While many small pieces of the Drunk Unkles‘ history vary depending on whose mind you’re attempting to jog, there is no doubt why this group of five men has continued to make beautiful music together whenever they can for 10 years now.
It isn’t about money or fame at this point for bassist John Cardone, 59, co-owner of Cardone, Solomon and Associates; guitarist Steven Emspak, 67, partner at Shen Milsom & Wilke; drummer Marc Hochlerin, 56, partner at Longman Lindsey; guitarist Mike Phillips, 64, partner at BMG-Hudson Marketing; keyboardist/guitarist Felix Robinson, 62, vice president of AVI-SPL’s enterprise accounts group.
As always, the Drunk Unkles—with Lisa Wenger doubling as the group’s lead singer and its only “aunt”—are playing for the benefit of others.
What started with a charity show at The Supper Club in Manhattan for the family of former Shen Milsom & Wilke AV design engineer Cliff Gouvier, a mutual friend of the members who died when he was struck by lightning, has developed into a series of gigs that have raised more than $1 million for the NSCA Education Foundation.
Among the more than two dozen programs the Unkles’ shows have provided seed money for are the NSCA‘s mentoring and Women in AV scholarships, its new Ignite high school outreach program and the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, says NSCA executive director Chuck Wilson.
“It started out as an idea of having a fun night and we realized we could make it an important fundraiser,” he says. “It’s become a phenomenal success. It’s just such a selfless thing they’ve done. It’s cool to see how they’ve rallied around this cause. We didn’t know if it would be a one-year thing. It’s become one of the best things we’ve ever done.
“They’re helping us educate and hire people coming into this industry. I think knowing that they’re a part of that really makes the guys feel good about what they’re doing,” says Wilson, noting he often shows band members pictures of the students they’re helping by raising money for the foundation.
And, despite the name that might suggest otherwise, this endeavor isn’t about chugging beers, although Emspak notes band members have been known to share a celebratory shot of tequila before taking the stage in the past.
“The band as an entity, and what we do at the InfoComm show, I call it a giveback to the industry,” says Emspak. “It’s a non-partisan free party. It’s a time to see friends and meet new people. It’s evolved into something totally unique.”
The Unkles will play their annual InfoComm show June 17 at B.B. King’s in Orlando, celebrating what they playfully call A Decade of Defiance with a Rise from the Swamp, referring of course to the land around central Florida. The shows routinely attract hundreds of industry friends and even competitors and this year’s extravaganza could bring in the biggest crowd ever, ready to let loose after the first full day of the largest U.S. show dedicated to pro AV.
Here’s a taste of what you’ll see if you head to the show:
Living for the Music
What’s perhaps most interesting about the founding members of the Drunk Unkles is that all but Hochlerin stopped playing their instruments for extended periods after initially trying for, and in some cases achieving, some level of fame in the music business.
Cardone’s foray into the music business started in the late 1960s, when he worked in a music store in New York City. He stopped playing in 1982 when disco and dance music started to dominate popular culture. In 1992, he moved back into the game, getting involved with the Rolling Stones and other legendary groups before eventually finding unexpected inspiration from country musicians on tour with Tanya Tucker.