On a recent Friday night, Jason McMackin stood on a chair at the Ole Beck VFW bar surrounded by people knocking back beers, listening to him speak. "If both your guitarists quit," McMackin yelled, "I don't care. You don't have a singer? Don't care. But let me know if you need a drummer. You have to have a drummer. I'm old-fashioned that way."
The crowd laughed and McMackin pulled out a stack of folders as everyone quieted down. He's a tall, long-haired, bearded, Viking-esque guy with a booming voice and a reputation for organizing elaborate events. Most prominently, he's know for this particular evening's order of business: Rock Lotto.
Rock Lotto is an annual fundraiser held in February as an antidote to the dreary season. It involves a lottery wherein musicians are randomly placed into bands with whom they'll learn two or three songs based on a theme (last year's theme was Led Zeppelin; the year before was female-fronted bands). In the past, the bands have been given two months to practice before they had to play one big show together for one night only. This year—the fifth and final Rock Lotto—is different. Bands get only one week to learn their songs, which means there's no time to waste.
"First up," McMackin yells. "Beastie Boys: License to Ill." As he calls out each album—Janet Jackson's Control, Prince's Parade, among them—he lists off the names of lotto participants to let them know which band they'll be in. They find each other in the crowd. Many of them know one another, but some don't, and they take a few moments for introductions before finishing up their beers and heading out into the night to get a jump on practice.
One of the charms of Rock Lotto, from an audience perspective, is getting to see how the Frankenstein's monster-style bands will hold up on stage. This year, as in others, the musicians are a mix of stalwarts—like critically acclaimed Fitz and the Tantrums drummer John Wicks—and newbies. Some bands flail and some bands kill it, but the best moments are when a band does something no one expects. During last year's Led Zeppelin lotto, one of the groups pulled off a badass version of "Kashmir," followed by a cover of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again."
Singer Kateena Bell, an unknown in the music scene, belted out a more snarling version than David Coverdale has ever done, and electric violinist Bill Saylor threw in a solo. Was it something you'd want to go hear on a normal Saturday night? Never. But Rock Lotto is the kind of night where bad songs get one night to be good, and nobody's too jaded to sing along.
"It was smart and crafty and amazing," McMackin says. "Because Whitesnake is a fucking Led Zeppelin tribute band. And I was not expecting in my life to enjoy a Whitesnake song again."
This year, McMackin decided to have bands cover songs from albums that came out in the year 1986. Besides the Beastie Boys, Janet Jackson and Prince, he chose Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.; Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet; Madonna's True Blue; Metallica's Master of Puppets; Peter Gabriel's So; The Smiths' The Queen is Dead; and the Top Gun soundtrack.
It turns out that for a supposedly random lottery, there are some suspiciously interesting band configurations. Hermina Harold and Gibson Hartwell, musicians who often play in the country and Americana vein, ended up with Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., for instance. For the task of playing something off Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, Bob Marshall, Chris Bacon, Shane Hickey and Doug Smith—all members of former longtime band Volumen—were put in a band together. (Volumen bassist Bryan Hickey didn't sign up.)
"I don't know how this happened," McMackin says coyly.
The year 1986 is definitely not random. McMackin was trying to think of good years for music. "I thought of 1967 and traditional good years of music, like 1977, and then I stumbled on 1986 and was like, 'Holy shit,'" McMackin says. "It was a funny time where I think everything was good but especially the pop music. If you went roller skating in 1986 you have to agree the music was dope. Hardcore was good, too. And in country music, it was tipping over from Alabama into country again, like Dwight and Randy Travis. And so, in 1986, although there wasn't a movement, something was up. And the list of albums for Rock Lotto—there isn't a garbage album on there, whether you like them or not."
Besides the challenge of learning to play two songs in one week, the bands have also been given a "secret song" to learn and some Oblique Strategies cards. Oblique Strategies were designed by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt as a way to help artists think more creatively. A card might say: "Think about the radio" or "What if you were French" or "The door is closed, not open," and the band would have to apply one of those ideas to a song in whatever manner it chooses.
"I just wanted to add another element to Rock Lotto, especially if you're going to have only a week," McMackin says. "You're going to need all the help you can get. You need a practice space, you need people who can play and you need something to get you there—and that something is Brian Eno. If Brian Eno can get David Bowie there, he can get you there."
Rock Lotto V marks the last year for the fundraiser, because, McMackin says, he's ready to move on to new projects. For the finale, he's hoping to raise over $10,000 for the Zootown Arts Community Center—and, as usual, make it an entertaining night in the process.
"Seeing people take a song and ruin it?" he says. "Awesome. Or make it sound way better than I imagined? Awesome. What's cool about this one week practice is the heat and the pressure of seven days is going to turn out amazing art or a complete disaster, both of which are fun to watch, and thus making it a win-win for the audience."
Rock Lotto V takes place at the Palace Sat., Feb. 25, at 8 PM. $10.