Von Ra

I think it was a couple of years ago, before “Le Roque Journalist” was born, that I first met Vaughn Rhea. He and Dave Smith were pulling off a one-two punch of a performance on acoustic guitars and vocals. Though a lot of their material consisted of covers, the duo snuck in a few originals here and there — these gems stood their ground alongside the obligatory Pearl Jam tunes and requests for “Stairway To Heaven.”

Now, with Vaughn on lead vocals and guitar, brother Dave on five-string bass, Dave Smith on lead guitar and Dave “Tin Man” Tinny on drums, Von Ra — the band — is a well-oiled machine of good-feeling, working class rock. After a disappointing kick-off gig at the Fortress Festival (“It sucked,” says Vaughn. “There was hardly anyone there to see the shows”), the quartet rocked it solid at a series of packed gigs before landing at the House Of Blues — considered a big ticket venue in this hungry music town.

The boys were feeling kind of loose after a blazing opening set. With Budweisers flowing freely, we retreated to the couch by the elevator and the tape began rolling at 10:21 p.m.

• •

Not just Vaughn by himself with an acoustic guitar, but all four guys are here and just blew up the House of Blues with their particular style of… what do you call it? In this world of labels, what do you call this?

Vaughn Rhea: It’s weird man, the down-home feel, it’s kind of an edgy acoustic, it’s rock and roll, but it’s got an acoustic feel, kind of a down-home feel. It’s got an edge to it, we’re all edgy so we’ve got an edge. [laughing] He’s edgy! Don’t get too close to me, I’m edgy!

So, you guys have been getting a lot of ink of late. I’ve been reading a lot about you, and then this billboard in December that everybody saw. How’d that come about? What’s the whole story behind that billboard?

Vaughn: The guy that got us the billboard, Bruce Bragonier, he lives in Michigan right now, right across the border from Wisconsin. He’s got his own practice up there, orthopedic surgery, and he used to play bass with me as a duo down in Scruffy Murphy’s and in places like that after Dave took off to school.

Dave R.: Damn fine bass player.

Vaughn: And a damn fine bass player he is. He just decided that he enjoyed the music so much that he wanted to contribute something other than a little toward the album, he helped us with the album a hair… but he just bought it for my birthday. He bought the thing for my birthday. It was a trip.

Dave R.: And surprised him with it, everyone knew about it but him. And his wife brought him down there and sprung it on him, and they got videotape.

Vaughn: You should’ve seen my face.

Dave R.: And he’s about to like, burst into tears, like on the edge, as close as you can get to tears.

Vaughn: Incredible… I was flabbergasted.

Now, you’ve been playing the cover circuit in Orlando for a long time — how many years?

Vaughn: About four and a half, five years, and in a way, I had to overcome that, a lot of the bigger venues knew of the cover thing, they were afraid I was gonna get up there and play some Pearl Jam or something but we overcame it. I think we’re gonna change the name of the duo to just “Vaughn and Dave” and the solo thing is “Dave’s Not Here,” because everybody else here is Daves… [laughs] And the Von-Ra band I think is, V-o-n-R-a is the band, itself, and we’re gonna try to keep it all acoustic, all original, and try to hit the scene real hard. Which is easy now, cause they’re open to it now, Orlando’s been kind.

When did you see the breakthrough start happening? I mean, you labored all this time in the clubs, when do you think someone threw you a bone?

Vaughn: I think the bone was when the band came together.

Dave R.: He took the initiative on his own, completely separated from anything else that was Von Ra, except for Vaughn Rhea, and did the CD. And now everybody’s jumping back on saying, “We knew you could do it!”

So the CD was more like a one-man band thing, it wasn’t the band, it was session players and you.

Vaughn: Well, Dave Smith played all the electric guitars that you hear, all Dave Smith, because Dave and I have been together for over a year now, a year and a half. Dave Rhea, here, my brother, his bass line is on “Drinker’s Hour” and “Emma.” The only one that didn’t play at all on there, which I’m REALLY pissed off about is Dave “Tin Man” Tinny. And he’ll be on the four-song or five-song EP follow-up album we’ll be having in about five, six months.

Dave R.: We’re gonna put his face on the cover of that album to make up.

“Just Waking Up” has been played on SHE and WJRR — how’s the response been?

Vaughn: It’s a great response on it, but we’re not in any kind of a rotation yet, because there’s a lot of politics involved, y’know? But maybe with this kind of shot in the arm gig like this, and the Sapphire the next couple days, it’s gonna… it’ll take off a little better. Shayni [at the Sapphire] says that the production director at SHE really likes it. That’s who started pushing Steve Burry’s stuff, My Friend Steve, the guys we’re opening up for on Saturday. She loved Steve, thought he hung the moon. So she’s playing him, 20, 24 times a week. That’s the kind of rotation you need, but it’s all politics, a lot of politics. Y’know, half talent, half politics on the radio stations.

So after four years, this comes together. What would you like to see specifically happen in 1998? Where would you like to be six months from now? Would you like to tour? Would you like to stay here and do some hardcore gigs? You want to go back in the studio?

Dave S.: Yeah, I think the band should tour, just to get to know each other as musicians, y’know, we don’t really play out that much and if we went on tour we’d play together a lot, and we’d just be that much better as a band. Definitely.

Vaughn: It seems like touring would be the best way for us to really bond as family instead of just a bunch of guys that play together. So you have to live together when we’re touring, and we’ve only lived together minimally, which is like…

You don’t think that might be a blessing at this point?

Vaughn: I think so [laughing]. I’m in love with all these guys now. Well, the touring will come, there’s no doubt in my mind the touring will come. This show just kind of drove it home with me. I think that Orlando, being the small growing-pains type city that it is right now, I mean, there still is a lack of culture, there’s a lack of, I don’t know. Music came out of here all of a sudden in two years, and there’s all these bands. And a lot of people don’t know how to react to it. They feel that they should take the bands that have made it, “Oh yeah, Matchbox 20, Seven Mary Three, all those bands, we support them.” But I think that in a year or two there’ll be a lot of support for the smaller guys, y’know, like Von-Ra. And we’ll see. But I think Orlando is the place to be for a little while.

Are you committed to it? Are you committed to staying here and riding the wave?

Vaughn: Well, for a little while, then we’re gonna tour. We’re gonna tour soon, but right here is… we want to create a buzz here. Y’know, that way, we can get… if we get any kind of a “deal” hopefully it’ll be a power deal. Somebody that’d come up and say, “Hey man, you guys have done this on your own, let’s talk.” And then we can shop a little bit around, instead of… y’know, that’s just a goal. To be able to get a better deal than what’s out there.

• •

The tape recorder was clicked off — a wrap, indeed. These four musicians were delighted when I described their tuneage as “buoyant” — alluding to the uplifting and downright spiritual tone of the songs. These are blue-collar guys who represent Joe in the great scheme of things, but there’s a finer level of insight and musical subtext in their voodoo, too. They take the darkest of dark places and manage to float them on a sea of good-feeling rock and roll. Hey, if you’re going to mourn the downfall of humanity, it had better have a good beat. Von Ra has a long and interesting story to tell.

Watch for more chapters soon.

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