Homecoming Recap 2008

Nathan Zoob

You’d have to be blind not to see it.

It towers over the fence; a massive structure of pure white canvas and gleaming brushed steel casting its shadow over campus and obscuring the view of the Hunt library from the cut. You can see it from Morewood—you could probably see it from space. It’s the tent for this year’s Homecoming Kickoff on October 24th, the start of a weekend long celebration and reunion that the school is hoping will help bring in their goal of a billion dollars in donations. That’s billion with a B.

Homecoming has been a staple on the Carnegie Mellon campus since it began in 1920, but has been expanding since 2004 to include classes, tours, and lectures. This year will feature a full weekend of events centered around the Tartans home game against the Wittenberg University Tigers on Saturday the 25th.

Judith Cole, Associate VP and Director of Alumni Relations, and David Bohan, Executive Director of the Campaign, explain that, “In planning this year’s festivities, we were striving to create a true community event that was open to all and which celebrated the full range of Carnegie Mellon talent.” In that spirit, Friday night’s party will feature entertainment from five different groups—The River City Brass Band, Cellofourte, The Tim Ruff Trio, Idiot Boyfriend, and The Billy Price Band—all with strong ties to CMU.

For the school it’s an opportunity to celebrate Carnegie Mellon and how far it’s come since ground was first broke in 1900, but for the bands performing it’s something more—an opportunity to reach an audience that for most would be larger than they’ve ever played for before. This year’s Homecoming Kickoff will be huge. Alumni Relations is expecting thousands of alumni, students, and faculty to pack a festival tent that took the better part of a week to build. If that mark is hit, and even if it isn’t, this gig will be a major moment for many of the bands performing, a couple of whom have never played anything larger than Skibo coffee shop.

I. The Lead Up

On Thursday afternoon before the big event I find The Tim Ruff Trio rehearsing their set amongst the pop culture detritus in Sigma Phi Epsilons living room. Their audience, other than the carbonite Han Solo behind them, and the life size plaster Yoshi nearby, are all brothers of Sig Ep, most of who have wandered in to watch Sports Center on the big screen TV or play foosball at the broken down table by the double doors.

As I walk in Tim gives me a smile and a nod. This is not unexpected. Tim is one of those genial types who seem always to be smiling, and if he’s not, it’s only because he’s waiting for a reason. The effect can be disarming, and yet there is no artifice behind his grin—he really is that happy to see you. I’ll admit it makes him easy to root for.

The Trio have never played a show as large as homecoming is expected to be, and yet you wouldn’t know it from the mood at rehearsal, which is upbeat and laid back. By the time I arrive they have already finished their first song and are in the middle of their second—a poppy original by Tim called “The Difference.” They’re tight all right; I’d have guessed they’d been playing together some time, not “about six weeks,” as Tim tells me.

Tim, tall and boyish with kinky black hair, is both bandleader and chief songwriter for the group that bears his name. It’s a responsibility he accepts with grace, ruling with a less than iron fist. On the rare occasion drummer Evan Halikias or bassist Terence Einhorn mess up, losing a beat or missing a transition, Tim chooses a raised eyebrow or knowing smile rather than harsh words to let them know he notices. On “The Difference” Evan is using too much kick, and Tim waves his hand to stop the song. “Whenever you do that—the weird thing with the bass, it’s like my heart skips,” he says, and then laughs.

This relaxed charm almost certainly had a hand in The Tim Ruff Trio’s victory in Sig Ep’s battle of the bands, held this year in Rangos. The Trio had a great set, but what really separated them from the pack was their ability to win over the audience, who voted overwhelmingly in their favor. It was this victory that won The Trio the opportunity to play on Friday, and Tim seems fairly confident in their ability to pull off a repeat performance. I ask him if he’s nervous, and he tells me no, not yet at least.

“Ask me thirty minutes before we go on,” he says. “That’s usually when I start getting nervous.”

For all the money being spent on homecoming as a whole, it’s Friday night that’s getting the most attention. This is undoubtedly because Friday will serve a duel purpose—not only is it the kick off for homecoming weekend, but also for Insp!re Innovation (punctuation theirs), Carnegie Mellon’s massive campaign to raise a billion dollars in donations.

No expense has been spared on the tent for the event, a fact that becomes clear the moment I duck into it on Friday afternoon, barely five hours before doors are to officially open. The tent is stuffy and bright in the mid-afternoon sun, and I’m late. Inside, Idiot Boyfriend are mid-song—Gavin DeGraw’s “Oh Chariot.” I take a seat at an empty table by the side of the stage.

While the sound guys adjust levels, I have some time to observe the surroundings. Clearly no expense has been spared. There are two stages, one on either side of the tent. The ground, all 15,000 or so square feet of it, has been covered in what looks like some sort of jet-black Astroturf. About 250 employees of the school and various contracted companies have worked around the clock for nearly a week, and now that they’re in the homestretch, there are no signs that they’re letting up. All around me workers are unfolding tables and chairs, setting up buffets, and testing equipment.

Across the floor from me is a makeshift day care center, where the children of the band members are watched over by their husbands and wives. Near me a little girl in a pink onesie dances in circles to Idiot Boyfriend’s version of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” which they’ve sped up into a gallop. It’s adorable.

Idiot Boyfriend were a fixture on campus until the members graduated in the early ‘00’s, splitting up to seek jobs, spouses, and lives on opposite ends of the country. As students, the group played everything from basement parties to carnival, first under the name Tiny Tragedies, and then the Organ donors, until singer Joanna Lovering joined and they finally settled on Idiot Boyfriend. “For two years I begged Joanna to sing with us,” jokes bassist Thomas Kelleher, and it’s not hard to see why. Joanna has a throaty voice, reminiscent of Natalie Merchant, and a brassy stage presence that plays well off of the other members of the band.

Though they are humble about there brief tenure at Carnegie Mellon, several alumni have told me that Idiot Boyfriend were a popular student band, packing Skibo whenever they played. Still, they’re nervous. “This show is the top of the heap,” Joanna tells me. “It’s the best gig we’ve ever had.” After college Idiot Boyfriend reunited once or twice, but haven’t played together in three years. Other than a brief get together in New York, Thursday was their only rehearsal, and I get the sense that the band is unsure whether they can really pull off a convincing show. Spirits are high, but there is uneasiness, as if the members of Idiot Boyfriend are cracking jokes and laughing in order to stave off the fear of what might happen if things don’t go so smoothly tonight.

II. The Big Show

It’s past eight, dark out, and I’m late again. From outside the tent I can hear that The River City Brass Band, a 28-piece ensemble made up, in part, of CMU alumni and faculty, are already well into their set. The Brass Band plays a fairly diverse selection of big band music, even breaking for a few minutes to feature a barbershop quartet. It’s a solid show—they’re professionals after all—but many of the students aren’t paying attention.

“Most of us are just here for the free food,” A friend tells me. “CMU must be spending a ton of money on all this,” he continues between mouthfuls of lo mein. “Tell them I said ‘thanks.’”

I ate before I came, a decision I regret—the spread is impressive. Walking around I see no less than ten islands, each bearing a different kind of attractively presented food. One table has a blue wall covered in cheese cubes; another has Dixie cups filled with chicken salad. By the door is a wicker basket of salsa, resting on a multicolored bed of corn chips. There is a Chinese buffet, a Greek salad buffet, and even a desert buffet with a fall theme—apples, strawberries, and popcorn, with deep pans of hot caramel for dipping. In the center of the hall is a bright orange refreshment stand serving hot chocolate, apple cider, and something called autumn leaves, which I try. It tastes like autumn I guess, if autumn means more apples.

Through a door by the main entrance, in an attached tent, is an open bar, though security will not let me pass no matter how hard I try to convince them that I need to get in for journalistic purposes. Still, from my not-so-privileged position, I can see that though the bar is maybe a quarter the size as the main hall, there are almost as many people in it.

Around 8:15 Cellofourte takes the stage to great cheers. Cellofourte won last years WQED battle of the bands. Since then they have toured the country behind their original album Combustion, released in 2006. Because three of them are alumni, and because they have achieved a measure of success since graduating, they are welcomed back warmly as native sons (and daughter).

This isn’t to say they aren’t deserving of such a welcome. Cellofourte puts on a fiery show, spinning their instruments and head banging in time to the music. Ben Muñoz, thin, with long black hair and a Metallica T-shirt, rocks so hard that horsehairs fly off his bow. That the four members play cellos but look and conduct themselves like a metal band is indicative of the fundamental dichotomy of their sound. They exist at the juncture between classical training and modern innovation—a perfect analogy for Carnegie Mellon itself.

None of which matters to the crowd here, who are simply responding the music. By the end of their set, Cellofourte has brought the audience to their feet, and they exit covered in sweat, to shouts of “encore!” and “one more!” By the side of the stage children, for the most part ignorant of the musical traditions that converged to produce such a group, but nonetheless thrilled by the product, line up to have their pictures taken with the band.

The video presentation, a glorified infomercial for CMU, is taking so long that somebody starts a slow clap. On stage The Tim Ruff Trio surveys the sizable crowd approvingly.

“Are you nervous yet?” I ask him from the front row.

“Not at all,” he smiles, yelling above the din of the crowd. “The show hasn’t started yet, and already there’s a ten foot wall of people!” He gives me a thumbs-up.

By the time the video finally ends in a burst of confetti, the audience is restless. Heroes’ Zachary Quinto, and Mad Men’s Aaron Staton, CMU alumni and the evening’s emcees, return to their podium beneath the projection screen to introduce “The winners of this year’s Sigma Phi Epsilon battle of the bands, a very talented group, The Tim Ruff Trio!”

And with that the lights come up, and The Trio launch into their first song of the night: “The Difference.”

Remember, The Tim Ruff Trio has yet to record a single note of music. Some kids in the crowd have seen them live, but the group has only played twice, so most people have never heard any of their songs. And yet, in the crush of bodies by the front of the stage, that doesn’t seem to matter. Girls are swooning, folks are singing along—the audience is generally treating the event like they would any other rock concert. The crowd is responsive; they follow him through changes in tempo, in groove, in key. When, in between songs, Tim leans into the mike to say, “I’d like to thank everyone for coming, and I’d like to thank everyone else for coming home,” the audience sends up a cheer like he just complimented everyone’s home state football teams. During the last song he even gets some claps going, though they die out quickly, since no one in the audience can find the beat.

Afterwards when I ask Tim how he thinks the show went, his smile tells me everything I need to know.

Idiot boyfriend is huddled beside the stage during The Trio’s set, I imagine for a pep talk. When they break I can see they are anxious.

The Trio is taking their final bow, and already Guitarist Carsen Kline and Kelleher are on stage setting up. By the time they are introduced, the entire seven-piece band is in place and ready to go.

The lights go up and Kline launches into the opening chords of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, prompting certain members of the audience to pump their fists in appreciation.

And just like that it’s as if all the worries of the past two days have been lifted off the members of Idiot Boyfriend. As the lights behind them paint the crowd and the stage in ecstatic shades of blue, red, yellow, and green, the band runs through a stable of classic crowd pleasers. They touch on artists from the Jackson Five to 10,000 maniacs, pulling off each new musical style with aplomb. For Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Joanna hands lead vocal duties off to Jeannie Choi, whose voice is high and pure, a perfect compliment to Joanna’s deeper harmonies. In the middle of the song violinist Mia Heinrich, a relatively new addition to the band, steps out for a solo—it’s one of the best moments of the night.

At one point during “Oh Chariot” the cathedral of learning, visible through the tent’s clear plastic sheeting, erupts in fireworks. It’s part of Pitt’s own homecoming celebration, but for the moment it’s easy to imagine that it’s all part of the show.

The last act is The Billy Price Band, a blues revival group that quickly whips the exhausted audience into a frenzy.

Billy Price, who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Nicholson, works in the software engineering institute at CMU, but his real passion is his band, which has toured America and Canada since 1981. There’s no other word for it—these guys are tight. Guitarist Steve Delach draws some of the biggest cheers of the night with solos that have to be heard to be believed. They are economical, and endlessly original.

Price is a consummate showman, stalking the stage in black wayfarers, inviting every member of the crowd to dance, or just clap along. On the last song, the entire band, including Saxophonist and Carnegie Mellon professor Eric DeFade, trade solos, and it’s clear that there is not a weak link among them.

Outside the tent the fireworks show is so close that I can taste the sulfur in the air. It’s unclear how much of the planning budget went into this spectacular display, but I’m willing to bet it was a hefty chunk. They’re shooting off rockets from lawn between Porter and Doherty, and some of the explosions feel so near that people actually duck. It’s the last event of the evening, and a fitting note to end on.

Tim Ruff finds me in the crowd and gives me a handshake and another toothy grin. I ask him how he feels about the night, and he gushes at me in a raspy voice, half-dead from exertion. “The crowd loved it,” he tells me, and I can tell how important that is to him.

Walking back home I am reminded of the last thing Joanna spoke from the stage after Idiot Boyfriend’s set ended. Speaking to the crowd she said, “Thank you Carnegie Mellon, for making us feel like rock stars.”

In a way I think this sums up what this celebration meant to many who performed tonight. The school had their reasons for throwing this party—an ambitious fundraising campaign, a desire to commemorate what has been an impressive hundred or so years; and the students had their reasons for showing up—mostly the free food and liquor I would suspect. But for the performers, some of whom have never played for a crowd this big, some of whom perhaps never will again, this was a golden opportunity to experience a piece of the dream.

Tomorrow a few will catch flights to back to New York and California; a few will simply sleep late in their dorm rooms. On Monday they will wake up and go to work or class. But whatever lives they lead, to whatever extent their dreams will be fulfilled in the future, they each had a night when the spotlight shone directly on them. For whatever brief moment, they each had a night where they got to be rock stars.