Ultimate Jam Night:
The Sunset Strip’s Last Refuge
For Rock & Roll
Story by Shawn Perry
Photos by Alex Kluft & Ron Lyon
The Sunset Strip in Hollywood is a different place than it was in the 20th Century. London Fog is gone. Gazzarri’s is gone. The House of Blues is gone. Even Tower Records is gone. In their place are upscale storefronts, condos and clubs that cater to a new, seemingly tone-deaf generation. Hey, that’s progress, right? Maybe so, but if you’re a fan of rock and roll, the changes that have occurred on the Strip over the last few years are a deathblow to what many feel made the mile and half stretch so special.
Fortunately, a few hearty souls have stepped up to preserve what’s left of a rock and roll scene on the Strip. Some would say Chuck Wright, who plays bass for Quiet Riot, is leading the way. I have known Chuck for almost 30 years. We met when my friend Lanny Cordola joined House of Lords in 1988. I could write a lengthy article about the musical communion that evolved through the 1990s and 2000s between Chuck and Lanny; in short, it produced about 40 albums of inspiring music.
The thing about Chuck that I’ve noticed is that he likes to be on stage, playing before an appreciative audience. Quiet Riot swoops around the country constantly, and you would think that between shows, Chuck would want to kick back and relax. However, when he’s in town, the lure of an open stage is irresistible. So when he invited me to Jam Night at the Lucky Strike in Hollywood in January 2015, I wasn’t surprised to see he was behind it. Unfortunately, time and distance prevented me from attending, but I kept a steady, curious eye on what became a weekly event, and applauded Chuck’s efforts.
Jam Night morphed into Ultimate Jam Night, and it grew into a popular ritual for those craving live rock and roll in the heart of Hollywood. Chuck anchors a house band that includes drummer Matt Starr and guitarist Mitch Perry. Friends and peers join in to cover rock’s greatest anthems. Sometimes, full bands come up for mini sets; other times, the whole night revolves around a central theme. Perhaps the most alluring part of Ultimate Jam Night is, to quote their very own tagline, you never know who’s going to show up. Needless to say, a variety of A-list musicians have come to sit in.
In November 2015, Ultimate Jam Night (UJN) received a lot of attention when it was announced that guitarist Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette would reunite as the David Lee Roth band to play a few numbers from 1986’s Eat ‘Em And Smile album. Nearly 2,000 fans lined up outside Lucky Strike to witness the reunion. Steel Panther singer Ralph Saenz (aka Michael Starr) was tapped for lead vocals, but then Roth himself showed up and mayhem ensued. Before the group even made it to the stage, the fire marshal came in and shut the place down.
Soon after, Ultimate Jam Night changed its night and venue to Tuesdays at the world-famous Whisky A Go Go. Now a staple of Hollywood, UJN won awards and was featured on the local news after staging a tribute to Prince and holding a fundraiser for the LGBT community of Orlando after the tragic mass shooting at a city nightclub. And after a couple more weekly shows (68 to be exact), I finally cleared my schedule and ventured into Hollywood to see what Ultimate Jam Night was all about. Part of the attraction for me was a new band called Day of Errors, featuring Black Sabbath’s original drummer Bill Ward. After all the controversy around Ward’s departure from the Sabbath 2011 reunion, speculation was high as to what was about to unfold.
So I made the trek, arrived earlier than expected, and dove right in. Forty years before, I came to the Whisky for the first time to see an unknown band called Van Halen. There were loads more shows I attended at the fabled venue after that, but it had been a while. Tonight, there was a pretty good crowd already assembling and it grew as the clock ticked. Chuck Wright was nowhere in sight, and I later learned he was out of town with Quiet Riot. No worries because the beauty about Ultimate Jam Night is that there’s always someone standing by to fill in. In fact, what I noticed almost immediately was how incredibly organized everything was. After one set of players ran through some tunes, guest MC Jesse Snider (son of Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider) came out to make announcements, then another set of players took their places for the next set. There was never a lull in the proceedings.
One of my favorite jams of the night was when Matt Starr climbed out from behind his drums and stepped up front to sing AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock.” He was backed up by Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, keyboardist Walter Ino, and the Okai sisters on guitar and bass. They really knocked that one out of the park. Afterwards, Snider returned to the stage and started tossing Ultimate Jam Night T-shirts into the crowd. All the while, stagehands began setting up for Day of Errors.
I was positioned on the floor, next to the beer bar, enjoying a Sculpin IPA, when the night fell on the verge of becoming epic. Snider held up a guitar autographed by Bill Ward and said he would give it away to anyone with a drink in hand and a solid knowledge of past Ultimate Jam Nights. Even though this was my first on-site experience, I had been a follower since its inception, even posting previews on the VintageRock.com News Blog, so I was prepared. It was pointed out that Ward was a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, so Snider asked which previous Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had attended Ultimate Night Jam. Without a second thought, I blurted out “Robin Zander!” and the room went dead.
Snider hesitated for a minute, suggesting that his father, who had appeared weeks earlier, might be the right answer. He plugged the recent Twisted Sister documentary in the process. Then he admitted I was right and motioned for me to come up to the stage to retrieve the guitar. OK, I thought, maybe I should come to more Ultimate Jam Nights if this is what happens. Anyway, Snider gave me a hug and handed me the guitar. I held it up like a rock star and scuttled off the stage to a congratulatory throng likely wondering how a straight-laced kook like me could win anything.
I settled back into my corner and watched Day of Errors play a four-song set. The music was hard and heavy, nothing too earth-shattering, but at least Bill Ward could still play, dispelling the notion that the Sabbath stickman's career was finished. I hung for a little while after, but realized it was late and I needed to get myself and my new guitar home. As press-time, preparations for the next Ultimate Jam Night (#69 to be exact) are underway, and I’m sure it will be another incredible night of music. It’s hard to say when I’ll be back, but if I'm ever in Hollywood on a Tuesday night, that's where I'll go. Thanks to Chuck Wright and his UNJ team, rock and roll is alive and well on the Sunset Strip.