Neil Peart Makes Surprise Appearance at KoSA 2011: First-hand Account

The chosen few sat spitting distance from Neil and his 4-piece DW drum kit

exclusive photo, Neil Peart accepting lifetime achievement award from KoSA

It was the drum industry shock of the year, Neil Peart taking the stage Sunday morning, July 31, 2011 at the KoSA end-of-week wrap-up. I was there and enjoyed exclusive photo privileges.

I can’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ve extolled the virtues of KoSA, the annual summer camp for drummers & percussionists. I’ve urged you to attend—not that I had any idea about the identity of the “special guest” listed in the Sabbath morning program. I knew simply that KoSA was special and something in founder Aldo Mazza’s voice made it urgent, no imperative, that I attend this year.

Sure, there are other good camps where they drum dawn ’til dusk. But what can I say? Neil Peart chose KoSA. Nobody paid him to do this. It certainly wasn’t a publicity stunt. His visit was shrouded in secrecy until the actual moment he strode on stage Sunday morning.

It’s always been a special week and, thus, the mention of a “special guest” didn’t raise a fuss. After all, students of all ages had already spent 7 days studying and hanging with world class instructors. That was enough, as far as they were concerned—and reported to me on my arrival Saturday evening for the faculty performance, which is open to the whole town of Castleton, Vermont—not just the KoSA students boarding in the state university, a beautiful location with mountains on all sides.

Castleton, VT, where Neil Peart was special guest at KoSA 2011

Neil made a hard left at this point

Nobody dreamed the guest would be Neil Peart. In fact, I had guessed correctly but doubted my hunch this time—I knew well that the man, while no recluse, makes himself scarce. I’m beginning to see why. Over the years, he’s been invited to grace more worthy gatherings than the Queen of England. That he would show up at KoSA speaks volumes for the value of KoSA and validates founder Aldo Mazza’s credibility.

Speaking of which, Aldo didn’t tell a living soul. He’d phoned his old friend Neil and, fortunately, Neil, who’d always expressed interested in this intimate percussive gathering, accepted. Finally, he’d spotted a hole in his calendar that jived with KoSA’s.

Imagine the money Aldo could have raked in had a leaked the news to the press, to the social media, or to any rabid fan. The place would have been overrun with diehard Peart fans and KoSA would have rocketed to solvency. For the same reason Neil accepted Aldo’s invitation, Aldo put his money where his mouth is—meaning he held true to his pledge that KoSA would remain an intimate gathering in a setting that encouraged the strong to share strengths and the meek to step up when the beat beckoned. Even Rob and Paul, founders of Hudson Music, heard late in the game. They hastily assembled a video crew and captured the event. If the footage sees daylight, you’ll see what you missed.

on stage at KoSA where Neil Peart will appear in minutes

KoSA Sunday morning wrap up students await special guest

Even without Neil Peart KoSA would have been a runaway success. Just to sit in the same room with Jimmy Cobb, drummer on the best selling album of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, would have been enough. Or learning the mysteries from Carmine Appice, original power drummer and John Bonham’s colleague. Or catching Memo Acevedo—another legend and stunning drumset artist!

KoSA house band bassist Francesco Beccaro

Marcus, Allan, Michael, Zoro, Sergio—check out the KoSA website for the full roster. My student Ian was raving about the entire faculty. For example, he cited the wealth he learned from Jeff Salisbury, whose casual manner belied a serious breadth of wisdom, facility in negotiating a variety of genres, and bad technique—good bad. Ian offered many more examples but they tumbled out with such enthusiastic rapidity I lost count. As it turns out, I hung with Jeff immediately before the wrap-up show Sunday and got a feel for what Ian described. What’s more we made an agreement to stay in touch. When pacts are made at KoSA, they’re lasting. As are the memories.

Jeff Salisbury, Ian Crawford, John Morrison at KoSA awaiting Neil Peart

L to R: Jeff Salisbury, Ian Crawford, John Morrison await "special guest"

Did anybody guess?

So there we are, Jeff, me, Ian and a full lobby but no lineups down the block. It was an intimate gathering and the theater sized to match. I’d been denied a photo pass, fortunately later granted thanks to Aldo, Jolan, Rob & Paul, after security protocols were observed, which included frisking and enforcing a ban on cells/hand-helds and other measures rivaling O’Hare airport or LAX the week of 9/11 (and yes, I was there, too). The point was ensuring Neil could share in the true spirit of KoSA with drummers who were equally as passionate. Had a sea of flashes popped and a rush (!) of fans flooded towards him, he’d never have known if it was all for real.

Even though I’d sussed it out, something wasn’t quite right. You work in this business long enough you can detect a celebrity with one sniff. But this time there was nothing in the air nor on the ground—no plain clothes security, nor out of state techies trying to pass as locals.

I smiled at the image that was coming to mind. If it was Peart, I was thinking, he’d had to have packed his overnight bag with sticks, toothbrush, and underwear, then get into his sedan and drive himself the many miles into south central Vermont to this remote notch in the green mountains, his arm out of the window, and stopping for the key at the gas bar.

Castleton State College, VT, where Neil Peart made an appearance

morning due covers grass and object d'art at Castleton State College, VT

Which is precisely what went down. The man went the distance, drove down to Castleton, VT all by himself. No stretch limo. A stretch on my part, however, when I heard he motored down in a proletarian vehicle that might have been a professor’s car—no hairdresser’s Mercedes convertible, BMW, or even tinted SUV. When he got there, his old pal Aldo greeted him and got right down to talking drums, which is how they led off the “special guest appearance”…before they got to slapping skins.

Aldo Mazza at drum kit

Aldo works out during KoSA finale concert

Takes one to know one

Aldo and Neil are kindred spirits. Drumming is not a hobby. It is a calling. It is something they do because it makes them whole, enriches their musical experience and enables them to communicate with like minded souls who only live thousands of miles distant. This give and take, this free sharing of the vocabulary of drumming goes to the heart of musical communication and defines KoSA and its recent outreaches.

People say Neil Peart is distant, beyond arm’s reach. Perhaps but it’s understandable. It’s not that the guy is a narcissist, hermit, and recluse for the purpose of mystification.

Picking and choosing appearances is Peart’s way of ensuring his social/musical interaction is meaningful and not an artifact of fan worship. While Peart sat on stage conversing with his friend Aldo, I realized I’d misread the guy—both of them, actually. They seek an atmospere in which there’s unfettered musical communication—pure drums, open communication.

Sergio Bellotti burning at finale concert

Instead of attempting to describe the finale concert or muse about the earlier part of the week, especially since I arrived late…but safe and sound, thanks to my driving partner, Ralph Angelillo (head of the Montreal Drum Fest) and didn’t get to witnesses classes in progress, I thought I’d take up the theme I began in a previous article you’ve read on this website.

KoSA: To go or not to go?

I have a strong feeling that more drummers, students and pros, ought to attend KoSA just for the hang. For example, at the sumptuous Sunday gratis breakfast—a daily deal that’s part of a great package—I ran into John Morrison, whom I’d featured on the cover of the Canadian magazine Drums Etc when I was editor-in-chief. You don’t make a magazine cover unless you’re above the rank and file. And yet here he sat, a student among students, itching to learn.

I recall first hearing about John’s prowess from his instructor, my maritime contact and now good friend, the legendary Joe McIntyre, who coaxed his student to attend KoSA. In fact, when I returned home from KoSA 2011, I made a long distance call to Joe and reported I’d bumped into his star student. Joe told me that John, who’s as shy as he is gifted, had second thoughts. Would he, fit in with the other students? Would he be intimidated—or maybe intimidate them, somehow? Would others perceive he was going to KoSA to show off? It’s a valid set of concerns, given the guy’s a monster and somebody who Gary Husband asked to befriend in Facebook after viewing Morrison on several youtube clips.

I told John to drive down to KoSA,” says McIntyre. “People should realize that it doesn’t matter what kind of drumming you prefer, or if you’ve been playing for 15 years or 15 minutes. It’s about getting feedback, reinforcement, and about networking.

Morrison was a hit among students and teachers. Carmine Appice told John that he was as good as any player he’d seen recently—certainly well above the norm. And that’s the point of KoSA—it’s the sharing of the entire drumming experience. Students learn from teachers, just as they learn from each other. What a great environment!”

For my part, it seemed that every time KoSA would loom, I’d be busy with something else. To be honest, there were other concerns, namely my worst fear—I’d be uncomfortable somehow in a community of drummers, especially hand drummers. I envisioned stumbling into an episode of South Park.

Aldo Mazza had always assured me that KoSA welcomed any species of drummer who struck with hand or stick. This year, he kept hinting, I had to attend.

I felt urgency, knowing Aldo was true to his word, having carried as far afield as Cuba and, more recently, China in the interest of fostering world percussive communication. There were more selfish interests for me: I wanted to see Jimmy Cobb, again, for one. It had been five years since I’d interviewed him as research for a book, which I’m still writing. Carmine Appice was another: I’d been watching him on youtube recently, absolutely killing with Vanilla Fudge, truly the first “power drummer”. Zoro, of course, is brilliant. Allan Molnar…finally drew a bead on his wealth of knowledge, professionalism, and broad scope. Memo: another occasion to employ “wicked”. What a fine kit player. Michael Wimberly and Marcus Santos were pure inspiration, full stop. Sergio Bellotti was up to his usual high standard, listening as hard as he drives ahead.

Neil Peart plays hand drums to intimate crowd KoSA 2011

Surrounding Neil

Next time you are wondering how to spend a chunk of your summer vacation, remember that Neil Peart felt at home at KoSA. The man shuns facade and avoids situations devoid of intent. I found myself respecting him and eventually liking him, even. I mean, I’m not saying he’ll be over her for a BBQ like Stanton was last month. If there was a chance of that happening, however, I’d do as Aldo did and keep it quiet. If news got out, I don’t know if my neighborhood could handle the bus tours, cars parked on lawns, and photographers shooting 500mm zooms from helicopters. And probably I’d never get Neil down the basement for a play, forget about watching an old Yorgi Horton video on Betamax or Phil Collins with John Martyn.

Neil visited KoSA, chatted, played, and waved goodbye

Now that I’ve finally been to KoSA I can heartily recommend it, both to industry, for whom it holds amazing potential, and to anybody who is interested in drumming. Oughta send a bunch of guitarists there, too, come to think about it. You’re there but a few hours and those green hills seem like pebble beaches and you happy-as-a-clam, delighted to have emerged from your shell. I’m darting around now, stumbling in my artfully clumsy urge to depict KoSA.

Jimmy Cobb, drummer on Kind of Blue, Miles Davis's best selling jazz album

Jimmy Cobb plays...kind of purple

Maybe the photos will say it better. I owe Aldo Mazza an apology for waiting 16 years to take him up on his invitation. But not today. I’m damned if I’m going to pick up the phone and reach him in China,where at this moment he’s seeking to expand the KoSA world vision.

Neil Peart rare photo, performing at KoSA 2011

Gathering around Neil Peart working the hats

How about a motto, a slogan, for KoSA next year:

The rimshot heard around the world.

Neil Peart talking drums with Michael Wimberly

Nik Kershaw: “I let the drums do the talking”.

Vince Gill: “If I had my way…”.