Journey to power-pop heaven

It's Monday night at the House of Blues and VonRa is blazing through their opening set for GumWrapper Curb. Tonight is GumWrapper's label-signing party, but the ample audience is cheering as if VonRa were the main attraction. The band moves freely about the stage, feeding off of each other's energy as they toss a musical salad of country-rock and working-class pop. This is guitarist Dave Rankin's first gig with VonRa, and after only one rehearsal the band is as tight as if Rankin had been along since its inception.

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The saga of VonRa is one of endurance, faith and perfect timing. It began six years ago when singer/ songwriter Vaughn Rhea hit the acoustic circuit downtown. "Scruffy Murphy's, Chiller's, One-Eyed Jacks -- Orlando pubs, that's where I started," he says.

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Rhea formed an acoustic duo with his younger brother Dave on guitar and began playing about three gigs a week. But Dave Rhea soon tired of playing covers, and left to co-found mellow-popsters Blue Meridian. He was replaced by Dave Smith -- a switch that led Vaughn Rhea to think about starting his own band.

"Panes," the debut CD that followed in September 1997, found Smith on lead guitar, Dave Rhea back to play bass, and Dave "Tin Man" Tinny on drums. A well-received CD-release party gave the band confidence and exposure that led to opening slots for Bad Company, Little River Band, Jeff Healey and My Friend Steve. To date, over 3,000 copies of the album have been sold, with a majority of them leaving Orlando in the baggage of tourists. "As nutty as it seems, Chiller's [downtown] is one of the places where I sell the most CDs because it's a tourist-oriented place," Rhea says.

The band's single, "Just Wakin' Up," currently is receiving airplay on WSHE-FM (100.3), and listeners are responding kindly to its buoyant rock stylings. (The band was featured at the radio station's She-Bop-a-Lula festival on June 27.) Vaughn Rhea delivers a stream of acoustic guitar notes that cover the song like a melting pat of butter, while brother Dave anchors the counterpoint on his five-string bass. And Tinny scares up inventive rhythms that form a base for former lead-guitarist Smith's howling solos and confident dexterity.

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Songs like "Drinker's Hour" and "Seventh Stair" are tales of substance abuse, while "Eyes on the Sky" and the grungy-gritty "Shine" stand out as beacons of spiritual awareness. "Lately I've been writing a lot about God and how He's worked in my life," Rhea says. "You can either clip along trying to create your own world or just come to the realization that there's a higher power out there helping you."

That power seemed to be a reservoir of faith for the guys last month as they prepared to perform at Go Fest '98. Smith showed up late to the gig and abruptly quit the band. The remaining members played the show as a trio and immediately began seeking a replacement guitarist who shared their positive outlook. "We never forced our beliefs onto him," says Tinny of Smith. "But we were always walking on eggshells."

When word spread about Smith's departure, the VonRa hotline began ringing off the hook. With merely days before their House of Blues show, the band selected Rankin to become the newest member of VonRa. "I'm still thinking about calling my solo act ‘Dave's Not Here'" laughs Rhea.

There is certainly no sign of malady or uncertainty at the House of Blues show. Rankin's free-flowing guitar work is colorful, exciting and impressive. Rhea's voice is clear and powerful, and it's obvious that the entire band is fired up.

It also is obvious that VonRa's new lineup is prepared for any challenge as an anxious evening of net-free musical acrobatics draws to a close. The seemingly endless miracles that have blessed VonRa time and again have once more saved the day. It's a testament to music that comes from a somewhat higher power.


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