The Roberts: a whole ‘sum greater than its parts’

Band featuring CWU faculty still going strong decades deep


The Roberts entertaining the fans at the 2018 Cle Elum Blues, Brews & BBQ Festival in the beautiful Cascade mountains at the old historic mining town of Cle Elum. Photo by Rob Vitti

Katherine Camarata, Lead Editor

From Santa Fe to Roslyn, from one band to the next, four men sharing one name have come together over four decades to fill ears with sonic delight and get people moving to the rhythms of their sound. The band reaches across genres, ranging from rock, country, funk, blues to reggae.

The Roberts performed at The Brick Saloon in Roslyn on Feb. 18. Photo by Katherine Camarata

Jovial audience members enjoyed beverages and bar grub at The Brick in Roslyn on Feb. 19, the oldest saloon in Washington, as they eagerly waited for The Roberts’ set to start. Two tables in the middle of the dance floor parted to make way for red and blue beams of light pouring over the stage as the band’s hands met their instruments and took the crowd on a journey.

The Roberts band primarily features associate professor of ITAM Dr. Robert Trumpy on vocals and bass, ITAM professor Dr. Robert Lupton on drums, Rob Witte on guitar and vocals and Bob Van Lone on lead guitar and vocals. Even when one of the Bobs isn’t available, the continuity remains: they have a fifth Robert, Robert Frazier, who occasionally fills in. 

Playing professionally doesn’t feel like just any job when the group cares so much about each other, according to Witte.

“The Roberts are pretty tight in terms of friendship,” Witte said. “We’ve known each other for 40 years, and we came together because we’re musicians, and we’ve been through hell and back. We’ve always played together, even if we’ve lived in different places, so it’s cool now that we’re living in the same town.”

Witte continued: “The better you know the people you’re playing with, the more you can anticipate what’s going to happen and make it emerge as a sum greater than its parts.”

Trumpy aligned with this same sentiment, although in an entirely separate interview, and said, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s just a whole lot of fun. We laugh a lot.” 

Though they’ve played in other states and countries, The Roberts said upper Kittitas County is one of their favorite locations for gigs; they said the Feb. 19 show was one for the ages.

“When we get into a groove like that, where we can all hear each other, we all feed off of each other a lot better,” Van Lone said. “The whole last set was a highlight for me.”

Witte concurred, saying: “My favorite is The Brick. They have a professional engineer, the pay is nice and the crowd. Every time we’ve played there, they’ve just been fantastic, and it creates a feedback loop when you have a good audience. They’re dancing, they’re into the music, it pumps us up.”

The Roberts played an original track called “Rose-Colored Dawn,” which was written by Witte about the love of his life in winter of 1992.

“It was love at first sight,” Witte said. “I became a complete idiot. I wanted to spend Christmas with her and she went back to Wisconsin … We weren’t going to spend Christmas together, so I thought, ‘you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to write a song and record it and get it to her.’”

The love may have been infectious, as the audience cheered after each song and various women would pull others out of their seats and onto the dance floor. The feelings alive in the concert air served as more than just a roaring time.

Trumpy and Lupton explained how nonverbal communication plays an integral role when performing.

“On stage, playing in front of a live crowd, a part of you instinctively knows what everybody else is doing,” Lupton said. “You feel that energy and that creative side, and I get goosebumps just talking about it. You have the set list, you have everything you need to follow and then you take off. Those are those nights where you come home and you can’t sleep because you had so much creative fun.”

How it all began: the origins

While the love of their craft unites The Roberts, they come from diverse backgrounds spanning multiple occupations.

View from behind Robert Lupton’s drumset. Photo courtesy of Robert Lupton

Lupton said he has been playing drums professionally for over 50 years and had played 2,000 shows by the time he was 18. His life has taken him from Fort Collins, Colorado where the music scene raged, to Slovakia and Central Europe, and eventually to Ellensburg 24 years ago. Lupton was the first drummer with Todd Park Mohr in the Atlantics, pre-Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and performed for seven years with the Dave Rawlinson Band. He also currently plays drums for psych-pop alternative rock band Norrish Reaction.

Trumpy said his background lies in health and counseling as well as administration and leadership. He’s originally from Wisconsin where he graduated from the University of Madison and played blues and funk with The Siegal-Schwall Band. He said highlights of his music career included opening for the Isley Brothers in the ‘80s, playing a reunion concert for 8,000 people for The Siegal-Schwall Blues Band and a six-night stint at the Little Bear Lounge in Colorado.

Witte said The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show were the impetus for his musical musings.  Witte was born in South Carolina, his earliest memories are in Seattle and he moved around a lot throughout his life. He said he was mostly self taught after taking some music lessons in his youth. Witte also used to teach music theory in an after school program called the Cascade Academy of the Performing Arts.

“The genre we play is natural for us because I grew up in the ‘70s, and it’s lasted longer than I ever thought it would,” Witte said. “The stars that we were fans of, Crosby Stills and Nash, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles … all these guys are still renowned and doing their thing into their 70s and 80s. Who’d have thought?”

Van Lone said he started playing guitar and playing in bands when he was in his twenties and never stopped. ​​He said he met Witte in Paradise and played with him for a while before The Roberts formed.

Trumpy, Witte and Lupton were first in a band called Rusted Souls prior to The Roberts. The Roberts members are currently active in other bands with each other outside of this project, including a funk/R&B project called The Free Radicals, which features Van Lone, Lupton, Trumpy, a keyboardist and two horn players on saxophone and trumpet. Witte is also part of an americana called Feather River and two jam-bands called Mas Dudes and Dos Dudes. These bands play locally at venues like Markos, The Eagles or The Brick in Roslyn.

“I’ve played with a lot of people through the years, and it’s a brotherhood and it’s a sisterhood, and that compatibility, that teamwork is as important as the musicianship,” Trumpy said.

Lupton said his ancestors are one major driving force behind his art.

L to R: Dr. Robert Lupton, Robert Van Lone, Dr. Robert Trumpy, Robert Witte. Photo courtesy of Robert Lupton

“My mother was a trombone player for years and it was her birthday yesterday, and she sent me pictures of our relatives that came over from Europe in the late 1800s, and she was pointing out that many of these relatives were a prodigy on the piano,” Lupton said. “They didn’t have any formal lessons and they all had careers in the music industry, writing and performing piano, playing all over the U.S. and the world. Music and creativity, it chooses you.”

Lupton emphasized that it’s not always a career move, that the satisfaction of creating itself is reward enough.

“Whether it’s playing piano at London Bridge studio, or just playing drums for four hours, it’s a runner’s high, it’s a drummer’s high,” Lupton said.

Trumpy and Lupton mentioned the similarities between managing a classroom and managing a band, and how they relate to their students by sharing art with them before class.

“When you’re on stage rocking out, you’ve got to be aware of everything around you … teaching is very similar for me,” Trumpy said. “I use a lot of humor and telling stories … and it’s the same thing between songs.”

Lupton reflected on his decision to take a long break from college to tour as a drummer for two years and how this impacted the grand scheme of his life. 

“I always want students to finish their degrees and be successful, but sometimes you have to test the waters,” Lupton said. “Get the ducks in line and find your path, it changes all the time. Education is so important … but that doesn’t mean you have to finish your first year.”

Trumpy expressed similar thoughts, saying he took a break from college to tour with a band and was living a lifestyle he felt would eventually take its toll on his health, so he returned to college to forge a new path.

“Taking some time off from undergraduate is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when people don’t know what they want to do,” Trumpy said. “I didn’t get my doctorate degree until I was 51 from Seattle University. A lot of us are trained that we live in a sequence, and not everybody has to have that same pattern, and it’s okay, sometimes it takes a while.”

The Roberts said venues for musicians are becoming few and far between with pay dwindling in some cases, and they hope to see a resurgence of live music venues.

“I hope that live music continues to happen,” Van Lone said. “I think there’s a lot of healing and a lot of joy that happens in music. I’m a big believer in live music, whether I play it or whether I go see it and experience it. I hope it never goes away.”

Van Lone stressed the importance of discovering your own passions and chasing after them as The Roberts continue to do.

“Follow your heart, don’t sell yourself short,” Van Lone said. “Don’t sell out, but follow your dream. If your dream is to be a rock and roll guitar player or rock and roll pianist, whatever, do it. But if you lean more towards jazz or country or whatever it is, you need to follow your heart because that’s where your passion is. That’s what you’re going to excel at.”