Singing for all of them
They are all here: Ronald Reagan, Dustin Hoffman, even astronaut Alan Shepard. And then there is Cary Grant leaning in the corner, an approving smile on his face. The celebrities are respectfully reposed in their attempts to remain anonymous to the engaged crowd who sings along with Rod Powell on this apres ski evening at Pepi’s Restaurant and Bar.
But Powell isn’t nervous. The celebrities on this day are all in signed photographs lining the wall (there are about 200 stars in all). Besides, Powell has played music for big names before.
“Once I was playing here (at Pepi’s),” said Powell, who has been performing his apres ski show in Vail for 24 years, “and Dan Fogelberg was in the back with Franz Klammer. At the end of my set I said, “Good night folks. I’m Dan Fogelberg.’ So Fogelberg walked up and took 20 dollars out of my tip jar and said, “If you’re gonna use my name, you gotta pay for it.'” Powell starts cracking up, his eyes shimmering under the brim of his stone-colored cowboy hat, then exclaims, “And (Fogelberg) kept the 20 bucks.”
Like Phil Long and Steve Meyer, among others, Rod Powell is a household name among both tourists and locals who frequent apres ski shows in Vail. Also similar to Long and Meyer, “Rod is very good at reading a crowd,” says April, a longtime Vail local who is sitting next to me.
“Some crowds you really have to warm up,” Powell says, “but others – they’ll be ready to party as soon as I get up there.”
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On this evening, Powell’s crowd-reading ability shines through. It’s a diverse audience comprised of both young and old, tourist and local.
“Is Jenny here?” Powell asks Annie, the kind waitress donning Austrian garb called a dirndl. Wagoner also waits tables at Pepi’s and has some time before her shift begins.
“Yeah, Rod, she’s here,” says Annie, and goes to get her.
As Powell is waiting for Wagoner, he begins strumming his guitar slowly. A photographer is shooting to Powell’s right and he smiles and looks at her.
“Don’t you just love musical photography?” he asks the photographer.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Photo one,” Powell says with a deadpan look on his face.
Wagoner reaches the stage smiling, her curly brown hair bouncing on her shoulders and sits, stage right, on a large speaker.
“You know,” Powell says, picking some familiar guitar strings as he talks, “I once played some music with Mick Fleetwood But folks, this is Jenny from – where are you from Jenny?”
“I’m from Highland, Indiana,” she says, and I can tell that neither Cary Grant’s gaze nor Gerald Ford’s conversation with Betty on the back wall could distract her. If I had averted my eyes from either Wagoner or Powell, I would have had to check my wallet to make sure I had not paid $150 for a Fleetwood Mac ticket. They play a beautiful rendition of “Landslide,” Wagoner’s voice touching all the right keys and Powell’s fingers picking his 12-string masterfully.
As my eyes sweep the faces in the crowd, I can tell I’m not alone – not a single face is turned away from the stage, and no one speaks a word.
“See how Rod captivates a crowd?” April asks, as the song ends. The applause continues for a while as people walk up to toss bills into the tip jar in front of the musician.
The satisfaction on Powell’s face is apparent and he readies himself for the next song as a lady walks past him smiling.
“Who was that beautiful woman?”
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Powell asks rhetorically, and laughs. It was Sheika Gramshammer, who owns Pepi’s with her husband, Pepi, an ex-ski racer from Austria who has built quite a name for himself in Vail.
“Pepi and Sheika do so much for the town,” remarks Art, who is sitting with April. “They’ll walk around while Rod is playing and say hello to all the tables – I think it’s great.”
June, another long-time Vail resident, knows both Powell and the Gramshammers very well.
“I used to rent a suite upstairs (above the bar) from Pepi,” June says, sipping on her glass of wine. “I’ve known Rod since he came here.”
Like many establishments in Vail, it’s obvious that Pepi’s is a family, with some members living here year-round and some, like Murray and his family from Florida, visiting on the same week for more than five years. Murray and Powell sing a couple Jimmy Buffett songs before Wagoner is called back on stage.
“This one’s for Tim,” Powell shouts to the crowd. “Tim’s a die-hard Democrat and I’m a die-hard Republican. Only difference is I have the microphone.” The audience laughs as Wagoner, sitting on the speaker, pulls out a red bandana, ties it around her head, and begins singing a soulful rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee.” Powell accompanies on guitar, and the crowd erupts at the end of the song.
“I try to interact with everybody,” Powell says after his first set. “Everyone wants to feel special, and I just try to make them feel that way.”
And Cary Grant, leaning in the corner, smiles approvingly.
Rod Powell, who is also a Broker Associate for Vail-Lionshead Real Estate Brokers, plays apres ski music from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday evenings at Pepi’s Restaurant and Bar on Bridge Street.