EUREKA, Calif. -- There are jobs, and then there are hobbies. Few people can successfully meld the two into one.
But Sgt. Robert Chiaravallotti -- leaning against a guitar amplifier taller than his waist, his fingers dancing rapidly across the strings and neck of a bass guitar hanging over his shoulder -- is clearly one of those few.
"It's more than a hobby, man," he says, a smile enveloping his face as he momentarily breaks concentration during a warm-up before a show April 27 for students at Eureka High School in Eureka, Calif., with fellow members of Heavy Left, a hard rock group that belongs to the 56th Army Band at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
"This is pretty much my life -- my livelihood -- right here."
From the waist down, the 41-year-old bears the resemblance of any common Soldier -- tan combat boots and digital camouflage pants bloused neatly above his ankles.
But above the waist he more closely represents his former self -- a kid who grew up on rock and roll, minus the hair, his head bobbing every now and again to a rhythm kept inside him.
"This is the music that we kind of cut our teeth on, so we naturally just revolve around it," he says.
Chiaravallotti keeps the bass line in his group, which makes heavy rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Ozzy Osbourne as much a part of the Army as tight haircuts and strict discipline through covers of popular songs from the '70s and '80s -- music that allows them to let their hair down, even if they can't let it down physically.
"It shows a different side of the Army that people don't see," says band mate and lead guitarist, Master Sgt. Dana Luxon, his hands resting on a jagged-shaped green and black guitar. "They see what's on the news and make their own perception of it, so it gives them something different."
Heavy Left played for the students during their lunch hour as part of a visit to Eureka April 26-29, during which they accompanied the 56th's swing and big band ensemble, Swingin' Sounds of Courage.
The two bands performed separately at the high school but joined to headline the town's 47th annual Rhododendron Parade, which serves as the highlight of an annual weekend-long festival.
Heavy Left members filled in as percussionists for the parade, but belting out screaming numbers by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in a high school courtyard was more their scene.
"Whether we're playing for one, or 1,000 or 10,000, the energy is the same for every show," said Heavy Left drummer, Staff Sgt. Mike Brenmark, who started off in the Army as a cook but soon reclassified to become a musician.
"They should light their guitars on fire," said one student sitting on a bench clapping his hands to the band's performance of Heart's hit "Barracuda."
The student added that it's "pretty amazing" the Army actually has rock groups like Heavy Left -- a group whose music speaks for itself and has a lot to say to a young generation.
"The kids love it; it's a whole different side of the Army that they normally don't see," said Luxon, a Pittsburgh native, who started playing guitar in the fifth grade and briefly toured the East Coast with professional bands before joining the Army in 1984. "You can see that they're connected to it. They respond."
"Music is a little more personal," said Chiaravallotti, a Philadelphia native. "One of these guys, one of these kids, one of these girls might pick up an axe one day, or drums, because of something they saw."
Chiaravallotti knows firsthand how intensely one can respond to a show put on by military musicians. A performance he witnessed by a Marine Corps band when he was 12 changed his life for good.
He visited Washington as a boy scout and saw the United States Marine Band, also known as "The President's Own," perform. That, he remembers, was the day he decided on his future.
"I remember watching that performance, and that actually made me want to join the military band," he said. "It practically changed my entire life and guided me.
"Who knows -- the same thing could happen to one of these kids."
Chiaravallotti joined the Marines as a bandsman, just as he'd planned. He played four years for the Corps before transitioning to the Navy for nine years and finally coming into the Army as a musician in 2008.
Luxon has been in the Army 28 years and played in 10 different bands, ranging from Dixieland music to jazz. But none compare to shredding on his guitar modeled after the one Darrell Abbott of speed metal band Pantera played.
"It's my favorite kind of music," he said. "I grew up playing it."
And the story is the same for the band's front man and rhythm guitarist, Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Wilson Jr., a diehard Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan fan who got his first guitar when he was 16.
"I think it keeps us young," said Wilson, an Otisville, Mich., native. "That's for sure. It's energy. It's just an hour-long show of power; that's what it is for us."
But no matter how powerful a show is, how hard the band shreds or how wild the group gets, Wilson and his fellow band members still hold their reputation as Soldiers to high regard.
"We represent the Army," Luxon said. "That's really important. It's not a free-for-all. We don't turn into a bunch of crazy MTV idiots."
"This is our way of telling the Army story, but we do it through music, and we do it through very cool music."