Watching Offtrax´s Ted Friehling blast out rock and roll music on his saxophone at the Vienna Tap and Grille, one would have no inkling this hip-looking dude with hair down to his shoulders actually works as a cardiologist during the day.
In fact, three of Friehling´s band mates Al Del Negro (keyboard), Aldo Esposito (guitar), and Brian Raybuck (bass guitar) are also cardiologists. Drummer Glenn Schuster is a pacemaker salesman, which seems appropriate enough, and singer and guitarist Stacy Cohen owns an insurance company.
At the Tap and Grille, the band maneuvers through a mix of originals and covers with skillful ease, playing tunes that range from hard-driving funky blues, to Janis Joplin, which vocalist Stacy Cohen, with her rich bluesy voice, performs movingly. Friehling´s sax numbers also earns the audience´s eager approval. When Offtrax plays, the crowd here cannot seem to the dance floor.
Offtrax came together four years ago when administrators at Inova Fairfax Hospital were in search of a band to play at a heart benefit. Knowing that the four cardiologists were experienced musicians, the administrators asked if they were interested in putting together an act for the benefit.
Although the four doctors hadn´t played on stage in years, they accepted the challenge, recruited Schuster and Cohen and began rehearsing.
And while they fostered no illusions of stardom, the group had enough pride as musicians to practice hard in order to make a decent showing at the benefit. In fact, they worked so hard for the benefit that afterward they couldn´t bring themselves to quit playing.
At first the group found respect hard to come by. Some thought four doctors and a pacemaker salesman in a band could only be a joke. But over time, the band not only gained respect, they developed a following that showed up religiously for the group´s shows.
In the beginning, Offtrax played mostly benefits, performing for the American Heart Association, for breast cancer, for AIDS, for Fairfax Children´s Hospital and for Inova Fairfax Heart Center.
But about two years ago, Offtrax began to find a wider audience, playing regularly at the Vienna Tap and Grille an establishment with a reputation for hiring only skillful bands. Other clubs soon followed suit, and it wasn´t long before Offtrax put out their first CD. One of the 13 original songs, "Dark Side of the Mountain," won an honorable mention in two categories in the Mid-Atlantic Song Writing Contest this year.
"A lot of their music is written by Ted Friehling himself, and the ballads they play are beautiful. These guys get a huge support from their patients, coworkers, nurses, and technicians from the hospital," said Novak. "Ted puts on his spandex pants...and he´s a whole different person. He´s great. And these guys are not only rock and roll stars at night, they save lives in their day jobs."
Like the other band members, Friehling, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., performed in rock and roll bands in high school and college and even played in a band in the Catskills every summer.
And even after becoming a cardiologist, he never stopped practicing the music he started composing as a boy. That vigilance came in handy when he started playing with Offtrax as the band prefers playing original material instead of covers.
"About half of what we do now are originals," says Friehling. "It´s kind of hard to get the public to accept originals because when they come to hear a band, they want to hear covers, not originals. So we sneak the originals in. And now, we have a following who want to hear the originals."
Friehling says he was influenced by greats like Clapton, Hendrix, and all the blues luminaries Albert King, B.B. King, and Buddy King. But he says the band doesn´t really play the blues, but rock classics a combination that sounds something like the Rolling Stones.
"We´re not the Stones," he said "But our sound contains the old influences."
Like many bands, Offtrax does not like to be typecast. Guitarist Al Esposito says the group is versatile in its musical style. On their CD, for example, Esposito explains that they play several songs that are straight-ahead, up tempo, rock and roll. Another tune has a Latin flavor, with a Santana-like sound. Still another song offers the sounds of Indian mysticism, played with a sitar-like instrument. There are also a couple of ballads with acoustic guitars and some funky R and B tunes.
"I don´t know how that CD came to be so varied," says Esposito, who graduated from Georgetown Medical School and grew up in Philadelphia. "But I do know that all of us are pretty familiar with a variety of musical styles. Although we´re based in classic rock and rock of the last 30 years, we vary a bit. It´s mostly rock but the CD has got these other influences in it and I don´t know whether that´s good or bad. But it´s fun for us to play."
Esposito also has a unique take on a what it means to be in a band comprised of doctors. He considers the doctors in Offtrax as musicians who have gravitated into the field of medicine instead of physicians who play music.
"Most people look at us and think of us as doctors who play music, " he says. "But it´s more appropriate to regard us as musicians who went to medical school. We all did music before we did medicine so it´s a natural thing for us to be playing musical instruments now because we all started as musicians as kids and played in bands for years."
Esposito says that the cardiologists in the group half joke that if they had been able, they would have preferred to perform music full time. Esposito says he likes cardiology and its rewards and if the music business weren´t so difficult to make a living in, that he and the other doctors would be performing rock and roll and not practicing medicine.
In fact, says Esposito, it is the stress and pressure of cardiology that makes performing the music such a relief. He explains that the four doctors are constantly on call and that their day does not usually end when they leave the hospital.
"It´s not something that you can leave behind," says Esposito. "We just go home and take pages. Even when we rehearse, one of us usually gets paged.
Even though performing music requires extra effort and physicians rarely have free time, the group considers their musical endeavors a pleasure. Esposito notes that while they all love to play, what gives the experience that extra dimension is sharing music that they have created from scratch with an audience that likes the band´s sounds.
"If you talk to any musician, they´ll tell you that performing music is great, but unless you can perform it [for) someone else, it´s almost missing something because it´s meant to be shared with people to enjoy and they can listen and dance and have a good time. So, sharing music you´ve created, particularly on a given night when you´re playing well and everything sounds good, gives you a great amount of satisfaction."
The only thing that Esposito does not like about music is carrying all the gear around, particularly at two in the morning after everyone else has cleared out and he and the others are stuck lugging the equipment around. He points out that the band has accumulated a fair amount of equipment and that Offtrax hasn´t yet hit the level of success where they can afford roadies.
In fact, Esposito´s goal in life is to retire so that he can have more time for his family and so he can play music more often.
Offtrax is playing at the Shark Club in Centreville, Va., on August 20. For more information, call (703)266-1888.
Ed Turner, Special to The Journal