Monday, April 13, 2009

Moonalice - Investment pays off for late-blooming rocker

Investment pays off for late-blooming rocker

Aidin Vaziri, Chronicle Pop Music Critic

Monday, April 13, 2009


Roger McNamee knows what you think.

That he's just some long-haired Silicon Valley billionaire living out a dormant teenage fantasy by hiring the best band money can buy.
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That he simply had to open his wallet to get studio time with T Bone Burnett, the man who swept the Grammys last year for his work on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand."

That chartering private flights and putting up his musicians at four-star hotels in cities where only a dozen people come to the concerts is an indulgence only Bono's business partner could afford.

But McNamee, 52, who sings and plays guitar in the band Moonalice under the lovable alias Chubby Wombat, says you're wrong.

Moonalice, which releases that self-titled premiere album Tuesday, is not only a project that the founder of the private-equity firm Elevation Partners takes as seriously as his investment portfolio, but an experiment he hopes will shake up the way the music industry operates as a whole.

"I have never let go of the dream of being in a great band, and I have structured my life for the past 30 years to allow me to pursue that dream," McNamee says, backstage at Don Quixote's nightclub in Felton, just outside of Santa Cruz.

To that end, he's brought in guitarist G.E. Smith, 57, former leader of the "Saturday Night Live" band, and Jack Casady, who made his name playing bass with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. "If this didn't feel worthwhile, I wouldn't do it," Smith says, having just flown in from New York.

There's also pedal-steel guitarist Barry Sless, keyboardist Pete Sears and drummer Jimmy Sanchez, who have individually played with everyone from Rod Stewart to Bonnie Raitt. And there's McNamee's wife, Ann, who plays percussion and provides background vocals.

"We have no children, and we don't play golf," he says. "So we do the band."

Even though he's the only one with a day job, McNamee isn't exactly new to this. Between Moonalice and his former band, the Flying Other Brothers, he estimates he's played 800 shows. He's also put in time as a business adviser to the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam, while U2 lead singer Bono is a general partner at Elevation.

"The music business sucks," McNamee says, so he's treating Moonalice like one of his many entrepreneurial startups. The business model includes giving away music, videos, posters, even cupcakes, in the hopes of drawing people to the shows. "It's an explicit trade," he says. For those who can't make it, Moonalice is one of the first bands to send out free high-quality MP3 files in real time via Twitter.

"The old deal is over with," Smith shrugs. "So let's try some new stuff."

The songs they make together are heavily indebted to the breezy cosmic-hippie jams of the Dead. McNamee has a modest voice, but watching him in action as Mr. Wombat in his blue jeans and ubiquitous purple T-shirt, you actually believe this is where he belongs, not the boardroom.

"Every musician starts out as a fan," McNamee says. "I'm just a spectacularly late bloomer."

To hear Moonalice's music, go to www.moonaliceband.com.

E-mail Aidin Vaziri at avaziri@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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