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Davis, California

Friday, July 19, 2024

Prof Rock

Music in the college scene has always been about artistic
expression, but never has it been restricted to bored undergraduates
with a guitar, mic and Garage Band.
A select group of Davis professors works hard outside of the lecture writing music, playing in bands and studying the fundamentals of sound.

The following is a brief list of professors outside the music department who express themselves both verbally and musically on and off-campus by day and night.




Who would have ever thought the environmental science and policy department would make its way into the arts section of The California Aggie? Thank Professor Mark Lubell and fellow department researcher Jim Thorne for paving the way with the acoustic bluegrass band Chicken Tractor.

Named after the oddly-shaped chicken fertilizing mechanism, Chicken Tractor started out as a graduate student project. Lubell, the band’s guitarist, has been a member for roughly five years, a time that has coincided with his entire tenure as a professor at UC Davis.

“I arrived and recognized that the mandolin player, Jim Thorne, was also in my department,” Lubell said. “He was sort of attached to the previous incarnations of the group, and I joined him, and we built it over time into what it is now.”

Lubell was introduced to the guitar as a child when he and his father began taking lessons together. His early influences include rock and blues giants such as B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and later influences include bluegrass players like Bryan Sutton, Norman Blake and Tony Rice.

Chicken Tractor remains a private outlet for the band members, and though they fully enjoy their membership in the band, marketing and promotion is in low priority.

“There are enough people that know about us, but we haven’t done very much that we should in terms of marketing,” Lubell said. “All of us have our own full-time jobs, and we’re satisfied if we play in front of people a couple times a month.”

When asked if there are any links between teaching and the band, Lubell denied any relation between the two, except for the solace that playing with the band provides.

“Music for me is kind of a hobby … another creative outlet besides work,” Lubell said. “As far as my own life goes, I feel it’s connected. I wouldn’t be very good at [my job], because I would get bored, so music gives me an outlet.”

Chicken Tractor plays in many local venues, fundraisers and the Farmers Market.

“It’s nice to have people show up and appreciate the music,” Lubell said. “Playing for people makes the music all more worthwhile to you.”




Another unlikely musical member of the Davis faculty is Rod Cole, a lecturer in the physics department.

“In high school, I was in a group – [we] just played dances and some local bars, that was it,” Cole said. “Since then, I get together with some people to jam. We normally play blues and rock.”

Though not a formally trained musician in terms of theory and technicality, Cole enjoys playing the guitar in his spare time and has been known to incorporate lessons about the electric guitar in his lectures.

Students of Cole’s Physics 9B: Classical Physics course may remember his in-class guitar demonstrations. Cole said his knowledge of the guitar lent itself to a captivating and effective teaching tool that uses the same physical principles as any other model or demonstration.

“It’s a very important introduction,” Cole said. “We’re always doing spectral analysis on different types of systems, whether it’s about stars or whether you’re looking at vibrations that a building can sustain. All that stuff is basically analyzed using the same technique that you would look at these issues with.”

The application of guitar to physics is also effective because of the instrument’s recognizable image. Cole’s lectures discuss boundary conditions, which are reflected in the guitar string’s constraint between the bridge and nut.

“It’s a lot of fun – when you start discussing harmonics, it’s a good application of physics to music,” Cole said.




Out of Sproul Hall comes Black Cat Bone, a bluesy acoustic four-piece group that includes Spanish professors Travis Bradley and Charles Oriel and French professor Julia Simon.

The band was formed five years ago at the time of Oriel and Simon’s addition to the Davis staff. Deriving their influences from Chicago and Delta-style blues, the band covers material including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Freddy King.

Oriel, the band’s guitarist, is a long-time musician who started out with basic piano lessons at an early age before moving on to the guitar at 15. He, along with his wife and drummer Simon, provide lead vocals for the band.

“[My interests] started out with folk … [but] I’ve been involved with blues for a long time – probably for twenty years,” Oriel said.

As a member of the faculty, Oriel finds some similarities between his profession as a teacher and a musician. The performance aspect of music is very similar to teaching, he said.

“There are connections only in the sense that teaching is a form of performance. [Both] involve being in front of a group, communicating something, trying to express something and leading people to think or work in a certain way.”

However, Oriel draws a clear distinction between the arenas of teaching and music – which, despite their common performance-like characteristics, are entirely different in their overall approach to expression.

“At the same time, being involved with music is a world apart from the world of academia,” Oriel said. “It’s like going on vacation – it’s something so wholly different.… If you [perform at] a bar, you’re exposed to a different type of person than you’d meet in my office in Sproul.”

Oriel said he enjoys the relaxation he gets from teaching through performing. When asked to consider what life would be like in a musical career, Oriel expressed little interest in becoming a full-fledged musician.

“A musical career, involving performance, can be a pretty grueling lifestyle. I’m not sure if it’s a lifestyle that I would particularly enjoy.”

See Black Cat Bone perform in the upcoming months at the Downtown Davis Friday Night Concert Series at the E St. Concert Plaza on June 13, June 12 at Woodstock’s Pizza and in the Vacaville Town Square on June 25.


JUSTIN HO can be reached at arts@californiaaggie.com.


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