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Rob Cullivan's last waltz

Rochester music fixture makes tracks out of town


Rob Cullivan isn't off for a deep-six holiday. This ain't the big adios. And yet it feels a little bit like a funeral. In this case, however, the stiff can actually see who has come to pay their respects.

Cullivan, a Rochester music scene fixture since the mid-'80s, is leaving town for good and heading west with a change of clothes and a travel case full of harmonicas.

"It's very bittersweet," he says. "I didn't realize how many friends I had, I guess. It's been like a living funeral --- a living wake actually. There are cats I don't even remember jamming with that are like, 'Oh yeah, Rob, I remember one night...'"

When not on stage fronting the Urban Squirrels, The Moonmen, The Mysterious Blues Band, The Druthers, or his latest outfit the Ferndocks, Cullivan and his harmonica have hijacked many bands over the years.

"I think a lot of bands won't miss me drunkenly trying to get on stage with them," he says.

What they --- what we all --- will miss is Cullivan's casual charm, his maniacal laugh, his salt 'n' pepper 'fro (which I'm sure has never seen a comb), and his understated talent. Cullivan claims to only ever use the first four holes on his harp, and has never really considered himself a singer. But the man can righteously rock the joint.

With so much of a premium put on musicians being the best, the fastest, the loudest, it's a relief to hear a band or musician not caught up in the race for a change.

Cullivan has always been refreshing, as he plays or sings rough-and-tumble bar-room rock 'n' roll with equal parts energy and drunken mischief. Cullivan comes from that audience he plays for. He's a blue-collar, beer-drinking, red-blooded man of the people. When he isn't on stage huffin' and puffin his harmonica, he pinballs around the room adding to the din and atmosphere.

Cullivan was schooled on the sax, but caught the tin sandwich bug as a teen after hearing harmonica-centric stuff from The Beatles, Blackfoot, and especially early J. Geils Band.

"Not that 'Centerfold' crap," he says. "It took me a while. I wasn't all that good at first. I really tortured my family members. I think saxophone for me was 'school,' and harmonica was not 'school.' It was something I could do on my own. Nobody was grading me."

It all started with The Urban Squirrels during happier, healthier times in Rochester music. Cullivan had graduated from St. John Fisher College and just gotten back from hitchhiking across the country.

"This town was great to play in the late '80s," he says. "There was just such a lively scene, you could almost feel the energy. We were part of that whole alternative movement like Madness --- upbeat, driving --- we had a great horn section." The Squirrels rocked Rochester from 1987 to 1993 and released one self-titled LP and the single "Jesus at The Ground Round."

Post Squirrels, Cullivan formed The Moonmen, "a darker, moodier kind of band," he says. He also spent time in The Mysterious Blues Band and The Druthers before forming The Ferndocks in 2003. He played nights with his band, and spent his daytime at his straight gig as a writer for the Catholic paper, The Courier-Journal.

He was able to balance the two with no heat from his straight gig. Rock 'n' roll doesn't judge.

"Well technically, neither does Jesus," he says. "If anything I think [the people at work] were fascinated by it."

But Cullivan, with all his self-deprecating wit, downplays his faith and his talent.

"Let's put it this way," he says with a chuckle. "I would say I'm probably equally a lousy Catholic and a lousy rock 'n' roller."

So before music or the church help determine his final destination, Cullivan is moving to Portland, Oregon (or perhaps Vancouver, BC) for family reasons.

No job, no band, no prospects.

"I have no idea what I'm doing out there," he says.

But Cullivan strikes me as a man who'll land on his feet, a Pal Mal in one hand and a Lee Oskar in the other. I'm gonna miss his smirk.

Rob Cullivan's farewell show, featuring members of The Ferndocks, Bear Bones, 40-Rod Lightnin', The Electro Kings, The Hi-Risers, The White Devils, HuNu, Dream Engine, Peachee Neecheez and The Buddhahood, takes place Friday, September 22, at Water Street Music Hall, 204 North Water Street, 325-5600, at 9:30 p.m. $3. 18+.