WHITE CITY — As he gently strokes his electric guitar, Leo Chambers steps up to the microphone.
"Next we're going to do an oldie but goodie — Hotel California," Chambers says of the Eagles' 1977 classic.
Behind him, the music of the I-5 North band begins to fill the theater in the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.
Lead guitarist Kelly Eisenberg revs up, followed by Melvin Torrence on bass guitar. Drummer Ken Edwards begins his rhythmic beat. Ray Bradley rocks along with his keyboard.
And trumpeter Carlos Hogan points the way while Rob Golden wails away with his saxophone.
"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair," Chambers sings softly as fellow vocalists Julie Sell and Marcus Williams follow suit.
By the time Chambers reaches, "This could be heaven or this could be hell," the audience clearly decided it wasn't the latter.
Judging from the crowd's enthusiastic cheers at the end of each number, the band with its offerings of blues, jazz and rock 'n roll played heavenly during a recent lunch break at the Dom. The audience included staff but were largely veterans being treated at the SORCC.
Formed by veterans, the band has proved an excellent recreational therapy tool, observes Russ Cooper, chief of recreational therapy service at the facility.
"We've got some talented people out here," Cooper says. "We do what we can with music as a treatment modality for people who have an interest in it. But this band was created by the veterans.
"Most of these folks aren't very social coming in here but, if they develop skills they learn here, they can work through conflict together," he adds. "The band is a great metaphor for working together, ultimately being able to harmonize together."
Practicing three times a week, the band consists of veterans still being treated at the facility and others who are outpatients or who return as volunteers.
Thus far, they haven't played beyond the theater at the domiciliary. But that may change. The band has been entered in a national VA contest which could lead to national exposure this fall.
"Our goal is not to create wonderful musicians, but to create people who can work well with others," Cooper says.
But he would agree the band is an example of accomplishing both.
Chambers, 45, and Edwards, 55, fondly called "Sarge," a reference to the fact he retired as a sergeant major from the Army after 26 years of service, founded the group about two years ago.
"We're from all over the country — we figured 'I-5 North' had a nice ring to it," explains Texas-native Chambers, an Army veteran who plays rhythm guitar in addition to singing.
"We put it together and these guys rallied around us," says Edwards, a Norfolk, Va., native who is now a volunteer at the facility after completing its programs.
"They kind of elected me as the overseer," he says. "I let the Lord guide me. But I also have faith in all these guys."
Bass player Torrence, 60, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, says the music eases his mind.
"I let all my aggression out here," he says. "I come here and get centered. Until I got here, I couldn't imagine ever doing anything like this, I was so far gone. The programs they have here helped me find out who I really am. I like myself today."
Torrence is also the creator of most of the original tunes the band plays, including one called "Haven't Got a Clue."
Now an outpatient living in Medford, Hogan, 50, an Army veteran who hails from Chicago, says the group is serious about its music.
"Not only does this help us, but we want it to be in place for veterans who come after us," he says. "A lot of us have things that are social or mental that prevents us from enjoying things we used to do. This gives us an opportunity to loosen up."
Like the others, keyboard player Bradley, 56, an Army veteran from Denver, finds solace in the music and the camaraderie.
"I've found some true friends here," he says.
Sell, 33, an Army veteran who resides at the SORCC, came to the band for therapy.
"I have a social anxiety — it's extremely difficult for me to be in front of a bunch of people, particularly in a situation like this," says the singer. "This puts me out in a real world situation."
Longtime musician Golden, 46, an Army veteran who served in the military police in Europe, completed treatment at the SORCC last year and now works in Medford.
"It's the high point of my week to come out here and play," says the Florida native.
"This band is family to me," says Williams, 42, a veteran of both the Army and Navy.
Former Marine Eisenberg, 50, returned to music at the SORCC after a long absence.
"Life takes a toll on you so you get away from music because you have to survive," he says. "When I came here because of my problems and after they me straightened out, I started doing this for therapy.
"It's very, very therapeutic," he adds. "You can release your emotions and get together with a great group of people. There is nothing else like it for me."
Percussionist William Taylor, 48, an Army veteran, echoes similar sentiments.
"When I came here, I was a very angry person," he says. "Now that I've got to know the people in the band — the sergeant major and Patt and everybody — it's been fun. It releases my emotions.
"Sometimes when I get tied up in myself, I can take out my frustrations in practice and be good for the next day," he adds.
Ashland resident Patt Herdklotz, 61, a chaplain at the facility who plays the djembe drum, is the only non-veteran.
"I've been so impressed how these guys — and gal — work so hard with each other and invite anyone in to use the gift of music," she says. "It's a great thing to watch and be part of."
During their recent gig at the SORCC's theater, the band's newly-acquired baritone Larry Parker, 54, a Navy veteran from Houston, belts out a rendition of "Red Rooster" that would have done legendary bluesman Howlin' Wolf proud.
"I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day," Parker growls as he nails the old blues song.
The crowd begins to sway and clap their hands overhead.
"I love to sing — I love music," Parker says afterwards. "Music relaxes me. I can leave all my troubles and stress behind."
Veteran vocalist Dale Relph, 61, an Air Force veteran whose guttural singing style is reminiscent of rocker Joe Cocker, is in charge of the band's sound board.
"I've been knocking around this stuff since I was a kid," he says, adding, "And I would say we're sounding all right."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.