Beer & Bass On the Border: Warwick Bass Camp 2015

I was sick recently, and like many red-blooded Americans with broadband, I used it as an opportunity to binge-watch Netflix.

I was sick recently, and like many red-blooded Americans with broadband, I used it as an opportunity to binge-watch Netflix. In two wet hot summer nights I burned through the whole season of Wet Hot American Summer, the hilarious prequel to the movie of the same name. It’s a sendup of summer camp, in the classic Poconos/Catskills ’80s-glory-days sense. I grew up in Southern California, where one doesn’t do such things. We mostly just went to the beach and tried not to wear shoes until school started. So, I’ve always been a little jealous of these childhood summer-camp regulars, with their tearful reunions, stolen kisses behind the mess hall, and lanyard-weaving chops, but then I found myself at the Warwick Bass Camp for the third straight year and realized, Wait a minute ... I’m, like, totally a summer camper! Familiar faces! Late nights around a fire (okay, a heat lamp)! Promises to stay in touch! Lanyards!!

Former Jeff Beck and Prince bassist Rhonda Smith passionately preached pentatonics.
Bobby Vega
The pick professor always floored attendees to the nightly jams.

Honestly, it felt genuinely good to be back to this, the fourth installment of Warwick’s surreal bass orgy. Taking place at its shiny factory in the verdant forests of Germany’s Vogtland, near the Czech border, the Warwick camp is as insane an occasion as one might imagine a $1,000-per-head, six-day bass camp in the East German hinterlands could be. There’s an eye-popping roster of faculty and guest artists, for one. The list is literally too long to print, but some highlights: Alphonso Johnson, Leland Sklar, Bobby Vega, Chuck Rainey, Gary Willis, Kai Eckhardt, Rhonda Smith, Felix Pastorius, Bakithi Kumalo, Phil Chen, Stuart Hamm, Steve Bailey, Billy Sheehan, Juan Alderete, Hadrien Feraud, Etienne Mpabbe, and nearly every other celebrated bass player in the Free World. The juxtaposition of all this seasoned music-biz star power with the somnolent local village Markneukirchen is odd, but in a delightfully quirky, ultimately memorable way.

Had A Nice Summer

The brainchild of Warwick Founder Hans Peter Wilfer, the Warwick Bass Camp can be distilled into a few basic parts. More than 80 students attend the camp. Groups get their schedule on arrival, after checking into the IFA Hotel Schöneck, an imposing “fun-park” that seems about 40 times too large for the provincial surroundings (it’s big with the Czech, I hear). There’s an opening convocation with Wilfer, which this year included the announcement of Warwick’s “Bassists Against Racists” campaign, the company’s response to the migrant issue currently at the forefront of European geopolitics. Supporters buy T-shirts, and Warwick passes along the proceeds to Pro Asyl, a German nonprofit that advocates for asylum seekers. The project added a more charitable edge to the event than in years past, and was timely given that nearly everybody discussed the humanitarian crisis then developing in neighboring European countries.

The Warwick Bass Camp facultyOne bonus for students is a ton of quality time in the Warwick Showroom.Divinity Roxx is a Camp favorite, always down to mix it up on a latenight jam session.Professor Johnson dropping knowledgeAlphonso Johnson was one of the teachers responsible for leading a “jam class.”Japanese fusion star Tetsuo Sakurai, a fixture at the Camp over the years, is an underappreciated giant on the instrument.

Monday, the learning began. For five straight days, students stay put in a room while teacher after teacher comes in and gives them about two hours of instruction on a huge variety of topics. There’s a midday break for a catered lunch, now hosted in the yard of Warwick’s impressive new Musikhalle (that’s Music Hall, Americans). Students and faculty mingle over various combinations of meat and starch, drinking Apfelsaft (apple juice) or Bier (figure it out), while they decompress from the morning’s intensity. The afternoon plays out like the morning, and the day wraps up around 5 for a pre-dinner break. This is when people can shuttle back to the hotel and avail themselves of its cavernous water park or creepy basement bowling alley, or fall asleep to a German-dubbed episode of The Simpsons (still funny!). Around 7, dinner starts, and it’s back to the Music Hall for even more meat and things that would be vegetarian if they didn’t have so much meat in them. Once dinner ends, the jamming begins. This, as is ever the case with jams, can vary widely in subjective musical quality, but it’s always objectively fun. People are thrilled to be there, especially when it might mean a chance to not only meet but also play with their heroes.

Leland Sklar (right) and Chuck Rainey (below) have the best stories, bar none.
At the week’s end, after even the most motivated student is considering quitting bass and taking up birdsong field recording, Warwick hosts an outdoor concert, replete with sausage stands, beer carts, artist meet-and-greets, and factory tours aplenty. Since the concert is open to the general public, it’s great fun seeing the locals mill about, mixing it up with American bass stars. The event is capped by a blowout party and dinner, highlighted by the now-traditional fireworks extravaganza, whose size, length, and general spectacular-ness is collectively believed to be “insane,” but in the good way. Which basically sums up the whole experience.