Bad Manners Ska Tour

Bad Manners On Tour

The Weasels Kansas City Star

The Weasels Live @ The Key ClubFor six corporate types, the bottom line is a bass line

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH - Photo Susan Pfannmuller

The Kansas City Star

Most of the Kansas City Weasels work at Sunflower Group, including (from left) CEO Dennis Garberg; Diane Sparks, director of live media; and Rick Alley, art director.

He adjusts the height of his snare drum, pops open a beer and considers how lucky he is to play in this band.

“I always remember that, to remind myself to play like it’s my last. You never know, it could be,” Steve DiFranco says. “So you better give it your all. And have fun.”

He counts to four, lifts both drumsticks and, in a nanosecond, the air changes. Guitar melodies. Bass licks. Drum fills.

Six ordinary members of corporate America transform into a rock ’n’ roll band.

Today, the band — the Kansas City Weasels — will play one of its biggest gigs yet in Fortune magazine’s Battle of the Corporate Bands. Five tunes at a regional final in Los Angeles, in front of professional rockers, judges and an audience.

The Weasels came together in 1991. All but one of them works at the Overland Park-based Sunflower Group, a company founded by Dennis Garberg in his basement in 1978. (The exception is DiFranco, who works at Digital Evolution Group, an ad/Internet company in Johnson County.)

Sunflower Group has 160 employees and offices across the country. Its motto: “We’re the sampling people,” Garberg says.

The company handles the free samples for tasting in grocery stores nationwide. It might distribute 10,000 small bags of Fritos at a music festival. And it’s responsible for the plastic newspaper bags in which samples of shampoo and breakfast cereal and even a razor are brought to your front steps.

Garberg, 64, is the band’s No. 1 cheerleader, perhaps because he considers himself the weakest performer. He plays harmonica on just some of the tunes. For almost three years he has taken private lessons.

“I’m just so proud,” he says. “When I got the e-mail that we had made the regionals, I was thrilled. Then I saw the list of the other groups. The people we’re up against are huge! Johnson & Johnson. NBC. … But we’ll hold our own.”

The Weasels will compete today against eight other bands. After that, four bands from the Los Angeles regional and four from another in Nashville, Tenn., will perform in October at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. This is the Weasels’ second regional final. They made it three years ago but didn’t advance.

The heartbeat of their music is drummer DiFranco, 44, the only former professional musician of the bunch. He toured the world with a ska group Bad Manners. But he gave up his music career years ago when he fell in love, moved to Kansas City and started raising a family.

The Weasels play at least twice a month, usually at Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club.

They used to be the Screaming Weasels, says lead guitarist Eric Douglas, 46. “We dropped the screaming part when we started aging.”

The other Weasels are Diane Sparks, 42, lead singer and Sunflower’s director of live media; Rick Alley, 51, bassist and Sunflower’s art director; and Dan Sittenauer, 45, auxiliary guitarist, pianist and account executive.

They’re not the only corporate band from Kansas City to try the national competition.

In 2007, American Century’s Soul Focus took first place in Cleveland.

Hallmark Cards had a band, Suitably Twisted, that recently disbanded. It entered the Fortune competition this year and last, but didn’t make the cut.

“The CEOs of these companies are pretty special to support the bands at their companies,” said Morgan Ringwald, director of market development for the National Association of Music Merchandisers. The association partners with Fortune and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to put on the competition.

The Weasels are quick to give kudos to their CEO, Garberg. Without him, they all said, there would no band and no trip to Los Angeles. The money for their plane tickets and hotel rooms comes out of his pocket.

Garberg shrugs it off and says the good morale the group creates is worth every dollar.

And if the band makes the finals in Cleveland?

“What do you mean ‘if’?” Garberg says with a grin.

He’s already set the money aside.

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send e-mail to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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