On most nights Rochon Westmoreland plays bass for the band in the Donny & Marie show at the Flamingo. But this is a Monday night, and Westmoreland is at the Palms playing for Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns.
He’s playing … and playing … and playing … a bass solo that has taken the crowd on a musical carnival ride. At the end of this journey, the crowd stands and roars. For a bass solo, in a Las Vegas lounge.
This is but one moment, or a series strung together by Westmoreland’s hypnotic musical notes, known as “The Healing.” Santa Fe bandleader, founder and the great guitarist Jerry Lopez coined that phrase many years ago. It was just before a gig at Palace Station, one of the innumerable Las Vegas stages that have hosted Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns since the band was founded in 1975.
“I had a horrible day and got onstage and said, ‘You know what? Let the healing begin,’ “ Lopez says today. “The band started playing, and all the pain was gone. It’s a healing, it really is, and I always feel better at the end than I did at the beginning.”
Regarded by serious musicians and their hardcore fans as one of the best bands in the region, Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns started with a gig backing topless dancers at the old Thunderbird hotel-casino and landed their first “proper” gig at the Mint in ’75. Nero’s Nook at Caesars Palace, the lounge (and later showroom) at Tropicana, the since-closed lounge at Palace Statio, and Club Madrid at Sunset Station have been among the venues where “The Healing” has been delivered. For the past seven years, aside from a break at the Trop’s Folies Bergere showroom, the band has been featured Mondays at the Palms’ Lounge.
The band has packed that 230-seat room on a regular basis. It’s an impressive mark, especially in a city where such reliable support for live music is elusive. Nonetheless, the 15-piece musical behemoth is moving to South Point Showroom—which seats 400—for an open-ended residency beginning at 10:30 p.m. on Labor Day. Admission is free the first night; after that, there’s a $5 cover, or $10 with one drink and VIP seating. Ridiculous value, that, for a band that sells tickets for $15 a shot at the Palms.
With the band cruising along so successfully in its usual Monday show, why mess with what works? “We want to expand what we’re doing,” Lopez says. “And, we needed a venue where management and the entire casino and hotel marketing machine would get behind what we’re doing.”
The band is loaded with A-plus players who enjoy prominent regular gigs elsewhere. Drummer Pepe Jimenez was plucked from the lineup two years ago by Carlos Santana. Santa Fe horn players Nathan Tanouye, Danny Falcone, Eric Tewalt and Phil Wigfall play in Celine Dion’s orchestra. Keyboardist Dave Richardson is the associate music director for Rock of Ages. Keyboardist/vocalist Jamie Hosmer has performed in Vegas! The Show. Trumpet master Gil Kaupp, percussionist Gabriel Falcon and sax player Rob Mader are all part of the Donny & Marie lineup. The vocal team of Tony Davich (who also fronts classic-rock band Phoenix), Tyriq Johnson (who has developed an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute) and Lannie Counts (a member of the busy Las Vegas Tenors) can sing any genre. And, Lopez himself is a music director at Vegas! The Show, and has a long history playing Vegas productions.
Moving that volume of talent can be like making a U-turn with an aircraft carrier, so Santa Fe has hit the waters in virtual form—by recording live performances for two Caribbean Cruise Lines ships. Santa Fe is featured on moving, 3D LED panels in their showrooms, and reaches up to 5,000 fans each week.
In its new residency, Santa Fe will go with the tried and true: a mix of covers from such bands as Toto, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire, and originals recorded over the years. What will be different: a more aggressive outreach to Las Vegas artists. Santa Fe has always welcomed recording stars like Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross and Bill Champlin of Chicago to the stage. Expect more Vegas headliners to be invited at the South Point.
But the band’s unsurpassed musicianship will go unchanged. “If you come to see Santa Fe, you’re seeing the writing, playing and arranging peak of everyone in the band,” Lopez says. “You’ll see what you won’t see if you’re watching me in a tuxedo at Vegas! The Show.”
Of the band’s propensity to play extended solos, a point of contention among entertainment directors over the years, Lopez says that’s simply a characteristic of musical devotion. “That’s why we put the band together, not just play in a lounge, but to make ourselves happy,” says the master guitarist. “This is when we get to feel 16 years old again, to feel like kids in the sandbox, rolling around and forgetting that people are watching us.”
And if Westmoreland kicks up some sand with a bass solo, that’s fine with his playmates.
Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns Mondays, 10:30 p.m., $5-$10 (free September 7). South Point Showroom, 702-796-7111.