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September 16, 2014

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Michael Jackson guitarist performs solo show

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Maryanne Bilham

Jennifer Batten spent a decade in Michael Jackson’s touring band before filling a similar role on the road for Jeff Beck. Last year, she signed on for a stint in Zumanity, and one night after her final performance with that Cirque production, she’ll stage a solo show at Family Music Center on February 21.

When you think back on your years with Michael, what comes to mind first? The hard work was at rehearsals. On the Bad tour, we spent a solid month in the band room, and then the second month with Michael in an arena. He would look at video tapes every night, and then any changes that he wanted would come back to us before he arrived the next day.

The Details

Jennifer Batten
February 21, 7 p.m., $15 (kids under 12 free)
Family Music Center, 8125 W. Sahara Ave., 360-4080

Once we were on the road, it was just fun. His tours were at a whole other financial level, to the point where we only played two or three days a week. We had the rest of the time off to hang out at the Colosseum and the Forum in Rome, for instance.

And you would play, for example, the Eddie Van Halen solo from “Beat It?” Absolutely. It was kind of night-and-day different from the Jeff Beck gig. Because with Michael everybody knew every nuance of every song, so he wanted us to copy as close as possible the sounds that people were used to hearing. And Jeff wanted things to be different every night.

What was it like being a guitar player collaborating with Jeff Beck? It was pretty heavenly, because he’s been my No. 1 guitar guy since I was a teenager. And he basically just wanted to have fun. He was not a taskmaster by any stretch. He would call the tunes he wanted to do and we would rehearse and brainstorm to make things as cool as we could get ’em before we hit the road. It was a gas. He’s got a really great sense of humor, and it was basically a party after every show.

How did you get involved with Cirque? I’ve been a fan of Cirque for years and years, and then I heard they were doing a Michael Jackson tribute so I signed up to possibly get on that. And then Melle Vasquez, who has been doing guitar for Zumanity since it began, went out on pregnancy leave, so I ended up subbing for her.

What’s it like being a guitar player for a Cirque show? People expect a certain kind of music, but they don’t come for the music; they come for the acts. And I was well aware of that. I was actually a bit terrified, because I’ve never done any theater at all. Having somebody count 4, 5, 6 in my ear was very new. But I worked my butt off to memorize the tunes. In fact, for about two weeks, I was onstage with Melle playing air guitar—playing along but not plugged in, so I could get used to the feel of the whole thing.

Are you still hoping to play in Cirque’s Michael Jackson show? I won’t say no, but something else has come up in the meantime: a Michael Jackson tribute of my own with some friends. After seeing the Cirque show, it’s got a lot of fantastic effects, but ultimately I didn’t leave with the feeling that I had been to a Jackson show. What we’re gonna do is gonna be a lot closer to a real show, and the Michael guy that we have is pretty amazing. He’s got the moves and he looks closer to Michael than anybody I’ve seen. I’ve been approached by dozens of tributes since he passed away, and after seeing their videos, I ran the other way.

The guitar world seems so male-dominated. Does that surprise you? Honestly, I thought there would be a hell of a lot more women playing guitar by now—not strumming, but really learning the instrument. Back in 1987 I was saying, “You just wait, there’s gonna be a big change,” and it didn’t really happen. But now it’s starting to happen. I keep hearing about female players all the time. It’s still male-dominated, and might always be, but at least we’re starting to make a dent.

What can people expect from your solo show Tuesday night? It’s mostly original music—I have three CDs out, and it’s almost all instrumental music, though I do have some vocal sample kind of stuff. I make films for all of them, so it’s kind of a 3D experience. And I made it all-ages, because even younger kids can look at the films and enjoy that. And I do a few covers, including a Michael Jackson medley.

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