Recreational Musicians Shine at Battle of the Corporate Bands

The first sign that something was a little unusual at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the night of September 28 was that all the rock and rollers looked like lawyers and engineers.

But this was no rock ‘n’ roll dream: The white-collar types had traveled to Cleveland to play at the 13th annual FORTUNE Battle of the Corporate Bands, where eight finalist bands from different companies went head-to-head to determine the best in America.

One of the bands, Ciena Corporation’s OTN Speedwagon, had a vexing path to Ohio. After suffering a heartbreaking elimination in the Nashville qualifier, OTN Speedwagon snuck into the finals on a wildcard opportunity. But once they stepped into the spotlight, the 12-person band—hailing from across America plus Canada and the U.K.—erased any doubts with an electrifying set of funk, pop and old-school rock.

Ciena-Winning-ShotMaybe even more importantly, they made an impression on the judges: Ricky Byrd (guitarist for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts), Rob Arthur (keyboardist for Peter Frampton), Jeff Carlisi (guitarist and founding member of .38 Special), Liberty DeVitto (longtime drummer for Billy Joel) and Making Music’s own Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Follett. And in spite (or maybe because of) the incredible talent on display from every band, it was OTN Speedwagon that hoisted the platinum record at the competition’s end.

Making Music asked this year’s reigning rockers (after they returned to their day jobs) about playing at the hall of their heroes, practicing as professional/recreational musicians, and winning the title of best corporate band in America.

MM: How does it feel to come this far as a band?

Amanda Pitman, vocals: It means the world to me. I was always in a band until a few years ago, when I couldn’t keep up with working full time in an extremely busy and demanding role, and working two nights a week gigging all over the UK. I almost stopped listening to music, such is the intensity of my job. It felt like coming home to once again be surrounded by like-minded people, with music as our first love and common ground.

Linda Cote, vocals: If being a musician is in your blood, it never leaves you and you don’t feel complete if you don’t continue to play. I think that we all feel that way. We are multi-dimensional people and playing music helps to give us a sense of balance and higher purpose, which in turn makes us better at the other stuff we do too. I like to think of it as a Renaissance mindset – none of us are put here to be or to do just one thing.

MM: What was it like to play in the FORTUNE Battle of the Corporate Bands at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and to meet the judges?

Chuck Kaplan, rhythm guitar: As an aging rocker, it is something that was unimaginable at any given point along the path. Meeting the judges and playing in that hallowed hall is as mystical an event as I can remember. And it reminds me that rock and roll is an art form and a culture with many openings, many ways to be creative that can still be firsts, never done before.

Steve Santana, percussion: It brought back so many memories of my childhood in band competitions and events. A real thrill.

Paul Bullock, lead guitar and winner of the Best Guitarist award: Even as I write this, I still get chills thinking about looking up from the stage to see the Pink Floyd puppets used on The Wall tour peering down on me, seeing U2’s giant disco ball car stage props from the Zoo TV tour hanging from the ceiling in front of me. Wow!

Pitman: Going to the Rock Hall was emotional. I almost felt like I was getting to meet the people I’d grown up loving and admiring, and felt the sadness of the ones departed too soon.

IMG_0565Rick Shiflett, drums: Walking into the Rock Hall to pick up our credentials is when everything finally hit me and I really got emotional (thank God for dark sunglasses). Playing at the Rock Hall with my friends on Saturday night may prove to be the coolest thing I have ever been a part of…and it was the easiest part of the whole experience, thanks in large part to Liberty DeVitto. As an untrained, self-taught drummer who can barely read music, self-doubt is a very real demon for me when in the presence of such polished musicians like those in our band. I had a really cool conversation the night before with Liberty, as he was telling me how he was untrained and self-taught himself. “Can’t read a note of music!” he said. I made sure to give him a hug on Saturday night (whether he wanted to hug me or not) because he allowed me to finally be able to accept myself as a drummer who has something to contribute.

MM: What were your thoughts right after hearing that you’d won? How did it feel?

Jim Delaney, trumpet: Complete shock for the first 30 seconds. I was standing behind my wife and cousin, holding onto Amanda and Santana. When they said “CIENA,” we went crazy. Amanda was shaking and my wife thought she was going to pass out.

Steve Darflinger, saxophone and winner of the Best Horn Player award: To win the whole thing with my family there with me was so perfect—I couldn’t have scripted it any better. For my son and daughter it was the first time they had ever heard me play publicly. It was great to do something for two teenagers that made them proud of their dad, instead of making them roll their eyes at me like usual.

MM: What does it mean to play with music your coworkers?

Bob Rodio, bass guitar: The level of musicianship in the band is amazing. We work for a technology company. It proves one can excel in their non-musical profession, and still play and fulfill one’s musical or artistic desires.

Francois Tessier, keyboards: In my opinion, my work colleagues are not professional besides music, they are true professionals in the way they behave every day including work and music. Everyone listens to different music genres and the blend of all these different “cultures” make what OTN is about: an international multi-culture band.

Paul Knudsen, rhythm guitar: Playing in OTN Speedwagon as part of my role at Ciena is like having cake, and eating it too. Not many lawyers get to “rock out” in front of all of their co-workers.

MM: Where do you go from here?

Tessier: Get another beer!

Delaney: Jimmy Fallon would be awesome to be on.

Bill Carr, vocals: To find a group of excellent musicians at the same company, and then to put it all together in the fashion we have, is incredible. I think it gets lost sometimes, the amount of time and effort it takes to learn an instrument, then to put a band together with diverse personalities is a chore. We already had a bit of a common goal in the same company, but it’s this group of folks that have taken it to the next level with our band.

Michael Rodio is a writer by trade and a pianist by training.

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