Picking Up Where He Left Off

The name Brad Gillis must be held synonymous with Night Ranger, the mega-appeal band that broke up only after filling almost a decade with classic rock. Even so, the Night Ranger oeuvre is but one episode in the guitarist's career. In fact, the latest chapter in the book of Gillis concerns the regrouping of Ranger, and how he intends to write into it a new musical statement. Volumes of positivity could be writ in honor of this master ax-ist.

And I'm not just saying all this because of what happened to me at a Night Ranger concert three years back.

Gillis was playing a hot solo, practically in my face, when he leaned over to hand me his shiny-metal guitar pick, a real collectible for any fan. In fact, the item was so desirable that the guy next to me punched me in the head and intercepted the hand off, snatching the pick right out of Gillis's hand. Gillis, apparently outraged, demanded that the guy give me the pick. The Ali-wannabe refused. My head hurt. Gillis vanished from sight.

A moment later Gillis returned, walking across the stage in the company of two huge men. They latched on to the puncher as Gillis reached down, grabbed the offender's hand, and squeezed it white until the pick fell from his hand to mine. For good measure, Gillis had the guy tossed out of the show. I remember the feeling I had leaving that concert -- that rock groups, some anyway, really do care about their fans.

Since then Night Ranger has gone through many changes. They broke up, went their separate ways, and then put it back together with a few missing pieces. Drummer-singer Kelly Keagy and Gillis are the only original members left in the new version. (Bassist-singer Gary Moon is the newcomer.) Keagy began talking about putting the band back together in 1991 -- since, they've played more than 70 live shows. The keyboards have been axed out in favor of a hard-rock edge. Night Ranger's great strength was tightroping between the heavy metal audience and fans of more melodic pop; the band was always able to please large numbers of both groups. Now they're approaching several of their songs from an acoustic-guitar standpoint. "We wanted it to be a rock band," Gillis says, "with heavy hooks."

Gillis has been around the biz long enough to know a smart move. "We kept the original name because we wanted to let people know that we're out here," he explains. "We also want to attract the attention of the record labels." He adds that a name change might be in order once that deal is landed. And he also notes that because Night Ranger ended on a sour note, this gives them a chance to redeem the name, and themselves. Contrary to popular rumors, however, the band did not split up because of clashing egos -- Gillis and former NR guitarist Jeff Watson recently recorded together.

Night Ranger broke up because they'd become something other than what they set out to be. It all started with the hit song "Sister Christian." When their label, MCA, saw the tune top the charts, they immediately categorized Night Ranger as a "power ballad" group. "We'd have nine rock songs," Gillis says, "and they'd pick the ballad every time." After completing only five of the seven albums their contract called for, singer Jack Blades was the first to acknowledge that it wasn't working, and he left the fold. MCA then released Live in Japan and Greatest Hits, the type of albums that should be filed in the bin marked Death Knell Sounds.

The new trio plays some of the old favorites, as well as new material. About 60 percent of their new stuff gets aired out live. And though they're unsigned, that's nothing new for Gillis.

The original group formed in 1980 as Ranger. Sammy Hagar asked them to open for his band, providing that first big break. Well, maybe not big break -- it took two more years of dues before they signed and put out their first album. Some 10,000 copies of that debut were printed up when it was discovered they'd have to change their name -- a country band had already laid claim to Ranger. Blades had written a song for the record, it was called "Night Ranger," and that became their new moniker.

The week it came out also marked the release of another album with Brad Gillis's guitar signature -- Speak of the Devil by the Godfather of Metal, Ozzy Osbourne. Gillis has maintained his knack for keeping busy. Lately he's filled off hours by producing bands in the San Francisco area, and guesting on Jeff Watson's incredible solo album Lone Ranger (Gillis provides the solo for "Cement Shoes"). Ironically enough, Sammy Hagar also appears on that cut. His record contract prevented him from singing, so he hums along. That's a Sammy Hagar thing to do.

Gillis also contributed a track to 1991's Guitar's Practicing Musicians Vol. II (put out by the Cherry Lane Music-owned magazine), his first instrumental release. That led to a solo contract with Guitar Recordings, another subsidiary of Cherry Lane. "His tune was the best received on the record judging by calls and letters," says John Stix, editor of Guitar for the Practicing Musician and vice president of Guitar Recordings. "And he was naked, not riding on the high point of Night Ranger's popularity." The solo deal came about after Gillis sent Stix a demo. Stix was especially struck by a song called "Stampede." "That song really hit me," the label honcho says. "It's an up-tempo rock shuffle that appeals to the guitar freaks and the rock fans as well. It's listener-friendly. Brad has the ability to get a song to fit both categories."

The label was established in 1989 with the intention of concentrating on guitar players, and Gillis's solo effort, Gilrock Ranch, will be its tenth release when it comes out, likely early next month. The name is taken from Gillis's home studio, Gilrock being his nickname. It's his first self-produced effort, although he received some help from Stix, who oversees production for the label. Though mainly instrumental, the album boasts Gregg Allman vocals on two of the cuts. "He was at a barbecue that I was having at my house," Gillis says. "He asked to hear what I was working on, and then told me he wanted to hear it again. It was crazy. Gregg had taken out a pencil and paper and had written the lyrics for the song 'Honest to God' in about half an hour."

Jeff Watson almost made an appearance on the album. It didn't work out as well as Gillis's contribution to Watson's solo. "It was as if we were trying too hard," Gillis recalls. "It was a frantic effort because at that point I didn't have things worked out to the extent that Jeff did for me on his album. Later I wanted him to come back to the studio, but his schedule got really tight."

In many ways, Gillis is starting over with his two new projects -- the Night Ranger trio and his solo album. The latter provides a chance for him to get from under the Night Ranger wing and strike out on his own. Meanwhile, the field is wide open for him to show that the new Night Ranger sound is not simply an echo of their wildly popular Eighties sound. "I want to do things differently this time," he says. "And I also want to keep with the flow of the Nineties."

NIGHT RANGER performs after 8:00 p.m. Friday at Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd, Hallandale, 454-0001. Tickets cost $8 and $10.


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