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The Making of
Taking Center Stage

Part 1: The Beginnings of an Idea

Dan Welch films an interview segment, Panamint Mountains in background.

Waking just after sunrise, I stepped outside the door of my motel room in Stovepipe Wells, in Death Valley National Park, California. I had always wanted to see remote and breathtaking desert landscapes like this, but never really expected to have the opportunity. I took a short walk along the road next to the parking lot, admiring the sand dunes in the distance, and the jagged peaks of the Panamint Mountains marching away to the south. The tan of the desert sand mixing into the purple of the mountains and the deep blue of the early morning sky created one of those sights that you just take in for a moment, happy to be alive. I walked across the motel compound, past the stand of mesquite trees where a family of very large crows had kept watch on us for the last few days.

As I walked up the steps to the restaurant, I glanced over toward the parking lot, and it looked empty. I assumed the Ghost Rider had gone, and was speeding over some distant highway back toward the Pacific Ocean. I had planned on meeting the rest of the Hudson crew at 7 a.m. for breakfast, but was up early, so I figured I would get a cup of coffee, read, and enjoy the scenery. As the hostess led me toward the back of the restaurant, I rounded a corner and found that I had been mistaken—there was Neil Peart, the man who inspired an entire generation of guys like me to play drums, and one of the most revered rock musicians of all time, sitting there alone, looking over his journal. Even after having met him in 2008, and having worked fairly closely with him since then on the project which is the topic of this story, I paused. Neil glanced up, smiled, and invited me to join him. He showed me some of the newest “passport stamps” he had collected on his visits to national parks.

As we sat and talked for a few minutes, I couldn’t help but smile to myself, and feel thankful for the opportunity to know and work with Neil over the last couple of years. He turned out to be everything I expected: hard-working, intelligent, interesting, focused, and creative—and, even better, a really nice guy as well. Soon we were joined by the rest of the Hudson guys, and enjoyed a hearty breakfast together before Neil set off for home.

This journey of working with Neil on his new Hudson Music DVD, Taking Center Stage: A Lifetime of Live Performance, has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. In my position with Hudson Music, and in my travels as a professional drummer, I have been very fortunate to meet (and in some cases get to know) almost all of my favorite drummers. And, of course, working with Rob Wallis and Paul Siegel as their Senior Drum Editor for Hudson Music has been an honor in itself, since they have trusted me to collaborate with them on projects with some of the greatest drummers on the planet. I have been a huge Rush fan since I was 12 years old, and in my younger years Neil was my hero. I wore out my VHS copy of Exit…Stage Left by repeatedly playing the video in slow motion to try to see what Neil was doing. I have seen Rush in concert just about every time they have come to the New York area, and even spent ten years playing in a Rush tribute band.

But as a fan of Neil’s, of course I became aware of his private lifestyle—exemplified by his never attending the kind of drum/music industry events at which I have met all the rest of my favorite drummers. Thus I believed I would never have the opportunity to meet him.

Neil and Joe Bergamini listen to “Caravan.”

In early 2008, Paul and Rob mentioned to me that in conversations with Neil, they thought he might be open to the idea of doing another project. Having worked with Neil on both of his previous drum DVDs, they knew that he would not want to cover any of the same ground again, but would want to explore and explain new areas. Knowing how familiar I was with Neil’s work, Paul and Rob asked me to create an outline and proposal for him. This was exciting, but a huge assignment: trying to come up with something that would be interesting enough for Neil to want to do. It was also a major project for Hudson, so I didn’t want to screw it up!

I wanted to be able to discuss Neil’s entire body of work, including all the classic songs that made him the most emulated rock drummer of the late 1970s and the 1980s. However, I knew that Neil was a very forward-thinking artist, constantly in search of new ground, and not so interested in analyzing his past work. So this presented a structural challenge.

After bouncing several preliminary ideas off of Paul and Rob, the three of us took one of my extensive outlines covering Neil’s entire body of work, and fine-tuned it into a presentation for him. They sent it to Neil for his opinion, as I waited anxiously. Finally word came back from Neil, and he seemed impressed by the knowledge that was presented, and even somewhat interested. Since he wanted to continue the conversation further, the guys suggested that they bring me to meet Neil, both so that he could get to know me a little, and potentially discuss the project further. I was pleased at this, but still a little unsure as to whether it would lead to actually working on a project with him.

Badwater Basin. L to R: Jeff Turick, Nate Blair, and Neil holding a reflector.

On July 12, 2008, Rob Wallis and I met up in the early afternoon outside of the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. I had seen Rush in concert there several times, and had always dreamed of going backstage to meet Neil. Now that day had arrived, but it was not some autograph session. I was nervous. When it came right down to it, I started to feel that it would be much easier to just remain an admirer from afar, given what I thought Neil’s reaction would be like when he met someone like me, who was such a fan of his work. Finally the appointed time came, and we were ushered into (of all places) Neil’s bus. Rob went in first, and I nervously ascended the steps and stood just inside the door. To Neil, of course, it was just another day at work, and he emerged from the back of the bus wearing a baseball hat, and gave Rob a hug. My nervousness was increased by seeing how tall and heavily built he is in person. Rob introduced us and I shook Neil’s hand, and to my surprise, he mentioned a couple of things that he knew about me (I guess Paul and Rob had told him), and the name of a mutual friend at Sabian, Chris Stankee, and smiled.

After catching up with Rob for a while, and chatting with me a little, Neil invited us onto the stage to watch the soundcheck. I was beyond excited. As he led us to the backstage area and over to his drum set, I looked around and remembered walking into Madison Square Garden with my father in 1984 (my very first rock concert), at thirteen years old. Our seats were the absolute worst, in the top row of the arena, but I was transfixed by looking down at the beautiful red drums and gleaming cymbals.

Neil on motorcycle.

Then Neil was suddenly motioning to me to climb up on the riser and take a seat on his drum throne. He walked around the kit and gave me a guided tour of the intricacies of his setup, we talked a little shop, and I was in heaven! Rob, knowing the significance of the occasion for me, walked around the kit and took photos of me with Neil. Soon Alex and Geddy emerged, and I asked Neil if I could stand behind him and watch him play the soundcheck, and he agreed. As I stood there watching him, I don’t think my smile could have been any bigger.

As I watched the concert that evening, observing Neil playing some of my favorite songs once again, I saw him in an entirely different light. This day was a dream come true, something I will remember for the rest of my life. On the way home, my overriding feeling was a tremendous amount of gratitude to Rob and Paul for trusting me enough to bring me into this, and to Neil, who turned out to be gracious, charming, and friendly. If the whole story had ended there, I would have considered myself a really lucky guy. But after the soundcheck, as we said goodbye (although we had not talked about the project at all, interestingly), Neil shook my hand and said, “I’m looking forward to working with you.” All along this entire process, I had tons of questions for Rob and Paul about whether they thought things were going well. As we walked back to our cars that evening, Rob told me that he felt really good about how things were proceeding.

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