Thursday, Aug 23 2012 12:53 PM

Band reunion is magical

BY MATT MUNOZ Californian staff writer mmunoz@bakersfield.com

Playing the music he loves with the men he was destined to play with -- that's how Monty Byrom of Zen Road Pilots describes the musical partnership he's reformed with longtime friends and former bandmates Ira Walker and Tom "Fee" Falletti.

Their new self-titled album and tour is the product of mended ways and a rediscovered brotherhood. It's a close bond that is bringing these vintage souls to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace on Saturday for a show you won't soon forget.

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Although the members of Zen Road Pilots have grown and evolved on a personal level, their sound definitely has its throwback moments, including an energetic ode to the summer of love. It's a perfect soundtrack for the men who found their start in the City by the Bay. For Tom Falletti, the homage was an obvious choice and their most natural option.

"So many things today sound so alike. We made a record that sounds like it should have been in cut in '67 to '68. It has a vintage sound, but very current. Probably the record I'm most proud of."

From the opening track of "I Don't Need Nobody," you can feel the spirit that's been reawakened in the band. Monty Byrom sings with a fine-tuned clarity. His years on the road have given him the skill and maturity of a veteran singer, but his love for Zen Road Pilots and the opportunity they represent is evident in his delivery. His tracks are complimented by Ira Walker's vocals, adding a lower and richer experience to the overall feel of the project, especially on Hendrix-inspired, "Broken Mirror."

It's an album mixed with soulful, gritty Detroit offerings, ala Bob Seger, while capturing the essence of original Bay Area legend John Fogerty. The men embody late '60s rock, but redefine the genre with the knowledge and experience learned on the long road between sitting top of the heap and flying under the radar.

Zen Road Pilots

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, 2800 Buck Owens Blvd.

Admission: $16 to $24

Information: 328-7560 or buckowens.com

The reunion is certainly special for drummer Falletti.

"It's like Christmas for me, because I'm getting a second chance at something in my life. When we were kids, we blew it. We knew it. We were too full of ourselves and just being silly. Now that we're grown and everybody's sober, it's been a lot of fun."

The trio first aimed for success with bandmate Danny Chauncey as Billy Satellite. The band, which started with a major label debut at the height of the MTV era, had an edge over most of the competition in the early '80s.

After rising to the top of the Bay Area rock scene, they seemed poised for stardom with national tours, music videos and the backing of Hollywood elite. But after a shakeup at Capitol Records prevented the release of their follow-up album, the group abruptly parted ways amid bad business deals and indulging in rock star vices.

Apart, the musicians found continued success: Lead vocalist and guitarist Monty Byrom began penning hit songs for pop rocker Eddie Money, before forming country soul act Big House, and collaborating with the Buckaroos. Meanwhile, guitarist Chauncey joined 38 Special, bassist Ira Walker performed with various artists -- including blues guitarist Keb' Mo -- and Falletti stayed busy as a sideman for Gregg Allman, among others.

But even with all their solo endeavors, Byrom, Walker and Falletti admit the thrill of those early years has never truly been recaptured until now, almost 25 years after they went their separate ways.

Reunited and reformed as Zen Road Pilots, the threesome picks up where they left off with a brand-new CD and a show Saturday.

"It took us all this time to figure out what makes us feel good when it comes to music," said Walker, 57, during a telephone interview from his home in Red Bluff. "It's above and beyond talent. It's like the best deja vu I've ever had."

Falletti, 55, who still lives in Alameda where Billy Satellite originated, said rejoining his bandmates is comparable to hanging with long-lost brothers.

"It's remarkable, it's incredible. I'm absolutely stunned. We're all home and we wanna stay home."

Although both point to Byrom as the driving force behind the reunion, they also cite a pivotal moment sparked by the desire to aid a fellow musician.

During a 2010 benefit for guitarist Nick del Drago, a friend and cohort from years back, Byrom, Walker and Falletti were asked to participate in what many thought would be a one-off Billy Satellite reunion. Soon the trio found themselves at Slim's in San Francisco facing the music.

For Byrom, 54, it was like stepping off a cliff.

"We had no soundcheck or rehearsal. We just stepped on stage and we dealt it," he said.

There in the crowd was the Billy Satellite's former band manager Marty Cohn, who sought Byrom out after the show.

"He said, 'You've got a little tread left in your tires, you should do this again,'" Byrom said.

The suggestion from Cohn, who passed away a year later, was not taken lightly, and soon the trio found themselves in a studio making what would be their first album in nearly a quarter-century.

Falletti was shocked by the ease of their creativity.

"We hadn't cut a record in 25 years. This record was done in under 40 hours in 12 days."

The men capitalized on their time in the studio, making music with a speed and agility that comes with decades of pent-up emotion.

Walker views this second chance as a gift and recognizes the dedication Byrom has to his former bandmates, and the possibility of their rebirth.

"Monty can go and get a gig with anybody he wants if he puts his mind to it, but to know that those are diamonds in the sand that you're stepping on, and that you can put them down and pick them up is an incredible feeling."

Walker challenges music lovers in Bakersfield to take the trip to the Crystal Palace and witness their return firsthand. He promises an experience that will bridge generations and the years the band spent looking for the path that would eventually lead them home.

"It's like taking a step back in time, and you've been invited. Come see history unfold."

On Saturday, the band will sell copies of their new album, which is also available for download at iTunes. The group's official website is zenroadpilots.com.

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