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Bands on the Run
Making music is an outlet and a passion for a lot of Hopkins employees.


Cardiologist Steve Valenti with his signed Jimmy Buffett guitar.

by Mary Ellen Miller

Nothing is better than music… It has done more for us than we have the right to hope for.
-Nadia Boulanger

What is behind the impulse of human beings to come together to make music? Is it the desire to create something different and fuller than one could alone? The thrill of entertaining and connecting with an audience? The pull of being able to lose one's inhibitions on stage?

Yes, yes and yes.

Although there are, as one might expect, accomplished musicians by the dozens throughout Hopkins-pianists, cellists, vocalists, classical guitarists-there also is a cadre of rock 'n' roll bands whose members are just as zealous about their pastime as their classically trained counterparts.

Take Trish Caruana. By day, she is a clinical social worker on Hopkins Hospital's affective disorders unit, and a "top drawer" one at that, say her co-workers on Meyer 4. Her unit is a referral service for the very sick; many of her patients have attempted suicide. Caruana spends most of her time conducting psychotherapy with patients and their fractured families, trying to unravel complex interpersonal issues.

The work is difficult but gratifying, and Caruana is not thinking of trading in her career. But she's found an outlet, "a godsend to my mental health," that's the antithesis of working with her isolated population of patients.


9BobNOTE at Baltimore's CafÈ Tattoo, where they play regularly. "People are surprised when they see this group made up of women not in their 20s," says Trish Caruana, second from right. "We have a 51-year-old grandmother."

Caruana took up the guitar in high school in the 1970s, playing folk Masses and coffee houses. But she set music aside while establishing her career, and didn't take it up again until her 30s. In 1997, she took lessons on the drums, then put up an ad in a bookstore hoping to form a band. Five other women responded, and they began practicing regularly every Sunday. Within a few months, the group, christened 9BobNOTE (a nonsense British phrase), played its first gig at Hopkins University.

"We had eight songs and played them all," says Caruana. "They fed us and paid us money. It was thrilling-nerve-wracking, but great to have all that adrenaline. It's fun to practice in the basement, but playing for people is a whole lot more fun."

Their sound is "eclectic, neo-60s rock," and they perform mostly original songs penned by Caruana and Kelly Lallo, who plays acoustic guitar. During the past five years, they've performed in clubs around Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York, as well as festivals. In 2000, they put up their own money to produce a CD, "Voice on the Machine," and by this August they'd saved enough to release their second, "Ride," using band earnings.

When the group lost its drummer six months ago, a co-worker told Caruana about a drummer named Joe Bienvenue, who happened to be a Hopkins psychiatrist specializing in anxiety disorders. She wrote him an e-mail to introduce herself and they arranged to meet. "He was very organized, yet very laid back, and he fit in immediately with everybody. Plus, he's the best drummer we've ever played with."

Bienvenue, who has also played in a band called the Psychorelics with Hopkins psychiatrists Glenn Treisman and Adam Rosenblatt, enjoys playing with a band as serious about its music as 9BobNOTE. "There are no weak links, no one just learning or crossing over on instruments," he says. "They're finicky about trying to get things right. Plus, Trish has a lot of energy."

Caruana does have dreams about "getting into much bigger venues with much bigger audiences" and uses her skills as a therapist to network as much as possible.

"The competition is fierce," she admits, "but it's also true in music that just one open door can make huge inroads. It's like being a gambler. You may go through 2,000 tries, but you keep pulling the slot and some day you'll get three cherries."

Corey and the Crawdaddies


Jay Corey taught himself guitar when he was 14. His band, the Crawdaddies, is a regular fixture on the national college and festival circuits.

Like many a teenage boy before him, Jay Corey, now an assistant director for special projects in Hopkins Medicine's communications and public affairs office, picked up the guitar not out of any artistic yearning. He just wanted to meet girls. His scheme worked, to a point, but several years later, the West Virginia native was encouraged to switch to bass guitar to showcase his talent. On the advice of an older musical mentor, he reluctantly put aside Van Halen and the Dead Kennedys to take a job with a country band.

It was hardly Corey's dream gig. But his mentor's counsel sticks with Corey to this day. "He said, 'You can go to your buddy's garage on Saturday night, drink your case of beer, play your three tunes, and tell people you're in a band. Or you can start playin' music. Do you wanna be a musician, or do you wanna pretend like you're one?'"

Corey was 18 ("I looked about 12"), in his last year of high school in Beckley, W.Va. ("It's south, it's mountains, it's down in there"), and just old enough to be allowed into the bars on the band's honky-tonk circuit. He was an oddity among the "grizzled strip coal miners" who made up the rest of the band. On his first night, playing from a stage encased in chicken wire, he witnessed a bar fight "that looked like it was choreographed by stunt men. Guys were being thrown across the pool table."

Corey was told, in the middle of the bass line for "Under the Boardwalk," to keep playin'. He did, and quickly the fights seemed a regular part of the scenery.

At West Virginia University, Corey and some friends formed Shank, Swing and the Divots ("None of us played golf"), a college party band famous for being the band at the No. 1 party school in America. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he moved to the big city of Baltimore, where he had never been but had always wanted to live. He got a job with an advertising agency where he was assigned to write ad copy and produce commercials. Whenever he needed original music, he turned to a jazz pianist, and soon-to-be friend named Kraig Greff.

Greff had an impressive musical background. For 20 years, he'd been on the road touring with the likes of Barry White, Diana Ross and Della Reese. Now he'd settled in Baltimore. In 1995, Greff held an Octoberfest party and urged Corey to bring along his bass. To Corey's surprise, Greff unpacked an accordion on which he was amazingly versatile. He launched into some polkas, but after 10 minutes, did an about-face into soul, and everyone was dancing. That was the genesis of the Crawdaddies.

From the beginning, the band was pushed by the accordion. On its promotional material it's billed as a "Zydeco-Swing, Rock N' Soul" band, but Corey just calls it "swamp rock," a band in the New Orleans tradition but which can't be, "because we're not from there."

The Crawdaddies, who also have issued two CDs with many original songs, are a regular fixture on the national college and festival circuits. They've shared the stage with the likes of Etta James, Joan Jett and G.E. Smith.

Corey plays guitar and rub-board in the band, and is also, accidentally, the lead vocalist. His looks-reminiscent of Michael J. Fox in the role he played on "Family Ties" in the 1980s-belie his deep, raspy voice. The five members of the band, he says, could easily make a living from their music. But they've chosen to confine their performances to weekends throughout the year, with a break in November and December.

"I've made good money," says Corey. "I've bought a house [a 140-year-old mill house near Ellicott City that he's restoring], I've put money away for retirement, but I like being home. When we're out, it's a blast. I have to play. But I want it to be on my terms."

Even though he still writes brochure copy and produces the occasional video or TV spot for his job at Hopkins, Corey appreciates how song writing is his only true creative outlet. "In advertising, you never let a creative idea get in the way of selling the product," he explains. "It's the client's buck, and you're there to meet their demands. When I go home and write a tune, no one tells me what to do."

Doc Rock


Interventional cardiologist Alan Heldman left, and cardiac surgeon Duke Cameron, guitarists with Stevie V. and the Heart Attackers, whose next performance is Jan. 18, 2003.

Other Hopkins bands perform much more erratically. Wild Type, whose claim to fame is that most of its members worked in the laboratory of Hopkins' famous cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein, also started at a house party in Baltimore and once played regularly in bars in Fells Point. But the band of busy scientists is currently on hiatus. Likewise, a group of Hopkins graduate students, calling themselves Platypus Myth ("four guys with glasses who want to break away from graduate student labs to have fun playing rock 'n' roll," says their tongue-in-cheek Web site), and who have sometimes played with Wild Type, also are taking a break from their band.

Then there is Stevie V. and the Heart Attackers. They're the cardiologists who more or less spontaneously created a band to mark the opening of the Central Maryland Heart Center's cardiac catheterization lab located at Howard County General Hospital. They play "cover" (i.e., other people's songs), have no illusions about making a living from their band, and, in fact, put on a show only once a year. But they are crazy about playing their annual gig.

"We play everything from the 1950s to today," says Steve Valenti, associate medical director of the Central Maryland Heart Center, who originally formed the group with Hopkins cardiologists Lowell Maughan and Alan Heldman in 1997. Their selections reflect the musical interests of the 11 band members, so at one moment they may sound like the Grateful Dead, the next, the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Although their first performance was at a VFW Hall in Ellicott City, since then, they've been the band of record for Heartfest, the annual fund-raiser for Hopkins' Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. Over the past few years, crowds have swollen to 2,000, and the band has accompanied guest celebrities like Mary Wilson of the Supremes.

"That was amazing," says Valenti of Wilson's performance of "Baby Love" last year. "She was so sweet to work with. And when you're a professional it can be a little risky working with a band like ours."

Valenti himself is no musical slouch. He performed his first concert in sixth grade. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in the 1970s, his band, "The Nowhere Men," opened for Three Dog Night. And in 1995, he played on stage with Jimmy Buffett at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

To get there, he entered a guitar contest sponsored by a local radio station. To become one of six finalists, he had to bring his acoustic guitar to his office, shut the door, and play over the speaker phone. The night of the concert, all six finalists had to perform for the audience before the show. Valenti pulled out all the stops.

"I used to do martial arts," he says, "so I did some splits and kicks. You've got to get the audience excited."

Playing with Buffett that night "was like being in a different time and space-the lights, the PA system. We were running around laughing, playing 'Cheeseburger in Paradise.' That's pretty funny for a cardiologist."

As if the evening wasn't enough of a prize already, Valenti was presented with a gold- plated, $3,000 guitar with pearl inlay and signed by Buffett himself.

Soon, Valenti will begin to organize the annual Heartfest practice sessions, which start up to three months in advance of the January event. Their first "practice"-the process of selecting 48 songs-begins via e-mail. Then comes the difficult task of getting harried doctors, surgeons, nurses and other health professionals together "after work" in one room.

In the end, says Valenti, "people make it. We sound pretty decent."

Heartfest night is a high for everyone. "We play non-stop from 7:30 to midnight," says Valenti. "We dress in scrubs, hats and booties. A lot of the cardiology community is in the audience, people who've dedicated their lives to the field, and we're playing for them. So it feels great to give something back. It makes Heartfest very personal."


Catching their Acts: For a schedule of future performances and information about CDs, check out web sites: www.9bobnote.com and www.thecrawdaddies.com.

Heartfest will take place Sat., Jan. 18, 2003, 7:30 p.m., at Martin's West. This year's guest celebrity is Vicki Lawrence. For ticket information ($60), call 410-955-7376.

 

 

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