Rock Camp for Dads, a Twin Cities project, allows aspiring musicians to band together and live out their dreams of being a star.
The five musicians were just getting to know each other -- and the 1970s obscurity "California Man" -- when facilitator Mike Michel made it clear who would be driving the newly assembled band.
"Doug is our groove guy, our radar," he said.
With his graying head bobbing above the hi-hat, drummer Doug Miller set the tone for the first night of Rock Camp for Dads. Half-time, double-time and in between, his work helped frame the songs and the evening's goal, which was as much about striking accord as striking a chord.
An hour in, guitarist Lee Hall bellowed, only half-jokingly, "Let's always remember this moment, before we were famous."
They were riffin' the dream, which is what Rock Camp for Dads aims to be all about.
Each month, the camp, held at a former printing plant in St. Louis Park, brings together regular folks whose "other jobs" keep them from being in bands. For several weeks, at least, they get to be part of a group. Michel puts together four bands -- acoustic, alternative, classic rock and tribute -- whose members take part in four rehearsals apiece, culminating in a gig at Bunker's in Minneapolis.
"They travel from far distances, not knowing anyone in the camp," Michel said, "but all along knowing that music is one of the most important things in their lives. Thus the risk is so worth it. Not to mention, we all can't think of a cooler thing to do."
The business' name, Rock Camp for Dads, is more symbolic than literal. Four women have gone through the camp, and one need not be a parent to participate.
Miller, 53, is not only a parent but a grandparent, and in many ways a prototypical camper. A trumpet and French horn player in high school, the baby boomer took up the drums as a hobby and soon found himself touring with a Southern gospel quartet, even though his prime interest is blues-based rock.
For a couple of decades, he played in bands with friends at small clubs and parties. But a job change about five years ago "disrupted everything," he said, and his bandmates had to find another drummer.
Miller then started working nights and weekends, when most ensembles are rehearsing and performing. So his drums gathered dust, except when grandson Ben was around.
Last summer, Miller spotted a Rock Camp for Dads ad and checked out the website (www.rockcampfordads .com). He was intrigued but did nothing.
"Until the first of this year, I wasn't sure I would ever play in a band again. Finally, in January my wife said, 'You know, it's about time you called these guys,'" said Miller, whose next step was checking out Rock Camp shows.
"That's really where I got a feeling about what they were doing," he said. "First, everybody was having such a good time. The vibe was real positive."
After meeting Michel and partners Mitch McMillen and Denise Ryan, Miller said he felt like he was "a part of the thing before you even struck a note."
Miller paid the $299 fee and started watching instructional videos, "running over rhythms and trying to build some speed back up," he said. He also played along with MP3 versions of the two songs that Michel had selected for the first rehearsal, from a list of tunes that each participant had nominated.
Campers say the prep work is the reason the ad hoc band found its groove right away, despite the players' lack of familiarity with one another.
"It's like when you haven't played golf for a long time and you go out there and it just clicks," McMillen said.
He should know. After Michel, an accomplished Twin Cities guitarist, launched Rock Camp for Dads in 2009, McMillen participated twice before becoming a business partner in November. (Ryan handles accounting, merchandise and other duties, and alumnus Steve Paquin does videography and IT work.)
At the rehearsals, Michel's gentle but firm steerage is front and center stage as the musicians work through the songs.
He offers encouragement ("be bold, make some mistakes") and direction ("the best way to learn a rhythm is to do it over and over and just ingest it"). But most of all, he has a lot of fun, bounding around the stage in red sneakers and exuberantly accompanying the players.
"He's a great facilitator," said Russ Cirelli, who this month is at his third Rock Camp with a Pink Floyd tribute band. "He's very easygoing, but also very knowledgeable about music and instruments."
That might explain why, as Miller said, "You show up with strangers, but with Mike's ability to direct that, all of a sudden we're improvising on the first song."
For Michel, it's all about the tone, and not just the musical one. Because most campers are aiming to fulfill the dreams of their youth, the goal is simple: "We all turn into the most responsible 15-year-old ever."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643