Instead of covering songs, Wesley Osrolic put himself on an album cover.
A South Lake Tahoe musician, Orsolic last month released “Carry On,” a CD with 11 originals. PURCHASE It has contributions from acclaimed artists Roger Smith and Myron Dove.
Throughout a professional career that began when he was a teenager, Orsolic has had brushes with nationwide fame in the United States and his native Croatia. In the last several years, he has played local shows for tourists and residents who expect to hear classic top-40-type cover songs.
Orsolic, who released a solo album in 2006, has a backlog of more than 40 songs, and a year ago he decided to step back and look at his own work.
“The next day, my mind just kind of flipped,” Orsolic said. “I was inspired. I am not cluttered with other stuff, doing other people’s stuff two or three nights a week. You forget about yourself. … It helped me a lot to stop.”
He spent a year developing his songs and making home studio recordings. Then he had to audacity to share them with Smith, a Sacramento producer who plays keyboard for Tower of Power. Smith also played on the most recent studio record by the Dave Matthews Band.
“I was pleasantly surprised because you get a lot of stuff that comes across your desk, (and you go) ‘Next, next,’ ” Smith said. “The songs were very well crafted, speaking as a producer and a songwriter, let alone his artistry as a vocalist and as a guitarist. He’s a monster guitarist. Wes, his music and his talent put him in that other box. The short-list box. So I called him up and said, ‘Hey, man. What do you want to do?’ ”
Orsolic undeniably is an accomplished guitarist, but not one of those who plays, as the expression goes, “a million notes.” Accordingly, “Carry On” is tasteful. Each song is unique, touching on folk, fusion, soul and rock styles. They do have one commonality:
“I don’t want to do a song without blues,” he said. “Rock needs blues, jazz needs blues.”
Orsolic and Smith are like-minded.
“It was a natural fit because I come from blues,” Smith said. “My first professional job was with the late Freddie King. And the first two songs I ever learned in life were “Down the Road a Piece” and “Little Red Rooster.” Blues to me, as are spirituals and gospels, are the cornerstones to all the things that I’ve played, from fusion to straight-ahead jazz to an amalgamation of all of that with Tower of Power.”
Orsolic was inspired to play guitar by Jimi Hendrix and Peter Greene. He was a musical prodigy in Croatia, where a magazine listed him as one of the top 10 guitarist in the country. He signed a record deal at 16, and a lifetime of musical lessons learned as a professional was under way.
“We fired the bandleader,” said Orsolic, who said good chemistry is the most important factor in a band’s success. The trio, without the former front man, “had a groove like nobody’s business. In four years we played in huge arenas. At 19 I thought I was old. Janis (Joplin) and Jimi were gone and I thought I would go young, too. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve seen it all. When we broke up, I’d felt like I had done it all.”
Orsolic next played in a band with a four-piece horn section and players much older than himself. He said the ensemble was outstanding, but it never made a record.
At the age of 26, Orsolic moved to the U.S. to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
“I was self-taught,” Orsolic said. “I sounded great but didn’t know what I was doing. At Berklee, I learned theory.”
After school, Orsolic was offered a record deal with Motown. He flew to California.
“I intended to stay 10 days but it’s been 30 years,” he said.
But when he arrived at the Motown building, police outside were arresting a man at gunpoint, and the allure of the famous record company began to diminish. Inside, the record company’s deal didn’t sound like much of a deal for him.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea to sign away my songs and my publishing rights and my life, so I just backed off,” said Orsolic, who had already taken on the philosophy he still carries today: “To me, the main thing is not getting signed and all of this. What’s important to me is to play good music. Whatever happens, I understand the music business can be kind of sticky.”
After coming very close to working with a major producer, Orsolic moved to Las Vegas, his home base for Raw Nature, a band he toured with for 12 years. It was during that time he became enamored with Lake Tahoe, where he would stay for weeks, hiking, biking and skiing between shows, many at Turtles in Round Hill, now the site of a Safeway.
He moved to Tahoe and started a large, acid jazz band, but he said some of the members had difficulty being dedicated to the project. He stripped down the band, also called Raw Nature, to a trio which included drummer Liz Broscoe.
It was Broscoe who introduced Orsolic to Smith, a former Tahoe resident who was recruited out of the Christiania Inn (now the Himmel Haus) by Emilo Castillo and Dave Garibaldi to join Tower of Power.
Orsolic’s introduction to Dove was more happenstance. Dove knew a member of Orsolic’s band and brought his bass to one of its shows in the Bay Area. He sat in with the band and told Orsolic to call if he ever needed anything.
“I didn’t really know who he was,” Orsolic said. “This was before that Santana album ‘Supernatural.’ Then I saw a video of his famous bass solo in Sau Paulo.”
Like Smith, Dove was impressed with Orsolic’s songs and made himself available to contribute to “Carry On.”
“I found 46 songs I had written,” Orsolic said, going back to the day he stopped playing with cover bands. “When you start a song, you never know where you are going to end up. I like simple ideas. To me the song is never done. I don’t like too busy. I don’t overdo it. And if I do it live I will do it differently.”
Performing live with his studio band will be a challenge, of course, considering the busy schedules of Smith and Dove. But Smith said live shows are possible for late August or October.
In the meantime, Orsolic is putting together a local band, which includes Broscoe and Larry Hart, who both played on “Carry On.”
Smith, who appears on dozens of albums, said “Carry On” can be a success. This despite the lack of record stores and large radio stations that give new material airtime.
“Self-promotion is difficult, but what gives him a leg up is the fact that he’s international,” Smith said. “The support mechanism is different from what it is here in the states. This is what I have seen as an artist trying to support his own stuff. Europe is a lot more liberal in terms of giving you an ear, giving you a chance to prove your artistry.
“In the United States it’s a culture of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “The X Factor” and all these other B.S. shows that get kids thinking they can become an overnight wonder because they have a modicum of talent or a voice.
“Wes is real cognizant of all of this. Wes is a veteran and he’s a veteran of exactly what I am. He’s come down the same road. He gets it, so he knows how to manage and market himself, so this record will get some recognition.”
To learn more about “Carry On,” visit http://wesleyorsolic.com/