Top Cover U.S. Air Force Band swings into Soldotna

Posted: Friday, July 21, 2000

Seven men, one woman. Their duty to their country: to rock the free world.

The Top Cover U.S. Air Force Band, which normally tours schools and military bases playing contemporary rock-and-roll hits while advocating teamwork and abstinence from drugs and alcohol, will perform during Soldotna Progress Days.

The band will join in Saturday's parade and then will play two shows, from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. and from 2:15 to 3 p.m. next to the Peninsula Center Mall.

Top Cover includes Master Sgt. Dirk Westfall, who plays bass; Tech. Sgt. Jeff Baird on saxophone, keyboards and background vocals; Tech. Sgt. Judy Waters, who sings and serves as master of ceremonies; Tech. Sgt. Dave Nelson, on vocals and drums; Tech. Sgt. Ron Lerson on keyboards; Staff Sgt. Jerry Kelley on the guitar; Tech. Sgt. Tim Brye, who serves as the group's sound engineer; and Staff Sgt. Jamie Gilley, one of the group's vocalists.

As Top Cover's popularity grows, Baird, who also serves as the group's operations manager, said the band has had to become increasingly selective about gigs.

Top Cover requires its shows to be free and open to the public.

While the group is best known among citizens for its involvement in community relations, Top Cover also plays squad room parties, where they are responsible for troop morale.

Recently, Top Cover performed a show for high-level military dignitaries: admirals and generals. Waters, who has been with the group since August of 1992, said that while she felt the normal twinges of performance anxiety, she didn't let the audience's clout intimidate her too much.

"No matter who we play for, we do our best," Waters said.

Each year, Top Cover tries to fit in a few tours outside the Anchorage bowl. Baird said the band is on the road five or six days a week, four or five times a year. "We are a regional band," Waters said. "We're in a specific area. We cover Alaska, Hawaii and western Canada." The group also plays shows the Air Force band in California can't cover.

Top Cover members are able to address a wide variety of social issues in their unique duty.

The band is active in schools and looks forward to the kids' high energy. Top Cover encourages students to stay in school and stay off drugs. But its message goes deeper than that.

"We sing about teamwork and the importance of high standards. It's the whole-person concept," said Waters, who believes that audiences are getting the message.

"Elementary kids, they seem to look up to you so personally. It's really cute. We'll get letters. The kids will write that we sounded just like the record. Coming from little kids, that's quite a compliment," she said.

Of course, not everyone is as courteous as an auditorium of grade school students. Teen-agers, some forced to attend the performances under threats of detention, can be most disrespectful with their quips and jeers. Waters takes the harassment in stride.

"Older kids can be tough," she said. "They've already made choices; they know that there are no drugs in the military."

Of course, all of the Top Cover members have their own stories.

Waters, for example, was 13 years old when she discovered contemporary Christian music. She said the music of Sandi Patti and Amy Grant changed her life.

"I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Baird picked up his sax at a young age and began attempting to emulate the late saxophone greats John Coltrane, Charlie "Bird" Parker and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly.

He said he tries to enjoy the popular music of today, but to him, nothing can match the sound of smooth jazz. But even when covering songs by the Backstreet Boyz, Baird takes his work with Top Cover seriously.

"It's an act of duty," he said.

Baird credits his success to dedication and practice. He encourages those struggling with an instrument to stick with it.

"All musicians achieve their level of art in spurts. Everyone hits plateaus. You have to play through the ruts and valleys," he said. "You'll reach a peak now and then, if your heart's in it for the long haul."

HEAD:Top Cover U.S. Air Force Band swings into Soldotna

BYLINE1:By MATTHEW PETERS

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

Seven men, one woman. Their duty to their country: to rock the free world.

The Top Cover U.S. Air Force Band, which normally tours schools and military bases playing contemporary rock-and-roll hits while advocating teamwork and abstinence from drugs and alcohol, will perform during Soldotna Progress Days.

The band will join in Saturday's parade and then will play two shows, from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. and from 2:15 to 3 p.m. next to the Peninsula Center Mall.

Top Cover includes Master Sgt. Dirk Westfall, who plays bass; Tech. Sgt. Jeff Baird on saxophone, keyboards and background vocals; Tech. Sgt. Judy Waters, who sings and serves as master of ceremonies; Tech. Sgt. Dave Nelson, on vocals and drums; Tech. Sgt. Ron Lerson on keyboards; Staff Sgt. Jerry Kelley on the guitar; Tech. Sgt. Tim Brye, who serves as the group's sound engineer; and Staff Sgt. Jamie Gilley, one of the group's vocalists.

As Top Cover's popularity grows, Baird, who also serves as the group's operations manager, said the band has had to become increasingly selective about gigs.

Top Cover requires its shows to be free and open to the public.

While the group is best known among citizens for its involvement in community relations, Top Cover also plays squad room parties, where they are responsible for troop morale.

Recently, Top Cover performed a show for high-level military dignitaries: admirals and generals. Waters, who has been with the group since August of 1992, said that while she felt the normal twinges of performance anxiety, she didn't let the audience's clout intimidate her too much.

"No matter who we play for, we do our best," Waters said.

Each year, Top Cover tries to fit in a few tours outside the Anchorage bowl. Baird said the band is on the road five or six days a week, four or five times a year. "We are a regional band," Waters said. "We're in a specific area. We cover Alaska, Hawaii and western Canada." The group also plays shows the Air Force band in California can't cover.

Top Cover members are able to address a wide variety of social issues in their unique duty.

The band is active in schools and looks forward to the kids' high energy. Top Cover encourages students to stay in school and stay off drugs. But its message goes deeper than that.

"We sing about teamwork and the importance of high standards. It's the whole-person concept," said Waters, who believes that audiences are getting the message.

"Elementary kids, they seem to look up to you so personally. It's really cute. We'll get letters. The kids will write that we sounded just like the record. Coming from little kids, that's quite a compliment," she said.

Of course, not everyone is as courteous as an auditorium of grade school students. Teen-agers, some forced to attend the performances under threats of detention, can be most disrespectful with their quips and jeers. Waters takes the harassment in stride.

"Older kids can be tough," she said. "They've already made choices; they know that there are no drugs in the military."

Of course, all of the Top Cover members have their own stories.

Waters, for example, was 13 years old when she discovered contemporary Christian music. She said the music of Sandi Patti and Amy Grant changed her life.

"I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Baird picked up his sax at a young age and began attempting to emulate the late saxophone greats John Coltrane, Charlie "Bird" Parker and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly.

He said he tries to enjoy the popular music of today, but to him, nothing can match the sound of smooth jazz. But even when covering songs by the Backstreet Boyz, Baird takes his work with Top Cover seriously.

"It's an act of duty," he said.

Baird credits his success to dedication and practice. He encourages those struggling with an instrument to stick with it.

"All musicians achieve their level of art in spurts. Everyone hits plateaus. You have to play through the ruts and valleys," he said. "You'll reach a peak now and then, if your heart's in it for the long haul."



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