Whether it's for a crowd of 80,000 rabid Bon Jovi fans or five locals singing along to their favorite cover tunes, Grammy-winning Saugus singer-songwriter-guitarist Gary McGrath just loves to play. 

"Playing makes the voices in my head shut up," McGrath said. "Whatever's going on, whatever bills are due, when you're playing, nothing matters. It's nirvana. Nothing else exists."

At 30, McGrath already has an impressive rock star resume to his credit. He's opened or played in bands for such artists as Jon Bon Jovi, Penny Gilley, Blues Traveler, and a band he idolized in his youth, The Monkees.

"I had the wool cap and red turtleneck as a kid," McGrath admitted. "When I toured with them, some of my grade-school teachers came to our shows and told the band that while most kids had imaginary friends, I had the Monkees."

An increasingly popular fixture at various Santa Clarita Valley and Southern California live music venues for his modern blues-meets-pop/rock vibe, McGrath and a hand-picked crew of collaborators released their first album, "The McGrath Project," in November 2008, and launched it with a party at the Cat Club in Hollywood.

Supporting members of the project include Vanilla Fudge bass player and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Tim Bogert, Foreigner/Dick Dale drummer Bryan Head and Guns N' Roses keyboardist Teddy Zig Zag. 

The McGrath Project's single, "Where You Belong," is currently a No. 1 Internet download on independent and college radio stations such as www.indie104.comand www.underworldmusic.com. 

An early start
In addition to performing, McGrath has had a successful career behind the scenes as a producer, winning his first Grammy at age 12 for The Texas Boys Choir and scoring several more nominations over the years. Surprisingly, he wasn't the youngest producer to win the coveted award. 

"Stevie Wonder beat me by one year, darn it," McGrath said with a smile. 

Music always came naturally to McGrath, who lived in Fort Worth and followed his two older brothers into the Texas Boys Choir, a prestigious, world-class performance organization founded in 1946. After fibbing that he could read music, an 8-year-old McGrath realized he actually could, at least to a degree. 

"I followed the dots. If they went up, I figured the notes were higher and when they dipped, it meant lower," he said.

His first season with the Texas Boys Choir included an eight-week tour of Australia, where they performed for the prime minister. 

From 1987-1992, until his voice changed in the seventh grade, McGrath traveled the world with the choir, playing for a crowd of 150,000 at the Vatican in Rome, as well as stateside for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton.

The enterprising youngster also realized that the choir was not maximizing its relationship with Columbia Records, which would press 100 or so albums for the organization each year, but wouldn't release them to the public. 

"I called Columbia. They thought I was a secretary, since my voice was so high," McGrath said. "I persuaded them to release an album of three years'-worth of our concerts."

The resulting effort, "The Glory of Gabriellie featuring E. Power Biggs and The Texas Boys' Choir," won a Grammy in 1990.

Meanwhile, after an early foray into drumming proved too loud for his parents, McGrath discovered guitar.

He got so good that when his college-age brothers were asked if they knew anyone who could play for various garage bands, McGrath would get the call. At 14, he was playing to crowds of 5,000, opening for such bands as Jefferson Starship, The Lovin' Spoonful and The Turtles.

The Monkees' Peter Tork caught McGrath live and asked him to join his solo effort, Shoe Suede Blues. 

McGrath eventually produced Shoe Suede Blues' first album, which led to the Monkees gig. 

"Meeting your childhood idols is a 50-50 thing. You wonder if they're going to live up to your ideals," McGrath said. "Mike Nesmith and the rest of the band were very cool guys,". 

The big time
In 1998, McGrath was offered the opportunity to play live with Jon Bon Jovi, who was performing as a solo artist at the time. It was a Toys for Tots charity event with a lineup that included Bruce Springsteen, The Foo Fighters, Tom Petty and Van Halen in front of a crowd of 80,000. 

McGrath smiled, playing the familiar notes from "Wanted Dead or Alive" on his ever-present guitar as he recalled the story.

"People just went nuts. It was surreal. Jon would stop playing and you'd hear the crowd singing the chorus back, word for word. I had a 100-watt guitar amp jacked up to nine and you could still hear them," he said.

Other dreamlike McGrath memories include an oil-drenched slip-and-slide run with '80s hair-band icons Kip Winger of Winger and Vince Neil of Motley Crue. After a concert in Dallas a few years ago, attended by Kid Rock, Neil set up the game in a Galleria Weston hotel lobby to see who could slide the farthest in their denim.

Winger won. McGrath was last.

"Vince said to me, ‘This is true rock 'n' roll, only there's nothing to break.' I guess he had learned some expensive lessons by then," McGrath said.

Going west
McGrath went country from 2000 to 2002, playing guitar for Nashville sweetheart Penny Gilley. They traveled to far-flung military bases in South Korea, Germany and Iraq, where McGrath won a gold "Commander's Award for Excellence" coin. He keeps it safe in a vintage Monkees lunchbox.

In 2003, McGrath got a call to gig with former Stray Cat and modern rockabilly hero Brian Setzer - he turned it down after realizing the pay wouldn't cover his hotel and travel expenses. 

The missed opportunity motivated McGrath to move from Texas to California to be closer to the music scene. He initially settled in Westlake Village before coming to the SCV in 2005. 

"I like it here. It's close enough (to Los Angeles) to play rock star when I want to, but then I can turn around, come home and hide," McGrath said. 

A chance meeting with 1960s music producer Brian Friedman, known for his work with The Beach Boys and Ike and Tina Turner, led McGrath down another road - recording studio owner/partner. The duo specializes in post-production for movies, news and TV shows, while continuing to encourage new talent. 

"Mostly garage bands you've never heard of," McGrath said about the groups he works with.

Next for The McGrath Project is "Love is a Four Letter Word," a CD slated for international release on GB Records in May, with special guests Spencer Davis and Slash of Guns 'N Roses. 

"It goes off on all the impressions of what people think love is versus the reality," McGrath said. "We don't always understand the difference between love and compassion and infatuation."

The role of rock 'n' roll
When he's not touring, producing or recording, McGrath, who holds a Bachelor's degree in music from North Texas University, teaches guitar at Lowe's Music in Newhall's. 

He also volunteers as a guest artist at the Santa Clarita Symphony's Instrument Petting Zoo, held the first Friday of the month at the Valencia Borders Books & Music on Town Center Drive. 

Surprisingly, for this seasoned performer, there's still a thrill in watching a young artist-in-the-making grasp his or her first chord. 

"When a kid plays something the same way they hear it in their head or on the radio, it's the same as watching a baby take its first steps. They just light up with an ear-to-ear grin," McGrath said.

Calling himself a "musical Cuisinart," McGrath always has his main influences on tap - REM's "Automatic for the People" and The Beatles' "Abbey Road" are two favorites. Modern artists he admires include John Mayer, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and All-American Rejects.

While McGrath's music is rooted in blues, the self-described "chubby white kid" can also bust a mean rap when necessary. Surveying a heavily male Hispanic demographic at a recent gig, McGrath stopped with the classic rock and delved into Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 hip-hop hit "Baby Got Back." 

"You could have heard a pin drop," McGrath said. "People started whispering, then they started to groove. At the end, we had some guys break-dancing. I can't do sex symbol, so I like to make people laugh."

He also likes to remind people what's real and what's not in the world of music. 

"John Lennon said rock 'n' roll can change the world, but I think music just creates a collective consciousness that possibly betters the world," McGrath said. 

"Britney Spears is an entertainer, not a role model. Role models are the people who put food in your stomach, keep a roof over your head and make you a better person."

Popular Santa Clarita Valley rock band The McGrath Project has just signed a three-album recording deal with Brooklyn West Records, a division of Universal Records. 

The band -- featuring Gary McGrath, Ann-Marita, Dean Minnerly, Matt Fullove and Ryan Roberts -- will write, record and release three albums worldwide in the next 18 months.

"It feels like the fire you had when you started your journey as a kid," said McGrath, the two-time Grammy-winning producer and musician who founded the group, reacting to the news. "I felt rewarded and proud."

The group will announce the deal to their fans tonight during a live show at the Universal Bar & Grill, 4093 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, starting at 9:30 p.m. 

All five members of The McGrath Project were ecstatic about the record deal, which has become a rarity in the current music industry.

"I knew we were an extremely tight and very talented ensemble and had cutting-edge material," Minnerly said. "It's nice to be recognized and rewarded for just that."

For its debut Brooklyn West album, the band will return to a loud rock ‘n' roll sound, raw and less produced than its first two independently released albums.

"We've gone back and revisited music from before most of us were born and introduced it to the current sound," Ann-Marita said. "I think the two of them are getting along nicely."

In the last two years, the band has played in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and New Orleans, either as part of The International Pop Overthrow festival, at benefit concerts and as an opening act for The Manny Charlton Band. 

The group's tight live performances were part of what attracted Universal to offer a contract. "Touring has made us tighter and a better unit," Fullove said.

"I have known Gary, Ann and Dean for a few years now and have played off and on with them, and Matt is as solid as they come as drummers go, so I'm looking forward to everything," Roberts said.

The band's eponymous debut album received critical praise around the world after its release in 2009. The second McGrath Project album, "Love is a 4-Letter Word," hit gold status in the U.K. in August 2010. Singles from the two-volume album scored airplay across the United States and Canada.

For more information, visit the band's website at themcgrathproject.com.

Rock band The McGrath Project, a favorite in the Santa Clarita Valley, offers local fans a sneak preview of its second CD, "Love is a Four Letter Word," with a midnight show tonight at the Cat Club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. 

The album is set for physical release in January, but the band will preview it from front to back between midnight and Cat Club closing time.

"I like big productions and you won't ever hear a record sound as big as this one," said bandleader Gary McGrath, a veteran singer/guitarist/songwriter and two-time Grammy-winning producer. "[The album] is the largest production since Sgt. Pepper's."

"Love is a Four Letter Word" is big in other ways, too -- 27 tracks on two CDs. 

"It's the only double album scheduled for national release in 2010," McGrath said. "Major labels don't have the desire or the money to make that kind of physical commitment.

"But I didn't do a double album for that reason," he added. "I'm doing it to get the voices out of my head."

McGrath founded The McGrath Project as a corporate cover outfit specializing in classic rock and Top 40 music, but he and his bandmates soon discovered they had their own musical story to tell. They wrote and recorded the group's eponymous debut album in 2008. 

"The McGrath Project" included the hits "Where You Belong" and "The Chant," which hit #1 on the iRadioLA chart for 14 weeks and five weeks, respectively (the Internet radio outlet counts 60,000 listeners per hour), and was #1 on Las Vegas FM station Underworld Mix Music.

The radio play was a bonus: "We make records based on what we want to hear, not what we think is going to get play on the radio," McGrath said.

For the second album, McGrath enlisted bassist Tim Bogert (Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee as a member of Vanilla Fudge), guitarist/vocalist Ann-Marita Garsed (award-winning country singer), keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Dean Minnerly (also an ace Foley artist at Universal and noted L.A. session player) and drummer/percussionist Chet McCracken (renowned session/road artist) as the core band for the second go-around.

Former full-time McGrath Project members keyboardist Teddy Zig Zag (Guns N' Roses) and drummer Brian Head (Foreigner) are just a couple of the other players contributing to "Love is a Four Letter Word," which McGrath coproduced at Gari Sound in Thousand Oaks with Brian Freeman (who has worked with The Ventures, Ike & Tina Turner and The Beach Boys).

Fans of The McGrath Project's previous work and live shows will enjoy the band's take on classic American rock while adding a few layers of evolution on for size. 

"We are a vocal group on ‘Love is a Four Letter Word' and have a vast array of sounds," McGrath said. "You go from the countries of Tibet to Ireland to the British Invasion to American rock and folk. (The album) is a feast for the ears, whereas the last was just the band live."

"("Love is a Four Letter Word") is a great deal more complex and diverse (than the first album)," said Minnerly, who joined McGrath in the project in late 2008. "The (new) album features an aggressive use of instrumentation blended with orchestral undertones, but also combines drive with simplicity and humor."

Right now, "C-Ya" and two other new tracks are available online for preview at Reverbnation.com (search for McGrath Project). 

The album's advance single ships to terrestrial and Internet radio outlets next week. "It will be either ‘Your Secret is Out' or ‘C-Ya' - depends on votes from our fans on our MySpace page," where those and a few other tracks are also previewed, McGrath said.

After the first of 2010, all 27 "Love is a Four Letter Word" tracks will be available for download via iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon.com, and on hard-copy CD from Borders, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy.

"If the stores don't have it in stock, they'll order it for you," McGrath said.

Signal Intern Derek Sedam contributed to this story.

Gary McGrath official site

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