Max Q Live
In space no one can hear you sing.
- By Michael Cassutt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 4 of 7)
His audition number was the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” “I had to do it twice. The first time through, I didn’t have a monitor. Then Brewster turned up the amp, saying ‘You sound better when you can hear yourself.’ ”
The energetic Thuot quickly took over as the sound man and occasional business manager of Max Q, arranging bookings and practices, setting up the mixer and microphones, and keeping track of set lists. Kevin “Chili” Chilton had studied the clarinet “under duress” as a child, but had picked up guitar while attending the Air Force Academy. When Shaw left the band in 1989 to take a senior job at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the remaining band members started asking around the astronaut office, “Who owns a guitar?” Chilton spoke up, and that was that—no audition. “I’m not sure they had my amp turned on for the first few gigs,” he jokes.
Air Force flight test engineer Carl Walz had been a church accompanist in high school. “I also played keyboards and sang in a rock and roll band in Cleveland—The Fabulous Blue Moons—who had a repertoire very similar to Max Q’s, a lot of ’50s rock, Sha Na Na, Elvis.”
Walz joined Max Q after surviving a “put up or shut up” moment with a fellow astronaut candidate in a bar in Spokane, Washington, following a survival training trip. “I mentioned [having been in] The Fabulous Blue Moons, but Terry Wilcutt didn’t believe me, because I had been one of the quieter members of the group,” he recalls. Wilcutt challenged Walz to sing with the bar band. Walz “talked with the band, agreed on a couple of Elvis tunes, then rocked out.” The rave reviews got him an invitation to join Max Q.
When Steve Hawley transferred to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in 1990, Susan Helms, who had just been selected as an astronaut earlier that year, took over keyboards. Helms’ extensive musical background—she took piano lessons for 11 years, played concert drums and xylophone in marching bands and choirs, and had played in a jazz combo—came up during her astronaut candidate interview…with Hawley. “I don’t know whether he knew he was leaving for Ames at the time,” Helms jokes. “Maybe I was being scouted.”
She brought a new musical sensibility to the band. “Growing up, I listened to the entire range of music, especially pop, Top 40, everything but country and western,” she says. “I learned to be able to sit down at a party and play Elton John and Billy Joel hits.” Chilton says Helms “was hugely talented. She could hear a song on the radio, then play it. She was able to teach us harmonies.”
The original Max Q lineup had concentrated on music from the ’50s and ’60s—surf tunes like “Wipe Out,” The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” plus instrumentals like Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” and The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run.”
Another favorite was Led Zeppelin’s eight-minute masterpiece, “Stairway to Heaven.” Wetherbee knew how to play the recorder, and his bandmates were convinced that a flute couldn’t be too different. Nelson notes, “There are no drums in the early bars of that song,” so Wetherbee would start on the flute, then sit down to the drums. “I would do the early guitar parts, and Hoot would play the louder parts,” says Shaw. “We actually sounded okay on that song…right up to where the falsetto vocals started.”