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Really, the Dan Band’s a Man Band

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is not your ordinary story about girl power, because our leading lady, well, he’s a man--a country boy who was raised in a rural town in upstate New York among tough football players, farmers and roughnecks and who happens to sing “I Am Woman” for a living.

Actually, Dan Finnerty, 32, has been singing girl songs for most of his life; the only difference is that now the self-deprecating leader of the Dan Band--Los Angeles’ hottest nightclub act--is getting paid for it and receiving national attention for his hilarious renditions of girlie greats, such as Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and “There’s a New Girl in Town,” otherwise known as the theme to the late ‘70s sitcom “Alice.”

“In my high school, if you weren’t a farmer or a football player, you got your [butt] kicked,” says Finnerty, sipping iced tea in his “work uniform,” a blue car mechanic’s shirt and a backward baseball cap. “So I was the guy who always got his kicked. My sister is four years older than me, and we only had one record player. So while my friends who had brothers were listening to Led Zeppelin, I was singing ‘Mickey’ and ‘Gloria’ with my sister and her friends.

“Now I’m all grown up and singing girl songs for a living. Up in New York, they’re probably waiting with pitchforks to kick my [butt] again.”

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For four years, the Dan Band--made up of Finnerty; two nerdy, deadpan backup singers; and a tight rock band--has sold out many of Los Angeles’ hippest spots: the Viper Room, the Knitting Factory and Largo. Last year the band sold out Fez, a New York hot spot, for a four-month run, and this summer the group moved to the Highlands, a large and swanky venue at the Hollywood and Highlands complex, after being recruited from club 1650.

And now the group, which evolved from a drunken karaoke moment, may be on its way to developing a TV sitcom based on its act.

Finnerty is, of course, the center attraction and the only one who addresses the audience--a protocol he insists on offstage as well. But Darryl Armbruster and Gene Reed, the backup boys in geeky suits and eyeglasses, add plenty of spice to the show with their hip-hop and Broadway dance moves and facial expressions, especially when rapping to Salt-N-Pepa’s sexy “Shoop.”

The group of “regular guys” doesn’t just sing and play music. They bump and grind in synchronicity, like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson with their entourages of dancers. Finnerty also glides around and splashes water on his head a la Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance” and stages a perfect “Ice Castles” triple axel and fall--while never losing his manliness.

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“I’ve pretty much exhausted every bad ‘80s move that I have, so we’ve now started working with the choreographer for [the videos of] ‘No Scrubs’ and ‘Genie in a Bottle,’ ” Finnerty says. “She comes up with all this hard stuff, and we basically break it down to what three fat white guys can do.”

In between songs--and sometimes during the songs--Finnerty curses like a sailor and teases the crowd, using his impeccable comedic timing to ad-lib throughout the night. By the time he reaches his favorite medley, a combination of Erykah Badu’s humorous “Tyrone” and Mary J. Blige’s inspirational “No More Drama,” the crowd is holding candles, swaying and laughing.

“They are so different from anything that is normal,” says Cheryl Gundred, 55, who was handpicked from the audience by Finnerty one night to join him onstage, where she played up her inner diva and received Finnerty’s official sweat rag. (Other keepers of his stage towel include Meg Ryan.) “It’s so funny to see a bunch of guys who are not drag queens singing these chick songs. It’s so refreshing and just what this town needs. Dan is so sexy.”

The band’s celebrity following, including Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Ellen DeGeneres, Mark McGrath, Pam Anderson and Ben Stiller, have followed them from club to club partly because Jillian Barberie, of Fox’s “Good Day Live,” is a huge fan and mentions them often on her show. But Finnerty’s favorite celebrity visits are from the original singers of his songs--like the time Alanis Morissette ran onstage to startle him during his rendition of “You Oughta Know” and when Helen Reddy praised him for his take on her girl-power anthem.

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There was also the time Gloria Steinem walked in while Finnerty was singing “Gloria.” (“You can’t pray for that!” he said.) Recently the Dan Band was invited to be front-row guests of “American Idol” during one of the show’s last episodes.

“I love them so much that whenever someone visits from out of town, I take them to see them,” Barberie said. “It’s such a different night out. It’s a better side of Hollywood to show out-of-towners because they get to see celebrities and see a show that’s original. You just don’t know what to expect from them or who you’re going to see in the audience.”

All five shows so far at the Highlands, where the band performs every other Friday, have been sold out.

“This has really worked for us,” said club owner and actor Nick Colachis, 43, who likes to sing along to Charlene’s “Never Been to Me” and the Abba medley that brings the house down. “These guys are very talented. Dan can really sing, and his band is very polished. These are not guys fooling around like they’re in college. I think we’re going to lose them. Somebody is going to discover them.”

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Somebody already has. Warner Bros. studios signed a development deal with Finnerty and “Charlie’s Angels” director McG last month to create a 30-minute sitcom based on the band for the current pilot season, according to Finnerty’s agent, John Ferriter, senior vice president of the William Morris Agency. A Warner Bros. studios spokeswoman confirmed the deal.

All this from a night of karaoke, says Finnerty, who is in a perpetual state of disbelief over the trajectory of his career.

“I don’t want to be a star,” he said. “That would just be annoying. I don’t want people watching me eat. I just want to keep singing girl songs and spread my message of girl power to the world.”

Who is this girlie-guy, anyway?

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In Hollywood circles, he is best known as the husband of actress Kathy Najimy, to whom he has been married for 6 1/2 years. But Finnerty is also an actor who has made guest appearances on several television shows (“Ellen,” “Veronica’s Closet”) and who had small roles in such movies as “The Wedding Planner” and the upcoming “Lost Souls” and “Old School,” in which he plays a wedding singer. The Dan Band is featured on “The Wedding Planner” soundtrack and will be included in the soundtrack for “Old School.”

Four days after graduating from Emerson College in Boston in 1992, he was cast in the “Hair” revival tour in Europe, which he did for a year, and later was hired for “Stomp.” While in Toronto for “Stomp,” Finnerty took the microphone at a karaoke bar, choosing “I Am Woman” as his tune. He rocked the house and never thought of it again until he was in Los Angeles, where he has lived for five years.

“My friend was in a band, and she needed someone to open for her and do three or four songs,” Finnerty said. “I couldn’t think of what to sing. So I thought, ‘I like that “I Am Woman” song; I’m going to sing that.’ I don’t know. It just spoke to me.”

After the show, a talent booker for the Opium Den approached Finnerty about expanding his four-song womanly repertoire to create an eight-song show. Finnerty was stunned: “I was like, ‘Dude, I was just kidding.’ ”

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And he’s been laughing all over Los Angeles ever since.

“You know, it’s like the whole ‘Stomp’ thing for me,” Finnerty said. “I was so impressed with that show until they cast me. Then I lost respect for them. You know what my real dream is? Performing live at a women’s prison. But I’m just going to keep singing my girl songs and see what this turns into. Why quit now?”


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