A conversation with Brandon ‘Taz’ Niederauer.
by Ryan O’Malley
Often times people start taking music lessons and try to pay homage to whomever the influences are that caught their ear and made them want to learn how to play a certain instrument. For some, their dedication to their craft sometimes leads to the unique experience of not only having a chance run in with their inspirations, but landing themselves on stage with those very same people.
For Brandon Niederauer – a versatile guitarist who can adapt to anything from blues to funk – the experience has been full of some of the biggest names in music. He has had a personal audience with late blues legend B.B. King and has shared the stage with musical heavyweights like Buddy Guy, Slash, Dr. John, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Stevie Nicks and even pop starlet Lady Gaga. He’s been invited on stage with one of his heroes, Derek Trucks, and was relatively unknown when he took part in a celebration honoring the 70th birthday of jam band patriarch Colonel Bruce Hampton. He even has several acting gigs under his belt, including a co-starring role with Hampton in a full length independent film.
It’s certainly an impressive resume, and looks like that of a musician who is a road warrior and is playing wherever and whenever he can. While he does have a passion for life on the road, Niederauer finds himself juggling a musical career with an unlikely pairing – school. At age 15, the guitar prodigy has a schedule where his weekends are loaded with gigs around his native New York – including an appearance at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains, Pa. on Friday, December 7 – but always maintains his weekday routine of hitting the books and continuing his education.
“Things are going great; crazy good,” Niederauer, also known as “Taz,” said during a recent interview. “School is very important to me, so I try to keep an even balance with that, but I also love touring. I get to see new faces every night and it’s really amazing that I get to do something like this at such a young age. I get to go to new places and experience their cultures, whether they’re in this country or not – I’m loving it all right now.”
Loving it all includes almost all genres of music, as is evident in his playing style and broad array of aforementioned sit ins. His passion for music came at an even younger age when he discovered his father’s record collection and couldn’t wait to discover what it was that appealed to him almost immediately. Couple that with his exposure to the movie “School of Rock” and Niederauer knew he wanted to take his newfound passion and make it his own.
“After looking at my dad’s 200-plus record collection, I noticed there’s got to be something that makes this music so likable,” he said. “There was so much music to be heard, so I started listening to it. Of course the Allman Brothers Band was constantly playing around the house because they were my dad’s favorite band, as they are mine now. My dad saw my interest and decided to show me the movie ‘School of Rock’ from 2003. I watched it around 2010 or 2011…once I saw that the little kid was playing the guitar, I was like ‘dad, can I try it?’ and he said ‘yeah.’ I watched that movie probably over 200 times – it’s still one of my favorite movies of all time – and the rest was history.”
A short time after seeing “School of Rock,” Niederauer caught what many consider his first big break when he was cast as guitarist Zack Mooneyham in the Tony-award nominated Broadway play “School of Rock the Musical” which was produced by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber. The role was the break the aspiring guitarist needed as it introduced the wild-haired musician to a much broader audience and got his name circulating around the New York music scene and into the ears of some of his idols. The role demanded in depth knowledge of the guitar, and Niederauer was relentless in learning everything he could about it. It was something that many would consider work, but for “Taz” it was a labor of love, and turned into a stage show that got people talking and even referring to him as the “next big thing.”
“It started to hit me because after a while when I passed the learning curve of learning how the guitar works, learning how the strings work and learning the patterns, it began to not feel like work and more like fun,” he said of his dedication. “I still experience that to this day. Every time I pick up a guitar, there’s so much joy and so much passion and whatever else I feel. Whatever I feel like that day, I know that guitar is my absolute best friend. I can go and talk to it, and it will listen to whatever I have to say. It’s awesome now that I can express my feeling to anyone who will listen. That means so much to me, and I just love being able to do that. I love doing it with other people who share the same views, and I love playing in different situations such as sitting in with people because everybody’s music is a little different, so I love to be able to play their kind of style, which keeps it really fresh for me. I just love it all.”
What followed was an increasing number of sit ins where Niederauer found himself on stage with blues legends like Buddy Guy, exploratory fusion guitarists like Dweezil Zappa, jazz/funk ensemble Galactic and driving Southern rock outfit Blackberry Smoke. No matter how legendary
or influential the artists he collaborated were, it was a fateful day in April of this year that found Niederauer nervous, as he was invited to sit in with one of the people he glowingly refers to as a hero – Derek Trucks – when the Tedeschi Trucks Band performed at the Sweetwater 420 Festival in Georgia.
“I was definitely nervous to sit in with Tedeschi Trucks Band this past April,” he said. “Derek Trucks was one of the first people that got me interested in guitar – I just think he’s so amazing at what he does, and he does it like no one else. When he asked me to sit in, I was just so happy. I just knew I didn’t want to mess up, because this was in front of like 30,000 people. That made me nervous, but out of that nervousness came a feeling of accomplishment and victory. I’m so grateful for him noticing how much I love his music and letting me sit in with them.”
A previous time Niederauer found himself on stage with Trucks occurred in at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta in May of 2017, when both musicians were part of an all-star cast honoring jam stalwart Colonel Bruce Hampton on the night of his 70th birthday. Not only did the night feature Trucks and his longtime Allman Brothers Band cohort Warren Haynes, but also included Widespread Panic members John Bell, Dave Schools, Duane Trucks and Jimmy Herring; Phish drummer Jon Fishman; John Popper of Blues Traveler; Peter Buck of R.E.M.; members of Leftover Salmon; and saxophonist Karl Denson, amongst a slew of others.
Along with being a musician, Hampton was an acting mentor to Niederauer as they both starred in “Here Comes Rusty,” an independent comedy involving two men who try to fix a Greyhound dog race. Through that friendship, Niederauer found himself invited to the birthday celebration. Along with celebrating Hampton’s birthday an unending influence on music, Niederauer would also find himself onstage for the Colonel’s unexpected final performance as the legendary musician collapsed on stage that night and later died at a nearby hospital. It was a night that hit home for Niederauer as he hadn’t been fully aware of the scope of Hampton’s influence, but found himself in the center of the craziness of the evening, as he was front and center on the stage when the night took a turn for the worse.
“I hadn’t realized how much he changed my life until I got on stage that night and I saw two of my favorite guitar players in the world – Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes – standing on my right and left,” he said. “There were 3000 people in the theater just raging and having so much fun. That night really had and still is changing my life to this very moment. I still love him like I did before. He really did teach me how to act as that was the first thing I did with acting. He did so much for me as a person. It was crazy; I was in a state of shock for about two weeks, but luckily I had family and friends in School of Rock the Musical who were super supportive. As soon as they heard about it, they were texting me or giving me warm hugs which I’m grateful that I can still have people that really care about me. I was in a state of shock until I realized that if he were to write his own story, that’s how he would leave. It was a really weird concept to think about at first, but once you get past the horrific part, that’s exactly the way he would want to go. It’s crazy to think about, but he was such an amazing and crazy guy. He was always so fun to be around, and it’s unfortunate that he’s not around anymore. Although, he’s always looking down on the music world; he’s always protecting it.”
Niederauer’s memories of the night don’t just end there. When Hampton collapsed, Niederauer was on stage performing a solo to the bluesy anthem “Turn On Your Lovelight” when he suddenly felt something hit his leg.
“Many people don’t know this, but (Hampton) actually did fall on my leg. He fell right on me,” he said. “At first, I thought it was a joke because everyone was laughing on stage. Then after five seconds, I looked back and I was like ‘this is not right. Something is wrong.’ It just went on from there. It’s just so crazy to think about now, but I definitely grew from it. I’m so happy that I’m in such a stable place now, again with the help of family and friends. It was the greatest night of my life before that happened. I still consider it the greatest night of my life because I had so much fun playing genuine music with some of my influences. I’m still very sad over his passing; I still miss him and I still want him back on the planet Earth. Again, I know he’s always looking down and making sure everything’s alright in the music world.”
Since that day, everything has been right in Niederauer’s music world as he continued to perform numerous shows throughout the year, and found himself immersed in the music festival scene throughout the country. Prior to his upcoming stop at the River Street Jazz Café, the last time the people of Northeast Pa. were exposed to Niederauer’s talents was a return engagement at this years’ the Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa. where the young guitarist was billed as an “artist at large” and performed on each stage at the festival. While his sit ins were certainly a highlight of his Summer, Niederauer will also always remember the opportunity Peach Fest provided him for getting his own music out with a set devoted to his band.
“I had been to the Peach Music Festival the year before, but this year was crazy,” he said. “I mean, the year before was also crazy because I got to sit in with Widespread Panic and Jimmy Herring – another person who was at the (Col. Bruce birthday celebration) and is a huge influence on me, so that was crazy. This year was even more amazing, and I don’t say that because of any person in particular that I sat in with, because I’m still very thankful for them. It was for the fact that it was absolutely pouring rain on Saturday, everyone was drenched, and still about 1000 people showed up to see my outdoor show. I never had such an experience; I was wet, everyone in the band was wet, everyone on the side of the stage was wet, and everyone going up the mountain was wet. People still showed up and were raging and partying and having a good time and not worrying about anything else that was going on in the world. They were just invested in the music. That kind of experience really just cleared my mind and made me think ‘wow, this is really a great thing.’ I’m still thinking about it because it was definitely a crazy time.”
Like Niederauer, the band is well versed in many different genres and helps the guitarist’s playing evolve on the road. To many people’s surprise, Niederauer – at age 15 – is also a songwriter, and the band has been in the studio working on a full length album. It’s something that the guitarist is adamant about finishing, but wants to make sure it properly reflects the band’s sound.
“We’re in the process of recording an album right now, but I’m still in school,” he said. “I’m still touring and don’t plan on stopping any time soon because I love going to these cities. So that’s where we’re at right now – in the process of recording an album…we’re in the mixing process where we’re trying to get it to sound the best. I’m kind of a stickler for making sure everything is perfect. It’s kind of a quality I have – to not stop until everything is perfect. It’s taking a long time, but we’re trying our best to give people what they want and get it out as quick as possible.”
As for what could inspire a 15 year old to write original material, like many musicians, Niederauer likes to utilize events in his own life or his perception of other people’s lives as unique catalysts that eventually become original songs.
“Most, if not all of my songs, come from a real place,” he said. “They’re either inspired or directly related to events that happened in my own life or other people’s lives around me, in sort of a vague way…all the songs definitely come from a real place – something I see outside, maybe something beautiful that I’ve accomplished. Maybe even some hard times; those are some of my songs, too. I feel like the human life and how we go through it is so intricate and different that there’s so much uniqueness to pull from. It makes for really great writing material.”
At age 15, Niederauer has experienced more exposure in the national music scene than many other musicians get to experience in their entire lives. Along with his schooling, “Taz” continues to play out whenever he finds the time, and looks forward to seeing everyone come out to the River Street Jazz Café and beyond where he and his band will explore almost every genre imaginable and hopefully get the people out of their seats.
“For the next couple weeks and beyond, the type of music we’re doing really isn’t from one genre,” he said. “It’s a blend of rock, funk, blues and R&B. Kind of fusiony. We do a bunch of covers, but we also do a bunch of originals. There’s even some poppy stuff. We just try to jam out and make the audiences hear what they want to hear and try to get them to dance. That’s really our job.”
Brandon “Taz” Niederauer Tour Dates:
Friday, November 30: Pearl Street Warehouse, Washington D.C.
Saturday, December 1: Rams Head on Stage, Annapolis, MD.
Friday, December 7: River Street Jazz Café, Plains, PA.
Saturday, December 8: Mercury Lounge, New York, NY.
Saturday, December 15: The Foundry at The Fillmore Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA.
For more information, visit www.tazguitar.com