Professors a Hit in the Classroom and on the Dance Floor
Story posted May 15, 2007
It's a perfect night with a soft spring breeze. Daffodils bloom waxy yellow outside the Bricks. Students stand in scraggly groups, which erupt in sudden laughter. There is a feeling of anticipation on campus.
It's the start of Ivies. That means a lot of things to a lot of people. Tonight, however, it means just one thing: Racer-X.
The hugely popular '80s cover band is playing tonight at David Saul Smith Union, marking the start of Ivies weekend. "Racer-X is Ivies," says one student. "They are the most amazing '80s band. EVER!"
As if the bouncy music and wacko '80s wigs weren't enough to draw a huge following, Racer-X has a particular pull: Half of its members are on the Bowdoin faculty.
Lead singer and guitarist Vineet Shende may belt out Toto by night, but by day the assistant professor of music teaches music theory and composition and directs Bowdoin's electronic music lab. His bandmate, keyboard player Aaron Kitch, is an assistant professor of English who specializes in Renaissance literature.
Shende auditioned for the band four years ago, answering a newspaper ad by bassist Pat Cyr and drummer Dave Morrill ("I've been playing in rock bands since junior high," says Shende, who says he finds the freewheeling fellowship a respite from the rigors of academia).
Kitch quickly followed suit, and the foursome began building a repertoire of faves including "Burning Down the House," "Let's Go Crazy," "Take On Me," "Blister in the Sun," and "Sweet Dreams Are Made of These." Racer-X — which draws its name from a character in the Japanese TV cartoon Speed Racer — now has a repertoire of almost 80 songs.
"We go from hair bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard to weird techno stuff," says Shende. "We just wanted to create a band we could kick around and not take too seriously."
Instead, they created a seriously tight dance band that soon gained local cult status — not only at Bowdoin, but at several watering holes in the greater Portland area where they play a couple of times per month.
"People are going crazy about this," says Kitch, shaking his head during the band's Ivies setup in Smith Union. "All day people have been asking, 'When you goin' on?' "
Not soon enough for the cluster of seniors gathering in the pub nearby.
"We can't wait," says Sara Tennyson '07. "Racer-X is a campus staple. They are definitely the most popular band. I cannot WAIT.
"That's the wonderful thing about Bowdoin," she continues. "We interact with our professors on a level that is both professional and friendly, we get to know them inside the classroom and out. All of my friends that go to big universities don't even know their TAs."
"I have Professor Kitch as an advisor and a teacher," pipes in Stephanie Witkin '07. "You would never guess he's in an '80s cover band. He has a very serious way about him when you deal with him academically. But once you see him in the band ... you get to see a whole different view.
"He's brilliant, he's a musician, he's hilarious, and he understands Renaissance drama, Duran Duran, Christopher Marlowe and Meatloaf — what more do you want in a professor?"
Apparently, not much. In the 30 minutes or so it takes the Racer-X crew to set up a sound system and funkadelic light show, the place gets packed.
Associate Professor of English Pete Coviello is trying to keep a low profile in the corner, but it isn't working very well. Rumor has it the equally popular professor is playing sax with the band for a couple of numbers tonight.
"I will not be quite as swashbuckling as Vin," he says, grinning, as Shende emerges from backstage with a white, ruffled shirt à la Adam Ant. "But I'll do my best."
The band readies for their opening chord. Kitch is bedecked in silver PVC pants and Ziggy Stardust wig. "How you guys doin' tonight?" shouts Shende, strapping on his guitar. "You ready to rock it?"
The crowd roars in response.
A boy flings himself on the ground in happiness as the band starts the first strains of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." The crowd surges forward, dancing, clapping, hopping.
"I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside ..." croons Shende. His vocals are emotional, his guitar licks flawless. "I want to feel sunlight on my face ... where the streets have no name."
"There is nothing like having a class with these guys then coming here and hearing them rock," says Stephen Gonzalez '09, hopping in his own corner of the hall. "They are the most amazing '80s cover band. Why? Because they rock the house! They hit the 'Africa' note by Toto better than Toto does."
This is not actually an overstatement. One would be hard-pressed to find a band whose front man's musical background includes extensive training as a tenor, classical guitarist and sitar player. Not to mention Shende's international recognition with a 2001 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and a 2003 commission to compose a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra.
"Knowing something about electronic music techniques probably does make it easier for me to play this music," says Shende during a break. "When I program my guitar processor, I try to get the exact sound of the original guitarist — the delay, distortion, chorus. The guitarist from U2 has his own sound for each song, for instance. And I guess all of the ear-training classes I had to take make it fairly easy to figure out the notes, rhythms and chord progressions of the songs we do."
Kitch studied piano at an early age, started his own jazz band in college, and has no trouble jamming during the band's killer, three-and-a-half-hour Ivies set. He says he thinks the band is popular among students for one good reason: It's fun.
"The students work very, very hard around here," says Kitch. "They deserve a chance to work it out on the dance floor." Kitch is just finishing up his own very, very hard work: He is putting the finishing touches on a manuscript on religion, economics and literature in Renaissance England.
"I've actually been surprised at the way the shows help my interactions with students in the classroom," notes Kitch. "The students here are so respectful all the time, to me and to one another. If it weren't a place like that I would feel a little anxiety about performing here, but because it is, it's a fun release for everyone."
By the time Racer-X cranks into their third set, there is no longer room to hop. Some students are body surfing, lifted aloft by their classmates.
Outside, the night is cooling off. A few lone students stand by the door of Smith Union.
All is silent, briefly, then Vin Shende starts up Europe's "The Final Countdown." His passionate, raspy rendition bounces against the walls of the new Studzinski Recital Hall, and echoes across the Quad:
We're leaving together/But still it's farewell/And maybe we'll come back/To earth/ who can tell?
For those attending their last Ivies weekend, they are words to live by. Or at least dance to.
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