There’s a lot more to Sacramento City Treasurer Russ Fehr than you might think. Yes, he knows all about municipal finances and wears a suit at City Council meetings. But he also plays guitar in a rock band with fellow city employees.
Fehr, age 58, is one of six members of The Newz Makers, a city-employee band that started rocking in 2006.
For band gigs, Fehr exchanges his suit for casual garb and goes by the stage name “Luke.” He loves Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones, and was a member of a Sacramento group that was the precursor to the Rutabaga Boogie Band.
Fehr’s band mates are Joe Valenzuela, a police captain; Jim Berg, an information technology supervisor; Tom Moore from Human Resources; Roni Yadao, a procurement division employee; and tree pruner Vince Hernandez.
As the city treasurer, Fehr is concerned about the city’s money. He told The Sacramento Press again and again (and again) that the city does not pay the members of The Newz Makers to play.
The band performs at city events free of charge, Fehr said. Band members do not receive money from tickets to city events. The band does not use city equipment, and members do not practice their tunes during work hours, he said. The band only receives payment when it plays gigs that “have nothing to do with the city,” he said.
Now that the details of the band’s financing are clear, let’s hear from Fehr on why and how he rocks with The Newz Makers.
Sacramento Press: A lot of your reports on city finances are dry. So, I’m a little shocked that you’re a rocker. How do you go back and forth from analyzing city finances and rocking out?
Russ Fehr: It’s difficult because I think it involves different parts of the brain and … your cognitive processes. So, the transitions sometimes take a little while. In some ways, music is sort of a harmony of mathematics and emotion. The relationships and notes and how chords are structured, and a lot of it is very mathematical. But playing is also a real emotional experience.
(The) approach at work is coldly rational and has to be.
SP: Does your band have any crazy stories about gigs?
Fehr: I think our best story is the very first time we ever played – at Memorial Auditorium. It was for a city event, and it was at 8 in the morning, which is an odd time to be playing music. We’d been together for a couple months; we’d only practiced three times.
It was kind of interesting because growing up here in Sacramento – and watching concerts at Memorial since the mid-’60s and playing in a band since 1966 – one of my lifelong goals was to play at Memorial Auditorium. And now, twice I have been able to do it. It’s a real thrill. So, I think that’s the biggest thing.
But we’ve played at a crab feed fundraiser for the police union at the Newman Center there by Sac State –
SP: Did that get rowdy?
Fehr: Well, we were safe. We were well-protected.
SP: Your band really hasn’t sought much publicity. Why is that? And why are you not aspiring to be in Sacramento Magazine?
Fehr: There’s way too much shameless self-promotion in the world. We’re exposed to it all day long.
We don’t actively seek any publicity. A couple guys in the band still have younger kids at home, and so there are limits on time. My children are in their 20s and in school, so I don’t have that same kind of limit. But we have our website.
I think we’d like to play more … One thing we don’t want to do is go back to playing 9 till 1 in the morning at the bars.
SP: Were you doing that for awhile?
Fehr: Yeah, it’s been a long time. I’ve done it; I know some other guys in the band have done it in the past. None of us want to do that. We do play occasionally at a bar, but it’s kind of a one-time thing.
SP: How can the general public see your band?
Fehr: In the future – at playing events like the National Night Out, or some of the events that council members host in their districts, or city departments host. We are often asked to play, and when we can, we do. And those are free, open public events.
SP: Can you talk a little bit about what kind of music your band plays?
Fehr: We’re a rock-‘n’-roll band. And the set list – we have some songs that are contemporary. It’s a cover band. We play with some originals and do some jam things, but basically it’s a cover band.
I think our songs are really focused in on baby boomer classic rock. Mid-’60s, mid-’70s are the bulk of it. We do some older things. We do some stuff going back to the ’50s, some Elvis, and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran.
Our singer, Roni Yadao, can just flat-out sing. She’s extraordinary.
SP: Is there anything you’d like to add? Anything else you want to let the public know about the Newz Makers?
Fehr: I’m so grateful that the people I get to play with are just fine people … It’s just a joy to be 58 years old and still play guitar in a rock-‘n’-roll band. I’m not the greatest musician in the world, and there’s probably 30 people or more that can play guitar better than I can that are employed by the city. But darnit, I’m in a band. And I just love it – getting to play, whether it’s practice or publicly.
There’s something about it. And other hobbies have this, but I think music…it takes you away. While I’m playing, nothing else exists.
And all the worries and woes about the economy, and the challenges facing the city … family issues, health. I’m at the point now where people I grew up (with) pass away.
We were playing Tuesday night, and I was kind of standing over by Vince – and I just couldn’t believe – along with hearing the whole band – how good our guitars sounded. The tone was different, so the parts were coming out crystal clear. We were pretty loud. I got in front of my amp, and I could feel the wind move, coming out of the speakers.
For that four- or five-song set, it’s all there was in the whole world – the band and the music.
It’s healthy; it’s a good thing. I hope people who have hobbies, like gardening or whatever it is, get that same mental break from the real world.
Photos courtesy of The Newz Makers.
Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.