Two ex-Scouts to open for Earth, Wind and Fire

by Chris Hollenback, DCW Editor

A funk-rock band with big time aspirations, a large following and two ex-Madison Scouts stars will open for the band Earth, Wind and Fire this summer and perform at a club down the street from Camp Randall Stadium after DCI Semifinals on August 9 in Madison, WI.

The band’s name is Phat Phunktion, and the two Scouts alumni are Jon Schipper, a soprano player from 1991-1996, and Sheldon “Ice” Allen, a tenor player from 1985-1990. Schipper is best known for his Arturo Sandoval-esque solos in 1995 and ’96. Allen marched in the famed 1988 corps and eventually became the tenor section leader.

Now Allen lays down the groove for Phat Phunktion and Schipper plays stunning high notes and blends well with the band’s trombone player and two saxophones. The two corps vets give the band the punch and power of a corps. A bass player, guitarist, keyboard player and Latin percussionist round out the group. Two of the members also serve as the vocalists.

Sheldon Allen (left) and Jon Schipper (right) are ex-Scouts who now perform in major music venues with Phat Phunktion.

The nine-member band is releasing its third CD, “Higher,” this week, with two gigs at Luther’s Blues in Madison this weekend. They’ve paid a lot of dues already, opening for headliners like Maynard Ferguson, War, The BoDeans, The Temptations, Chick Corea and Tower of Power, including multiple appearances at the House of Blues in Chicago.

While the members are adamant that every gig is a big one, the next high-profile shows are with The Brothers Johnson at House of Blues on May 24, followed by their first appearance with Earth, Wind and Fire at the Little Rock, AR Riverfest on May 25.

From football fields to the big stage

Schipper and Allen have had a taste of the “rock star” treatment at venues like the House of Blues.

“You get your equipment carried by other people,” Schipper said, “they call you when your sound check’s ready.” That’s a far cry from lugging your horn case on and off the drum corps equipment truck. But these drum corps alumni haven’t forgotten where they came from, either.

“I would have to say,” Allen said, “that my drum corps experience had a major contribution to my life now and who I am and who I have developed into as far as responsibilities, dedication, perseverance, follow through and communication, how to relate to a different kind of person. Knowing that you do your best all the time, whether that’s a performance venue or writing a paper, any time you have to reflect on yourself or someone else. Drum corps taught me a lot about that.”

Allen started marching in the Scouts when he was 16. “When you’re 16, that’s pretty much when you get your value program for life,” he said. “If you know that you’ve done your best, that should make you happy. That’s the philosophy that I live by now. If I do the best at what I do, hey, that’s great. If people can’t accept that, great. If they can accept it, that’s even better.

“I really credit drum corps to the success I have in life right now. If I didn’t have it, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I grew up into my own adult personality, and a lot of that is due to the Madison Scouts organization.”

And while neither ex-Scout relishes the grind of a drum corps tour, both say they look forward to a day when Phat Phunktion can spend a lot of time on the road.

“You’re not sleeping on a gym floor,” Schipper said. “Rehearsal is different. For me, being on tour is a joy ride. We’re staying in hotels, you get paid. When you’re in a drum corps, it’s not exactly like that. It’s gym floors, it’s eating and showering with 128 other people. In this venue, you get to the gig, you set up, then you’ve got some time to sit down, relax, get some food, drink some beer. It’s kind of relaxed. When the show starts, though, it’s time to get down to business. It’s a lot longer than 11 and a half minutes.”

Schipper (center, white shirt) applauds the Madison Scouts with fans and the rest of the Scouts staff after a recent DCI Finals performance.

There’s a lot for each member of the band to remember and concentrate on during a show. The band can pull out music from any of their three disks, plus a bevy of funk-rock covers. The style of music can mutate slightly from song to song, too.

“I think this (new) disc is best described as diverse,” Schipper said. “We try to cater to just about every listener out there. On this CD, I think we’ve achieved that. We go from funky, to rock, to jazz. You’ll hear jazz soloists, old-school R&B, ’90s grunge and really gritty-sounding stuff. You’re going to hear pop, some top 40 stuff, too.

“You’re going to say, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this type of thing before. You might say, ‘I hear a little bit of Tower of Power in there.’ Or, ‘I hear a little Earth, Wind and Fire in there.’ Or, ‘I hear a little Will Smith in there.’ It’s nine different band members with nine different backgrounds and lifetimes of listening to music.

“We’ve changed. We took all the old stuff and twisted it, turned it around. This CD is a new approach. It’s not the ‘New Phat Phunktion.’ It’s kind of the old, with a little bit of nitro.”

Drum corps fans who were in Madison for the 1999 DCI Championships certainly loved the old Phat Phunktion. The band played for two hours on a stage near the souvenir stands outside the stadium during Quarterfinals. Then they performed at the sold-out Regent Street Retreat.

“I can think back to when we walked on stage; it was a huge ovation,” Schipper said. “I think they just knew they were going to hear some great music that night. Friday, same thing.”

The band members are hoping for the same thing to happen when they take the stage at Luther’s Blues, a major music venue in Madison that happens to be about three blocks from Camp Randall Stadium. They’ll time their show to take place after DCI Semifinals are over and fans can walk to the club. It could be a great tune-up for the band before the high-profile events two weeks later.

“(Arkansas) is kind of an audition for us,” Schipper said. “At Summerfest, we might open up for Earth, Wind and Fire again, possibly. And you have to consider every show an audition because…