel, Soto/Bieler, Points North with Hamm, Alamance, the Larry Mitchell Band and Motörbreath (a Motörhead tribute). Saturday features Glenn Cannon & the Damage Done, Undercard, ED to Shred, Sweater for an Astronaut, Thunderstruck (AC/DC tribute), Breaking the Chains (Dokken tribute), Minor Anomaly, The Loyal Order and Liliac.

Gates open at 3 p.m. Friday, and the music begins at 4:30. Saturday’s action rises earlier, at 11 a.m., followed by mind-blowing stage rage at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $70-120 for a two-day festival pass, $35 for Friday, $40 for Saturday, $40 for a camping pass and $150 for RV parking. To purchase tickets, visit https://bit.ly/3ubCdlE. Register for the four-day music camp at https://bit.ly/3QVThWq. A portion of all proceeds goes to the Guitars Under the Stars Foundation, a nonprofit established to support music education.

So, where did all this come from? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Six strings and a dream

In 2013, Lebanon High School graduates Jeff Gilbert and Jason Cripe (1988 and 1989, respectively) brainstormed what became Guitars Under the Stars. Initially envisioned as a single day featuring Salem axeman Ty Curtis, Eugene legends Floater and ED to Shred (Gilbert’s stage persona), it blossomed as word of its existence spread.

Cripe relived its development in a recent interview with Lebanon Local reporter Sarah Brown.

It began with a phone call from renown guitarist Larry Mitchell, who some five years earlier had won a Grammy for co-producing Johnny Whitehorse’s ‘Totemic Flute Chants” (2007) and had backed everyone from Tracy Chapman to Billy Squier to the late Ric Ocasek. He was traveling through the area and expressed interest in the event.

Jeff “Ed to Shred” Gilbert at the 2018 festival. File photo

“Right away, Jeff knew who he was,” Cripe recalled. “He said, ‘That guy’s been on the cover of Guitar Player magazine more than Cap’n Crunch has been on a cereal box.’ So, the next thing you know, we’ve got Larry out.”

Mitchell’s call was followed by one from Gary Hoey, a six-stringer discovered by Ozzy Osbourne in 1987 as a candidate for his backing band following the departure of Jake E. Lee (he lost the position to Zakk Wylde). Nevertheless, he appeared on and/or released more than 20 albums over the next 30 years, working and touring with the likes of Deep Purple, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Peter Frampton.

He was in, too, and let slip that he’d worked on Lita Ford’s comeback album, “Living Like a Runaway” (2012), a nod to her roots as the riff maven who buzz-powered the legendary all-female Runaways in the 1970s. (A biopic depicting that band’s trajectory, starring Kristen Stewart as rhythm guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning as lead vocalist Cherie Currie and Scout Taylor-Compton as Ford, had been released to acclaim in 2010. It was based on Currie’s 1989 memoir, “Neon Angel.”)

Hoey also revealed that Ford, then touring “Living,” was scheduled to perform Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in the Rockin’ the Rivers concert series in Three Falls, Montana. The date happened to coincide beautifully with the Guitars Under the Stars weekend, and she wanted to play that Sunday. She ended up headlining, taking the stage after the equally laureled Pat Travers Band.

“So, right out of the gate, Year One, we ended up being a three-day guitar festival headlined by Lita Ford on her comeback tour,” Cripe said.

Other entertainers that first time out included Splinter Throne, Summer Soundtrack, Points North, Ape Machine, Brian Auer, John Jaunese, Triaxe, Michael Hermes, Agnozia, Bruce Bouillet, Jennifer Batten, Tony Macalpine, N.W. Outlaws, Black Powder County, Guessing Game, Earth to Ashes, the Travis Larson Band and Triple Threat.

Mitchell and The Pat Travers Band returned the following year, joining an interstellar lineup that featured Los Lonely Boys, The Robert Cray Band and axeman extraordinaire Tracii Guns, whose L.A. Guns helped set the stage for 1980s heavy metal (he also helped brainchild Guns N’ Roses but left before the band recorded its massive debut, “Appetite for Destruction,” in 1987).

Unleash the Archers poses with a fan at the 2018 festival. File photo

Then the event took a two-year hibernation, reemerging in 2018 as a four-day festival. Hoey came back, and audiences flocked from numerous zip codes and states (1,900 pairs of eyes, according to Cripe) to catch metalcore gargantuas Light the Torch and Canadian metal band Unleash the Archers. It returned as a two-day soiree in 2019 with headliners Bobaflex and Liliac.

Sadly, of course, the following spring’s COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, silencing, shuttering and destroying everything in its path. This included Guitars Under the Stars.

The sound will rise again

Yet plans were afoot to come back big. Cripe had built relationships at the annual National Association of Music Merchants Show (better known as NAMM, in part because it sounds way cooler) at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. It’s the music industry’s biggest, most important event, and Cripe had become a familiar figure among the giants.

There he encountered drum virtuoso Pat Gesualdo, who established the nonprofit D.A.D. (Drums and Disabilities) program for special-needs children and adults, as well as disabled veterans, and created the Metal Hall of Fame, whose honorees had been inducted at the NAMM venue since its 2017 launch.

Ceremonies have also taken place at major showcases: Judas Priest entered the Hall during the 2018 Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany, and Anthrax followed at Heavy Montreal (Parc Jean-Drapeau, Quebec, Canada) the following year. Of this year’s class, Starbreaker and former TNT vocalist Tony Harnell was honored at the M3 Rock Festival (Columbia, Maryland) while Onslaught was recognized at Baltimore’s Maryland Deathfest, both in May.

Liliac at GUTS 2019. File photo

“We’ve been in contact for a couple of years now,” Cripe said. “He was intrigued by the idea of doing the inductions at a live music festival instead of as a separate event, especially if you’re going to be inducting people who are participating. So he thought that would be another level to what they were doing.”

“Jason and I have known each other for several years, and we’ve always been trying to do something,” Gesualdo said. “Either I was going to go there to play with a project or band, or we were going to do something with the Metal Hall of Fame and D.A.D., and Jason was fantastic.

“This year it really came to fruition through Thom Hazaert,” he continued. “Thom and I have known each other for years. He called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m doing something for this event called Guitars Under the Stars.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. I know Jason.’ Thom said, ‘Really? We need to get you involved.’ I supported it, and to be a part of it would be wonderful. That’s how it came together.

“It’s an honor to bring the Metal Hall of Fame to the fans who may not necessarily be able to attend the [Anaheim] gala. It’s a fan vote as well as the nominating committee. The fans are a very big part of it. That’s why the interaction is important, to let them be part of the process and event.”

On to Mr. Hazaert.

In 2019, Cripe met with the celebrated multi-hatted music journalist/musician/producer/marketer/band manager/label impresario, who that year paneled a NAMM presentation. This particular confab would help expand the scope of the Lebanon-based event when Cripe added the music-biz vet to his board of directors with Gilbert.

Gary Hoey at GUTS 2018. File photo

“He sought me out,” Hazaert recalled in a telephone interview from his Wisconsin home (he also maintains a residence in Santa Monica, California) — a region he cheekily calls “Midwest Oregon.” “He told me about his show and what he was doing. He was a nice guy. We stayed in touch for the year or two after that. The following year, he hired me and Chris Poland [late of Megadeth, now the guitarist for jazz/rock fusion master-blasters OHM] to play, and that was the year the show got postponed because of COVID. Then, COVID, again. In the break, we just started talking.”

Those conversations turned to matters dear to Hazaert’s heart: charity and philanthropy. Among those causes, which include the Grammy Music Education Coalition and Guitars 4 Vets, he’d been plotting a music camp with current Megadeth guitarist Kiko Loureiro.

“I mentioned bringing that side into it,” Hazaert said. “Let’s do Guitars Under the Stars as a music camp. Why don’t we make Guitars Under the Stars a nonprofit and really focus on music education with partnerships and things supporting youth music education and programs for veterans? So we developed the Guitars Under the Stars Foundation, which is now part of the umbrella for everything. It was interesting to become involved with something that took the 180 it did and dove into different territory.”

“That is something that I’ve wanted to do since the very beginning on this project but didn’t really have the resources or relationships to put it together,” Cripe said. “That takes time. And now those relationships have culminated in having a lot of support from the music industry.”

The board of directors scrolled its Rolodex to fill the proposed camp. The original Guitars brain trust reached out to such contacts as Stu Hamm, Larry Mitchell and others. Hazaert pulled in names like Poland, Twisted Sister’s Mark Mendoza, Saigon Kick’s Jason Bieler and his own clients, The Loyal Order. It wasn’t difficult to coax them — or anyone on the overall bill, really — to Lebanon.

“I think they all liked the idea of what we were doing and the concept of it,” Hazaert said. “That’s what attracted people. It wasn’t just an educational experience. It was unique.”

As depicted in this photo from GUTS 2019, Cripe said people have described his event akin to hanging out in the backyard with a bunch of friends and live music. File photo

“What they’re impressed with is the venue and the production,” Cripe said. “They understand that festivals take a minimum of five years to get a full crowd. Here’s something people need to realize: If you’re starting a flower shop, it may be about three to five years before you’re profitable. It’s the same thing with a restaurant or a thrift store. You name the business; I’ll wait until you’re profitable. So why is a music festival held to a different standard? If it doesn’t sell out the first year, it’s considered a failure. Whether a concert sells out is not its only measure of success.”

It’s measured in other metrics, of course, like its benefit to the overall community. This one’s marquee talents draw new faces — Hazaert and Gesualdo, among them — from all points everywhere to Cheadle Lake Park. Nonprofits and schools have used the space, free of charge, to raise funds and awareness. This year, students from the Lebanon High School band program will oversee parking at the site (its proceeds will be donated to the music department) and attend the GUTSMXP camps gratis.

The kids are getting pretty excited,” said Amithyst Bosley, a member of the school’s Music Booster Club as well as a musician-parent herself. (Her 16-year-old daughter, Kaili, soon to be a junior, plays multiple instruments, including trombone, trumpet, saxophone and French horn.) “They’re getting the opportunity to see what it looks like to be in an official band and run it, and some of the work involved with that. Some kids have such a passion for music in general that they’re looking forward to being with a group of musicians over the summer, when they don’t have many music-related opportunities. It’s an awesome idea. It’ll be exciting to see the camp and the experience they come back with.”

“I think a lot of people didn’t have a good idea as to what kind of music was played at the festival or what kind of people headed up or even attended Guitars Under the Stars until we’ve gotten to know Jason and his team a little bit more,” she added. “They’re a group of passionate locals who want to see awesome music brought to Lebanon.”

“What we’ve got this year is nothing you’re going to see anywhere else in the United States,” Cripe said. “I’ve said from Day One that I want this to be a nationally known event. Our show is such an onion. There are so many layers to what we’re trying to bring to the table.”

Come late July, consider dinner served. Loud.