By Jim Price
Let the fun begin! We again enter the time of year when the outdoor live music season starts to shift into higher gear. A number of outdoor festivals, summer concert series and other events have already been announced for this warm weather season, and it looks like we’re in for a fun stretch!
For me, the outdoor music season started early last month when I roadtripped to Meyersdale to catch the final day of the two-weekend Pennsylvania Maple Festival. Because this festival happens in conjunction with maple tapping during late March and early April, weather is often a question mark each year; sunshine and temperatures in the 60’s graced this particular day, making for a fun afternoon as I witnessed Johnny Cash tribute group Cash Through the Years on the Festival Park stage. I enjoyed this group’s presentation, as Cash Through the Years mixed numbers from various stages of Johnny Cash’s career, plus provided some historical perspective along the way about instruments and musicians who appeared on and recorded each song. The group’s “Man in Black,” Bill Venet Sr., nicely captured Johnny Cash’s vocal tone and guided the audience through the musical tour of Cash favorites. Bill Venet Jr. and Todd Schafer played guitars, with Todd capturing the Bob Wooten era of Johnny Cash recordings, and Bill Jr. spotlighting the Luther Perkins years. Singers Cathy Jaggers and Shawn McConville provided the Carter Sisters voices alongside Bill Sr., Walt Fieser played piano, Dan Stonerook played bass, and new drummer George Feathers made his debut with the group this day. During their latter set, Cash Through the Years performed Cash favorites such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “San Quentin,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Ring of Fire,” “Cry Cry Cry,” “I Walk the Line,” “Tennessee Flat Top Box” (with Bill Jr. demonstrating Tennessee flat box technique on his acoustic guitar), “You Are My Sunshine,” “Ring of Fire” and more. The group did a Johnny Cash train song medley plus another medley of favorites later on, and Bill and the women teamed on several duets, including “I Never Will Marry,” “Jackson” and more. Cash Through the Years provides a relaxing, entertaining and educational journey, and is well worth checking out.
Meanwhile, lots of indoor live music activity continues to take place, and more great shows have been happening at State College’s State Theatre. Unlike many longtime rock fans, I never got to see the Grateful Dead in concert, nor have I seen any of the various offshoot projects that have carried on the Dead’s legacy since the passing of Jerry Garcia. That finally changed in late March when I saw Melvin Seals & the JGB at the State Theatre. Melvin became popular as the keyboardist with the original Jerry Garcia Band, and contributed to the evolution of jam band music. A constant highlight of this performance was Melvin’s Hammond B-3 organ groan and rollicking, soul and gospel-informed keyboard solo work; he knew how to bring the magic out of that keyboard! Melvin, singer/guitarist Zach Nugent, backing singers Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks, bassist Jean-Paul McLean and drummer Peter Lavezzoli blended elements of funk, blues, rock, jazz and Americana into an uplifting, feel-good musical mix that instantly triggered dancing and grooving throughout the State Theatre. This was largely happy, major-key music, and I don’t recall hearing any minor-key sounds during the entire two sets! Melvin & the JGB featured many songs from the Jerry Garcia Band catalog, including “Cats Down Under the Stars,” “When the Hunter Gets Captured By the Game,” “Money Honey,” “Gomorrah,” “Tough Mama” and “My Brothers and Sisters.” The group also did versions of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and more. The performances sounded clean, tight and tasteful, and the song arrangements and jams were efficient; each solo that Melvin and Zach executed had purpose and served the song.
The State Theatre also presented Bethlehem-based Talking Heads tribute Start Making Sense in late March. This group struck up the party as they performed hits and other songs from the Talking Heads catalog, quickly triggering a crowd of dancers in front of the stage plus people dancing in aisles and at their seats. Singer/guitarist Jon Braun did a great job in the David Byrne role, capturing Byrne’s gestures and mannerisms. The group also featured Jon Fadem on guitar, Mike Davidson on bass, Brad Murray on keys and theramin, Jesse Braun on drums, Steve Brunette on percussion and Kathleen Weber on backing vocals. Start Making Sense performed all of the essential Talking Heads favorites; opening with “Psycho Killer,” and also doing “And She Was,” “Life During Wartime” (where Jon ran laps around the stage while singing), “Wild Wild Life,” “Once In a Lifetime” (complete with Jon’s gestures and head-slapping), “Burning Down the House” and “Take Me to the River.” They also broke out deeper Talking Heads cuts such as “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” “The Great Curve,” “Road to Nowhere,” “What a Day That Was,” “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “Girlfriend Is Better” and more. Start Making Sense delivered it all with a constant, robust energy that kept the State Theatre crowd moving and grooving for the show’s duration. Among the State Theatre’s upcoming shows are guitarist Eric Johnson on May 30, Los Lobos on June 14, and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic on June 23.
The Arena in State College, 105.9 Qwik-Rock and Miller Lite presented preliminary rounds of a Battle Of the Bands competition on six Friday nights at The Arena starting in March, with a variety of band contestants performing and competing each week. Weekly winners – determined by both judge and audience voting – moved on to the Battle finals on April 28, with cash prizes for the top three winners, and the first place finisher also winning a paid gig at The Arena. I caught three of the preliminary rounds. The March 24 Battle presented a strong bill with four impressive bands: psychedelic/progressive rockers Medusa’s Disco from Lancaster, Scranton hard rockers Watching Savannah Burn, Harrisburg rock foursome Nothingmen and Harrisburg metal force Gun Metal Gray. When the judging sheets and audience votes were tallied, Gun Metal Gray won the night by a slim two-point margin over Medusa’s Disco to advance. The April 7 Battle took on more of an acoustic flavor, with Altoona’s Born and the Beanstalk, State College Beatlesque duo TV Dinners, Scranton duo Asialena and Lewistown country foursome Hawestone stating their cases. The votes this night sent Asialena to the finals. And the final preliminary round on April 21 featured State College indie rockers The Band Junkies, Altoona punk trio Tadwilder (who dealt with the unexpected arrival of a rowdy bachelorette party armed with an inflatable part of the male anatomy), Wiconisco rockers Broken Fayth and Lewistown alternative rockers Calmly Poisoned. The audience and judging tallies sent Calmly Poisoned from this round to the finals. Also announced on this last preliminary night was that The Arena staff – in the tradition of NBC’s “The Voice” – “saved” one band that didn’t win in the preliminary rounds to also advance to the finals: Medusa’s Disco. So the field for the April 28 finals included first Battle winners Threatpoint, Gun Metal Gray, Medusa’s Disco, third Battle winners Suspended By Chains, Asialena, fifth Battle winners The Bigs and Calmly Poisoned. Results will be reported next month.
Also at The Arena, I caught my first look at Chrissy & the Heart Attacks in late March. The latest project featuring Al and Chrissy Miller, Chrissy & the Heart Attacks sounded fine as they fired up the dance party, mixing up classic rock and dance floor hits. Chrissy still has one of the finest singing voices in the land, demonstrated especially on Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Heartbreaker,” and Heart’s “Barracuda.” She, Al on lead guitar, Jac Gassler on bass and vocals, Jon Lodge on keys and vocals, and drummer Brad Lundsford kept the dance floor hopping with favorites from Adele, Labelle, Shania Twain, Joan Jett, Bon Jovi, Journey, Black Crowes and more. The group slowed it down for the slow-dancing fans with a tasty version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” fired up the funk machine with the blending of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” into Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” and triggered some disco dancing action with the pairing of A Taste Of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” into Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” to start their final set. Watch for Chrissy & the Heart Attacks as they return to The Arena soon, and they will also perform at the Summer Kickoff Festival fundraiser for the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library at Hollidaysburg’s Legion Park on June 22.
Former Ramones bassist C.J. Ramone (who replaced Dee Dee Ramone and was with the group from 1989 to 1996) returned to McGarvey’s last month, headlining a four-band punk-rocking bill. Railroad City Murder Machines, X’s For Eyes and The Flannels all performed before my arrival. Singing and playing bass, C.J. Ramone and his band – guitarists Nate Sander and Josh Blackway, plus drummer Chris Eller – mixed C.J.’s original tunes with a number of Ramones favorites. The Fat Wreck Chords recording artist introduced songs off his new American Beauty CD albums such as “Girlfriend in a Graveyard,” “Run Around,” “Moral to the Story” and “Steady as She Goes.” C.J. also did the song “Three Angels,” which he wrote in honor of fallen Ramones brethren Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee. And he and band tapped the Ramones catalog frequently, doing such numbers as “Rockaway Beach,” “Commando,” the group’s renditions of Phil Spector’s “Baby I Love You” and The Rivieras’ “California Sun,” “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” (which Motorhead wrote as a tribute to the Ramones, and that C.J. sang lead on when the Ramones recorded it for the 1995 album Adios Amigos). C.J. and his band played at a continuous, high-velocity clip and kept the large McGarvey’s crowd happy.
Doctor Smoke returned to the area in late March to headline a heavy-hitting triple-bill at McGarvey’s. Hand Of Doom set the tone with their opening set of early Black Sabbath classics. Black Sun then thundered the rafters and scorched the oxides off McGarvey’s walls with their leviathan brand of original heavy rock, blasting out seismic, expansive jams. Drummer Nate Woods and bassist Dave Mollica’s menacing rhythms set the cavernous backdrops for frontman Todd McKeone and guitar ace Jason Feathers to push the limits of their intensity. Based near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, Doctor Smoke then hammered the night home with their powerful set of Sabbath-rooted original heavy rock. Singer/guitarist Matt Tluchowski, lead guitarist Steve Lehocky, bassist Kathryn Flesher and drummer Cody Cooke provided tight and forceful execution as they performed a number of tunes off their The Witching Hour CD. Some of their numbers this night included the disc-opener “The Willow,” “Blood and Whiskey,” “Faces in the Fog,” “The Seeker” and more. Their blend of velocity, thunder and melody kept the crowd riveted from start to end. It was great to see a big crowd in the house for this night of original rock and metal music; watch for Doctor Smoke’s return to McGarvey’s later in the year.
Northern Virginia’s Plank Stompers made their first visit to the Altoona area last month, performing at McGarvey’s. Beginning as a traditional Appalachian string group, Plank Stompers are one of those groups that ultimately stepped outside the box and tossed out the rule book. Their musical style maintains a central Americana thread, but weaves in elements of funk, jam, ska, rock, reggae, jazz and more. All four band members can play their instruments and sing, and it’s not too often you hear a lead mandolin solo on a rock or funk-styled song – but Erik Burnham knows how to make that mandolin sing. He, bassist Ben Walters, lead guitarist Will Spaulding and – moving from his usual key/trumpet position to behind the drum kit this night – Rudy Bzdyk mixed it up between original tunes and select covers, which included their fresh take on “Sitting on Top of the World,” John Hartford’s “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry,” plus tunes from Space Canoe, Hank Williams Jr. and more. Plank Stompers provide a breath of fresh musical air; watch for them when they return to the area.
I saw several new bands in recent weeks, including Buster Krow for the first time last month at D’Ottavio’s Gran Sasso in Hollidaysburg. Five members strong, Buster Krow fired up an interesting variety of cover material, from dance party favorites to classic rock, pop, country and rap hits. Their set list stretched from Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” to Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” from J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” to Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” from Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and many more. Lead singer John Bauman and guitarist Pat Irwin share the brunt of lead singing duties, J.R. West plays bass and Brian Gearhart the drums. Buster Krow got several folks up and dancing, and good vibes abounded throughout the night. Buster Krow delivers a strong musical party; watch for their return at D’Ottavio’s Gran Sasso.
Another new band I discovered last month was Out Cold, as they partied down with their hometown crowd at JD’s Wild Cherry Inn in Portage. These guys and gal – singer Whitney Myers, guitarists Sean Cronauer and Tyler Troxel, bassist Jesse Kreutzberger and drummer Zack Cronauer – mixed up modern and classic rock/pop/country favorites. I arrived late during their second set, and they had a good party going, with lots of folks populating the dance floor and having fun in front of the stage. Whitney showed a strong voice with good power and range, and the rest of the band was solid and enthusiastic. They did numbers from Gin Blossoms, Guns N’Roses, AC/DC, Luke Bryan, Tom Petty, Three Doors Down, Fallout Boy, Eddie Money, Sublime, Journey and more. When the crowd demanded one more at the end of the night, Out Cold responded with Elle King’s “Exes and Oh’s” to finish off the party.
Matt Pletcher continues to populate area stages as both a solo performer and with his band trio. I caught up with Matt in late March during one of his solo performances at Joe’s 58th Street Grill in Altoona. Matt blended original tunes with new and older rock and country favorites. I enjoyed Matt’s driving style of strumming as he fired off tunes from Tom Petty, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats, Fuel, Bob Seger, Oasis, Dion, Incubus, Weezer, Kid Rock, Chumbawamba, Matchbox 20, Felice Bros., Green Day and more. Matt also did select original numbers from his Sure Thing CD, along with new material he is composing and recording toward a new CD. Matt’s hearty voice and energetic style fired up some dancers and even demands for an encore by the end of the night. Matt is a frequent flyer performer at Joe’s 58th Street Tavern; catch his solo performance there, and watch for his trio performances around the region as well.
I have seen Felix & the Hurricanes many, many times in my sojourns around the area music scene. And one of many things that endears this group to its large and continually expanding fan base of “Hurricaniacs” is that no two Hurricanes shows are the same, and that this group – singer/guitarist/lead Hurricane Felix Kos, singer/bassist Jeff Clapper and drummer/singer Bob Watters – is never afraid to throw a new wrinkle into the mix. Such was the case during one of their weekly Sunday shows at Altoona’s Black and Gold Tavern last month. With Felix decked out in denim work/farm-style suspenders, Hee Haw references started bringing laughter from both the band and the audience, and the group playfully referenced songs from the Hee Haw television show such as the “Where Are You Tonight” chorus with raspberry (“pthpththppp”) and “Gloom, Despair and Agony.” It was only logical that with Mama Corn guitar man and bluegrasser Bruce Forr in the house, he soon partook in the ‘Canes craziness during the final set as did Hurricanes drumming alumnus Kevin Siegel. The Hurricanes used this night to break out a bunch of new tunes, with the biggest surprise being a wild and crazy read of Focus’ 1973 classic “Hocus Pocus” (with all three Hurricanes yodeling, they couldn’t keep straight faces!). The group also introduced versions of Climax Blues Band’s “Couldn’t Get It Right,” Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Kicks,” Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love,” a fast-galloping rendition of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and more. This night served as further proof that just when you think you have these Hurricanes figured out, they throw a few crazy curve balls at you! Catch a Hurricanes Sunday at the Black & Gold Tavern, or see them when they kick off Hollidaysburg’s Downtown Live! free summer concert series on May 25.
One other performance I briefly observed recently was three members of State College-based alternative jam band Intermission Improv braving the early April outdoor cold to perform outside Barranquero Colombian Cafe as part of State College’s First Friday celebration last month.
News and notes…The 50th annual Blair County Arts Festival happens May 20-21 at Penn State Altoona; among this year’s performers are Born and the Beanstalk, Ride the Song, Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band, The Coteries, Project Blues Book, Dan Hulse, Jay Smar, Walkney, Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats, The Ed Heads, Mama Corn, Felix & the Hurricanes, a reunion of the U.S. Sound Theatre and more… The Chrome Hearts and Born & the Beanstalk will play the afternoon session, and Nobody’s Heroes and Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band will perform the evening session during the 8th annual Pints for Pets Brewfest on May 6 at Altoona’s People’s Natural Gas Field; proceeds benefit the Central PA Humane Society…Following the passing of former Boston drummer Sib Hashian in March, former Kansas singer Jon Elefante and former Journey singer Kevin Chalfant will now join “The Voice of Foreigner” Lou Gramm and former Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau during the Legends Of Rock concert at Altoona’s Blair County Convention Center on May 27; Hybrid Ice will be the backup band for all four performers…Simple Gifts presents their annual Folk College event May 26-28 at Juniata College in Huntingdon…Pittsburgh favorites The Clarks open the annual Alive @ Five Summer Concert Series at Altoona’s Railroaders Museum on June 2…The Spin Doctors, Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires, Marah, The Commonheart and National Reserve are among the entertainers at the inaugural Happy Valley Music Fest (formerly Summer’s Best Music Fest) in downtown State College on June 2-3…Chris Rattie is in the final stages of production on his second solo recording; the album, Porch, is slated for a September release.…Happy Birthdays to Ron Dalansky and Joe George (Half Tempted), John Charney (The Chi/Wine Of Nails), Beau Saller and Mary Villani (R2B2), Pat McGinnis, Nate Smouse (Emberstitch), Chris Silva (Rewind), Scott Bush, Jerry Carnicella and Harry Young (White Shadow), Chris Whitmer, Dave Skipper (The Insomniacs), Mitch Neuder (Shallow 9), Ray Buksa, Mike Gambardella (Chris Woodward & ShinDiggin’), Shane Speal, Jim Speese (Cloud Party), Andy Tolins and Stubby Stubbs (Triple A Blues Band/Natascha & the Spy Boys), K.C. Seidel, Frankie Lyxx (Sunset Strip), Mike Wise (Emily’s Toybox), Randy Rutherford (Flood City Brass), Jules Bianchini (The Amplified Heet), Erek Kapusta (Nightcrawlers), Rue Moyer, Jake Makin, Denny Pompa, Priscilla the Tambourine Lady, Ronnie Sheirer (F.B.I.), Ty Ayers (Doubtfire), Deb Demko, Paul Miller, Greg Larrimore, Paul Patterson, Bill Nusom, Jim Mosey and Steve Shutt.
Please send correspondence and recordings to: Jim Price, 1104 S. Catherine St., Altoona, PA 16602. You can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re into social networking, look me up on Facebook or Google+. SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC!