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Featured Musician — Leo Marcus Whitebird

Profile & Photos courtesy of Mr. Whitebird

Leo in 1969
Leo in 1969

I was born February 21, 1958, in Redwood City, California. For the first two years of my life we lived in Menlo Park and Palo Alto before we moved to Berlin, where my father was pursuing graduate work. The Berlin wall was just going up and my most vivid memories of that time are of seeing the Brandenburg Gate. In late 1961 we moved to Binghampton, New York, where my father was teaching at SUNY. There was always music in our house and my dad played in the college orchestra. My parents, sensing my musical interest, bought me a tamborita which is a small Czech folk instrument somewhat resembling a dulcimer. During our time in NY we kids were babysat by the Dios, two brothers from down the block. The older of the two, Larry, had a duo and was active in the local music scene. I remember a summer evening (shortly before we moved) his band set up a stage in their backyard. I asked them what they were up to and they replied "We're having a Hootenanny!" That evening as the music began I remember standing in front of the stage basking in the sound and decided at that moment "I want to do that!!!"

A couple of months later, as we were preparing to move to Vermont and as I was watching Saturday morning cartoons, Chipper Dio (the younger brother) came by the house with a beat-up nylon-string classical guitar in hand. The Dios wanted me to have it, although it took Chipper a few moments to convince me they were serious about it. I was flabbergasted and spent my time before we moved and when we got to Vermont trying to play it, but I was a small child and couldn't reach all the way across the neck to make a G chord. I still plinked away at it until it self-destructed. Then in 1966 my parents bought me a ukulele. I was able to navigate the neck with my small hands and played it until 7th grade. When I was in 5th grade we lived in Ithaca NY for a year and I formed my first band, the Wombats, with some neighborhood kids. We had a percussionist playing pots and oatmeal boxes and even a toy snare when we could swipe it from the kid living downstairs. An incident in which we tried to borrow his drumsticks led to our first smash hit "Wooden Spoons."

We moved back to Vermont in '68 and I kept the Wombats alive, playing with a bunch of friends from school and our percussion section being upgraded to a Sears-Roebuck cardboard headed Cowsills drum set. Our big debut was a backyard carnival, and our grand entrance consisted of the garage door being opened. We made our theatrical debut during a performance in the French class play "Sidonie Cigale," the story of a singing grasshopper down on her luck who gets THE BIG BREAK! I wrote music for the lyrics in the script and afterwards was buttonholed by one of my classmate's mother, who was French. She told me "You have captured the true French Ye-ye Style!" Who knew?

As I entered 7th grade my folks got me a size guitar that I could actually get my hands around. I worked my way through the basic chords and some simple line parts (Inna-Godda Da-Vida and Sunshine of Your Love, etc...) that were the must-know tunes at the time, along with House of the Rising Sun and other period classics. I spent a lot of time with my friend Jim Brunet writing protest and cheesy long songs, most of which I still remember. I still couldn't solo worth a damn ...

1970: We moved to Minnesota (Edina) and it was one of the more miserable years of my life. I was still working hard to be a better player but the combination of teenager's lack of coordination and my lack of interaction with other musicians was frustrating me. I had the misfortune of being the school hippie and one day, on the bench in the principal's office, I met my old and dear friend Tim Lavin. The conversation ran along the lines of "What are you in for?" but somewhere in the conversation it came out that we were both guitar players and we both loved Jimi Hendrix. That friendship and musical association continues to this day.

During the ensuing summer, my rebellious attitude and behavior prompted my parents to send me to boarding school where I managed to hook up with my friend Jim Brunet again. Jim, I and several others played at school, and it was there that I had a musical epiphany. Our Dorm Officer, Lee Goodman, an excellent guitarist, showed me the basics of blues scales and soloing. [I believe Lee was the younger brother of violinist Jerry Goodman (The Flock, Mahavishmu Orchestra, etc).] I had struggled with this for years and it was a major musical inspiration in my life. I practiced like a fiend all summer and persuaded my parents to let me buy a Kingston Strat copy, which I played through my Wards Airline stereo. Back at school the next year I managed to buy a Fender Princeton amp, and sold my soul to rock'n'roll. Midway through the year I was expelled from school and had to join the family in Freiburg, Germany. This could have been a drag, but I met up with a bunch of my classmates at the high school and started playing music with them. We rented a seedy basement studio and had an improvisational collective named Breakwork. We experimented mixing various genres and we played underground shows around Freiburg. I was already getting interested in progressive rock and they were fascinated with the Blues, so it was a very fertile year for musical exchange and I came home with a host of new influences.

In 1973 we returned to Minnesota. Due to some family politics, I ended up in a group home. I met and was playing music with some friends from the neighborhood who shared my love of progressive material. I got enrolled at a local free school, Loring Nicollet. Instructors at this school not only encouraged me to play and gave me credit for playing, but provided me with guitar lessons! We had a school band that was allowed to use the building at night to rehearse and spent many hours hacking through blues and rock standards as well as just plain jamming.

During this period I met some friends that would also be enduring influences and band mates for years to come. Flash Midnight and Flame Mahoney was a bass/drum unit that were also very into progressive rock. We spent countless hours listening to records and discussing music. We formed a band named Magic Dragon and played original progressive rock, although we never really played out, barring a few party gigs. One of the guitarists from that band (we had three) and I began playing together and eventually formed a band with my brother Matthew on bass and our friend David Bartholomew (who I had also been playing with) on Guitar and Keyboards. Originally known as Gnome, we evolved into Ouroborous, doing mostly original progressive rock with the occasional King Crimson, ELP or Genesis cover. The band broke up in 1978 due to frustration from lack of gigs and drummer problems.

Blue Cheez, 1979
Blue Cheez, 1979

My wife Robin and I married 27 years ago. That same year I joined my first and only commercial cover band, Zacharia, embarking on an ill-fated tour of Florida that is best left to the history books. After that debacle I teamed up with Strider Hammer (who I had met in my last year of high school) and David Carlson to form the Blue Cheeze band, a three guitar and vocal trio, doing everything from Hank Williams to Moody Blues ... We played around town for several years and were contemplating incorporating bass and drums when the band self-destructed. David and I were committed to continue playing though. And, at that time, Robin took up the bass and we played as the New Age Troubadors for a bit. We picked up our new friend Michael Sullivan on guitar and percussion. This group evolved into Golden Dawn, with the addition of Kate Bortz on vocal and keyboard and with Carl Yost on drums. Jay William Koelsch became our soundman. Katie left the group to have a baby after a year or so, but we continued playing with her in one of our many offshoot groups. At one point, in addition to the Golden Dawn Band, we had many others bands out gigging: Barleycorn (Irish music – Jay, Michael, Bob Alexander and me); Waxed Beans (vocal jazz and blues - Jay, Michael, Katie, Wendy Smith and me) and the Electric Fruit (psychedelic rock - Howard Harrison, Ralph Irving, Wayne Goeze, Tim Duroche and me).

MIA 1984
MIA 1984

Golden Dawn broke up in 1986 but after a brief period my brother Matthew, my brother Tim, along with Mike Sullivan and my best friend David Joyslin, formed the Early Mammals. The Mammals were a high energy, sardonic hard rock band and we played the 7th Street/Uptown circuit to some acclaim. Tim left the band after 6 months or so and our old friend Flash stepped in to play drums. As Golden Dawn was breaking up I was also approached by my rehearsal space landlord about building and running a recording studio. I agreed to it and after six intensive months of construction, Trackside Audio opened for business in late 1986.

During this period I was also playing with the McGrath Brothers (Irish music) around town and at the Renaissance Festival. In 1989, I had the privilege of engineering a single for the late Sonny Rodgers that won a W. C. Handy award that year.

Flash left the Mammals after our first album. After a procession of drummers we changed our name to Thrillhammer and got even heavier. None of that material has been officially released. During this period I was also involved with the writing collective Split Level (Rob Pearson, Alan Grey and me). We released a tape and a follow-up CD of original material featuring such local guests as Tim Sparks, Rick O'Dell, Mike Wineberg, Mike Hurley, Loretta Simonette, Kay Nygaard, David Stenshoel and many more. During this period we lost the lease on our studio space downtown and my recording gear was moved to my brother's basement in south Minneapolis. I worked out of that space until 1988. Then, I acquired my present building and opened POD recording which has been the source of many wonderful records and creative collaborations over the years.

Studio 1988
Studio 1988

After the demise of Thrillhammer, I continued with the Irish band, now named Galway Bay, and was presented with the intriguing opportunity of playing bass with a then-forming hard rock/rap group called Ghost Dance Deluxe. Ghost Dance was a seminal band in this genre locally and met with critical acclaim. We were courted by major labels and parties interested in "Artist development" deals. We enjoyed many great live performances and received two Minnesota Music Awards before disbanding in 1994.

Musty Velvets
Musty Velvets

Next, Steve Kaul, Mike Gemberling and I formed the New Grassheads. We released one CD and playing many fine shows. That band broke up in 1999. Mike, bassist Greg Beech and I went on to form the beginnings of Musty Velvets, soon to include guitarist John Mason. The Velvets played early swing and jazz and played many enjoyable shows together.

During this period I was approached by Gabriella Sweet, a fine local guitarist, about organizing a committee resulting in the launching of the Minnesota Resophonic Guitar Festival. Five years later, it is still going strong featuring local and national players in an event that has gained international recognition.

Paddy 2005
Paddy 2005

The Resophonic Philharmonic grew out of that event, with its first incarnation being a Latin-tinged guitar orchestra. Our fearless leader, Kari Larson, couldn't commit for the second year and we decided to do an acoustic resophonic tribute to Jimi Hendrix (the core group being John Ewaldt, Don Fitzwater, Tim Lavin and me). This ensemble is still alive and well, revisiting classic rock tunes on the resophonic guitar.

My recording and production work on Bob Nordquist's first two records led to us forming the Intangibles for the recently released third record, The Animal Within. Other current ensembles include Feigning Interest with John Ewaldt; In the Valley of the Shadow of the Handbarrow, with noted Handbarrow player Wendy Darst, Dan Furgeson on Viola, Hilary Snouffer on cello and Rick Smirscek on guitar; the Paddy Irish Singers; and our ongoing Sunday night Improv Collective featuring many of the aforementioned suspects.

Instruments 2005
Instruments 2005

 

Note - The Society creates Profile Books (with additional photos) for our events. We make those available for your viewing at various functions we hold each year.


 

 

 

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page last updated: Friday, August 21, 2015

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