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Behind the Curtain: Ian Wallace, Brad Dutz and Tal Bergman and the Music of ‘The Ten Commandments’ with Val Kilmer and Adam Lambert
For his latest Behind the Curtain, Steve Rosen recalls a memorable trip to the Kodak Theatre (now the Dolby Theatre) in Hollywood in 2004 to catch a production of The Ten Commandments starring Val Kilmer and a young Adam Lambert — and its musical accompaniment provided by Ian Wallace, Brad Dutz and Tal Bergman, among others …
I stand outside the Kodak Theatre located in the heart of the Hollywood and Highland shopping mall complex watching the human menagerie shuffling by. Cartoon characters, superheroes, and long-dead movie stars stomp all over the five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalk beneath their feet. Just a short distance away, jazz and avant garde percussionist Brad Dutz leans pensively against a stone pillar near the entrance of the theater. I recognize him from photos. He is oblivious to the mad crowd around him. Dutz is in pre-gig mode and barely bats an eye when a buxom blonde with an eerie resemblance to Marilyn Monroe saunters by.
Tonight Dutz, along with drummer Tal Bergman [Roger Daltrey, Sammy Hagar, B.B. King] and drummer-turned-percussionist for the night Ian Wallace [King Crimson, Ronnie Wood, Steve Marriott] is part of the live band providing the musical backdrop for a stage version of The Ten Commandments. The adaptation features Val Kilmer as Moses — a curious choice for a dude who has probably broken more than his share of those religious tenets in his days, but the show must go on, right? — along with a support cast of more than 40 professional singers and dancers as well as extensive stage accoutrements including pyramids, parting seas and the fabled burning bush.
The show has been running two weeks now when Drum! Magazine reaches out and tells me they want a story. This is a new wrinkle for me. I’ve covered live gigs — shitloads of them — but never a live, staged musical production. I’m a bit unnerved by the task before me and if gospel be spread, I don’t know thing one about what I’m doing. I hate musicals and find them tedious and enervating. I would never be here of my own accord but when a magazine hails, I heed the call (not to mention a mad interest in talking with Ian Wallace about Crimson).
As it turns out, I’m not the only virgin here. I’ll later find out, neither Dutz, Bergman nor Wallace has ever been involved in this type of gig. Vestal virgins all. I approach Brad and say hello. He has been informed a journalist was coming down and welcomes me. We make small talk and at 7:45 he takes one final lung-filling gulp of fresh air. He eyeballs one last straggling ticketholder heading inside and we do the same.
This has become his ritual for two weeks now, he tells me, positioning himself topside before making the descent, the long, long walk into the subterranean heart of this state-of-the-art edifice. The building indeed is an architectural wonder, combining the Old World grace and élan of a European opera house with a New World technology embodying cutting edge acoustical and production capabilities. Watching and listening to this $12 million extravaganza must be an extraordinary experience, Brad surmises, because that’s all he can do. Visualize. Imagine. He has never seen the interior of the theater during an actual performance and wonders what the music sounds like up there. He can only guess.
Brad begins the journey to his underground home. Across from the main entry lies a side door marked Credentials Required. The lanky Dutz passes through a security room where a seated employee performs a cursory inspection of the laminate around his neck and waves him through yet another set of doors. The guard doesn’t even look at me and figures if I’m with Dutz, I’m OK. This second set of doors is marked Lounge/Wardrobe/Orchestra Pit. We enter this portal — no, we’re still not there yet — and walk down a long hallway dotted by offices on both sides. We make a sharp left and then an immediate right — I’m reminded of the scene in Spinal Tap where the band can’t find the stage — and finally reach out destination.
This subterranean section of the Kodak Theatre is a place few people ever see or even realize exists. It is exclusively the domain of employees, production crew, techs and tonight, a whole bunch of musicians. Like Alice tumbling down the magic rabbit hole, Dutz has arrived at his own mad tea party and what awaits him is a scene truly out of Lewis Carroll’s fantastical imagination. The place fucking rocks.
The Pit and the Rhythm Men.
Though the band has dubbed this space the Pit, it hardly looks like one. The room is approximately 40×40, comfortably lit and lined on all four walls with heavy curtains. Air temp is maintained at a perfect 72°. The enclosure is pulsing with that type of manic activity only musicians preparing for a gig are capable of mustering. It is feverish and frantic but somehow controlled. Organized cacophony. Besides the trio of percussionist-drummers, an additional 10 musicians prepare for curtain call, which is only a few short minutes away.
The floor is littered with cables, cords, anvil cases, trap cases, coffee cups, candy wrappers, US magazines, music stands and staff paper. Synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, violins, viola, and cello create a sort of maze within the labyrinth. Brad enters, wends his way through the obstacle course, and greets fellow percussionists Ian Wallace and Tal Bergman. The lanky Englishman and the stocky Israeli are making last-minute adjustments to drum kits and various percussion instruments.
Final preparations are made. MD — no, not a doctor, musical director — Greg Chun hands out the music with last-minute changes. The trio casually looks at the sheet music, absorbs the new bits and as nonchalantly as if they’d just read a shopping list, continue with the pre-show wrap-up. I saw one of the pages as they were being handed out and the notes scribbled there were as intimidating as hell.
Wallace catches my attention, smiles and says, “Fly diarrhea.” That’s exactly what it looked like. Only heavy readers allowed here. Cats used to seeing music spelled out on pages and having an extraordinary ability to not only translate the notes on the fly — pun intended — but to have the talent to render the tab human and make the music sing and dance as it falls from their fingers.
The three amigos settle into individual Plexiglas-partitioned isolation booths at the back of the room. The pit is laid out in a sort of concentric horseshoe configuration. The exterior half-ring includes synth players, guitarist and bassist. In the inner ring are the string players: violins, viola and cello. MD Chun stands atop a dais on an opposite wall facing the orchestra.
Dutz pulls out sticks and mallets and things that go bang and arranges the tools surgical-tray fashion so they’re all easily accessible. He is surrounded by a shit ton of stuff and has appropriately earned the nickname “The Gadgetman.” Circling his iso booth are congas, bongos, djembe, doumbec, darabuka, two Yamaha timpani, tambourine, Brazilian pandiero [tambourine], an Egyptian riq [tambourine], maracas, shakers, stone wind chimes, plant materials [pods], keys and shells. Additionally, there is a 28” bass drum, sangpa [medium-sized bass drum from Guinea], and a djun-djun [large bass drum from Guinea] and a wash of cymbals. There is even a marching machine Brad scored when he bought an old Fleetwood Mac road case and found this hidden inside [conceivably, Mick Fleetwood used this on the marching song, “Tusk”].
Next to him, Tal Bergman goes through his pre-event ritual, adjusting his electronic drum kit and miscellany percussion [djembe; Brazilian bass drum]. Similarly, Ian Wallace runs through a quick diagnostic of his acoustic kit and then sits down at an electronic set in the corner of his booth.
Last-minute tweaks, twists and tunings completed, the players settle back in their seats. Chun yells out the last minute arrangement change: “Act 2, song 3, bars 8 to 14 are cut.” The drummers have already noted the deletion and barely blink an eye.
Raising his wand, Greg quips, “If anybody is taking me seriously, we are playing from the top of the show tonight.” Subdued laughter. The orchestra is in its zone, fingers poised over synthesizers, string instruments at the ready, drummers awaiting the downbeat. There is no moment as sublimely perfect as those seconds leading up to the execution of a first bar, when an orchestra of trained and sympathetic musicians pounces on that first note. Is there anything in this world as fucking great as the moment when lights dim and a band first walks out onstage? When you see the illuminated lights of the amps and the the dark silhouettes up there. It is a breathless moment where your heart flutters and your breathing shallows as you wait for the first guitar chord to come flying out of the speakers. It is perfect.
Now, showtime just a few seconds away, Chun checks his monitor, mouths a silent one-bar count and drops the wand. Downbeat. The silence is punctuated by the sound of 10,000 marching soldiers, an astounding representation of the footfalls of the Egyptian army. Brad supplies the effect via the marching machine, a roughly rectangular wooden frame housing dowel-shaped wooden pegs suspended by thin lengths of elastic material. He raises/lowers the shell on top of a drum case, creating the synchronous cadence of men walking in formation. Mick would be proud.
In the following bars, Tal gently provides motion for a shaker and then sits down at his electronic kit. Brad has completed his opening bar figures and now sips on a cup of coffee, perched casually against the back wall of his enclosed area. He glances over to Tal, establishes eye contact with Ian on the far side of Bergman, and provides them with a one-bar finger count, raising thumb, first finger, middle finger, and ring finger sequentially. Ian, the left-hander, enters the number with a crashing rock groove on acoustic set, and then Tal jumps in with intricate electronic hi-hat and cymbal accents. The overall effect is staggering, a stampeding yet highly orchestrated rhythm section establishing a feverishly percussive groove while the trio of synthesizers pound out clustered chord figures.
The melodies evoke desert winds and the beckoning of a mighty prophet.
Cue: Val Kilmer.
The sound is gigantic. Earth-shattering. Each instrument is fed directly up to the board located out in the theatre so the music is record quality. But there is a catch — there is no interaction with the performers or the audience. As a result, the crowd is denied the spectacle of watching three drummers pound hell out of shit or staring at string players dancing on their instruments or electric guitar and bass being strummed and plunked.
Both Wallace and Dutz will later tell me how much they wished they were topside but Bergman isn’t so sure. “There is a good point of being downstairs. You can wear whatever the fuck you want to!” Ian adds, “And throw paper airplanes.” jokes Wallace.
Indeed, the drummer does throw paper planes. He launches the crude construction on a perfect flight that settles near the feet of Chun. Gazing down at the artifact, the conductor says in a mock serious voice, “Such sadness” though he is not referring to the levity in the room. He is referring to Kilmer’s vocals above him, which are recalling Moses’ banishment from Egypt. The drummers three glance at each other and bust out laughing. Val is not a terrible singer but he’s just not a very good one.
In fact, the lighthearted mood is de rigueur for these dudes. This is how they act every night. They are players from a different planet, uber-beings with a rare and precious talent running through their veins few musicians possess. They are the fucking greatest of the greatest.
“Say A Prayer” is the final song of the night. Up on stage, all fifty or so performers are engaged in a gang vocal celebrating the flight from slavery to freedom. Ian knocks off a couple of huge ending drum fills and the evening is over. Tal bounces off his snare, looks at his fellow players and in all deep sincerity says, “Great show, guys, great show.”
This has been impressive beyond words and I’m blown away by what I’ve seen and heard. At the end of the night, when the laughter is over, what remains are mind-blowing players who have gone beyond the written note. They have transcended what lies on the page with what lies in their hands and their heart. Interpretation. Inspiration. Infuckingsane performance.
I know. I gush and fawn. You would too. Imagine being in a room with the most gifted athletes, actors, painters or writers. You are a would-be baseball player or a fledgling artist of some pursuit and here you are amongst the masters of the trade. You watch them pursue their craft. You can only be awed by the perfection of it.
There is something profound about the people in the pit I watched that night. As a musician, you could play for a thousand years and never reach the level of these dudes. An extra chromosome is present here; some elevated sense only a chosen few possess.
Tal, Brad and Ian tidy up and do some last-minute housekeeping. We retreat to a catering room set up for the band and have a late-night nosh. We chat about the show and what they thought and how it felt. I’ll do the serious interviews at a later date.
I finally make my exit and in true Spinal Tap fashion, I become impossibly lost. I wander amongst darkened hallways, unmarked doors and dead-ends. I am trying to remember the path Brad originally took when we first entered but I cannot. I am fucked. For what seems forever, I shuffle back and forth down mysterious corridors. At long last, I see a door I recognize and walk through it.
Hallelujah, I am back in the theatre. It has only been 15 minutes or so in the bowels of hell but all of a sudden I have a newfound respect for Moses and his 40-year schlep through the Sinai Desert. That must have been some killer fucking walk.
Somebody should write a musical about him.