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How Moonalice Turned One Businessman's Dream Into a T Bone Burnett-Produced LP

June 5, 2009 11:38 AM ET

At a recent Moonalice gig, guitarist and arranger G.E. Smith decided to keep the band on its toes: Out of the blue, he told everyone to start playing Emmylou Harris' "Crescent City," which wasn't on the set list. The bass player, Chubby Wombat Moonalice, was momentarily thrown for a loop. "For the first verse I was fighting the bass the whole way," he sighs. "Humbling shit happens every night."

By day, Roger McNamee invests in businesses: His private equity firm, Elevation Partners, has pumped millions of dollars into media companies like Palm and Forbes. But by night or weekend, McNamee is investing in something very different: his long-suppressed desire to rock. Ever since his college days at Yale, McNamee, 52, has played in bands. But starting a decade ago, McNamee took his passion to another level. First he hired former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady and former Saturday Night Live bandleader Smith to improve the chops of McNamee's Bay Area band, the Flying Other Brothers. That band gradually morphed into Moonalice, which currently includes Smith, Casady, former Jefferson Starship keyboardist Pete Sears — and, on guitar, bass, and vocals, McNamee.

McNamee's quest to rock didn't end there. He assumed the Chubby Wombat Moonalice stage name, grew his hair out, then asked his friend T Bone Burnett to produce the band's debut album, Moonalice, which has a muted roots-rock sound not unlike that of Robert Plant and Alison Kraus' Burnett-produced Raising Sand. Bono, one of McNamee's partners in Elevation, suggested McNamee's wife Ann sing lead. McNamee also hired classic San Francisco artists like Stanley Mouse to create posters for fictitious Moonalice concerts and paid Jerry Garcia's former manager Steve Parish to be Moonalice's tour manager. "This is a fairly unique situation," says Smith. "I know there are other affluent people who have put some money into a band, but they kept it at that hobby level. This is not a hobby band by any means."

Since McNamee pays for pretty much everything — musicians, poster artists, a tour bus — he's accustomed to charges that he's buying his way into the music business. "Because I had a day job profile, everyone who knew me from that world just assumed I couldn't possibly be a working musician," he says. "And initially a lot of musicians were skeptical I was just a dilettante." To show how serious he is, Moonalice have played over 100 shows around the country, sometimes for as little as a handful of customers. McNamee — who won't say how much cash he's put into Moonalice — admits that the band is losing money but says he doesn't care. "The investment business has almost nothing where you're in the moment," he says. "The music business is all about that moment."

The band has broken ground on the Internet, by rocking the first ever Twittercasts — live broadcasts of their gigs via their Twitter. The band's sound team records, digitizes and uploads song in real time, then Tweets about its availability.

Burnett, who produced the album for free out of friendship with McNamee, shrugs when the money issue is brought up. Smith admits he became involved for practical reasons: "Work is work." But like Burnett, he's been won over by McNamee's diligence and the larger financial issue: the way McNamee is supporting a network of older musicians, artists and venues alike. (McNamee co-owns San Francisco's Great American Music Hall.) "Roger's completely benevolent," says Burnett. "A lot of musicians have day jobs. He just has a better day job."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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