In California’s High Desert on the Friday before Halloween--for the first time since I can remember--my wife and I and all three of our adult children congenially sat down at the same dinner table and enjoyed a meal together. Besides we parents (who’d traveled from the east coast for the event), our restaurant manager son from Richlandtown, PA, our federal agent daughter from suburban D.C. (who, naturally, was carrying her pistol), and our Orange County events planner daughter and her husband were there. We were seated at Table #9 in Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace—“the best honky-tonk west of the Mississippi” and, by far, our favorite ‘joint’ on either side of that river.
Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace
Even though it was sort of a family reunion we were actually there to see one of our favorite bands, Gram Rabbit. They were playing at the 12th annual Halloween Party at Pappy and 'Scariett’s'. It was the first night of a two night event that my wife and I have attended for the past few years. Gram Rabbit always calls themselves Grim Rabbit for the shows and dresses in costumes appropriate for the season. We’ve been avid fans of the group (have all their CD’s and have seen them on stage in three different states), for many years. We don’t care what they call themselves. Just so it’s the very talented and always energetic Jesika von Rabbit, Todd Rutherford, Ethan Allen and Jason Gilbert up there on stage.
I got our (and a few extra), Halloween Party tickets on line months in advance and, since there’s a three week lead time to get weekend dinner reservations at Pappy and Harriet’s, I took care of that early, too. The Pioneertown Palace has been an extremely popular restaurant, saloon and music venue for a long time; but, a couple of weeks before we got there Paul McCartney and his band went out of their way to do a ‘surprise’ show there and interest in the place has intensified.
Paul McCartney at Pappy and Harriet's
I like it when Pappy and Harriet’s rocks and thought they could easily have squeezed in another hundred, hundred and fifty people, but the show was long since sold out (damn that fire marshal). As usual, the place was a noisy chaos, no matter how organized and efficient the staff strived to be. We were far from the only fans of the local, Joshua Tree based band (who’ve been voted the most popular musicians in the desert from Palm Springs and Coachella to Twenty-nine Palms and beyond), who were there that night. We had to wait quite a while for our table; weren’t seated till half an hour after our reservation. But, that was okay. The kids hit the bar and I used the opportunity to scalp my extra tickets (with the promoter’s and security guard’s permission), earning back enough to leave the tip.
Pappy and Harriet’s is famous for their open air barbeque pit cooking, but I got my traditional, vegetarian Nachos Von Rabbit (ala Jesika von Rabbit), appetizer. The kids were unfamiliar with the menu and portion size so I knew there would be plenty of ribs and steak to share. It was a rather long wait, but we weren’t going anywhere. In the meantime, a street-clothes clad Gram Rabbit appeared on stage to test the sound system. They did a couple of ‘free’ numbers while they tuned up. What an unexpected treat!
At Pappy and Harriet's
As a result of previous essays I’ve written about the band, from having conversations with them at Pappy and Harriet’s and in Philly and Brooklyn while they were on their last national tour, coupled with Facebook and email interactions with band members, we are not unknown to Gram Rabbit. For experiences like the Halloween Party, I wouldn’t think of attending without donning my Gram Rabbit t-shirt and my foot-tall, costume rabbit ears. Consequently, while she was strolling about the venue and surveying the crowd after the sound test, Jesika couldn’t help but notice me. She smiled and nodded ‘hello.’ I smiled and nodded back. At that moment, my son and son-in-law happened to have their eyes glued to her (a situation she’s grown accustomed to—looking like she does). After she gestured to me, they both turned and stared at me with stunned looks on their faces. I grinned, gave them a thumbs up and winked. It sort of made this old man’s evening.
Jesika Von Rabbit
As I said, the place was busy and we were still working on our meals when the lead off band, The Creepy Creeps out of San Diego (who were dressed in white, furry bodysuits with hideous rubber masks), hit the stage. The kids thought they were okay, but my wife and I were there for one reason--to see Gram Rabbit—and could have done fine without The Creepy Creeps (we thought they were loud and kind of creepy). They played for about an hour—long enough for us to finish dinner. Then, there was a break to set up the stage for the real show.
Jesika and Todd at The Palace
My youngest daughter (thinking of her senior citizen parents and their Gram Rabbit fanaticism), made a bold move. When it was vacated, she quickly claimed Table #7, right next to the stage. My wife and I took seats so close to the stage that our feet could rest on the edge of it. I had to keep scooting back so my knees (or rabbit ears) didn’t brush against Todd while he was setting up his guitars and amps. My wife poked me and asked, “Do you feel like some sort of weird groupie?” “No!” I said, feeling a bit offended. She grinned and said, “Well, you should. Look at yourself.” I couldn’t, though. I was too busy looking at how well Jesika’s black, fishnet bodysuit fit her.
I forgot to bring my ear plugs (I’d learned the hard way the previous year when I was sitting between Todd’s bass amp and the video cameraman), so I tore off pieces of napkin and wadded them into my ears. I’m already half deaf and can’t stand much more rock music at close range. Before the show started, I started to notice how excited I was and, considering my wife’s comments, began to wonder a little about my relationship with Gram Rabbit. That ended quickly when the lights went down and the fog machine came on.
I can’t describe the theatrical beginning of the Gram Rabbit show with justice. Suffice it to say that it was impressive and well done. The costume theme was that of Jesika, the black nun (in the well fitting black, fishnet bodysuit and black rabbit ears atop her nun’s veil). The band's on stage behavior would not have offended pious people, tough. After all, it was a Halloween show! Each Gram Rabbit show is different. They did not quickly jump into the ‘Party in the Desert’ song, as my granddaughter (who loves the song), calls ‘Candy Flip,’ but we certainly were not disappointed.
The Halloween Party
The kids, only two of which had seen Gram Rabbit perform before, thought the band was especially good that night; really had them rocking. I personally thought it was one of, if not the best of the dozen or so performances I’ve attended. The precision and energy was unmistakable. The fact that I got to go on stage (Todd had some trouble with his guitar strap, said “Somebody help me?” so I jumped right up there), made it an even more special evening for me. I also noticed some (what I considered to be) very important things occur on stage that, hopefully, foreshadows the group’s future.
I know few details; have formed an opinion only by long distance observation and speculation, but I've been worried about Gram Rabbit for the past couple of years. After their national tour in 2013, the band starred at the Halloween Party, as usual, but then did not perform together again for a full year—the year after they were overwhelmingly declared the best band in the region. In the meantime, Jesika began touring as a solo artist. In 2015, Gram Rabbit did a couple of out of town shows before the Halloween Party, but, over a two year period, the number of times they performed together could be counted on the fingers. I lamented what I surmised was a lead up to an inevitable demise of one of my favorite bands (it would rate right up there with the breakup of the Beatles or the Talking Heads--seriously). After seeing Friday’s performance I felt better, though.
Ethan, Jesika, Todd
Jesika von Rabbit and Todd Rutherford are the heart and soul of Gram Rabbit. Their musical cooperation and creative collaboration is what made Music to Start a Cult to, Gram Rabbit’s first album, a breakthrough success and earned them the title of Best New Band in Southern California (a significant accolade). With the adept guitar playing and astute record production of Ethan Allen, the band’s success continued and includes (what I consider to be one of the best albums I’ve ever listened to), Miracles and Metaphors, and the use of their songs in television commercials and movies multiple times.
Gram Rabbit’s decade-plus-long struggle to achieve the national and radio-time success they deserve may partly be attributable of their creative diversity. It’s almost impossible to assign them to a genre. They have produced great songs or albums that could be considered, Rock and Roll, Electronica, Country, Alternative, Popular, Easy Listening, or Hard Rock. Jesika and Todd have toured as The Country, and Rabbit and Rutherford, as well as Gram Rabbit. Their relationship (I only speculate, but have had a long lifetime over which to observe human interactions), has probably evolved over the years: perhaps from friends, to an item, to adversaries, and again to (from what I observed on stage this Halloween), friends and co-workers.
Into The Future
In the past few years, I believe I noticed a performance affecting strain between the members of Gram Rabbit during shows. This year, I didn't see it. In fact, I noticed interaction between Todd and Jesika that I'd missed in recent years. They spoke friendlily, smiled and laughed together, helped each other with equipment and didn’t ‘keep that distance’ I thought I’d noticed being maintained during Jesika’s theatrical and physical on stage performances. At the first night of the Halloween Party, I recognized a mutual respect and professional affection that yielded a tight, energetic performance that was one of the best I’ve seen Gram Rabbit give.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-51YCG6KaD8 Gram Rabbit live in Las Vegas 11/10/16