Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Some Pilots Rock Their Wings...
This Pilot Rocks the House

How many Certified Flight Instructors do you know that can say they've phoned their flight students to walk them through instrument ground lessons while doing a concert soundcheck with their rock band from the stage while on a national tour? If your answer is "none", well, that's all about to change.

A couple weeks ago, I was strolling down Broadway Avenue in downtown Eugene, Ore. during the annual Eugene Celebration. The street was the main focus of this eclectic, crazy and oh-so-Eugene party where we crown the annual Slug Queen, try to set a new record for saying please and thank you to strangers, and bounce between numerous stages listening to live music.

As I walked past one alleyway, I heard a blast from my past crashing between the buildings. I was lucky enough to have been at the very last Led Zeppelin concert in the U.S. July 24, 1977 at the Oakland Coliseum, so I knew the band was no longer around. I stopped to listen, and was spellbound as a near exact replica of "The Lemon Song" tantalized my eardrums. Like moth to flame, I was drawn down the alley:
At the "Library Stage" was this ridiculously cool band playing Led Zeppelin the way it was meant to be played. The band was Zepparella, an all-female band out of the S.F. Bay Area, and they were doing supreme justice to the music of Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones. The drum beat was crisp and pounding, the bass building a solid foundation. The lead singer was KILLING with a voice that was as soulful and aggressive as one needs to be in order to do Plant right. But what knocked me out was the lead guitarist, who was channeling Jimmy Page in her own style, one that was - to me - just as entertaining.
I came home and immediately bought the band's two live albums off of iTunes. I also wrote to thank them for the Eugene show, and in that conversation I found out that the lead guitar player, Gretchen Menn, happened to be a pilot. And not just a regular Ham 'N Egg GA stick like me, but a one-time professional pilot who flew RJ's for Continental Airlines.

This begged the question: How does a line pilot go from the flight deck of an airliner to blowing away audiences in her touring rock band? So I posed that and a few other questions to Menn, and what follows is her reply. I guarantee that if you stop reading right now, you'll miss the story of one of the most colorful aviators any of us will have "met" in a while.

World of Flying: Describe what prompted you get interested in flying, when you got your license, planes you have flown, additional ratings, and what you've done in your flying career.
Gretchen Menn: Starting flying was the result of a combination of caprice and a natural love of pulling G's. I have always adored roller-coasters, and am one of the rare people who actually thinks turbulence is kind of fun. My first year in college, the local airport put up flyers around campus offering discounts to students--$99 for three lessons. Incidentally, this happened to fall during the week that I had become obsessed with the Pink Floyd song, "Learning to Fly." It quickly became evident that flying was too expensive of a hobby for a college student, so I put it on the back burner, and just went up occasionally. When I graduated a year early with a degree in music, though, I started thinking about what my next step would be. I felt that I owed myself an additional year of education, and saw flying as a fun, challenging, and completely separate career from music. Moreover, a complementary career would shelter my passion for music from the necessity of making a living at it. I graduated from college, went directly to flight school, and within a year got my private, instrument, commercial, multi-engine ratings, CFI, CFII, and MEI, and started teaching right away. I flew primarily Cessnas (150, 152, 172, 172 RG), Pipers (Arrows and Archers), Beechcraft (Duchess and Travelair). After one year of instructing, I was hired by Continental Express to fly the ERJ (145 and 135). I flew for them for about a year, and left when I realized there was no way of making music the priority it needed to be, so I vacated the seat to someone who would truly appreciate it.

World of Flying: So my readers can make the connection between your music and flying, tell me what kind of flying you get to do now.
Gretchen Menn: After leaving the airlines, I went back to flight instructing part-time, but am now pretty much full-time music. Unfortunately, I rarely get up in the air now, though I keep renewing my CFI!

World of Flying: Tell me how you got involved with music, what age, what instruments.
Gretchen Menn: I took the requisite piano lessons when I was about five, studied flute for 3 years when I was in elementary school/middle school, and got into guitar in late high school. I started studying guitar my first year of college.

World of Flying: As your guitar skills were maturing, at what point did you realize you were good enough to go pro and make a living as a musician?
Gretchen Menn: I never thought about it that way. I just knew music was what I most loved and wanted to do, and that I'd do whatever was required to make it happen.

World of Flying: How did the idea of forming Zepparella come about?
Gretchen Menn: Clementine, the drummer of Zepparella, and I were in an AC/DC tribute band together. We wanted to play more shows that the other band members, and to take on new musical challenges. On the way to a gig one night, Clem and I were driving together, and she said she'd always wanted to do a Zeppelin tribute band. I said, "I'm in! Where do I sign up?"

World of Flying: I was a pretty big Led Zeppelin fan, and usually HATE tribute bands. But yours is not a tribute band, right? Just four women who rock and play their songs?
Gretchen Menn: Zepparella aims to pay tribute in a way that is more all-encompassing than the just the literal rendition of a Led Zeppelin show. It's like the concept of obeying the letter of the law versus the spirit--we strive to honor the spirit of Led Zeppelin as well as the music. So, that means I learn Jimmy's riffs and solos as note-for-note I can hear them, and I do study the details, but I don't mimic his moves on stage. We don't wear wigs. We do improvise when it's appropriate--not to improvise would ignore an enormous component of Zeppelin and what they were about. It's a balancing act between the letter and the spirit.

World of Flying: This is one question I have always wanted to ask a professional musician...when you have to fly commercial airlines to a gig, how to you ship/transport your equipment?
Gretchen Menn: Oh, I could really go off here. I have a major issue with how the airlines deal with musical equipment, and I've made many a phone call to tell different airlines that whichever airline would implement an instrument-friendly policy would have a stranglehold on musicians as customers. Even with crew tags on my guitar, I found my case horribly abused after one flight on my own airline! So, I make it a point to fly Southwest, as their 737s have plenty of room in the overheads for a guitar. I make it a point to be in the A boarding group, and to never, never be rude to a gate agent or flight attendant. They are the people who determine whether you get to carry on your precious instrument. I also have good cases in the event of the horror, the horror of having to check something, and insurance for the worst-case-scenario.

World of Flying: What is the demographic of your audiences? All fiftysomethings like me who remember Zeppelin, or younger people who might not have heard their music but love the way you play?
Gretchen Menn: The venues we usually play are 21 and over, but the all-ages shows we play on occasion have tons of younger people who are huge Zeppelin fans.

World of Flying: Back to flying. I am guessing you are an aviator at heart, we pilots all are. Do you miss the flight deck of a commercial airliner?
Gretchen Menn: An aviator at heart, yes, but not pining particularly for the flight deck. I am less attached to the equipment than to just getting to play in the air. Airline flying is, of necessity, pretty sterile, and I am probably cut out more for aerobatics. The ERJ was a pretty slick plane, though.

World of Flying: When you are on the road with the band, do you ever get to spend any quality time at smaller GA airports just hanging out? Do you ever rent aircraft in different parts of the country just for sightseeing?
Gretchen Menn: Not so far, though I have taught instrument ground lessons on the phone before soundcheck!

While not a musician myself (unless you count beating my Djembe drums into submission), I can promise anyone who loves Zeppelin's music one thing: If you go here and learn about Zepparella and watch their videos and then go seek out one of their shows, you will not be one tiny bit disappointed. And as a purely hetero male, I can also happily report that they are a real pleasure to watch perform. A rock band without a generous dose of sex appeal is, well, the Osmonds, and the ladies of Zepparella present a classy stage show with enough shaking, rattling, rolling and swiveling hips to satisfy their audiences.

And if you're at an outdoor concert venue some day listening to Zepparella and you see their lead guitar player staring up into the sky watching as a plane flies overhead towards the horizon, at least now you'll know the reason why.