Las Vegas City Life
They clapped and whooped for an encore, and boy are they ever getting it: Singer Rick Friedman is using the mic cord as a tourniquet and, after pretending to shoot up, sags against an amp in melodramatic, heroin-fortified ecstasy. The rest of the band, led by Lon Bronson-trumpet in one hand, the other pumping emphatically with each word-shouts the chorus to the classic Tubes tune: “White punks on dope! White punks on dope!”
The audience looks like it’s just been slapped with an anvil-and it feels damn good. There are uncomprehending stares and appalled smiles as the realization jells: This is not your typical lounge act. And it’s just the reaction that Bronson-the charismatic Dark Prince of the lounge scene-is looking for.
At the lounge bar after the show, he’s mobbed by people slapping his back and saying things in his ear-old fans, new converts, beautiful women and total drunken freaks.
“You gotta love the night crowd,” he says, swimming at the center of attention. “This is something you can only get by playing at 1 in the morning.” Though the band, and not just the hour, deserves some credit.
The Lon Bronson All-Star Band is the most talented, brash and subversive act you’re likely to see in the lounges of corporate-era Vegas.
Sure, the band-complete with a live horn section, percussionist and a stream of guest singers ranging, on this night, from Lisa Mayer to Tony Tillman of “The Rat Pack Is Back” to longtime lounge fixture Lawrence T-does everything from The Tubes to The Temptations to Tower of Power with a tautness and energy that violently capsizes the lounge band stereotype. But it’s the brazen personality of Bronson that gives the Riv’s house band extra kick.
Between songs, Bronson ditches the trumpet for his second favorite instrument: his big mouth. He roasts the guests (“our next guest, the Doctor of Streetology with a minor in solicitation, the man wearing Hugh Hefner’s pajamas, Lawrence T!”). He makes cracks about the band (“our band features a real live drunken horn section, and the ones who aren’t on alcohol are on drugs”). And, most frequently, he waxes sardonic about the thing closest to his heart: music.
After the band plays a few syrupy bars of “Achy Breaky Heart,” Lon cuts it off: “Sorry folks, we don’t do that. If you want to hear that shit, go somewhere else.” A sarcastic “disco medley tribute” launches Bronson into a rant about retro revivalism and artificial music: “We can be the Boogie Knights, people. We’ll just ditch the live horns, get some track sequencers and some stupid wigs and platform shoes and make everybody happy. And you can rest assured we won’t do anything like this.” At his cue, the All-Stars take off into a crazed, intense funk jam, proving that an afro wig and bell bottoms do not a musician make.
“I don’t even consider us a lounge band. We’re an anti-lounge band,” Bronson says after the set. He’s sitting at the bar, diving for his drink between fans slapping his back and shaking his hand. “We’re really just a local band, but it’s not exactly feasible for us to play the local club circuit. You can only do the Boston so much. What else is left if we want to play somewhere where we can have a little freedom and keep a little self-respect? It just happens to be a lounge.”
And it also just happens to make the Lon Bronson phenom a fist in the face of conventional casino culture, where lounges are, more often than not, backwaters of musical mediocrity and utter predictibility. To the contrary, the 41-year old Bronson considers his band a throwback to the fabled pre-suit days of Vegas. It’s an observation that inevitably leads Bronson into one of his trademark rants.
“The lounges are just littered with plastic sequenced nonsense,” he says. “These casinos don’t want to spend any money on decent lounge bands. In the ’60s and ’70s, the mob would do things right. Sure, they’d take a beating on putting quality talent in the casino, but they knew that people would see the show and say, ‘That was fucking awesome. Now let’s go gamble!’ Now you have the bean-counters who don’t want to spend a penny on talent, stuffing the lounges with bad Top 40 cover bands.”
But if the turnout at Bronson’s show-a crammed lounge and a crowded dance floor-is any indication, the formula that casino entertainment slugs follow to the letter is as inane and counterproductive as Bronson says. Indeed, out-of-towners who caught the Bronson show walked away with their preconceptions about Vegas in flames.
“I was expecting to just see some lounge lizards on stage,” says Darragh Lawrence from Santa Cruz, Calif. “But I was seriously blown away. The band is incredibly tight.”
Ten years of playing together will do that. Even band members-who celebrated the band’s 10th anniversary last month-can’t believe they’ve kept it up for this long.
“When Lon approached me about starting a band-one that would play original music as well as covers-at the Riv, I thought it’d never fly, says singer Rick Friedman. “Then when it did happen, I didn’t think it would last. But here we are. People love this stuff.”
Bronson interjects: “We originally started at 2 a.m. on Monday nights. We’d get all fucked up beforehand, go on about 2:45, and the place was mobbed. If you think we got crazies now, imagine the kind of people showing up at 3 a.m. on a Monday night. We sold a million drinks, though, and they kept us around. The Riv has really stood behind us.”
Along the way, The Lon Bronson All-Stars have managed to snag a few honors as well. They performed on Drew Carey’s 1998 HBO special and were the house band on the ’98-’99 season of Comedy Central’s “Viva Variety.” “I thought, ‘This is our big break!'” Bronson says. “Yeah, right, our big break. The show gets fucking canceled.”
Not that Bronson is grabbing at any big brass rings. The band’s trumpeter and conductor has enough gigs to juggle, including conducting for the Rio’s “David Cassidy at the Copa” show, and heading the UNLV Funk Ensemble. Saturday nights, however, is when he finally gets to join the musical fray.
“People come up to me after the show all the time, promoters, label people, saying, ‘Man, you have to tour, you have to put out some records, you have to realize The Dream.’ No. The Dream is now. We’re all fat, middle aged guys who just want to play our guts out and then go home to our suburban homes and suburban lives. We don’t want to be on the road, stopping at some 7-Eleven at 5 in the morning to eat Baby Ruths for breakfast. We love it here. Vegas is such a gas, man.”