Sunday, March 10, 2002

The Menus, a little weird a little wacky


For nearly 20 years, this savvy west-side cover band has earned its adoration

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They felt a little out of place at first, a rock 'n' roll cover band selling themselves next to corn dog vendors and Tilt-a-Whirl drivers.

        But they wanted to play outside this summer. Somewhere different. Somewhere where people don't yet know about their singer who looks a little like Jim Morrison, if Jim Morrison had worn sunflower bonnets and platinum wigs.

[photo] Lead singer Tim Goldrainer performs in outrageous outfits such as this flowered skirt.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        So there they were — the Menus, Cincinnati's pride-of-the-west-side cover band — spending two days in January in Nationwide Arena in Columbus. It was the Ohio State Fair trade show, where music acts, food vendors and carnies compete for the attention of the farmers who plan the state's 88 county fairs.

        The first day was a little slow. Tim Goldrainer, that singer, admits they looked around at the clowns, country acts and a fried-cheese guy and asked themselves what in the hell they were doing there.

        But Day Two was another story. The five-member band got 18 minutes to demonstrate what Menus fans have grown to accept and love over almost two decades. Mr. Goldrainer squeezed in four costume changes and demonstrated his trademark balloon-breaking kicks that leave the stage showered in confetti.

        And he's booked to sing “Brandy” in his blue-flowered nightie at the Perry County Fair.

        It was classic Menus: A little bit of business, a little weirdness. But weirdness that works.

        “They loved it,” Mr. Goldrainer says. “We knew, as soon as they saw us, they would. That's what we do — we win people over.”
       

You get used to it

        Longtime Menus fans are no longer surprised by Mr. Goldrainer's sunflower bonnet, platinum wig or Elmo headdress. They so love their “Mustang Sally” coming from a topless guy in a flowered skirt, that they scream for it, log on to the band's chat room to talk about it and plan their days off so they can make trips to see it.

        The band travels mostly Ohio and Kentucky, making regular trips to bars where they've become popular. The Bait Shop, Toledo; A1A Sandbar, Lexington; Flannagan's, Dublin. In their hometown, they play the Blue Note in West Price Hill about once a month.

        At every stop, fans see Mr. Goldrainer skateboard on his hands through the audience and dress in women's clothes and handmade hats. But they also say the getups and schtick don't overshadow the fact that the veteran musicians can actually sing and play.

        DeAnna Ruppelli first saw the Menus more than a decade ago, while she was a student at Miami University in Oxford. Back then, Mr. Goldrainer sang in regular clothes. Now a 32-year-old garden designer living in Medina, Mrs. Ruppelli and her husband ran into the band again a couple of summers ago at one of their Put-in-Bay shows. They were thrilled when they realized their old band was still at it.

        Two months ago for the New Year's Eve show at the Hyatt in Columbus, they rounded up 62 “groupies” and made official Menus silk jammies for the after-party.

MENUS' MAIN MAN
[photo]
   Tim Goldrainer
    a k a: Timmy, Goldie, Curly
    Age: 37
    Lives: Price Hill
    High-school claim to fame: Oak Hills Prom King, 1983. “Proud wouldn't be the word. "Shocked,' maybe.”
    In his CD player: Soundtrack to Hedwig and the Angry Inch
    Also sings: In Curly and the Cueballs (he's Curly, the only one with hair), a new band he started about a year ago so he could sing his favorite standards by voices like Frank Sinatra.
    Best gig: In the early '90s, after opening for Curtis Steigers at Kings Island's TimberWolf Ampitheater, going backstage at an Emerson, Lake and Palmer show at Riverbend. “That was so cool. We were like kids in a rock 'n' roll candy store.”
    Loves to sing: “Blood, Sweat & Tears. It reminds me of my Uncle Jack's jukebox.”
    Wishes he could sing, but can't: “Anything by Rush. I love that stuff. My voice just doesn't have the gears for that. I can't sing like Geddy Lee.”
    First public performance: Woodhaven Swim Club, Bridgetown. Sang “Blue Suede Shoes” with Ooh La La and the Greasers. “I talked to the band on break and basically swindled my way in. That was probably like 1972 maybe, I was about 10.
    “My first time on stage in a Speedo, and I'm still doing it.”
UPCOMING
   Next gigs: Thursday, W.O. Wrights, Beavercreek; Friday, Phoenix Hill Tavern, Louisville; Saturday, Bait Shop, Toledo; Sunday, Flannagan's, Dublin
   Back in Cincinnati: April 6, the Blue Note, Price Hill
   Web site: www.themenus.org
   E-mail: themenus@aol.com
   Hotline: 357-6300
   Their CD: Infinite Recess, 1998; $10.98 at www.jbirdrecords.com
        “It's the energy, it's the fun,” she says. “And Tim is the most genuine guy. We just have the best time with them. They're real people. They've never disappointed us.”

        She's raising the next Menus' fan generation: 8-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, got drums for Christmas because she wants to be just like Menus' drummer Brandon Ryan. He gave her a broken, but autographed, cymbal after one show and she responded, without prompting from her parents: “I love the way you drum.”
       

Fans have connections

        At any gig, it seems just about every fan's got a personal connection to the band. Cincinnati firefighter Scott Schenkel used to make pizzas with Mr. Goldrainer and Mr. Ryan at the main LaRosa's on Boudinot. Carl Sacco of Bridgetown still has a Barry Manilow album Mr. Goldrainer gave him at a show. It's affixed to the roof of his van.

        Steve and Jeanne Perry of Blue Ash had one of their first dates at a Menus show a couple of years ago. They made out in the front row, earning the nickname “Mr. and Mrs. Get-a-room.” When they got married, they invited the band to their wedding.

        “He entertains you with his antics,” says Mr. Perry, 49, of Mr. Goldrainer. “We always come back. It's like you can't help it.”

        But there are newbies (the band calls them “Menus virgins”) at every show. Mr. Goldrainer can spot them almost the minute they walk in the place.

        They're often men, and they don't know what to make of the guy on stage with hair like Steven Tyler and makeup like Adam Ant who's singing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” wearing shorts with the butt cheeks cut out.

        Table talk at a Menus show goes something like this:

        What is that guy wearing?

        Is that a swimsuit, from, like, the '60s?

        Is he in drag? At The Blue Note in Price Hill?

        Mr. Goldrainer encourages the crowd to come closer to the stage.

        Oh, I think I'm close enough.
       

Friend to the bikers

        The band's best story of winning over a crowd starts at a biker bar in Augusta, Ky. Mr. Goldrainer realizes the second he walks in that this place is, well, maybe not so open-minded about what he's about to do and, uh, wear.

        The big men with tattoos stand back from the stage, their arms crossed across their chests. Mr. Goldrainer starts to sing. A little Beatles, some of the Guess Who, Jethro Tull.

        He chooses one guy, a guy who looks a little scary, and starts his usual thing — pointing him out, asking his name and occupation. He gives the guy a little teddy bear — “maybe for the front of his bike or something,” Mr. Goldrainer says.

        The man, and the rest of the crowd too, took a liking to the band. At the end of the show, he gave Mr. Goldrainer his enormous skull ring.

        “It's great when you can start with them staring at you like, "What in the hell is this?' And then by the second song, they're having a good time and not even realizing it.”

        It's different with female fans. They'll tell you straight up they'd take the oddly dressed singer home in a heartbeat.

        They know which blonde in the crowd is the one with whom Mr. Goldrainer's involved. They're jealous and they admit it.

        He quips: “They just want makeup tips.”
       

Roots in the '70s

        The band's roots run back to the late 1970s, to an eighth-grade field trip with their homeroom class at Our Lady of Lourdes in Westwood. Mr. Ryan and Mr. Goldrainer started hanging out during a nature hike.

        Next came back-to-back lessons at Buddy Roger's Music — Mr. Ryan on drums, Mr. Goldrainer on guitar. Their dads took turns dropping them off. That was back when Mr. Ryan was still teaching himself to drum in his parents' basement, playing along with his Boston and ELO albums.

        With help from Mr. Ryan's dad, Steve, the Menus got their first gig in early 1984, at Destiny One, a small west-side bar. After the show, the owner asked them to play every Sunday and Monday night. They branched out across town next, landing what would be a six-year standing gig at the former Hot Shotz in Corryville. In 1990, they started what would also turn out to be six years at Sleep Out Louie's.

        Herb Witte, who managed Hot Shotz, remembers customers standing in line till 2 a.m., still trying to get in. Back then, he said, they'd walk out of the place with $2,000 to split between them for one night's work. Mr. Witte, now owner of the Kohlhaus in Price Hill, watched as the Menus started building what he calls “the best niche for a cover band — ever.”

        “They've been very intelligent in how they book themselves,” he said. “A different bar every night, rather than how we used to do it, booking them for an entire weekend. It keeps the crowds waiting for that one night. You know, a supply-and-demand kind of thing.”

        In the mid-1990s, when it became known that Sleep Out Louie's and the rest of the Second Street bar strip would soon be wrecked for the Bengals stadium, the Menus started taking more regional gigs. Now, the crowds in those cities are generally bigger than in their hometown.
       

Doing fine, thank you

        The band has outlived many other bands, many bars and the departures of at least a half dozen members over the years. The current five — Mr. Goldrainer, Mr. Ryan, Jimi Orwig, Stephen Chiodi and John Castetter — have been together since January 1998. Along the way, they also hired two crew members, Mike Kunz and John Stanley.

        Mr. Ryan is proud to say he's been with the same band “from hairless armpits to balding scalp.”

        Although some of their fans wish for more visible success such as a record deal, the band members say they're doing just fine, thanks, in a business where a lot of people don't make it this well for this long.

        They own homes, invest in IRAs, have a band health plan. After a gig, they always have a designated driver behind the wheel of the Dodge Caravan.

        Mr. Goldrainer and Mr. Ryan attribute much of their success to Mr. Ryan's parents, Steve and Diana, who have managed them since their start. When people suggest maybe they get a professional manager, they decline. Now, other bands ask for Mrs. Ryan's help.
       

Mom is the manager

        Sure, there were the days when they thought maybe, one day, they'd be the next Creed. But that's probably not reality. They know it, and seem more than OK with it.

        Instead, they're five guys with a mom for a manager who get to drive around the Tristate in their minivan, making decent money playing music and entertaining a different crowd four nights a week. It's pretty much like Mr. Ryan and Mr. Goldrainer dreamed back in eighth grade.

        “Think about it — I get to grab the guy who looks like he's not having fun and make him a rock star for the night,” the singer says. “How cool is that? That's pretty cool.”

        They're “not, like, rock 'n' roll stars,” Mr. Ryan says. “We know that. We don't have these uppity attitudes. I mean, what's the point of that?”

        They say they don't talk about when the band might finally succumb to age, too many early-morning miles in the van or too much bad road food. Until then, they'll keep reinventing themselves with a new county fair to play, new prizes to award fans at the end of the night, a new hat and skirt for their singer.

        “We're friends, we love what we do,” Mr. Ryan says. “We have great fans. Hopefully, we've been smart. And we're really lucky.”
       



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