The Vortis Diaries: Rock ’n’ roll rituals | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

The Vortis Diaries: Rock ’n’ roll rituals

Though they seldom are as cheesy as the pre-concert prayer circle/ affirmation ring depicted in the Madonna documentary “Truth or Dare,” every band has its pre-show rituals. They’re often treated as a joke. Yet woe is the musician who strays from the routine when he or she has become used to centering him or herself in a certain way before churning out the rock.

The members of Vortis recently realized that we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary as a band, a fact that dawned on us only when we saw the slew of recent news stories about the FBI investigating Ted Kaczynski anew for a possible connection to the Tylenol murders. (One of the first sets of lyrics contributed to the proceedings by the Professor, the band’s original anarcho-agitainer front man, was called “The Unabomber Fight Song.” In 2001, Kaczynski already was three years into serving a lifetime sentence without the possibility of parole, but the Prof, a.k.a. “F.T.” or “the Fellow Traveler,” appreciated his critique of the global corporate hegemony destroying our planet… though obviously not the violent means he utilized.)

Vortis was a very different band back then, and there now are as many former associates as there are present members. That the latest defection is permanent and not temporary, as originally thought, struck us when once again we returned to Wall to Wall Recording Studio to serve as a test band for our buddy Dan Dietrich’s audio engineering class at the end of Columbia College’s spring semester. It probably was ludicrous to think that Chris Vortis ever could juggle band responsibilities in Chicago with getting a PhD in 18th Century Literary and Aesthetic Theory in Bloomington, Indiana. Yet, slow as ever on the uptake, the rest of us didn’t admit that his loss was for good until we recorded a new set of songs that he’d not only not contributed to, but had never even heard, exacerbated by the fact that he hasn’t played a gig with us since last July. Oh, well; such is life.

In any event, every member of the now-a-trio has his pre-gig protocol, pretty much set in stone a decade on. Tony Vortis usually tries to seek equilibrium after several beers and a shot of Makers by downing a strong black coffee, and he always dons his special black uniform shirt just before we play. Similarly, Louie Vortis always performs in his black peg-leg jeans, which are reserved for only these occasions. (He may or may not ever launder them.) As for me, at some point prior to every gig—ideally at the most mundane or unpleasant moment of the evening; sitting through an abysmal opening band, say, or lugging the gear into the club through a foot of snow—I solemnly intone, “Rock ’n’ roll is my life,” just to underscore the absurdity of gigging perception versus gigging reality. (Which is not to say it isn’t and I don’t love it, mostly.)

A punk-rock hole-in-the-wall of the favorite Vortis variety, we were happy to return to Milwaukee’s Circle-A Café last Friday, especially since the opening act this time was much more to our liking. The locals in Floor Model are veteran punks and kindred spirits, finding catharsis from day jobs as teachers and chefs by rocking fast and loud, with very little distracting nonsense, the occasional welcome slur hurled at anti-labor Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and a set of funny and ferocious originals (one paid homage to an annoying pal named Larry; another was called “Kill My TV”) and well-chosen covers (the Dead Kennedys’ “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” yeah!).

Jeff Floor Model

As for Vortis: We came. We rocked. Though I was plagued throughout the set by the dreaded bass drum creep—I was using Floor Model’s drums, and I’d forgotten to look for a handy cinderblock to help stop the bass drum from inching forward every time I hit it—and a faulty hi-hat (argh; that again!). These two problems I can blame on Tony Vortis forgetting one other key part of the pre-gig ritual: the traditional sounding of the World War II air raid siren (a great vintage find on eBay) right before we play. But again: Such is life.

Finally, it was time for the drive back to Chicago—thankfully minus the Friday rush-hour start-of-Memorial-Day-weekend traffic that we’d neglected to factor in on the trip out—along with one other post-gig ceremony. Eating before playing never is a good idea, but by 1 a.m., midway between Milwaukee and Chicago, we were famished. As culinary excellence goes, the Iron Skillet truck stop in Racine has very little to commend it. Yet whether you attribute it to the accumulated alcohol or the post-performance decompression/afterglow, breakfast never tastes as good as it does late at night after rock, and though we’ve strayed from this particular ritual in recent years, it’s one we now are committed to reinstating.

Circle-A sign and Jeff Floor Model photos by Louie Vortis.


Mar. 9, 2011: Stage patter sucks

Jan. 27, 2011: Finding catharsis at Cal’s

Dec. 15, 2010: An evening at Pancho’s, the new (and far superior) Ronny’s

Nov. 14, 2010: A trip to Milwaukee

Oct. 11, 2010: Dance Fever

Aug. 30, 2010: A road trip to Madison

July 26, 2010: A weekend at Wall to Wall

July 12, 2010: An evening with F*cked Up

June 21, 2010: Six hours at Ronny’s on a Saturday night

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