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AU faculty members rock out on campus

On Stands Now

AU faculty members rock out on campus

Two professors are teaching D.C. that rock ‘n’ roll is for everyone, no matter the time, place or audience.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Peter Starr and Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator of the Katzen Arts Museum, learned this lesson during their first major gig at the unveiling of a friend’s statue at the Kreeger Museum in D.C.

The duo prepared a set list of 16 songs: six ballads and 10 rock ‘n’ roll classics. When they arrived, they realized that what they thought was going to be a gathering of friends was actually a formal event for the members of the museum. After playing their six slowest songs, they were out of appropriate material.

“And then we said, ‘We’re going to play the rock ‘n’ roll,’” Starr said. “And so we did. And they started dancing.”

That sort of spontaneity was exactly how the band came together in October 2010 at a university demonstration of AU’s new audio technology lab for the trustees and members of the Arts Council. Rasmussen volunteered to sing and Starr volunteered to play guitar.

“We futzed along,” Starr said. “We didn’t have any words. I mean, we didn’t know anything so that was embarrassing.”

After that, the pair started practicing together and The Artifacts – a pun on Rasmussen’s work at the museum and their age – was born.

Starr, the guitarist, and Rasmussen, the lead vocalist, are the principal members, with other drummers and bassists coming in and out over the years.

Starr likened the band to Steely Dan.

“We’re like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and whoever else wants to play with them,” he said.

They have played on campus, for University events and at homes. At a dinner party at Starr’s house, The Artifacts even played with former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who sang “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers.

The two have also played on the quad and in the amphitheatre in past years. Rasmussen’s daughter was an AU student and he enjoyed embarrassing her by performing in front of her peers, he said.

The band rehearses whenever the two professors’ schedules allow, or demand, if they have an upcoming event. Starr said they often meet in the Katzen Arts Museum, but when asked if they could be found in the practice rooms open to students, Rasmussen would only say, “Maybe.”

Beginning the band

Both Starr and Rasmussen have played music since childhood and, for them, the band is a great relief from their day jobs.

“It’s really kind of ageless, if you will. There’s no way you can be old or demure about playing rock and roll,” Rasmussen said, “It doesn’t work if you’re not giving it everything and in that sense it requires a lot of things that your normal day doesn’t require, in my case, shouting.”

Starr’s musical career began at 14 when he played guitar in a high school band. He was traveling up and down the East Coast in a Volkswagen Beetle pulling a U-Haul. The band’s bassist at the time went on to be the Mayor of East Hampton, N.Y. Starr later moved out to the West Coast for college, where he switched to acoustic guitar.

“It was the seventies,” Starr said, laughing, “Everyone played acoustic.”

Those days were forgotten until about 14 years ago when his daughter asked for an electric guitar for Christmas. Three days later, Starr had his first electric guitar in almost 30 years. He and a couple of his friends formed a band named T.E.D., an acronym for Three Embarrassing Dads coined by one of their children, and played once a month at a local barbecue joint.

When he came to AU, Starr met Rasmussen, who had played in symphony orchestras and sung in operas, a Hispanic choir and a doo-wop group and was looking for another excuse to sing. The two started practicing and clicked. Since then they have been experimenting with different styles of music, from the classics to rhythm and blues.

Like most musicians, The Artifacts will occasionally have gigs at which almost everything seems to go wrong, from the amps not working to the audience being too far away. But when it works, Starr said, it’s really special.

“There are moments where you really feel like you’re part of some kind of creative force that’s like catching a wave or something,” Rasmussen said. “And that’s an amazing feeling.”

The two consider themselves amateur musicians and don’t take themselves too seriously. They share a passion for music and living in the moment.

“I’m just really happy to be here,” Rasmussen said. “I mean it’s a great gift to be able to do this 40 years later.”

When asked what their dream gig would be, Rasmussen said he would love to have been backed up by the Bar-Kays, a ‘60s R&B, soul and funk group. For Starr, he said it would be to have had a guest stint in the Allman Brothers’ Fillmore East gig in the ‘70s.

For right now, however, The Artifacts is looking for a more modest accompaniment. Matthew Boerum, the studio manager of AU’s audio technology program, was their latest bassist, but is now planning to attend graduate school, leaving a spot open in the band.

“We’re still looking so people can apply. Send their tapes to the museum,” Rasmussen joked.

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