Clark County’s The Strange keep rockin’

Band that grew from LA’s hair metal scene celebrates 20th anniversary

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If You Go

What: The Strange, 20th anniversary show.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Billy Blues Bar and Grill, 7115 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave., Vancouver.

Cover: $5.

On the web: www.billybluesbarandgrill.com/

The careers of rock ‘n’ roll musicians can get pretty strange.

How strange? Check out The Strange, Clark County’s longest-running “hair metal” band, as they celebrate their 20th anniversary at Billy Blues Bar and Grill in Hazel Dell on Saturday night. You’ll enjoy a parade of hard-rocking, danceable cover tunes that run the gamut from Rod Stewart to AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses to Prince.

“It’s party rock with a hard edge,” said bass player Erin Bartley. “We’re having as good a time as the people hearing us.”

In 20 years, he said, the members of The Strange have never gotten into an argument. “That’s amazing. Astounding,” he said.

Two harmonious decades together is only the latest chapter in a Strange saga that’s far longer — and much, much louder.

Strange story

The story begins with the teenaged Bartley of Lake Oswego, Ore., playing bass in school jazz ensembles and musical shows. Bartley befriended Rikki Baggett, a drummer from Scappoose, Ore., and the duo moved to Los Angeles and met with pretty major success in a band called Cold Shot in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“We headlined all the Sunset Strip clubs,” said Bartley, who remembers crazy scenes in those clubs and even crazier scenes out on the LA streets, where thousands of people all went hunting for wild times. Cold Shot did its very best to supply them, Bartley said.

“We were wild guys. We gave every ounce of everything we had,” he said. Cold Shot used to tour constantly, playing five or six nights a week for as many as nine or 10 months out of the year, he said. “It was hard labor. It was as much as I could take,” Bartley said.

The hard work and long hours bore fruit: A recording contract with Interscope Records. But then the fickleness of popular taste spoiled it: A deeper, darker, heavier and less-slick school of rock emerged from Seattle, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam proceeded to take over the scene. The Interscope label, which had signed several metal bands like Cold Shot at the same time, started mixing and matching their personnel — an exercise in shameless corporate meddling, Bartley said.

In the end, Cold Shot got dropped from the label. “It was a kick to the gut,” Bartley said. “We took it as far as we could take it and we finally got it — and then we felt the tide changing, within a couple of years. All of a sudden, our genre of music had happened.”

Bartley, Baggett and another musical friend, Todd Freund, a drummer with a similar rise-and-fall story in a band called Nemesis, all moved to Vancouver and tried growing up — with partial success. They all got into the construction trades and started their own firms. They all got married and had children.

Bartley said he didn’t miss the insanity of touring life one bit. For a couple of years, he never touched his bass at all.

Brotherhood

The result: “We got bored with regular life,” Bartley said. And so did Cold Shot’s die-hard fans, who never stopped clamoring for the speedy sound of the 1980s, when hair was bigger-than-big. When a local superfan and friend named Melody Amatisto was facing her 40th birthday in 1997, Bartley and Baggett formed a new band to play the party.

“We told our wives, ‘we’re just going to do this gig,’ ” Bartley said with a grin.

The results were twofold. One, The Strange was launched. “We missed playing. We initially got together to have some fun, but realized there was something special happening,” Bartley said. “A brotherhood was formed within our band and with the people who came and continue to come to our shows.”

Two, “We all got divorced.”

Since then, members of The Strange have found partners who are more into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle — which is frankly far tamer than it used to be, the 54-year-old Bartley admitted during an interview at Billy Blues over a nonalcoholic O’Doul’s. (He also pointed out the many improvement his firm, Bartley Construction, has made to Billy Blues’ music room and performance stage.)

“Half of us are grandfathers,” he laughed. “We’re like ministers. We’re so much more mellow now.”

Party hearty

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Members of The Strange still get out their most metallic yayas by donning massive wigs and morphing into another band called Saints and Sinners, a tribute to the harder-than-hard-rock band Whitesnake.

“That’s where we satisfy our need for something really heavy,” Bartley said. “Todd’s daughter does our wigs.”

Meanwhile, the (wigless) Strange has evolved since 1997, adding Robert Anthony Robinson on guitar and Rich Petko on keyboards. Those guys have broadened the sound beyond its original narrow niche of late ’80s-early ’90s metal rock to include more danceable hits from different decades and right up through today.

Count on those hits rocking harder when The Strange gets hold of them, Bartley said. “We always adapt it and put our own spin on it,” he said. Making it your own is one of the things that keeps dishing out the cover tunes interesting, he said.

But the other is the friendships within the band itself, he added. “We always have a blast when we play. That feeling caught on with the crowds,” Bartley said. “There is a magical chemistry with this group.”

Twenty years after The Strange formed for Melody Amatisto’s 40th birthday party, they’ll be hosting her 60th on Saturday night at Billy Blues.