Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp: Playing Live On Stage At The Legendary Fillmore Auditorium

Our drummer gives me a beat on the hi-hat and I launch into the distinctive cowbell solo that classic rock-n-roll fans everywhere will recognize as the intro to Mountain’s Mississippi Queen.  And recognize it the crowd does, breaking into applause as our lead guitar player tears into the opening riff and the drums and bass create a visceral wall of sound the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time.

While playing in a rock band isn’t all that unusual, there are two things that make this experience—officially known as the Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp—truly extraordinary.

First is the venue: San Francisco’s famous Fillmore Auditorium.  For the uninitiated, that means my fellow campers and I are playing on the same stage that launched the careers of rock-n-roll legends like Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.

As if that isn’t mind-blowing enough, what’s really remarkable is the fact that I’m up here on stage at all.  I mean, let’s face it, we’re talking about a guy whose musical experience over the past several decades has been limited to singing in the shower.  And not to rave reviews.

And that’s the true beauty of this program.  For the cost of a decent-quality Fender Stratocaster, anyone who can tap their toe can spend the day jamming with the big name rock-n-roll stars that moonlight as camp counselors and perform a three-song set at one of a dozen-plus high-profile venues across the U.S.

In their infinite wisdom, camp organizers placed me in a band headed by Kip Winger, an easy-going guy whose broad and deep musical resume includes everything from fronting the multi-platinum rock band Winger to writing lush orchestral arrangements for movie soundtracks.  My band mates ranged in experience from lead singer and guitarist Mike (a huge Winger fan) and drummer Tony who had both played in bands before, to Wayne who’d just managed to pick his way through an entire song on his new electric guitar six weeks earlier.

The full-day camp program began with rehearsals in a hastily converted 16th floor hotel room jam-packed with amps, a drum kit, keyboards, and mike stands.  Like good rockers everywhere, we managed to annoy a few uptight hotel guests almost from the first notes we played.  And though the room did manage to look sufficiently trashed by the time we were done, my one regret is that there was no television set we could throw through the window so as to get the full rock star experience.

After running through a couple of the songs we were asked to learn beforehand—Mississippi Queen and the Guess Who’s American Woman—Kip pronounced them satisfactory and asked us if there was anything else we’d like to try.  Mike mentioned he’d played the Doobie Brothers’ China Grove on stage with his band and, after downloading the song from iTunes, Kip quickly began working out an arrangement that included a part for me on keyboards.  A part he managed to dumb down enough for a guy who couldn’t play Chopsticks by placing color-coded Post-It notes on the three chords I needed to get through most of the song.

After lunch, all the counselors held short “master classes” on a variety of rock-n-roll themes.  Then there was just enough time for another couple of hours of rehearsal before we all headed over to the Fillmore for our show that served as the warm-up to the night’s headlining acts.

The six Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp bands that took the stage that night ran the gamut from heavy metal to classic rock, with performers that ranged from a teenage guitar prodigy to guys like me who seemed to be perfectly happy just to be onstage playing the tambourine.  The crowd, salted with the campers’ friends and family, appeared to love every minute of it.

As the last band to take the stage, the five of us now known as The Headhunters, launched into Mississippi Queen with all the gusto a bunch of rock star-wannabes could muster.  As our last notes of China Grove were ringing through the cavernous room, Kip leaned over to me with a big grin on his face and summed the entire day up in ten words.

“You just played the Fillmore, man!  How cool is that?”  Couldn’t have said it better myself Kip.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Other acts that have taken the stage at the original Fillmore include Santana, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors, to name just a few.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The line-up of rock star “counselors” for previous Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp sessions has included The Who’s Roger Daltrey, ex-Eagle Joe Walsh, and Guns ‘n Roses guitarist Slash.

The Facts
Name: Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp
Location: One-day “Summer Tour” program visits various U.S. cities
Phone: 888-762-2263

My Advice

  • Don’t let your complete lack of musical ability—or even the fact that your chops have gotten a little rusty—hold you back from signing up.  My experience proves that the camp’s rock star counselors will go out of their way to find a way for you to become an integral part of the band.
  • Even though the idea of jamming with rock stars you’ve long idolized or playing in front of a live audience may be intimidating, don’t sweat it.  Everybody’s here to have a good time and the atmosphere reflects it.
  • If you can’t decide which counselor you’d like to work with, use the list of songs they suggest you learn as your guide.  In other words, don’t choose a group with Judas Priest or Megadeth songs on their set list if you’re not already a serious headbanger.  The result won’t be pretty.
  • Come prepared and be willing to learn.  That means having worked through your band’s pre-assigned songs and staying open to trying new things (like playing keyboards in my case), because that’s where the real magic happens.
  • While one could argue that rock-n-roll is all about attitude, you’ll get more out of the experience by checking your ‘tude at the door.  Remember, most of the counselors here have more musical talent in their little fingers than the average wannabe has in their entire body.
  • Pack light.  Storage space is at a premium in the rehearsal spaces and, unlike real rock bands, you’ll have to schlep all your personal effects from there to the venue without the help of roadies.
  • While this one-day “On Tour” experience was fun, more serious musicians or those looking for a more in-depth experience should ask about the operation’s six-day destination camps.