by Fred W. Gretsch

This past Saturday, September 12 saw the return of one of drumming’s great events: The Modern Drummer Festival. Not held since 2011, this year’s Festival marked the 20th in its iconic history.

Of course, given the nature of the times, the 2020 Festival couldn’t be held in its traditional live format. Instead, dozens of notable drummers submitted recorded performances, which were then compiled and edited by Modern Drummer magazine’s staff, along with a crack production team. The result was a three-hour program chockfull of great drumming, as well as special appearances and commentary from drummers and industry figures alike.

This Festival was different for another reason: It was offered as a tribute to the late Neil Peart, on what would have been his sixty-eighth birthday. Sadly, Neil passed away due to brain cancer this past January. And while he was not a Gretsch artist, my wife Dinah and I—along with everyone at Gretsch Drums—mourn his loss. At the same time, we celebrate Neil’s incomparable legacy, and the monumental impact he had on a generation of drummers who followed him.

I’m happy to say that three of the stellar drummers who appeared on the Festival program are Gretsch artists: Cindy Blackman-Santana, Taylor Hawkins, and Keith Carlock. Like many of the other drummers in the lineup, Cindy, Taylor, and Keith combined their performances with comments about what Neil meant to them.

“I never got to see him live,” said Cindy. “But of course, I saw him on video and heard him on records. He inspired me because he was so musical. You could really feel his heart and his soul in everything he played. And I so appreciated that.

“This man had a rhythmic mind, a melodic mind, and the mind of a storyteller,” Cindy added. “To me, those are extremely important components in playing music, in being a musician, and especially in being a drummer. Thank you, Neil, for everything you gave us.”

Following her comments, Cindy launched into a blistering solo on her classic six-piece gold-sparkle Gretsch kit. And while the performance was unquestionably “all Cindy,” it contained unmistakable nods toward another Great Gretsch drummer—the legendary Tony Williams. Cindy has often cited Tony as a major influence on her development as a young drummer. I’m sure that Tony himself would have been proud of the outcome of that influence. I know I am.

Cindy Blackman

Taylor Hawkins didn’t mince words in his tribute to Neil Peart. “I think Neil was the greatest arena-rock drum soloist to ever walk the planet,” he said. “I mean, of how many bands can you say that every fan there was waiting for the drum solo? Usually, that’s when people go buy T-shirts or beers. But not when Neil Peart did a drum solo. He was the master.”

Taylor’s performance clip was taken from a live concert appearance with Foo Fighters. Combining unbelievable power and energy with a totally melodic approach to his percussion-augmented Gretsch kit, Taylor blazed his way through three minutes of sheer drumming excitement. And the crowd loved it!

Taylor Hawkins

Keith Carlock chose to open his segment by playing first, and offering his comments afterwards. Like Cindy, Keith performed on a six-piece Gretsch kit. But his was obviously a “basement kit,” put together from drums of different eras and with different finishes. Nevertheless, Keith made them all sing as he constructed a solo that had a funky/jazzy/second-line feel, as well as displaying his trademark blazing stick technique. And, in a unique move, at one point Keith threw off the snares, held one stick under his arm, and played bare-handed percussion for a totally melodic effect. Very cool.

Following his solo, Keith related how he met Neil Peart once, in 1993. Neil was a legitimate drumming icon by that time, while Keith was an up-and-comer on his first tour with Steely Dan. “My drum tech on that tour was Lorne Wheaton,” Keith said. “Lorne was also Neil’s tech. So when we were in L.A., where Neil lived, we invited him to the show. And he actually came! I was not expecting him to show up, but he came early and hung out backstage before the show. Of course, I was geeking out, and now I wish I’d gotten a picture. But at the time I was just trying to be cool and not be a ‘fan boy’ and bug him.

“He stayed for the whole show,” Keith went on, “and came back for the hang afterwards. He couldn’t have been nicer. Just very cool to me, and very supportive. It was an incredible moment that kind of brought things full circle: After all those years of me studying this guy, he came to a show that I was playing. So I want to say ‘Happy Birthday, Neil, and thank you for everything.’”

Keith Carlock

In addition to offering kudos to the entire Modern Drummer staff, Dinah and I want to commend Drum Workshop and Drum Channel founder Don Lombardi for his part in making the Festival tribute to Neil a reality. (DW and Drum Channel were major sponsors of the event.) Don and I are the same age—and are, in fact, the “deans” of the Gretsch-DW business partnership. Actually, that should be a triumvirate, recognizing Dinah’s long years of service to the Gretsch company.

Don (along with DW vice president John Good) had a long and rewarding relationship with Neil, and their heartfelt comments near the conclusion of the Festival program added a moving personal touch to the entire proceedings.

Finally, Dinah and I want to commend Modern Drummer for donating all proceeds from the Festival to brain tumor research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The Festival was a massive undertaking, done extremely well, and done for all the right reasons. If you didn’t catch the live broadcast on September 12, you can still buy your ticket and watch it as many times as you want until December 11. Just go to livexlive.com.