Lounge Ax: The Lon Bronson All-Stars Give Casino Culture a Kick in the Ass

Las Vegas City Life
Andrew Kiraly

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.”

An Unlikely Friendship

BYLINE: MIKE WEATHERFORD, REVIEW-JOURNAL

Two musical paths came together with a version of “let’s make a deal.”

Lon Bronson grew up liking the band Tower of Power so much that he started his own band with the same horn-powered blend of funk, rock and soul.

When he finally got Tower co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka to come check out the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, the veteran bandleader enjoyed what he heard enough to offer Bronson three unrecorded songs.

“He said, `I’m going to give them to you. The only stipulation is that you have to record an album,’ ” Bronson recalls.

“I just wanted to light a fire under him,” confirms Kupka, who plans to help distribute the disc through his Strokeland Records label. “I’m really glad he’s doing our tunes. I’m a big fan of his.”

The two have become blue-eyed-soul brothers who even plan to get together this weekend to write songs they can pitch to other artists.

And it’s almost certain that Tower players will be jamming onstage Saturday at the Golden Nugget. Tower is in town for its own shows at The Orleans today through Sunday, and its players like to wind down at the Bronson band’s late-night Saturday sessions at the Nugget.

The trumpet-playing Bronson had listened to Tower since the early ’70s. Seeing them live at the bygone concert club Calamity Jayne’s “inspired me to do a homegrown version, at least as a starting point,” Bronson says.

That in itself isn’t so unusual. “Most of the horn bands I hear sound like us or Earth, Wind & Fire,” says Kupka, who pioneered the band’s “East Bay sound” in 1968 with saxophonist Emilio Castillio, fusing the Bay area’s parallel schools of psychedelia and soul. Kupka estimates the 10-piece band has seen more than 50 players come and go over the years.

What might be more unusual is Kupka’s helping another band within the same narrow niche instead of saving the songs for himself.

Tower enjoyed its share of ’70s airplay for tunes such as “What is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man.” But Kupka now says the band’s most likely opportunity for mass exposure would be to place a song on a movie soundtrack.

He says it “behooves everybody to let them do it. The more songs (Bronson) does of mine the better I like it.” After all, he has written more than 1,000.

“We keep doing CDs because if you stop, you instantly become an oldies band,” Kupka says.

Musicianship is something that’s became less valued on both the rock and hip-hop side of the fence, not the best news for a band whose trademark is the meticulous blend of its five-piece horn section.

But time also has helped Tower become more prized by its loyal fan base. The group plans to tour this summer on a co-bill with the like-minded Tom Jones (currently working the MGM Grand).

“They say it’s better to be 20 years behind the times than two years,” Kupka says.

It was far tougher for the band in the late ’70s, when it was still a major-label recording act and faced “enormous pressure to play disco.” As the disco era gave way to “Miami Vice,” the 1987 “Power” album reflected “big pressure for synthesized sound.”

Kupka says he recently saw the Janet Jackson video for “Rhythm Nation” and “it was just ironic. It sounded so dated and (the dancers) were all marching around in their `March of the Wooden Soldiers’ outfits. It sounded way more dated than our stuff.”

Kupka and Bronson first met not in Las Vegas, but on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, when Bronson’s band played a wrap party for “The Drew Carey Show.” Carey had discovered Bronson at the Riviera, where he was a fixture for 14 years before moving to the Golden Nugget last year. Kupka’s wife works as a stylist in the TV and film industry.

“We’re disciples but we have our own slant on everything,” Bronson says of his 13-piece band with a six-piece horn section. He likes to cover familiar rock and pop tunes, such as “doing `Stairway to Heaven’ as interpreted by Frank Zappa as interpreted by us.”

Fee Waybill of The Tubes even agreed to record a guest vocal for the Bronson band’s remake of “White Punks on Dope” for the CD, due in February. Most of the tracks were recorded during live sets at the Nugget, and Bronson credits both the Nugget — which will buy a number of CDs to use for promotion — and revolutions in recording software for making the project affordable.

“Everything came into play at the right time,” he says.

Bring back the lounge act

BY LON BRONSON

The Las Vegas lounge scene is not completely dead, but it smells real bad. With few noticeable exceptions (Stations properties), most casinos are shunning our glorious Vegas heritage of providing free lounge entertainment. This hasn’t happened overnight; ever since the Mob lost out to Howard Hughes we’ve been descending on this not-so-slippery slope. Think about it: Forty years ago you could see Louis Prima for a two-drink minimum. Today? Right. Why not? Intangibles. It’s problematic for accountants to show a paper trail from an excited lounge patron to a gaming table — and register his losses as a result of hearing the Count Basie Orchestra. Intangible. Tourists who fly in from all over the world for the sole purpose of seeing a favorite lounge act might tell a casino host — but it’s never put into the lounge’s revenue column. Intangible. The perceived concept of getting something for nothing from the megaresort — which is relentlessly harvesting your cash from the second you enter. Intangible.

As a result, in the pursuit of tangible profits, the megaresorts have done one of three things with their lounges.

1) Pay to play: This is sheer genius. Rent the lounge, at a premium price, to fledgling acts with Vegas stars in their eyes. The act’s only source of revenue is whatever ticket sales they may get. The casino supplies no marketing/advertising support (that would cost money). Result: Revolving door of mediocrity. No individual act can possibly compete with the thousands of dollars being spent weekly on headline entertainment marketing. Nobody buys the tickets, so the act runs out of cash in short order. Survivors of this scenario include hypnotists and impersonator track acts. Advantage: Bad Hypnotists. Disadvantage: People won’t pay to watch lame acts. Thus, an empty lounge.

2) Disco nightclub: Turn your lounge into Vegas’ newest craze, “The Club.” Looks like nothing but easy money here: Charge a $20 cover, rape everybody on the drinks (water: $10), and get $500 for a table near the action from conventioneers who equate real estate location with *** acquisition. Advantage: Dorks with lots of money who still can’t get laid. Disadvantage: It costs money to get your lounge to resemble Studio 54. A lot of money.

3) *** off: No lounge entertainment, period. Put in slot machines. Now people might start going to your pricey new Broadway production. Advantage: Steve Wynn. Disadvantage: Steve Wynn. Look, I’m not advocating socialism here. We’re all in the game to make a buck. All I am saying is give the ghost of Louis Prima a chance. Find a way to cook the books so the lounges do show a small profit (we all know that can be done). Hire Prima’s contemporaries. Give away Kansas, Flock of Seagulls and Three Dog Night for two drinks (and along the way, even some lesser-known acts that merit it — guess who? No, actually I meant Burton Cummings’ The Guess Who).

The Mohegan Sun hotel-casino in Connecticut has been doing just that. You should see the line that forms for the free David Cassidy show 24 hours before downbeat. And what is within arm’s reach of that long line, my friends? Gaming. Shopping. Restaurants. Talk about a captive audience. It’s classic bait and switch. Baby boomers will spend even more money once they’ve heard Steppenwolf and had a few Smirnoff Ices. The corpies could still learn a thing or two from the carnies. Make it tangible. Harvest on. Thanks for listening. I’m here all week.

THE LON BRONSON ALL-STAR BAND PERFORMED AT THE RIVIERA FOR 13 YEARS BEFORE MOVING TO THE GOLDEN NUGGET IN 2004. HIS SHOW WAS CANCELED IN OCTOBER.