[Update: After this article was originally published, Lucky Strike gave L.A. Weekly a statement giving their reasons for the split with Ultimate Jam Night and describing their own event series, Soundcheck Live, in greater detail. That statement is presented at the end of the article.]
The definition of “jam” is somewhat subjective these days. It’s always a group of musicians coming together to make music, sure, but sometimes it's spontaneous and sometimes it's more structured.
In Los Angeles, it’s all about the latter these days, thanks mostly to a fellow by the name of Chuck Wright. Best known as the bassist for metal faves Quiet Riot, Wright has been assembling a stellar assortment of musicians for his “Ultimate Jam Nights” for the past year. The sonic free-for-all for professional touring and studio musicians began at a little bar in Toluca Lake, then became a big hit at Lucky Strike in Hollywood. Now it's bringing some much-needed vigor to the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip.
Wright, of course, isn’t the first to do a jam night in L.A. There’s a long and illustrious list of them going back to Waddy Wachtel's legendary jams at the Joint on Pico Boulevard, Happenin’ Harry’s nights at the old Cat Club on the Strip (now at Skinny's in North Hollywood), and Steve Soto and Greg Hetson's still-running Punk Rock Karaoke. More recently, all-star stage orgies like Camp Freddy and countless benefits for great causes have lured out everyone from Slash to Dave Navarro. But nobody in recent years had been able to sustain a weekly jam night that attracted both crowds and big names on the mic until Wright joined forces with Lucky Strike at the beginning of last year.
“I met the entertainment director and the manager and presented my 'all-star' jam concept, and they agreed to give us a shot," Wright recalls. “First, I needed to lock down a solid 'house band' that would allow us to build a repertoire of songs, and that other musicians would feel comfortable playing with. I got in touch with Gilby Clarke of Guns N' Roses because he had done the last jam with me. I brought Matt Starr of Mr. Big in because he’s a highly regarded killer drummer who can also sing lead and front the band if needed. From there, we worked up a basic set list and then filled in the rest with other drummers, guitarists, bassists, keyboards, vocalists and instrumentalists including sax, violin, pedal steel and even bagpipes. Since we’ve started the jam in late January 2015, we’ve had over 700 individual performers who are mostly from major bands and solo artists.”
Indeed, this may be the most musically diverse jam night ever in L.A. Classic rock, swing, funk, soul and vociferous heavy metal are all represented pretty much weekly. The house band currently features Edgar Winter guitarist Mitch Perry (Clarke stepped down a few months in) and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Walter Ino, currently of Survivor. Featured guests have included the likes of Jason Bonham, Robbie Krieger and Robin Zander, who jumped onstage to sing and celebrate moments after he got a call that Cheap Trick had been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mikkey Dee and Phil Campbell from Motorhead showed up to do “Ace of Spades.” Men at Work's Colin Hay did “Land Down Under.” Other Ultimate Jam Night guests: Bruce Kulick from KISS, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, dUg Pinnick, Kenny Aronoff, Steven Adler, Simon Wright (AC/DC, Dio), Phil X (Bon Jovi) and, on the best jam night that never was, David Lee Roth.
Diamond Dave was to play with his Eat 'Em and Smile band, but somehow word got out beforehand and a mob of fans swarmed the venue's Highland Avenue entrance. The show got shut down by the fire marshal; rumor has it Roth offered to pay the fire marshal fines so his band could still play, but the club nixed the idea, not wanting to get on the department's naughty list.
“It was the first time that lineup had all been in the same room in decades,” Wright recalls. “It’s all been pretty amazing, though. We’ve been blessed to have so many heavy hitters … the list goes on and on. I’ll often go into the audience myself and watch in utter amazement. Seeing all the smiles in the crowd and on the musicians' faces onstage is the real payoff for me.”
But Wright wasn’t exactly smiling a month ago. Not long after the Diamond Dave debacle, with the night’s profile at an all-time high, Lucky Strike decided, according to Wright, “to do the same thing on its own without us.” He says the venue gave him two weeks' notice to move. “It certainly wasn’t our choice to leave,” he says.
Such disputes between promoters and venue owners are common. Often when a night finally hits its stride, disagreements erupt between the two, and soon, the venue thinks it would be easier (and more profitable) to do it on its own. The buzz is there, so why not? In Lucky Strike’s case, it went on to do the jam on the same night; currently it takes place Wednesdays under the new name “Soundcheck Live.” It debuted with some impressive guests, including Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt and Alice Cooper axer Orianthi.
Jackson Browne INXS bassist Garry Beers is announced as this week's guest. [Update: See the end of this article for more on Soundcheck Live.]
Just a week after leaving Lucky Strike, Wright debuted Ultimate Jam Night at the Whisky on a new night, Tuesday. Arguably a more fitting locale for a show that leans heavily on classic-rock, metal and cock-rock veterans, the club also has special meaning to Wright. Hanging out before the club fills up, he tells me he practically grew up on the Strip in the 1970s and '80s, and feels like the move was meant to be.
“When one door is slammed shut in your face, another one opens,” he says. “There’s something very exciting about being on the very same stage as some of rock music’s greatest icons, and where I cut my teeth in this business. The history here is undeniable. This place is the only Los Angeles venue that’s part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We inject elements of its history into the show, too, with a 'Trip to the Strip' segment, taking a look back at great moments that have happened at this venue."
Soon the Whisky fills up with a mixture of long-haired elder statesmen and younger, black-clad lads and ladies. The energy is at a Nigel Tufnel-level 11. The music gets heavier as the night progresses, and though I can't recognize every player onstage, a member of the “Jam Fam” (what regulars call themselves) tells me which band each guy is from: Cheap Trick drummer Daxx Nielsen, Sean McNabb from Dokken, Eric Dover from Jellyfish and Slash's Snakepit, Billy Sheehan and Greg Bissonette from Roth’s band. All are top-notch, effortless players, covering the stuff they’ve surely played — often to packed arenas — thousands of times before.
And then there were all the people I already know onstage: Madonna’s guitarist Monte Pittman, Scott Weiland's bassist Tommy Black, former Danzig bassist Jerry Montano, singers Maureen Davis and Dilana Smith (from that reality show Rock Star: Supernova), and even Leif Garrett (though I had a crush on him as a kid, sorry to say he was the weakest of the bunch).
Big names or no, Wright clearly vets his jamsters well. The entire show has a circuslike feel, but it runs super-smoothly, too, and everybody is top of their game. It’s not an entirely off-the-cuff show — obviously each player knows what he's going to perform before he does it — but it feels organic and loose, and you just know that if a superstar walks in again, as Roth or Zander did, these guys can back them up on just about anything. That includes Wright himself, also known at Jam Night as "The Captain," who is onstage a good chunk of the show, hammering down the basslines with gusto.
Though Wright still tours frequently with Quiet Riot, it’s pretty obvious this gathering of friends and peers has become an important part of his life, too. “We really want Ultimate Jam Night to be an experience that's fun and immersive. That means giving to our audience and giving to the community,” he says proudly. “We’re giving prizes including free guitars, free bass guitars and autographed memorabilia ... and we've used the night as a platform to raise funds and food and clothing donations for Mama D. Feeds the Homeless, an organization that is on the streets of Los Angeles serving the homeless population.”
He's feeling less charitable toward his competition, though he's still admirably pragmatic. “After we spent 53 weeks of building the biggest music night in town and literally putting Lucky Strike on the map for live music, well ... someone once said, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,' but I don’t think that would apply in this scenario,” he says. “Is there room for both? Only time will tell."
[Update, May 2, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.: After this article originally appeared, Lucky Strike Entertainment's head of marketing and live entertainment, Barry Pointer, gave the following statement to L.A. Weekly regarding Soundcheck Live and the decision to part ways with Ultimate Jam Night:
"Lucky Strike Live had a great run with Ultimate Jam Night, but at some point it was time to move on and try something fresh. We started our own night, Soundcheck Live, because we wanted to expand the range and styles of music that our guests (and artists) could experience. Soundcheck Live offers a platform for artists to give their unique interpretation of the music that shaped them — which makes for an excitingly different event. Soundcheck Live also features a special guest curated set that gives fans a deeper look into some of the best known names in music.
“We’re pleased that Ultimate Jam Night has a new home. Together with Soundcheck Live, it creates two different approaches that serve the same purpose … showcasing amazing talent and giving great music back to Los Angeles. At the end of the day, nothing stays still forever. Everything evolves. L.A. is a big enough city for everyone to succeed.”]
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Ultimate Jam Night takes place every Tuesday night with surprise special guests at the Whisky a Go Go.
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, "Nightranger," for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her "Lina in L.A." interviews and party picks for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
More from Lina Lecaro:
Goths, Galleries and Gentrification: The Year in L.A. Nightlife
Everyone From L7 to Nirvana (Yes, That Nirvana) Played '90s DIY Venue Jabberjaw
A Q&A With Gun N' Roses' Duff McKagan