2004-04-30 / Community

Russell Returns From 101st Rock Division Tour

Russell Returns From 101st Rock Division Tour


Cliff Russell stands in front of a photo of his brother Stephen, who was killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11.Cliff Russell stands in front of a photo of his brother Stephen, who was killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11.

With "Born to Run," "American Girl" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" on their set lists, they were the kind of band that could have sold out Rockaway’s pubs all summer long, but their mission was different – their gigs were in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The 101st Rock Division, a seven-member rock ‘n’ roll band assembled by Belle Harbor resident Cliff Russell, loaded up its gear and played shows for Unites States troops earlier this year.

The FDNY Firefighter Stephen P. Russell Memorial War Tour, a tribute to Cliff’s brother who died on September 11, kicked off in early February. In 21 days, the traveling troubadours played 19 gigs. They graced stages made of wooden planks – and played in memorial theaters. The 101st Rock Division even played at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

"I felt like the dog who caught the pick-up truck," Russell said of the moment when he realized that the Pentagon was seriously considering his proposal to entertain the troops. But Russell, a 48-year-old operating engineer, also had his family to consider. "I needed approval from the people who count." Russell had to be sure, he said, that going on tour wouldn’t bring back issues that his parents, wife, and four children were trying to put behind them.


Bass guitar player and vocalist John Brant, right, with Cliff Russell, left, wearing flak jackets and helmets.Bass guitar player and vocalist John Brant, right, with Cliff Russell, left, wearing flak jackets and helmets.

With his family’s support and the green light from the Pentagon in November, he had about three months to work out the logistics. Russell called on Chicago based singer/guitarist Joe Cantafio, who came through on his promise to assemble and rehearse a band with impressive credentials. Russell would take lead vocals on a group of songs mid-show.

The tour brought a few perks: The band visited the Bob Hope Memorial Dining Hall and ate well with the soldiers; they rubbed elbows with Governor George Pataki; they flew on a C-130, hardly the Starship, but it managed to get them from A to B safely – sometimes one of the propellers locked up.

There were other minor troubles too. One of the guitarists lost his acoustic off the back of a truck. Sandstorms cast a layer of grit over everything, including people’s mood, and there were long waits for the C-130 to arrive. The band often dawdled around their gear heap for hours, but in the end it was worth it.

"We accomplished [the tour] with style and class and lived up to what we wanted to do in every way," Russell said this week in the basement of his home where a brand new wooden display case houses his memorabilia collection – commemorative coins from different divisions, camouflage hats and a large canvas photograph of his brother, signed by people he met on tour.


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