Groupies wanted: House band rocks the hallways

A note to anyone wandering the Rayburn hallways during the lag between late-night votes last week: That music spilling from Rep. Collin Peterson’s office was not coming from a stereo.

It’s the Second Amendments, a bipartisan rock band organized by the guitar-playing Minnesota Democrat, whose gravelly drawl sings most of the songs. The band includes fellow Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) on drums, Thad McCotter (R-Mich.) on lead guitar, Jon Porter (R-Nev.) on keyboard and Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) on bass.

On the Tuesday before recess, about 24 hours before each member cast his vote on the controversial Central America Free Trade Agreement, they worked their way through versions of “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Wonderful Tonight” and “The Stray Cat Strut,” among others, in preparation for a Thursday-night concert at Cantina Marina. It was only their seventh rehearsal, and the first time through several songs, but the peaks outnumbered the valleys as the group coalesced around an oldies-heavy set list.

Surprisingly, they’re tighter and more polished than one would imagine from a group of forty- to sixty-something lawmakers who don’t play for a living. Peterson’s voice was rich and strong before fading after about four songs.

The band is Peterson’s pet project — not just some outlet for an aging politician.

While each of the band members received an “A” from the National Rifle Association (NRA) last year, the band name has nothing to do with gun rights or the influential firearms lobby. Instead, the name is a reference to The Amendments, an earlier congressional rock band also led by Peterson.

The recent rehearsal was a relaxed glimpse of the five lawmakers away from the often-staid House floor, featuring Hulshof’s buoyant and lively drumming and Weldon’s mellow bass guitar.

Peterson had jammed with Hulshof and Weldon in the past and assembled the group once Hulshof told him that the often-laconic McCotter laid down some mean chops on the guitar. The group then recruited Porter for keyboard duty to round out the quintet.

While the band has only one show to its credit, its five members might claim the most combined votes of any other band since Bill Clinton played guest saxophone with Fleetwood Mac.

While many of the band members said playing music was a good way to unwind during their rare downtime in Washington, the group is scheduled for at least two high-profile concerts in the coming months that will expose members to a much larger audience than the two staffers, photographer and reporter who attended this particular rehearsal.

After last week’s warm-up gig, the band is scheduled to play the WE Fest in northern Minnesota this weekend, where platinum-selling artists Toby Keith, Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw are headlining the annual three-day country-music festival. Fifty thousand people are expected to attend, putting the congressional quintet at the center of the country-music world less than a week after its members left Washington.

The band is also tentatively scheduled to play Farm Aid on Sept. 18 in suburban Chicago. Willie Nelson himself called Peterson to confirm the booking. Peterson still has the message on his voicemail and happily plays it for anyone who wants to hear it.

Asked if they are ready to play in front of such big crowds, Peterson says that he has played to large audiences before while Hulshof and Porter just shrugged and smiled.

In preparation for shows, the Second Amendments are in the market for a roadie and a troupe of adoring groupies. Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) already holds the self-proclaimed title of head groupie while fellow Floridian Katherine Harris (R) has deemed herself the “biggest fan.”

“Our second biggest fan is the cleaning guys who have to listen to us,” Hulshof joked.

During the Cantina Marina show last week, Harris joined House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio), Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) in support of her musically inclined House colleagues. At the show, Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) were seen cutting a rug on the dance floor.

The band’s song list is an eclectic mix of oldies, classic rock and country-western songs with some blues thrown in on the side. Although he is the group’s only Democrat — albeit a conservative Blue Dog — Peterson picks most of the music and acts as the de facto band leader, but the others are quick to offer pointers and suggestions, as would be expected from any assertive lawmaker.

“We’re going to make this more democratic,” Peterson joked, causing one to wonder if he also intends to make the group more Democratic.

Hulshof then joked that “some of the younger influences” had convinced the Minnesota lawmaker to expand the set list to include “Evil Ways” by Carlos Santana. (Hulshof was hoping for some more contemporary selections.)

Peterson’s Rayburn office is an inspiration for the band’s ranging style. Peterson’s “Me Wall” of photographs includes one with Nelson and another with fellow Farm Aid organizer Neil Young. They hang on the wall on either side of a concert poster for the original Amendments.

The band practices beneath the enormous stuffed heads of bucks that Peterson himself shot, a none-too-subtle reminder that the Second Amendments wouldn’t be unwelcome on an NRA compilation album.