Music Fans Live the Dream at Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp

Music fan fantasies are complex. They can help us cope with life, or they can keep us from facing reality. But what happens when we do get the chance to live out our rock star dreams?

With a mixture of curiosity and skepticism, I’ve enjoyed watching VH1 Classic’s reality show Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp that debuted earlier this Fall.

The show captures what Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp has been doing since 1997, which is give music fans the chance to learn how to sing, write songs and play live like a real rock star.

So, on Sunday, November 21st, I decided to put my curiosity and skepticism to the test and head down to the three-day “Weekend Warrior” camp in Chicago to see how the rock icons featured in VH1’s show including rockers Kip Winger, Dickey Bettes, Mark Fuller and others, were helping fans live out their rock n roll dreams.

This particular group of “Weekend Warrior” fantasy campers came from cities across the U.S., Canada and Europe. And like most campers, who pay about $5,000-8,000 to attend, these fans ranged from beginner to experienced players. Some were learning to play an instrument or sing for the first time, while others were more developed chops and had played in bands and just wanted to sharpen their guitar licks and increase their performance know-how under the guidance of a rock pro.

After their lunch break at the Music Garage in Chicago, where the campers had been practicing for the last three days, I spoke with Fantasy Camp counselor, former glam-rocker and now classical composer Kip Winger.

In a cozy studio room packed tight with a drums, keyboards, guitars and amps, a laid back and playful Winger tells me that his group of campers is coming along good, and that he’s excited to see them play their big show later tonight at the House of Blues.

Curious about the lasting impact of 3-day music crash course on the campers, I asked Winger how the Fantasy Camp changes their lives during the experience and how it benefits them once leave and go back home.

“It’s like real life,” Winger says. “Each camper brings their own personalities to the group and we have to become a band in less than a week. They have to learn how to make it all work in time for the live show, too. In that type of setting there’s a lot of egos involved and I have to manage all that. But I enjoy that part jut as much as the music part, because I’m good at managing the egos and figuring out how the band chemistry and dynamics are going to work.”

Winger says for the majority of people he teaches there’s a profound realization and a personal transformation that occurs.

“Most campers don’t know they have the ability to play music and fun living out their dream. We give them a license to realize that they’re good. I know can take the worst player and turn them into something.That’s what I love to do.”

What are Winger’s thoughts on other campers he’s taught before?

“I’ve worked with some really good players and bands [at Fantasy Camp] that could really go on to do something. But it’s hard for [the campers] because most of them live in different parts of the country and they have regular jobs. If they can’t get to point where they’re an actual touring and recording band, then at the very least the campers gain a confidence in themselves that they didn’t have before, and usually that’s what changes their lives the most.”

As a solo artist and frontman for his own band, Winger has shared stages with Alice Cooper and Roger Daultrey. But he says his musical inspirations have changed. And because of that, he says his role as a counselor gives him the ideal musical balance. “I don’t really listen to rock and pop music anymore. I love composing music, which is why [being a Fantasy Camp counselor] is perfect for me. I can come here and play a Led Zeppelin tune but not get to attached to it and go right back to working on my symphonic pieces.”

So what is Winger’s fantasy? “I’ve been really luck to have played in every venue and jammed with everyone I’ve wanted to as far as rock music goes. I’ve played every rock song known to man growing up and now I’m heading more into the classical music world. So right now my dream is continue to write and perform orchestra and classical music. If I could just sit in my apartment and work on my next great symphony then I would be a real happy camper.”

Our conversation quickly ends as the campers come in to the studio to practice and jam. I grab a seat and watch Winger work his magic.

“You got ear plugs? It’s going to get loud as hell in here,” Winger says to me at the campers grab their instruments and plug in. I reach into my pockets and say “no,” realizing that I left them in the car.

The practice session begins and the decibel level rises instantly. A palpable buzz of excitement, nervousness and tension builds as Winger leads the way from behind his keyboard like a master rock conductor.

The campers sound good for just having met and learned the songs just a few days ago. My head’s bobbing and my feet are tapping the floor. The campers faces and the way they’re playing and singing reveals a mixture of pleasure, satisfaction and focus as they work out the kinks and try to find their collective groove.

This group of campers is the Matthews family, with Jeff (dad), a doctor, on lead guitar; Dave (son) on drums; and Joan (mom) on bass. The Matthews trio is rounded out by another female camper on lead vocals and another camp counselor on rhythm guitar.

As they start the first song of their set, which they’ll play later at the House of Blues, Winger quickly tosses me a tambourine inviting me to join in the first song: Sly and Family Stone’s “Higher.” I drop my notepad and start tapping the tambourine against my palm hoping I’m on time.

Winger smiles at me and motions “thumbs up” letting me know that I’m right on (I guess he really can teach anyone to play music). The campers pick up speed and fly through the rest of their set, which is a medley of rock classics such as U2’s “Vertigo,” the appropriate number Led Zeppelin’s “Rock N Roll”.

They stop to take a break, and I ask Winger what the name of the their band is. He says they don’t have one. He then tells the campers that I want to know what their band name is.

So for the next ten minutes the campers halttheir practice session to figure out the second most important thing about being in a band: their band’s name.

A burst of laughs and giggles replace the rumble and rock in the room as the campers brainstorm a bunch of hilarious options ranging from sophomoric and witty to comically vulgar and political.

As I watched the scene unfold, I wonder if the art of picking out a band name is part of the Fantasy Camp curriculum. It doesn’t seem like it. But either way the campers were quickly learning how hard it is to agree on a suitable, creative and catchy band name.

They start to practice again and don’t decide on a band name until they’re announced at the show later that night at the House of Blues as “The Hairy Schnitzels”. The best name out of the other eight bands, by the way.

Fast forward to later that evening.

As I expected, the scene at the House of Blues wasn’t like most of the shows I’ve seen there before. It was a mixed bag of surprising glory moments and amateur awkwardness as the nine bands, and roughly 36 campers, traversed through their sets with help from the counselors.

Some campers nailed their solos and wowed me and you could tell they felt totally comfortable in the spotlight showing off their natural charisma. But on other side of the skill level spectrum, the less-experienced campers struggled to play and manage the rush of live performance.

Good, bad or ugly, it didn’t matter. The family and friends that were in the crowd cheered and flashed proud smiles on their faces. And for me, because I had the chance to see average fans traverse from fantasy to reality in just a few short days, I consider my time at the Music Garage and the House of Blues show as one of my favorite music and concert moments of 2010.

Am I still curious and skeptical about lasting impact of The Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp. Yes. Do I think it’s worth the time and money? It seems so, because I was hard to deny how much I was having watching these campers have the of their lives.

And if the opportunity presented itself, I would like to follow these “Weekend Warrior” campers and talk with them a bit more once they leave the camp to see how the experience continues to change and influence their lives for the long haul.

That said, there were some 17 and 18 year-old campers who dazzled the crowd, too. And I’d like to see how things turn out for them. Who knows? They just might be headlining their own tour in the near future.

As the House of Blue show rolled on, I wondered even more.

What about music fans who are into the beats and rhymes? What would it be like to a attend a Hip Hop fantasy camp. And what about aspiring music writers? What it would be like if they offered a Rock Music Writer Fantasy Camp?

As the night wrapped, Winger and the rest of the counselors — Dickey Betts, Rudy Sarzo, Mark Hudson, Sandy Gennaro, Mark Farner, and Teddy Andreadis — rocked the stage during the All-Star jam. And as I watched them, I had a one final moment of clarity about our ‘how fantasy helps us us cope with reality’ topic.

I unexpectedly realized that having the chance to live out a rock n roll fantasy, like these campers did, makes the mythology of the rock star just that: a myth. And surprisingly it wasn’t the rock stars who taught me that. It was the campers themselves, and the buzzing crowd of family and other fans cheering and applauding at the House of Blues.

And I guess Kip Winger was right. Anyone can learn how to play music — even if it’s as simple as shaking a tambourine on beat. And when we do get the chance to live out our musical fantasies and dreams, no matter how big or small they may be, whether it’s at a Fantasy Camp or not, the experience can change your life for the good.