VETERAN LINEUP: Joe Walsh recognizes servicemen during the first VetsAid benefit concert in 2017 at EagleBank Arena, Fairfax, Virginia. (Getty Images)
Biggest show to date topped by James Gang reunion
Joe Walsh’s “traveling circus of rock and roll,” otherwise known as VetsAid, returns to the live stage this weekend with its biggest production to date in terms of the magnitude of the event and post-COVID challenges for putting the all-star cast together, according to Christian Quilici.
Quilici is Walsh’s stepson and he’s been responsible for organizing the charitable concert since the first VetsAid in 2017. The sixth edition is Sunday (Nov. 13) at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, featuring an all-Ohio bill with Dave Grohl, a native of Warren, Ohio; Nine Inch Nails (Cleveland); The Black Keys (Akron); and The Breeders (Dayton).
The headliner is James Gang, the seminal Ohio band that guitar legend Walsh was a member of in the late 1960s and early ‘70s with bassist Dale Peters and drummer Jim Fox. To prepare for VetsAid, the trio shook off the rust at two Taylor Hawkins tribute concerts in September after not touring together since 2006.
Most recently, they’ve been in rehearsals for VetsAid. The day after the benefit show, Walsh flies to St. Louis to join The Eagles for the start of their fall arena tour at Enterprise Center.
The pandemic resulted in the past two VetsAid shows converting to streaming events in 2020 and 2021. Last year’s concert was supposed to take place live in Columbus until the COVID numbers crept up again, and it turned into “The Basement Show” streamed live at Walsh’s California home.
This year, for the first time, the concert will be streamed live from the arena. The online fee is $20. Consumers can expect full sets from all five acts over the span of five-plus hours.
“Tickets pretty much sold out in a day, except for the front row, and that’s never happened to us,” Quilici said. “Most hotels in the Arena District are sold out and we had to spread our personnel among five hotels. That’s never happened before. We’re ready for it.”
The one thing Quilici wasn’t ready for in putting together VetsAid 2022 was facing the same issues reverberating through the touring industry with supply chain and labor. Still, it’s been a labor of love for the family.
“We basically have four arena shows at one venue in one night,” Quilici said. “It’s been hard as hell. Everything is more expensive. Labor has kicked up a good 20%. No offense to central Ohio, but they don’t have access to a lot of the things you need to put on a show, like risers and curtains. We’re having to get creative to find gear and staff. Some of our video and audio vendors have had to pluck staff from tours all over the world to work this event.”
Quilici said it helps that everybody loves his stepfather and the participating artists embraced the opportunity to be part of the event. They all cite James Gang as an influence on their careers, including Nine Inch Nails, the first act to commit to the event.
“NIN was a reach,” he said. “I thought they would decline our offer, but they said (front man) Trent Reznor has been a big fan his whole life. It touches me deeply that this little band from Ohio that was together with that lineup for three years has made such a difference in rock music as we know it today.”
On his own, Joe Walsh spent his formative years in Columbus after his father, a U.S. Air Force flight instructor died in a plane crash in Okinawa in 1949. Walsh went on to attend Kent State University and eventually joined Cleveland-based James Gang.
Grohl, leader of Foo Fighters, was a no-brainer after stating publicly multiple times his admiration for James Gang. The same is true for the Black Keys. The Breeders have covered James Gang songs.
“I grew up listening to classical music,” Quilici said. “It’s been eye opening and heartwarming for me.”
Quilici, whose full-time job is working on national political campaigns, essentially coordinates VetsAid on his own with business partner Lori LaFave. The Walsh family serve as the event promoter in conjunction with VetsAid, the nonprofit Joe formed in 2017 to help veterans in need.
Walsh, with assistance from Combined Arms Institute, which researches and approves eligible organizations, hand-picks the groups that receive money from concert proceeds. This year, 15 groups are the beneficiaries.
To date, VetsAid has raised more than $2 million in support of veterans and their families.
It’s a noble cause that extends to the venues that play host to VetsAid.
As part of the concept, the show is booked in markets that aren’t typically in the mix for all-star events, Quilici said. The first one was held at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia. In 2018, VetsAid took place at the Tacoma Dome in Washington state. The 2019 show was at Toyota Center in Houston.
The proximity to military bases, where Walsh has made visits to meet with servicemen and women tied to VetsAid, is part of making those decisions on where to hold the concerts, Quilici said. This year, no visits are scheduled as COVID, the flu and other diseases start to kick in during the winter months.
Walsh will still make a few appearances in Columbus. On Tuesday (Nov. 8), James Gang is scheduled for an in-store signing at an independent record shop. On Thursday (10), he’s the special guest of the city’s Veterans Day parade and he’ll give the keynote address Friday (11) at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.
The record store appearance makes Quilici nervous, but the band will sit behind plexiglass and attendees will be required to wear a mask. The promotion is important for Joe’s support of indy record stores, he said.
For the concert, backstage will be conducted in a bubble format with COVID testing and mask wearing.
Columbus has two 20,000-capacity arenas, run by the same group, Columbus Arena Management. Nationwide Arena, where the NHL Blue Jackets play, was selected over Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center due to greater availability of parking, Quilici said.
“We strive for the best fan experience and I looked at both buildings,” he said. “Nationwide was better equipped for our needs.”
The Big Ten school will still have a presence at VetsAid. The Ohio State University Marching Band, among the most decorated in college sports, will perform as part of the show.
It’s all part of what’s become a monster event over the past six years.
“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Quilici said. “Joe deserves it and he wants to do his best for the veterans. This is going to be his legacy.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected.