andrew kruse-ross | little river band | may 2018
It seems luck has been on the side of Little River Band's Wayne Nelson. Taking nothing away from the musician's abilities, he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and that's led Nelson to share the stage with some legendary performers as well as land him a role in one of Australia's most successful bands.
When his Chicago-based band Koala decided to split up, Nelson moved to Los Angeles in an attempt to further his musical career.
He didn't have to wait long to find work on the West Coast. A friend discovered via a local musician's union bulletin board that Jim Messina was in need of a bass player. Nelson, an admitted Loggins and Messina fan, decided to call the number.
“I called and Messina was not happy," says Nelson. “He says 'Where did you get this number?'"
Messina was miffed that someone had posted his number at a local musician's union and informed Nelson he'd never seek a musician for his current project in such a way, however, he realized Nelson wasn't to blame and suggested he come to Santa Barbara to tryout anyway.
Despite their clumsy introduction, when face-to-face, Nelson and Messina hit it off immediately.
“There are great bass players and singers on every street corner in Los Angeles, but we hit off personally along with the fact that I could have done all of the L&M songs without a rehearsal; I knew the music that well," says Nelson.
Nelson got the gig and went to work in the studio, performing on Messina's first solo album titled “Oasis."
Having already made a name for himself with Buffalo Springfield, Poco and alongside Kenny Loggins, Messina was given free rein by Columbia to do as he pleased where his solo album was concerned.
The music recorded for “Oasis," which was infused with Latin-inspired flavors and syncopated rhythms, may have been ahead of its time. It seems Columbia had little idea how to market Messina's first solo work.
Nelson describes promotional support for the album as being at a minimum. Messina did, however, tour briefly in support of the album alongside Australian soft rock outfit Little River Band for two weeks on the West Coast.
Nelson recalls members of Little River Band often standing just offstage to watch the legendary Messina perform, but they also had their eye on Nelson.
“Little did I know that their bass player had left and they were using a substitute that didn't sing."
At the end of the tour Nelson was asked if he'd consider rehearsing with Little River Band and see where things led.
“In my infinite wisdom I said no," admits Nelson.
He explains his reasoning being his enthrallment with the group Messina had assembled as well as the rhythmical music the group was creating. That group, he says, was ready to “conquer the world."
Four months later that all changed when Messina decided to drop the band. Nelson made a phone call to Australia to see if Little River Band were still in need of a bassist. They were and in a serendipitous turn of events, the former Koala bassist was now a member of one of Australia's greatest hit makers.
Little River Band has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. Their success is built upon a string of hits from the '70s and '80s like “Reminiscing," “Lonesome Loser" and “Take It Easy on Me." The band's signature sound features strong vocal harmonies that garnered the praise of the Eagles Glenn Frey who called Little River Band “the best singing band in the world."
The band, which continues to record, released a six-disc CD/DVD boxed set titled “The Big Box" in 2017. Nelson aims to keep those harmonies, which he calls “absolutely of utmost importance," at the core of their music to this day, both in the studio and on stage.
All five members of the band sing and their live show makes no attempt to disguise the group's vocal talents, which often open a cappella.
Nelson, who has been performing some of these songs for more than 40 years, likes to look for fresh ways to present the music on stage. He walks a fine line when it comes to being true to the original recordings while still enhancing the songs during a live set.
“People don't want you messing with their hits and their memories to the point where they lose the connection with the song … We're always trying to find things to inject into the songs, but the way I like to describe it for people is the cake is the same, you might get a different icing in certain spots."
And when it comes to performing live, Nelson insists people can expect a lot of energy when Little River Band takes the stage.
“People gotta bring their scrapbooks," says Nelson. “We're going to open 'em up. We're going to make them sing, we're going to get them up clapping.
“As people remember that there weren't just three or four songs — there were 11 Top 10s over the course of seven years — they get swept up into this momentum … by the end of it we've shut the front doors, taken out the scrapbooks and turned it into a party."
Little River Band visits the Ashwaubenon PAC on Friday, June 1. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 and up and available online at TicketstarOnline.com or by phone at (920) 494-3401.