The band described the set list consisted of "fucked up Christmas songs and Rock songs". This was the Third Annual Christmas time get together for the quartet. I went to sound check and immediately realized that with four very busy musicians time was of the utmost importance. It was difficult enough to get them together for a gig let alone a rehearsal. When I arrived it was only a trio as Babko was rushing from another commitment to make it as quickly as possible. The trio ran through some music to get as much practice time as possible. When Babko did arrive it took a mere ten seconds before he was the target of jokes from the trio. Next up it was hugs and greeting from all as that was proof these guys really don't the chance to hang/jam as much as they'd like to. With no time to spare they started to work things out.
Luke said "we have to do a gig together to get to see each other! We only see each other once or twice a year". Without hesitation Luke set the bar high as he was warming up he gained everyone's attention. Panos said of Luke's playing "somebody came ready to play!" With pictures of a young 22 year old Luke on the wall, reflections of memorable moments at this historic venue began. Luke said to Justin Randi (Owner and Manager of the Baked Potato) "you HAVE to keep this place open or we'll have no place to play!"
I thought I knew the passion, love and reverence these guys had for this place. I was very mistaken. After sound check the foursome gathered together to participate in a documentary about the Baked Potato and the Randi family. During the interview there was a sparkle in everyone's eye, especially Luke and Babko's. The two told stories about their time on the stage and as an audience member. Toss then told his story about the Potato with just as much of a gleam in his eye as the other two. He said that at one point his drum kit was at the Potato seven straight nights for seven different artists. The mere thought of this venue ever closing for any reason whatsoever brought a sick look from everyone.
On this unusually cold and windy Southern California day true music fans were lined up for hours outside the venue. One fan told Luke he came all the way from Spain to see this gig. "The Christmas Song" started out the first set. These were Christmas songs as advertised but they were Rocked up versions of the songs. The four musicians were all within three feet of each other. Panos and Carlsson were almost on top of each other. Luke and Babko's fingers immediately went into high speed action. It didn't take very long for the smiles to begin from Babko. I had run into him recently at a Time Jumpers featuring Vince Gill gig and he told me "I just want to get out there and play." Play he did as the smiles emerged on the faces in the crowd when they realized what kind of night they were in for. Luke told the crowd "we are just blowing off the cobwebs".
The long ago origination of this music was from the 2003 Lukather release "Santamental". Most of the arrangements of classic Christmas songs on that release were done by Lukather/Babko. It was Carlsson who worked hard to get this group together and everyone was glad that he made that effort. "Greensleeves" from "Santamental" was next up. Luke told the crowd that the "Sphictersaywhat" moniker was "a little childish and not very Christmas like. So we changed it to "Nerve Bundle".
The tone was set early as Carlsson and Panos were locked in. There were a lot of looks and nods between the musicians as they hadn't played in about a year. The musicianship more than made up for any minor flaws that may have occurred. For as much as Panos and Carlsson were holding down their end of the "stage" the Luke/Babko magic was beginning to happen. They were bouncing back and forth then in unison.
Luke then advised the audience "we are going to do something completely different right now. "A Tony Hymas twisted Blues song." "Brush With the Blues" was another number in the all instrumental set so far. It got a "WOW!" and a "Ya!" from Justin Randi who has seen it all at this historic venue. I talked to Randi before the show and we both agreed that this venue was a home away from home for these guys. This was 'their place'. They felt comfortable there. Lukather stressed before the show "don't watch life through a view finder". He added "I went to see "The Wall" at the Los Angeles Coliseum with my daughter and everyone was watching through a viewfinder" (Luke mimicking filming the show by holding up a phone). This made me feel like this was my home too. It made me feel like the only people who were going to see this show were those of us lucky enough to be here tonight in person. Not 127,876 Youtube viewers, just us. "Ben E Wah" was a song introduced by Luke as "being inspired by one of our favorite bands. But it's not that song". The Steely Dan inspired number had an immediate groove to it. Heads were bobbing and toes were tapping after the first few notes. Luke added "Babko and I played this in Japan with Larry Carlton. It will hopefully be featured on an upcoming live DVD". This number had everyone at the top of their game and most of the cobwebs had been blown off for sure. Panos was stellar throughout but was grooving in particular on this number. He hit hard when needed and laid back at the right moments.
The top highlight moment for me was the next number. It was a combination of another Tony Hymas composition "The Pump" and in an amazing twist morphed into the Robin Trower classic "Bridge of Sighs". "The Pump" was also composed by Simon Phillps (Toto/ The Who) who I could almost picture him sitting behind Panos' kit where I've seen him play here many, many times. Luke sang the first vocals of the night in this roof blowing number. In another very cool twist the band worked it's way back to "The Pump" for the very end of the song. The thundering bass of Carlsson would have been the main reason this venue would have been roofless. Luke did his part adding some furious, blistering, high energy guitar work. Luke's fury left that 'I can't believe what I just saw look' on most of the crowd. The amazing new sound system here paid for itself many times over on this song alone.
Going from one extreme to another and back to the Christmas spirit was "Silent Night". From roof raising to mesmerizing, fifth gear to first all within a few moments. There were uncountable magical moments during the night between all but the highlights were the duo combinations of Luke/Babko and Panos/Carlsson who were perfectly placed right next to each other.
The second set started off with the Robert Johnson penned song made famous by Eric Clapton "Crossroads". During sound check Luke told a hilarious story of a night when Clapton came here to catch some music. Now the history of this venue was starting to sink in. I remembered Justin's' only 'fan moment' he had shared with us at an earlier sound check when Jeff Beck was here. I could picture those moments and feel the history of this place. There were far, far less looks and nods between each other on stage as this well oiled machine was hitting its stride. The "Spud" as it's affectionately known was the place to be tonight.
The second run through of "The Pump/Bridge of Sighs" jumped a notch from the first one. Luke's son Trevor added to the 'home away from home' vibe by kneeling down right in front of his dad to soak it all in. Trev was even more intrigued by the masterful playing of Toss. Panos' playing was filled with way more substance than Hollywood flash. Every movement had a reason behind his playing. NONE of it was for show. He seems to be the guitar players go to guy. I've seen this sometimes forgotten glue that holds it together musician play drums with Carlton, Landau, Ford and Andy Summers. It then dawned on me something Toss had told me before. He said "it's more nerve racking to play here than it is paying before 25,000 people like I just did". As I looked across the room I saw numerous musicians that play with well known artists with their eyes intently focused on the foursome. It seemed that almost every other person here was a musician or had some sort of musical connection. As good as the first set was the second was better. The overly critical Babko joked "you missed the rehearsal, last set."
Now I think I finally "got it" regarding the Baked Potato. This place has not changed much in all the years in a good way. There are many familiar faces and we all share stories of the cool gigs we have seen here. Tonight will be another story added to the list.
I had a chance to talk to Luke after the show and he told me "it was great fun. The first set was getting our sea legs. But the second set seemed to gel and be more relaxed. The crowds were great and packed. All the shows are sold out from what Justin told me. Three nights, six shows of Christmas fun and some fun old school jams. The other guys are SO good it makes it fun for me! It was nice to have fresh music to play in the set as well. Of course we did some Santamental stuff as its the holidays. That's the point of doing the shows. It now has become an annual event that I will be looking forward to in the years to come."
"The Baked Potato is a playground of musical fun and I feel at home here. The photos of me at 22 years old standing in the same spot as I did then to now in 2015 is kind of surreal at 58 years old. I would never have guessed back then but at the same time it sure is nice to have a place like this I can call my musical playground. SO many great nights have gone down here."
Jeff Babko was nice enough to chat after the gig too. He told me "This group of four knuckleheads, now affectionately known as "Nerve Bundle", really looks forward every year to what is now a holiday season tradition- playing at the legendary Baked Potato. These are dear friends of mine and we don't get to see each other enough, let alone play, so this is always a groove where we laugh and shred a little bit and ring in the Christmas season right."