Reality television might have taken over MTV, but there’s about as much music involved in shows like Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant as there are inspirational moments. Rather, reality television’s rise over the decade has been used to document humanity’s self-destruction from individual standpoints, with little sense of humor. Unlike most reality TV producers, Cherry Hill, N.J., residents Steve Holtzman and Lou Faiola think a hearty mix of good sounds, good vibes and an effort to honor military members’ service might be the cure to what ails the genre. That’s why they created Bands of Brothers, an online reality show that puts war veterans—and, initially, strangers—suffering from PTSD together to make beautiful music. Now in its seventh week, the show will culminate on Veterans Day with a concert featuring the vets at World Café Live in University City on Sunday, Nov. 11.
The first six Bands of Brothers episodes find the 12 veterans—whose stints span about 20 years of service between them—getting to know each other, practicing their instruments, then being put into groups based upon their respective strengths. Eventually, three final bands are formed and stay together through the show’s entirety, playing—as it eventually happens—three distinct styles of music: one soul, one alt-rock and one pop-rock.
Philly resident and drummer Jerry Grantland, one of the Bands of Brothers participants, says the show’s uplifting nature isn’t just a guise for the viewing audience. “People are tuning into Real World [to watch] people throwing beer bottles at each other,” he tells PW. “Meanwhile, here is just an uplifting story about people coping with the problems in their lives through music. I actually found the motivation to go out and seek help because of these episodes and because of the show and because of these other vets.”
The Army veteran, who started playing drums as a child so he could jam with his guitar-playing father, says music has always helped him cope, and Bands of Brothers has helped him realize there are a lot of musician-veterans suffering with PTSD out there. After all, even before Bands of Brothers premiered, “the drums were my only escape from everyday,” he says, “from whatever is going on in my brain and whatever I’m thinking about.”
Grantland and his peers were surrounded by renowned musician-mentors—guys who’ve remained behind the scenes, writing songs and performing with brand-name artists—who bring them up to speed on working together and meshing their styles. Among them: Mark Rivera, longtime musical director for Billy Joel and the Ringo Starr All Starr Band; Mike Visceglia, who’s worked with Suzanne Vega, and Kasim Sulton of Utopia. As the show progresses, the trio of mentors bring on other area musicians, like The Hooters’ founding member Eric Bazilian, to help out. Between them alone, they span about a century of musical history.
Unlike almost all reality television, the characters do not hate one another—quite the opposite. Bands of Brothers turns reality entertainment on its head by casting people to work together and encourage each other—a twist you could only believe if those same on-screen characters were veterans of U.S. military. What the show lacks in on-screen physical and emotional violence masquerading as drama, it makes up for in its stars describing their time overseas, their return to the states and what about the horrors of war resulted in their common diagnoses. In each episode, a vet is given the chance to talk about his or her “journey” to the present, and, inevitably, most involve the instance that set off the PTSD and gratefully, their road back to what most of them now describe as a normal-ish life.
At one point, Marine and Gulf War vet Erica Glenn, a singer in the band with Grantland, describes a bombing she witnessed in Saudi Arabia in 1991. It was, she says, “the biggest boom ever in my whole life. It shook the ground it shook our tent. Everybody fell to the ground … After that, I was never the same. I was shook up, my hair fell out. It just went haywire for me.” She describes how she couldn’t be in the dark after that, which limited the time she and her young son had often spent going to the movies in Philadelphia. She also turned to drugs. It wasn’t until 2008 that she was able to bring herself to get help from a veteran’s hospital—a 17-year span she partially blames on her tough military training, which seems to be typical of veterans suffering from PTSD.
At the end of the day, the music—and the Bands of Brothers experience—has connected Glenn, Grantland and the other 10 participants in ways that go far behind the studio and stage. “I really didn’t know that there are a lot of people that are in the same boat that I’m in now,” Grantland says. “It made me feel a little bit less weird about the situation.”
Bands of Brothers can be found on tv.bandsofbrothers.org. New shows are added each Thursday. For tickets to the Nov. 11 benefit at World Cafe Live, visit philly.worldcafelive.com.