Backstage at venues where Brandon “Taz” Niederauer performs, visitors are likely to see him cracking his school books. The 14-year-old guitarist says that in his family, school comes first.
For Niederauer, backstage means places like Broadway, in New York, where he has been a star of the movie-inspired “School of Rock” musical. Backstage means places like iconic New Orleans nightspot Tipitina’s, where he first sat in at age 8 with funky bass guitar king George Porter Jr. Or the “Ellen” show, when he was 10. Or venues where he sat in with the Gregg Allman Band, or Buddy Guy, or Lady Gaga, or Doctor John, or Stevie Nicks. That’s the short list.
On Friday and Saturday, the teenage jam scene prince’s backstage will be at Roanoke’s 5 Points Music Sanctuary, where the straight-A student and his band will open for guitar innovator Stanley Jordan on Friday, then get the night to themselves Saturday. It will be Jordan’s second appearance at 5 Points. Read our piece with Jordan, previewing his May show there, at bit.ly/2BgW1dm.
Niederauer, in a phone interview Monday from his family’s home on Long Island, New York, spoke praise for the headliner.
“Stanley Jordan completely innovated the way that guitar is played,” Niederauer said. “He plays it like no one else. He plays with two hands. He can play a bass part and a guitar part at the same time, or a low part and a high part. I’ve sat down and had conversations with him, and he is the most intellectual musician I’ve ever talked to. He just makes the guitar sound like someone singing. That’s something only the best of the best can do, and I hope that I can do one day. He is amazing, and I cannot wait to open for him.
“Anybody who’s reading this article should come and see him on Friday.”
Niederauer, who was inspired at 8 to take up guitar after watching the “School of Rock” movie and then four years later joined the Broadway cast, has received his own share of lofty praise. In a video at youtu.be/Huj1JG4jUYE, Grammy-winning drummer Robert “Sput” Searight of Ghost Note and Snarky Puppy tells an audience, “We call him ‘the grown man.’ ” Pedal steel guitar master Roosevelt Collier has said the same.
Key mentors for Taz were Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks and jamband pioneer and performance artist Col. Bruce Hampton. In just the past year, Trucks, Hampton and Allman have died. Hampton collapsed on stage at an Atlanta show celebrating his 70th birthday, dying in a hospital later. Just before he collapsed, he gestured to Niederauer to play, then went to his knees and waved his arms toward the kid before going to the ground. Performers onstage at the time thought that it was just Hampton doing schtick. After all, his many onstage eccentricities included speaking in tongues, rolling around on the stage floor, playing solos with a chain saw and gargling peanut butter.
“It’s really hard for a 14-year-old to go through the loss of so many people that I know,” Niederauer said. “I was really close — really, really close — with Col. Bruce Hampton. I was really, really close with Butch Trucks. Gregg Allman, I knew him well, and he knew me.
“The thing about them is they were selfless, instead of selfish. They let me go on stage at such a young age, like 8 years old. It just goes to show that those musicians, they’re not self-centered or arrogant musicians. They just want to play, and they saw that I was an aspiring younger player. They didn’t care that I was 8 years old; they just wanted me to go up there and do my thing. They gave me tips on how to play better. They gave me the chance before anyone else did.”
He mentioned Porter Jr. and former Allman Brothers Band guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes as other players who were selfless, welcoming him onstage. Niederauer was part of Haynes’ 29th Annual Christmas Jam last weekend in Asheville, North Carolina.
After he picked up guitar, he began to put in hours and hours on the instrument, with his father, Gary Niederauer, by his side, watching his development. Taz said he didn’t even realize how much time was passing.
“I was having so much fun all the time that it enabled me to get better and better,” he said. “That’s what I love to do.”
His parents insisted he do well in classes, too. Niederauer, who attends public school in Long Island, said that his older brother, Dylan, is a tremendous bass player, just as enthusiastic and hard-working as Taz, but he is sending in college essays for next year, so he is not traveling with the band. Instead, Brandon Niederauer is backed by an all-adult act, including singer Elise Testone, who finished sixth on season 11 of TV show “American Idol.”
Testone sings most of the leads, but Niederauer’s vocal capabilities are growing, as well. He only started singing in public when he joined the “School of Rock” cast two years ago. He has embarked on a songwriting path and is working on original numbers to fit his voice. At this point, he sings lead on about 40 percent of the songs in his sets, and harmonies on almost all of the rest, he said.
Meanwhile, he has to keep his grades up. College is in his future, he said, with his parents helping him keep his studies together. His favorite subjects are math and science. When he was a child, he wanted to be a scientist, maybe even an astronaut. Nowadays, a business degree sounds good, to help him control financial aspects of his career, he said.
“Music has just taken over my life, and I don’t think it’ll stop,” he said. “We’ll see what the future has for me. I’m not afraid of it. I’m ready to take on whatever challenges I need to.”