Eight years ago when Andrew Vait graduated from Homer High School and went off to the University of Miami to study music, he took his saxophone, planning to become a jazz musician like his mentor, the late Howard Hedges. When Vait returns to Homer this week to visit family and perform at Alice's Champagne Palace at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30, it won't be jazz you'll be hearing.
Vait has found his voice -- literally.
Now living in Seattle, Vait, 27, performs both solo and as one-third of the retro-rock group Eternal Fair. Solo, he sings and plays acoustic guitar, writing songs as strong in their lyrics as in musical melody. With Eternal Fair, he also sings and plays guitar with drummer Daniel Nash and bass player Chris Jones.
"Between teaching and gigging with my band, I make a pretty healthy living," Vait said in a phone interview last week. "I get to take vacations when I want."
Born in Homer, Andrew is the son of Nancy and Leo Vait. He spent his first few years in Nanwalek, where his mom taught English and his dad taught art.
"That was a pretty strong influence, just being accepted into that family," he said of living in the small village.
Lots of Nanwalek people are loyal followers on his Facebook and other web pages. "To them, I've already made it. I'm a superstar," he said.
In high school, Vait connected with Hedges. Vait had been playing saxophone with the Homer High jazz band and knew of Hedges.
"I called him up," Vait said. "He said, 'I know who you are. I'm following you. Let's hang out.'"
Vait and Hedges would listen to jazz records in Hedges' extensive collection and talk music.
"It just kind of felt good to have somebody who had already done well in that scene, and to tell me you can do it," Vait said. "'Here are some of the things that have worked for me,'" he said Hedges would tell him.
For example, Hedges said musicians should always commit to the gigs they've promised, even if a better job comes along.
"Bad news travels faster than good news," Vait said Hedges explained it.
"If you get a reputation for flaking out on gigs ... eventually that gets around and you're not going to get a call."
More important, Hedges advised Vait not to be too flashy.
"Don't show all the tricks in your bag," he said. "If you can play up to the feeling, just leave a little space. You never know when you need it."
Vait went to the University of Miami intending to major in jazz saxophone, but in the process he discovered something else: he could sing. He'd been in the Homer High School Swing Choir and had performed in "Les Miserables." A teacher said the university jazz choir needed more men and he decided to audition. He also auditioned on the saxophone. Vait got placed in the lowest possible instrumental ensemble and at the top in the jazz vocal ensemble.
"And there I was, struggling on the instrument I had come to study," Vait said.
By his junior year, he'd switched to a voice major, graduating with a bachelor of arts in jazz voice. After graduation, he worked a summer with his dad building custom fireplaces. He thought of moving to Los Angeles until a musician friend suggested Seattle. Vait had a Homer friend there, Evan Smith, and knew of the city. He moved to Seattle in October 2007, the absolute worst time to move there, he said.
"It's just dark and rainy, like Homer, but it's a big city," Vait said. "It took me a while to get the hang of things."
Vait had picked up the guitar in his senior year of high school and also learned jazz piano. He knew he wanted to play music -- but not jazz sax.
Eventually, he got jobs teaching voice and playing in a top-40 cover band. Soon he formed his own group, first "Andrew Vait and the Lonesome Pioneers," then "Andrew Vait and Eternal Fair" and now just "Eternal Fair." The name popped into his head after walking around in a Portland, Ore., cemetery. Later, he searched for "Eternal Fair" on the web and found a poem by Marcus Garvey, "Death's Pleasure," with the lines "The dream called death is not / The pain that you fear: / It's an ecstasy / Beyond man's compare; / 'Tis life's joy that's called / The Eternal Fair."
Vait has put out two albums, "The Pros and Cons of Drowning," in 2009, and the recent "Closer to the Setting Sun." The download of "Closer to the Setting Sun" includes a bonus track, "Howard Hedges," that's an homage to his mentor.
Eternal Fair will release an extended-play album in February, and has become a part of the Seattle mainstream music scene, he said. It almost sold out the Columbia Theatre, the venue where Jimi Hendrix made his name. They recently played a Christmas show at The Crocodile, where Seattle grunge bands Pearl Jam and Nirvana played.
"The place was electric. I feel like we're doing the right thing ... I feel like we're getting close to the point where we're doing music that's exciting to us," he said. "It's so hard-hitting now. You can almost imagine what this band is going to be, and that's what's exciting."
With two parallel careers, fans get confused sometimes when they go to see him, Vait said.
"They thought they were hearing stuff from Eternal Fair," he said. "People were coming out for Eternal Fair thinking they were hearing stuff from my solo album."
In Homer, that won't happen: He'll play music from both acts, although his band mates won't be with him.
For samples of Vait's music, visit www.andrewvait.com and www.eternalfair.com.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.