Local Drummer Puts the Fleetwood in Tusk
Who puts the USC Trojans Marching Band front and center on a pop album? Fleetwood Mac, that’s who. It’s been forty years since the band released Tusk, their twelfth studio album (October 12, 1979, was the actual release date). As a follow-up to the huge commercial success of Rumours, Tusk was, in some circles, an out-there creation, a head- scratcher that was expected to flop. The naysayers were wrong. The album, perhaps something of an oddity when compared to its predecessor, was a number one in the U.K. and gave Fleetwood Mac two top-ten singles in the U.S.—Lindsey Buckingham’s title track, “Tusk”, and Stevie Nicks’ ethereal homage to the mysterious poet in our hearts we know as “Sara.”
Fast-forward a few decades to find Liberty resident and former music teacher Tom Nelson living his dream: performing music. As the drummer in a Fleetwood Mac tribute band known as Tusk, scheduled to play at the Deane Center for the Performing Arts November 13 and 14, Tom admits he’s in his happy place.
“Making music for a live audience is a great thing,” he says. “This has been a dream for a long time.”
Tom grew up in New Jersey, played percussion in high school, and was a member of the marching band. He attended West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he met his wife, who is from Liberty. The couple moved to Liberty in 1993, and Tom got a job as the band director at Williamson High School. In 2000, a teaching position opened up in Liberty, he was hired, and he taught music there until 2018.
“I enjoyed teaching,” he says, but admits he “always enjoyed playing music, and always wanted to be a performer.”
Tom has played with the Williamsport Symphony, with the Wellsboro-based Spare Parts, and other with other groups. Over the years, he had kept in touch with his “musical performing friends” in New Jersey. Some of them were interested in doing a Fleetwood Mac “one-off tribute band” performance and asked if he was interested in participating. No need to ask twice. The event “went really well,” he continues, and the one-off became a semi-regular gig.
“About a year and a half ago, the band started taking off,” Tom says, and he found himself having to make a decision.
“I couldn’t do both anymore,” he reflects, “both” being touring with Tusk, which was playing all over the place, and teaching. So, while he has not officially retired, he gave up teaching in December of 2018.
“So here I am,” he laughs. “Now I’m a drummer for a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.” Is his drumming as famously frenetic as Mick Fleetwood’s?
“Sometimes I act the part,” Tom says. “It depends on the crowd and the size of the room.”
Sean D. Gilday, who is in partnership with Rachel Hill at Blue Raven Entertainment (offices for real in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, Chicago, Illinois, and for fun in Siberia) and serves as agent and manager for Tusk, characterizes Tusk as “the most accurate representation of Fleetwood Mac in the world.” He “discovered” the band about a dozen years ago when someone suggested he check out Kathy Phillips on YouTube. Kathy is a New Jersey singer/songwriter who looks and sounds a lot like Stevie Nicks.
From there, Sean continues, he heard Tom play.
“He’s got one of the greatest drum solos going,” Sean says. “He’s in the top ten of drummers I’ve worked with.” He then connected with the band as a whole—“I got with them when they were first starting out”—and it’s been all uphill, in the best possible way, ever since.
“They’re very hard working people—they work as hard as they can to make it good,” says Sean. “They never say no to a fan request.”
Perhaps part of the reason Tusk has enjoyed such success is that the band members have remained friends (unlike the animosity that developed amongst the original Mac).
“It’s the same five people since we started,” Tom notes. Those performers are: Kathy Phillips, who takes on the Stevie Nicks role; Kim Williams, Tusk’s Christine McVie, is classically trained on piano and voice, and can replicate Fleetwood Mac’s close harmonies; Scott McDonald handles vocals and guitar, and credits Lindsey Buckingham as one of his earliest musical influences; Randy Artiglere plays bass and he does a great John McVie while adding his own style to the mix.
The band has a heavy touring schedule during the summer, and weekend gigs throughout the year.
“We have a large van and a trailer,” Tom says. “That’s generally how we travel.” There is, however, a West Coast tour lined up for next year, and a spring date in Hawaii that might involve an airplane or two.
Sean points out that travel for Tom usually involves extra time, just because of where he’s starting from.
“When the band has to drive two hours, he has to drive five,” says Sean. But for these Deane Center shows, Tom’s the lucky one in terms of travel.
“It should be two fun shows, and it will be great to see some [Wellsboro] friends,” Tom says. “The Deane Center is awesome—I love it there.”