Lon-ging for More

On his band’s 20th anniversary, musician Lon Bronson wants to save free live music from itself

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Bronson directs saxophonist Andrew Friedlander.

Lon Bronson wants us to get in our “hot tub time machine and go back to 1967 and … walk around every single hotel on the Strip and see Don Rickles, free in the lounge; Buddy Rich Band, free; Louis Prima, free; Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald for free.”

Of course, Las Vegas has changed since then, and Bronson, whose résumé is stacked with musical directorship of shows such as Last Comic Standing, Comedy You Can’t Refuse and The Rat Pack Is Back, is doing what he can to fight today’s perception that lounge acts are musical dumping grounds. His powerful weapon is the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, fronted by a Tower of Power-inspired wall of horns. They are exactly what their name implies: some of the best musicians working in shows all over the Valley. Judging by the standing-room-only crowd at his recent 20th anniversary performance at Green Valley Ranch, he’s got plenty of support for his mission.

But Las Vegas lounge music is all or nothing these days. You either love it or ignore it.

I mentioned to the bartender that, after our beer, my wife and I were headed to see the Lon Bronson All-Star Band. She nodded politely. But a couple the next stool over gushed: “Really!? He’s great!” Ultimately, Bronson sees the problem not with demand, but with supply. Ever since “corporate gangsters” took over the town,” he says, lounges have developed a reputation over the years as venues for third-rate acts watched half-heartedly by two or three gamblers with nothing but lint in their pockets.

“If you want to see a good band in a lounge here in Vegas, good luck,” the trumpeter says. “The casinos don’t want to spend any money on the band because they don’t make any money in the lounge, so therefore they don’t have any money to get a better band.” It’s a vicious cycle.

One exception is Station Casinos, which Bronson calls “the last major hotel property that is attempting to do the vintage Vegas lounge scene.” And on this night, at Green Valley Ranch’s Ovation Lounge, there’s proof that the old formula can still work.

The All-Star Band, the longest-running band act in Las Vegas history, still has nearly 70 percent of its original members. “People don’t really leave unless they leave town or die,” Bronson says. “They love playing in this band, so there’s only a couple of reasons why they’d ever quit.”

Apparently money isn’t one of them; Bronson describes the pay as “negligible.” He says, “The band absolutely has never been a living. It doesn’t matter, we’re doing it for fun.” There isn’t a weak link in the All-Star Band’s lineup, whose set list is heavy with funk-infused arrangements of tunes from the ’60s and ’70s. The All-Star version of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate” kicks off with Gary Hypes’ deep, rhythmic bari-sax blasts and crescendos to an intensity that makes the original seem like a watered-down rum and Coke.

Fun also comes in the form of surprise musical guests. Over the years, the talent that’s jumped onstage with the All-Stars has included Huey Lewis, Joe Walsh, Weird Al, David Lee Roth and much of the Tower of Power lineup. The band’s 20th anniversary show included Bella Rumore’s Nina DiGregorio, whose electric violin solo on Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” burned the place up, as did Jim McIntosh’s (Jersey Boys) extended guitar exchange on “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire” with Jim Buck from Terry Fator’s band.

With all that talent and entertainment, fronted by a world-class band leader, why isn’t the name “Lon Bronson All-Star Band” plastered on the side of a Strip mega-resort? He seemed to be pondering that question himself when he took a couple of shots at Wayne Newton during his 20th anniversary show. When I asked if it was frustrating to play his talented ass off only to be usurped by mediocre acts, he took a pragmatic view. “We’re just hired guns—the acts can be bad or good, just make sure I get a check when it’s over.”

To keep those checks coming, Bronson is pushing two major projects. He is seeking funding for the Vegas Rhythm and Blues Project With Lon Bronson, a “totally homegrown” Vegas television production driven by Desert Moon Studio and “shooting for the same kind of market that Pawn Stars is in.” The half-hour program will include live performances with a celebrity guest and a “real Dick Cavett kind of interview” that will strictly focus on music. Penn Jillette has tentatively agreed to be the first guest star. Bronson’s connections coupled with his tremendous energy mean the work is already done; he just needs $40,000 to $50,000 to get it shot.

On top of the TV show and constant gigging, Bronson has been collaborating with Tower of Power co-founder Doc Kupka for the last two years on a live CD called Doc Goes Vegas that will feature eight or nine original pieces co-written by the two as well a couple of arrangements of Tower tunes that haven’t been recorded in more than a decade. The CD is scheduled for recording at Ovation in the spring.

Perhaps one of his many projects will eventually give Bronson the fame and fortune he’s worked so hard to achieve. In the meantime, if you want to see a traditional Las Vegas lounge show powered by a guy with seemingly limitless energy, you’ll have to drive to Henderson. Fortunately, the Lon Bronson All-Star Band is worth the gas.