Taking homework on a rock tour
Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By Lara Skinner
Journal Tribune

STANDISH -- Family and friends are missing Jeff Neal this summer. Ever the stalwart history educator for Bonny Eagle High School, Neal is on the road accumulating knowledge about the nation's past by traveling to approximately 48 American cities. He is always on the lookout for interesting information to add to his curriculum, and will keep a journal of his vacation travels.

All of this is available to Jeff because he's touring as the drummer for the 70s rock band Boston.

At least once a day, Ann-Marie Neal, who is married to Jeff, will talk to him on the phone and the conversation stays the same, in one way.

"He always gets a call to me, ‘You're never going to guess who I met,'" Ann-Marie said.

Being a bit star-struck might not seem like a good way to gather history, but Jeff said he planned to do what he could in between sets and flights. How many historical tidbits he will get a chance to collect is hard to say. Boston started the tour on May 11, in Manchester N.H., and will stay on the road until at least August 24, with a final tour date in Canada.

"This is a great opportunity to kind of get some of these (historical items) to use in the classroom," he said.

Opportunity came to Jeff in the form of Boston's lead singer Tom Scholz. Jeff was playing a show at Sunday River with the local band Punchbug in 2002 and Scholz was in the audience. After the second set, Scholz approached Jeff about auditioning for Boston. Slightly stunned, Jeff asked for a few minutes, but by the time he got himself together Tom was getting ready to leave the club. Jeff thought he had missed his chance.

"Just the moment (of meeting Tom) was really, really cool," he said.

It seems like the kind of moment someone could spend his or her whole life working towards. Drums were Jeff's first instrumental love, even though his parents weren't too thrilled with the idea in the beginning. They suggested a wind instrument instead. By 11, Jeff convinced them it just wasn't going to work out that way.

"It was unavoidable," he said. "It had to happen."

A thing for the skins is something Jeff never let go of. He has worked as a teacher for the past seven years and managed to keep his playing strong and a style all his own. Holding on to that style, and staying true to the songs of Boston at the same time is one of the biggest challenges he faces when he takes the stage. Jeff remembers his sister listening to Boston on the radio while he rode his bike around the front yard, and fans of the band are going to listen for the same familiar sounds he grew up with.

On the afternoon in May before his first performance in Manchester, Jeff was hoping that getting up on the stage and just doing his thing would carry him through.

"I'd like to think I could just go up there Friday and nail it and get everything flawless," he said.

Ann-Marie has traveled to hear the band in Massachusetts, and for four performances in Illinois. Whether Jeff is keeping the beat or not she enjoys seeing him live out a dream.

Meeting the band and tagging along on the tour for awhile wasn't bad either, but she is counting down the days until Jeff comes back to Maine. To fill in the days she works extra hours at Maine Medical Center where she is a registered nurse, and visits with family and friends.

Jeff won't get back in time for the start of school, but will return to the classroom in November full of stories and, hopefully, some new knowledge of history to share with his students.

From the reaction of the kids when he announced the tour to his classes, there might be a few parents sneaking into the classroom to try and hear some tales of Boston glory as well.

"I went home and told my parents, they're freaking out," Jeff said he heard more than once before he left to live his rock 'n' roll fantasy for just a summer.

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