From the Vaults – Weird Al’s Band
When an article about Jim ‘Kimo’ West appeared in Guitar World magazine’s April 2023 issue, parts of his story sounded real familiar. It occurred to me that I just might have talked about him some in a previous From the Vaults, so I started backtracking through my index of titles. I was just beginning to think ‘maybe I only thought Weird Al had appeared in this space’ when it finally showed up. FTV: Weird Al did get some ink way back on 2-14-15. I am doubly glad I started logging titles from the get-go – better to have proof of what has gone to print than relying on my memory when more than 400 of these ramblings have come and gone over years. Eight years later, enough time has passed to safely revisit Al but this time around, we will focus on the four guys in his band. Considering the variety of musical genres Weird Al visits in his parodies, it takes a band of immense musical talent to pull off a live helping of his Weirdness’s greatest tunes.
The logical one to start with would be drummer Jon ‘Bermuda’ Schwartz as he has the longest tenure with Al’s band. The two met at the Dr. Demento show on September 14, 1980. Al was there to record Another One Rides the Bus and reportedly drafted Schwartz to add a ‘drums’ to back up his accordion – which Jon did by beating on Yankovich’s accordion case with his hands. With no inkling where it would lead them in the future, Schwartz told him after they performance, “You should have a band, and I’ll be your drummer.” After more than four decades, “Bermuda ” (his nickname coined by Al) says, “I neve knew there’d be any kind of longevity like this. It’s almost unprecedented for any group to stay together and continue to do well with its same members for 40-plus years.”
Jon Schwartz was born in Chicago and grew up in Phoenix. With pop radio artists (including The Beatles) as his inspiration, he began drum lessons at age 9. When the family relocated to Los Angeles a few years later, Schwartz decided to become a professional drummer. Jon followed the typical path for drummers-in-training playing in marching bands, junior symphonies, school orchestras, and theater arts productions. Not long after completing high school, Schwartz was playing regularly with a few bands. The Weird Al band is his primary gig, but in their off time, he continues to record with other artists such as Jim Silvers, Rip Masters, Ray Campi, and Idle Hands (among a long list).
Schwartz enjoys photography and assumed the role of ‘band historian’. With an archive of photos and detailed records of their travels, he is able to provide inside intel on their world travels. He has published two coffee-table books of his photographs covering the band from 1983 to 1986, and also from 1981 to 2006. Jon says he began losing some interest in photography around 2006 when fill was giving way to digital production: “I’m not as rabid about it as I was before, but on the other hand, it doesn’t cost me anything (taking pictures on his smartphone). I don’t ever hesitate, if I think there’s something I might use in the future.”
On the road with Al, Bermuda haunts thrift stores, pawnshops, used record stores, and (of course) drum shops. He seeks out Indian restaurants as well. Off the road, he spends time taking day trips with his wife Leslie and their dog Nigel. He spends his home time designing web pages, surfing the net, listening to music, and playing in several local bands. Looking back, Jon says, “I wish I could tell you when I met him, I saw stardome in his future and my future. I had o idea what the future held; he had no idea. It felt like a fun thing. I’m a little surprised it’s gone as well as it has.”
Bass player Steve Jay has been with Al since they recorded Yankovic’s debut album which came out in March of 1982. Jay was born into a musical family and was composing and playing music early on. He landed a record deal while still in his school and toured with his band Covington Tower throughout the Southeast, including a performance at the fabled 1968 Miami Pop Festival. While majoring in music composition at the University of South Florida in Tampa, he studied and performed with many notable composers and musicians. His work in musical theory (he authored a widely read article The Theory of Harmonic Rhythm (1990) and his earlier work with the Avante Garde movement of the early 1970’s would eventually earn him USF’s Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award for music.
Steve studied in West Africa from 1973-75 where he first connected with world music. After studying and performing with master drummer Isah Hamani and his group of drummers (known as ‘griots’), he ventured to the heart of the continent. His archival field recordings were released on three highly acclaimed Nonesuch Explorer Series albums (Africa: Drum, Chant, and Dances of the World). A winner of three Peabody Awards, Jay has scored more than seventy episodes of PBS series and has contributed original music to feature films and commercials. In addition to his work with Weird Al, Steve has performed and recorded with artists as diverse as Wayne Shorter, Victor Wooten, Hugh Masekela, Alex Acuna, and the ‘farther of reggae’ Joe HIggs, to name a few.
How Jay got involved with the Weird One is also pretty typical for a bassist looking for work: he answered an ad in the newspaper and auditioned for Yankovic. Recording and touring with Al is his most high profile gig, but he has also managed to squeeze out 11 solo albums of bass driven songs ranging from, according to the biography on WeirdAl.com, “High voltage and hard driving and delicate with endless wavelengths in between.”
The third original piece of Al’s band has also been with him since the Weird Al album came out in 1982; guitarist Jim “Kimo’ West. One can get a glimpse of exactly how good West is by noting he is profiled in the June 2023 issue of Guitar World. Perhaps the article’s author, Adam Kovac, sums Kimo up the best in his opening paragraph: “In the professional guitarist realm, versatility is overrated. The greats are the ones who become extraordinary at one thing: it’s hard to picture Stevie Ray Vaughn releasing an acclaimed noise-rock release – or Scott Ian dipping his toes into blues rock. Then there’s Jim “Kimo” West, a guitarist who, for 40 years, has taken on genre after genre, style after style, constantly evolving with the times, with his playing being heard by millions. And he’s done all this in relative obscurity, because it’s hard to get the spotlight when your frontman is ot only one of the most beloved pop culture icons of all times but also perhaps not technically the best – but arguably the most famous – accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music.”
Jim West was born in Toronto (he still retains his Canadian citizenship) and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He discovered his older brother’s guitar in a closet at age 12 and by sixteen, he was playing professionally. West studied visual arts in college but dropped out to pursue music full-time. Like Steve Jay and Bermuda Schwartz, he settled in Los Angeles where he met Weird Al and joined his band. Besides his travels with the Weird One, his passport stamps show him to be a traveling man who has made stops on at least five different continents.
Kimo’s time gigging in cover bands was good training for what he brings to Al’s music. As he told Kovac, “I really have a broad range of musical tastes, and I can appreciate so many different musical styles and different guitar styles, so it is something I really enjoy doing. And then trying to nail a particular feel or vibe and tweaking the sound is a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge, you know?” Backing up Weird Al means recreating guitar sounds that include Eighties glam, bubbly pop, punk rock, folk and everything in between. West continued, “A lot of the sound is in the player’s fingers. For example, when we do Al’s mashup of [Dire Straits’] Money for Nothing with the Beverly Hillbillies theme, when I play that live, it’s Mark Knoppfler. So you’ve got to play that fingerstyle or it doesn’t sound right.”
With the satirical biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story coming out, the main focus has been on Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Weird Al. The ‘maybe we are embellishing the story a bit’ parts of the tale (spoiler alert: the band is shown rescuing Al from the toxic, evil clutches of Madonna and having a gun battle with drug kingpin Pablo Escobar), will surely make it fun. Oddly enough, it sounds like the guys hired to play Al’s band are going to be the sleeper stars of the film. The film is primarily about Al, but it pays fitting tribute to the people who have stood with him throughout his career.
One of Kimo West’s passions has become Hawaiian slack key guitar. He was first introduced to the music (which employs open guitar tuning to produce some beautiful, haunting melodies) on an early tour to the islands. Jim describes his attraction to slack key guitar: “The music just touched me and it just felt so much like the place. The music sounds like the way the place looks; it just feels like it is coming out of the earth.” Besides his series of slack key album releases, his 2021 solo album More Guitar Stories, won a Grammy Award for the Best New Age Album. When he isn’t enjoying his first hobby (guitar), he is also an avid fan of scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing.
The newest band member, keyboardist Ruben Valtierra made his Weird Al debut in October of 1991 with Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Album. A native of San Rafael, CA, Ruben began classical music studies at age ten. He attended U.C. Santa Cruiz, performed with the award winning Cabrillo College Big Band, and toured extensively with his own jazz/rock fusion group Rush Hour before he landed in Los Angeles. It did not take long for him to begin recording and touring with Aretha Franklin, Santana, Tom Jones, Natalie Cole, Chic Corea, Tower of Power, Elton John, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. Prior to joining Al’s band, he did extensive world tours with Glenn Hughes (bassist with Trapeze, Deep Purple, Black Country Communion and The Dead Daisies) and blues icon Charlie Musselwhite.
When not on tour with Weird Al, Ruben keeps active in the studio writing, producing, and recording. He also leads his own popular Latin Orchestra (VLO) that features members of the world’s leading Latin orchestras.
As one can see, Weird Al does not employ a band of hacks to produce his music live. In 2011, there was a TV special produced by Paramount that showcased the crazy world of Al Yankovic live. It features not only the band in full flight, but also the costumes and interludes Al uses to faithfully capture the full effects of his hit song parodies. By the end of the show, the band is clearly sapped because playing the songs alone is taxing. Adding to the physicality of performing, the constant wardrobe changes adds another layer of stress and energy drain. Having watched this entire concert a couple of times, it did not surprise me at all that they changed direction a bit for the 2021 and 2023 tours.
The 2021 tour (The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill Advised Vanity Tour (All Originals) and the 2023 outing (The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Vanity Tour) was promoted with the following disclaimer: “This is a scaled down tour with minimum production (no costumes, props, or video screens) in smaller theaters and more intimate settings, and Al’s set list will be comprised almost entirely of his original (non parody) songs.” The years spent doing the big venue tours with all the bells and whistles have been great, but the Weird One felt it was time to perhaps do something different. “More like an MTV: Storytellers kind of show – loser and more unpredictable. If you are expecting the Fat suits and Segues, this probably isn’t the tour for you to see.”
Why would Al, who made his name as the best parody artist of all, choose to feature his own original songs and not the hits that made him famous? There are a couple of reasons. First off, Al began adding a few original tunes to each album long enough ago to have amassed a good number of his own songs. Parodies require him to seek the original artist’s (or writer’s) permission and then pay them royalties off his own record sales. Writing his own songs frees him from both of those obligations and provides him with a different creative outlet. Ditching the standard ‘hits and props’ show allows both he and his band to stretch. Judging by the lengthy tour title and disclaimer, Weird Al is being honest and forthright about what they are doing.
Pondering what the future might bring, it doesn’t sound like any of the band members will be hurting for gigs if and when Al hangs up the accordion for good. Sure, there are examples of bands who continue without their original front men or women. Sly of Sly and the Family Stone kind of went off the rails (should he be called ‘Weird Sly’?) and became so unpredictable, his agents found it almost impossible to book them for concerts. His crack band kept working with a faux Sly (keyboard and singer, but not billed as ‘Sly’) out front while billing themselves as The Family Stone. I have seen clips of them and they are still a great band, even without Sly.
The Island Resort near Escanaba recently hosted a show by the Central Park Reunion Band. Forty years ago, they backed up Simon and Garfunkel for their fabled ‘Reunion in Central Park concert. An attendee of the recent Island Resort show tells me the band was very good – and I am sure nobody expected S & G to make an appearance. I doubt Weird Al’s band will find the need to go this route – they are all plenty busy between Al gigs as it is!
Top Piece Video – Here is a little mashup of Weird Al and his band doing their thing live . . .