Go Loudly into the Night

After playing guitar by himself for twenty-odd years, Tom O’Connor found himself in a rut. “I’m tired of knowing three chords,” he said, grinning. “And I wanted to play with other people. I’ve been playing to my plants and my furniture and my kids; my kids stopped listening to me, and I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to learn how to keep time with other people.’”

So O’Connor went to Rock School. Minneapolis’s MacPhail Center has a sterling reputation as an academy of classical music. They also have a class that teaches students how to rock out. It is prosaically called “Rock and Blues Ensemble.” Craig Anderson is a genial guitarist who founded the program twelve years ago. “What’s the difference between jamming in a basement and being in this class?” he asked in his MacPhail studio. “There is none. This class is just like what people do all over town on their own, except MacPhail provides a practice room, gear, and the guidance of a teacher.”

A decade of teaching the class caught up with Anderson. He had to hang up his guitar this semester because of tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears (a detail that surely just adds to the rock ’n’ roll cred of the program). The frontman position has been filled by Steve Roehm, another gifted musician with experience in several Twin Cities bands. (He currently plays drums for an outfit called Electropolis.) Every Wednesday night, Roehm assembles his pupils in the MacPhail Annex. It is a brightly lit room that looks more church basement than garage. And instead of moody teens dreaming of Lycra hot pants and big-busted groupies, the class I attended consisted of three beer-bellied men in their forties. According to Anderson, this is pretty normal. Describing the typical pupil, he said, “it’s more of a creative, artistic outlet in their lives. But they’re not so wrapped up in it. They have kids. They have jobs. It’s not like they’re playing rock ’n’ roll as an expression of their angst toward society.”

Thus, teaching the class means taking a diverse group of grown-ups with varying levels of ability and coaching them to play as a unit. It’s not always easy. Although Roehm conducted class from a drum set, he was frequently hopping up to a xylophone to play a melody, to a whiteboard to write out a time signature, to a bass to demonstrate a fingering. He was, however, careful to intersperse more formal instruction with tips on how to rock out properly. For instance: “You stretch out the dramatic chords, and that’s where we can pose and do all of our extra sweating.”

Roehm led the class through a series of blues figures, an original song written by one of the students, a Led Zeppelin tune suggested by the bass player, and, most successfully, through a free-form jam initiated when O’Connor put his head down and started rocking out to three chords. (The only tune the students balked at was Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”) Although there were occasional rough spots, as when two of the guitarists attempted a solo at the same time, I noticed more than one rictus of guitar rapture, too; they were enjoying themselves.—Keith Pille