By Geoff Gehman ’80
Seven Lafayette graduates are performing a very special concert under a tent on the Quad. They’re celebrating the 20th reunion of the Class of 1991, the graduating class for five members of the band. They’re also celebrating their first joint show since they graduated. They sound so fun and funky, it seems they’ve been playing together for 20 years, when in fact they’ve been playing together for two days.
The entire scene seems weirdly natural for Weird People, the only band formed at Lafayette with a George Wharton Pepper Prize-winning drummer, a clown for an emcee, and a theme song called “Constipated Ostrich.”
The members of Weird People began performing together in 1988 under an even weirder name. They were known as Antwerp’s Placebo, the title of a Grateful Dead instrumental, when they played their first public gig during a talent/gong show in Marquis Hall. The group’s name changed during a late-night dorm jam when bassist Chris Arnold ’93 thought the tune they were improvising should be called, well, “Weird People.”
Weird People cultivated a cult campus following by cultivating the vibe of a slightly psychedelic circus. They mixed Grateful Dead classics (“China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider”) with pop-soul standards (Van Morrison’s “Domino”) and rock-pop oddities (Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”). They played crazy originals like “Constipated Ostrich” and “Pack-a-My-Ba-Squonk.” They even had their own announcer, a monologuist named Squonky the Clown.
Like most college bands, Weird People performed in a variety of spaces and settings: off-campus apartments, frat barrooms, an Amnesty International Write-a-Thon. In 1989, the musicians finished third in the College’s annual Battle of the Bands. The next year, they won the competition. Second prize went to a group with a handful of Weird People.
One of the band’s weirdest gigs took place on Earth Day in 1990. Before the show, guitarist Scott Clow ’92 angrily cleaned the Quad of beer cups, some containing stale suds. He put the offending cups into a bag, took the bag onstage, shook it up, and tossed it at the crowd. Doused listeners “were pissed off,” recalls drummer Mike Pressman ’91, “and rightfully so.”
“Our history is shrouded in mystery,” says lead singer Tony Brooke ’91, the group’s archivist and the only member who makes a living from music. He runs Silent Way, a San Francisco company that rents engineering equipment and provides remote recording facilities. His long list of celebrity clients includes comedian Dave Chappelle, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and the rock band Coldplay.
Indeed, for two decades, Brooke thought Weird People’s final performance took place in May 1991 on the Phi Psi porch during Senior Week. Pressman insists the last show actually took place days later, on the eve of Commencement.
Like the Earth Day gig, the band’s swan song at Sigma Nu was memorable for non-musical moments. “We were locked into a super-funky groove,” says Pressman, winner of the 1991 Pepper Prize. “We were at the top of our game; everything was perfect. And then the cops shut us down.” It wasn’t the first time a Weird People show was ended prematurely by complaints of excessive noise.
The members of Weird People struggled to play together as undergraduates. As graduates they struggled to reunite. Regular rehearsals were out of the question because musicians were spread across the country. Pressman lives in Minnesota, where he serves as director of habitat protection for the Nature Conservancy. Guitarist Steve Gotlieb ’91 lives in California, where he engineers software and leads a band called Moving Chairs (Brooke is a guest vocalist). Bassist Tyrone Cabalu ’89 is based in Washington, D.C., where he plays in a trio and investigates money laundering for the U.S. Treasury Department.
The far-flung musicians decided to practice the new-fashioned way. They used social-media outlets to trade set lists, music files, and links to concerts. Drummer Jason Ojalvo ’92, a producer of audio books, cites a 38-post Facebook debate about performing the Dead tune “Samson and Delilah,” which no one had played live in any band. Brooke insists he convinced his colleagues to debut the song during the Reunion show “because I’d sound good singing it.”
The only music professional in Weird People, Brooke naturally became the concert’s producer and sound mixer, recording engineer, and cheerleader. He encouraged his colleagues during the Internet sessions and their one rehearsal the night before the Lafayette gig. “I was the one saying, We can do it! We can do it! Of course I had doubts at the back of my mind.”
Doubts pretty much evaporated once Weird People started the show with a silky, sassy instrumental version of “Black Magic Woman.” For the next two-odd hours the band was pretty much everything a jam band should be. The musicians squeezed the soul from “In the Midnight Hour.” They rollicked up “The Mighty Quinn.” They snarled on Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6,” with guitarist Joe Cigan ’91 on lead vocal. They surged, turned on a dime and grooved mightily during a double handful of Dead tunes, including “Franklin’s Tower,” “Eyes of the World,” and, yes, “Samson and Delilah.”
The musicians were happy campers. Gotlieb and Cigan smiled as they swapped crisp,
casual solos. Cigan dovetailed with his longtime friend, keyboardist Joe Tosolt ’91, who lent a guitar and an amplifier to Gotlieb, who didn’t want to haul his own equipment from California. Pressman and Ojalvo surfed sonic tidal waves. They were aided by Ojalvo’s 5-year-old daughter, Zoey, who slapped a mean cymbal.
No one was happier than Brooke, a pogo-sticking beanpole who could be mistaken for a college senior. His singing was a pleasant blend of growling and yowling; at times he sounded like the Dead’s Bob Weir. Every now and then he jumped offstage to check the sound balance and shoot the breeze with classmates. During a performance of the Dead’s “Bertha” he shot a cell-phone video of the band and himself.
It was a smiling show, a rainbow that brightened a rainy, gray afternoon. Brooke felt so good, in fact, he snuck in an extra song, the Dead’s “Cold Rain and Snow.” No one seemed to mind he cut into the next band’s time slot.
Brooke signed off with a snappy promise: “We’ll see you guys in another 20 years, all right?” After the show, he declared he was “definitely surprised” by the band’s high quality after a 20-year hiatus. “It just says something about a bunch of old dudes,” he says, “who can get together and play with no goal but fun.”
Brooke then revealed a fun flashback. During “Cold Rain and Snow,” he noticed a patrolling police officer. For a second or two he remembered the cops who shut down Weird People’s 1991 farewell at Sigma Nu. “It’s all right,” he thought to himself. “We’re old enough to post bail.”