By Jim Price
Welcome to New Year 2018! And cutting to the chase quickly, I wish all of our readers and the state’s music community a safe, prosperous and Happy New Year!
The New Year is the time for resolutions. Last year, I marked 30 years of writing for PA Musician Magazine. I never expected I would still be doing this when I wrote that first article back in 1987. My tenure in covering the local and regional music scene has seen its ups and downs through the years, as music styles and trends, the music business, careers, people and interests change. I have encountered crossroads moments when I asked myself why I continue to do this, and weigh whether to keep doing this thing or hang it up and try to pass the torch. In such moments, something always reminds me why I continue to write for PA Musician, whether it be a kind comment from a reader or musician, witnessing a stunning musical performance, or seeing an exciting new band or performer that re-energizes my mission.
My original inspiration for writing that first PA Musician article (then branded the “Altoona” column) was twofold: I was managing the Altoona-based hair-metal band Tommi-Gunn at the time, and saw my article as a way to help get them exposure and possible gigs. But I was also discovering the other bands and faces of the Altoona area music scene at that time – names such as Sidewalk Romeo, The Front, Xeno, Rapid Fire, Slammer, The Edge, XL and numerous others – and I realized that few people beyond the Altoona area had any clue that these groups existed, and many people within the Altoona area weren’t aware of this talent, either! As I wrote that first article, I realized my mission – to share my enthusiasm for these performers and the excitement of the live music experience in general, and to encourage readers to get out and see these performers for themselves.
Thirty-plus years later, that fire still burns…When I witness an exciting performance or discover a new band or performer with something fresh and exciting to offer, I want to tell the world about it. I want to generate excitement for that performer, as well as the live music experience in general. And given the changes in recent years that have diminished audiences for live music in many situations, I realize a renewed importance to that mission I established in 1987. My resolution for 2018 is to continue to bring my passion for live music into these pages. And I hope that sharing my enthusiasm will inspire others to want to discover what the area music scene has to offer, bring new fans into the fold, and to help re-energize support for the live music scene so that musicians will continue to have places and situations to play.
I extend big thanks to the Altoona area music community for the great gift bestowed upon me early last month, a day-long celebration of my 30 years with PA Musician Magazine that took place at McGarvey’s. For me, it turned into a celebration of the vast amount of musical talent that populates this region and powers my monthly writs, as eight different bands – all with distinctive styles and angles of musical flavor – brought excellent performances to the McGarvey’s stage. This day even prompted a reunion performance of area hard rockers Lies, Inc. to kick off the afternoon. This reunion marked the first time that two guitar players graced the Lies, Inc. roster simultaneously, as both Jason “Dax” Berardi and Nate Nagle joined singer Lily Hoy, bassist Kent Tonkin and drummer Ron Brode. Lies blasted off the rust as they reprised numbers from their original song arsenal such as “Plaster Apparent,” “Invertigo,” “Hypnotic,” “Waking the Misery,” “Losing Ground,” and more – plus their rousing treatment of Rush’s “Temples of Syrinx.” The chameleonic Agent Smith followed with a powerful set that split between their ‘Agent In Chains’ Alice In Chains tribute and other hard-rocking classics. Watching this group turned into a reflective moment for me – singer Steve Oswalt was one of the first area musicians I ever saw and met, dating back to his days in the band I.O.U. in the mid ’80s! Likewise, drummer Shawn Gioiosa was also making music when I started this gig in 1987, playing drums in Giornesto and Chilling Vision. And I recalled my first time seeing guitarist/singer Phil “Philly Grooves” Wagner in the teenaged band Misconceived in the late 1990s! Agent Smith fired off Alice In Chains classics such as “We Die Young,” “Them Bones,” “Angry Chair,” “Sea of Sorrow” and “Would?” before firing off tunes from Queensryche, Stone Temple Pilots, and a storming edition of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight.” Next was my first look at the updated roster of Locked & Loaded. Now featuring singer Dawn Morrison, guitarists Bill Maguire and Mark Pettenati, bassist Bethany Helsel and drummer Toby Hunter; Locked & Loaded have forged a bold new direction, now mixing edgy female rock and alternative. Dawn has developed into a poised and confident frontlady, and she brought the fury on tunes from Hole, No Doubt, Cranberries, Volbeat, Pat Benatar, and even a fiery read of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb!” Also thanks to Locked & Loaded for doing one of my punk favorites, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop!” Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band brought more reflections, including my first encounter with namesake Chris as he fronted Neogumbo in the 1990s, and witnessing Brian Pavlic for the first time in the teenaged jam-rock group Sound Driven. Chris on vocals and guitar plus the Stanley Street Band – Brian on lead guitar, Bill Smith on bass, Nate Beatty on keys and Randy Servello on drums – laid down the grooves with their selection of new and older original tunes. They did tunes off their latest CD Trinkets and Time Travelers such as “Weird Angry Hard,” “Lonely Cells,” “Never Again” and “Armchair Preachers,” and also did earlier songs such as “Be,” “Pink Parking Ticket,” “Shine” and “Tupelo Tree.” Up next was Zach Wade & the Good Grief; I reflected on how, two years ago, I received a Facebook message from namesake Zach Wade, inviting me to come check out his new band as they played at an open mic stage in Altoona, and then the joy of discovery as I saw this exciting, fresh-sounding group for the first time and shared that enthusiasm in my PA Musician article. Now an established local force, Zach on vocals and acoustic guitar, Rogan Allen on lead guitar, Devin Pierce on bass and Keegan Allen on drums fired off a set of catchy original acoustic-rock songs. Thanks to Zach and the Good Grief, area musician Dustin Wagner and the other musicians for the gift of an electric ukulele to surprise me during the middle of the set, and to Zach and company for their torrid take on MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” to slam the lid on their set! The show then angled toward a heavier rock direction, with Small Town Horror Show taking the stage. I recalled how guitarist Chris Peters and bassist Eric Shumac helped introduce extreme metal brutality to area stages with Dragonfire in the 1990s; now with singer Todd McKeone, keyboardist Mike Hennaman and drummer Joe Richards, they pave a fresh new path with their unique style of ‘zombie groove metal,’ merging aggressive heavy metal rhythms with strong melodies and eerie touches of electronica. Small Town Horror Show mixed songs from their debut CD The Dead Didn’t Die with newer material from their forthcoming album, expected out later this year. Todd provided the voice for the next band as well, Black Sun, who torched the stage with their brand of heavy, intensifying, angular metal rock. Todd, guitarist Jason Feathers, bassist Dave Mollica and drummer Nate Woods generated expansive compositions that grew and evolved into climactic, apocalyptic sonic fury. And closing the night, Naildriver tore the roof off with their set of savage, driving metal. Frontman Matt Watson was clearly fired up, bringing total rage on Naildriver’s mix of new and older originals, including “Enemy Within,” “Executioner,” “The Ghost of Me,” “Hypocrite’s Anthem,” “Sinking Ship,” “Seal the Exits” and more. Guitarist Scott Botteicher threw heat on the fretboard with searing solo displays, and the rhythm battery of bassist Gregg McCloskey and drummer Luke McCloskey played it full force from start to end, providing the perfect sonic punch to the jaw to energize the house and slam the lid on the night. Thanks again to the organizers, all the musicians, Rich McGarvey, and all the friends and fans for making this special day happen!
The late year holiday season provided several musical highlights in recent weeks. Often one of the busiest nights of the year for live music, Thanksgiving Eve 2017 delivered musical fun as well. After my own weekly Wednesday night trivia-hosting duties at Altoona’s Buccinese Society, I stuck around to watch Flight 19’s acoustic show. The ‘Party Plane’ roster of singer Brian Thomas, keyboardist Phil Steele, guitarist Rogan Allen and drummer Paul Caracciolo II provided an upbeat party with tunes from the Black Keys, Tom Petty, Elton John, Sweet, Three Dog Night, Stone Temple Pilots, Collective Soul, Journey, Jim Croce, Alice In Chains and more. Brian, Phil and Rogan all shared lead singing duties, and guest Kathy Niedenthal joined Brian to help sing on the group’s take on John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good.”
I finished Thanksgiving Eve by catching the last two sets of Shallow 9’s dance party blowout at McGarvey’s. I arrived to a packed house and good times as singer Erika Marino, guitarists Ryan Weaver and Tucker Landis, bassist Mitch Neuder and drummer Todd Harshbarger brought the party full force and full production! The dance floor stayed busy throughout the night, as Shallow 9 kept folks moving and grooving with hits from DNCE, Lady Gaga, Soft Cell, Wheatus, Billy Idol, Fallout Boy, Justin Timberlake and more. Guests joined Shallow 9 during the last set, as Rogan Allen (showing up after the Flight 19 show at the Buccinese Society ended) joined in on guitar alongside Tucker on several numbers, guest drummer Shawn Gioiosa provided the beats on Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” and Mike Stanley joined Erika to sing and rap out a floor-packing dance medley that commenced with their floor-igniting take on House Of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and wound its way through seven other tunes before arriving at “Uptown Funk!” Shallow 9 executed as a well-tuned party machine, and they kept this celebration firing on overdrive clear until the last note!
Jim Donovan & the Sun King Warriors returned to Hollidaysburg’s U.S. Hotel for their annual Black Friday performance. Kicking off the night was the Nag Champions Mystery Band – this night the trio of singer/guitarist Derek Gresh, percussionist Ed Hofer and guest guitarist C. Leo Bloomfield. The group performed a set of their original tunes, with the emphasis on songs from their brand new second CD Earthworks. Their style was a mixture of folk, rock, blues and a touch of jam fusion as they did numbers such as “Brown River Blues,” “Leaving on the Light” and more. Jim Donovan & the Sun King Warriors soon followed with a strong, two-hour performance mixing tunes from their first album, their forthcoming second CD (expected out in April) and select covers. The group – namesake and former Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, guitarist Kevin McDonald, guitarist/harmonica player Dan Murphy, percussionists Harry Pepper and Bryan Fazio, bassist Kent Tonkin and drummer Joe Marini – quickly had dancers on the floor by the time they got to their third song “Oolalala.” Highlights were constant, including Harry’s spoken-word passage of wisdom during the group’s version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” a two-song Tom Petty tribute with renditions of “Wildflowers” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” slow dancing and grooving during the Rusted Root classic “Back to the Earth,” the raucous extended percussion jam featuring Jim, Joe, Harry and Bryan, and the funky night-ending spin on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Jim and the Sun King Warriors’ constant musical versatility and upbeat, hopeful vibes kept the audience happy from start to end. Besides preparing to release the new Sun King Warriors album in the New Year, Jim Donovan is also playing drums on his former Rusted Root bandmate Jenn Wertz’s forthcoming new album, also expected out later this year.
Christmas season began with the release of a brand new Johnstown-based Christmas compilation CD, A Johnstown Christmas (see review in last month’s issue). The official kickoff event for the CD took place on Thanksgiving weekend at Johnstown’s BottleWorks Ethnic Arts Center. CD organizer and brainchild Bo Moore hosted the event, which featured songs from the CD mixed with live performances from some of the album’s participants, along with background and perspective about each song. Live performances included Bo and the Moore Brothers performing the rock-and-roller “Christmas Time in Johnstown,” Mutual Fun Society doing “How to Build a Snowman,” the combo of singer/guitarist Johnny Bayush (who engineered several new songs on the album), singer Rachel Allen, keyboardist Brandon King and singer Jessica King lighting up the house with their rousing “Jesus, the Light of the World,” Denise Baldwin singing and strumming guitar on “His Holy Light,” Sam Coco performing “Windows in the City,” and Bo and Rachel Allen singing “Winter Lullaby.” The event also featured a video message early on from former NBC-TV The Voice finalist Josh Gallagher before the playing of his contribution to the album, “Silent Night.” The event closed with Denise Baldwin and one of her voice students, Hailee Halaburda, singing “Silent Night,” before Bo and Denise led audience sing-along versions of “Let It Snow” and “Jingle Bells.” Proceeds from sales of A Johnstown Christmas helped out the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat newspaper’s Santa Fund, which helped area needy children and families during the Christmas season.
Following the CD release event, I headed a few doors down the block to take in the monthly Blues Gathering at Johnstown’s Venue Of Merging Arts (VOMA). This was a fun performance, as Chandler Mical on bass, Adam Mundok on vocals and percussion, Rob Bonsell on drums, TK Mundok on vocals and harmonica, Adam Milkovich on acoustic guitar and John Bagnato on resonator guitar mixed up a wide variety of traditional and electric blues. This gathering of blues practitioners did numbers from B.B. King, Son House, Willie Dixon, Professor Longhair, Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimi Hendrix and more. Musical highlights were numerous, including the version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” venturing into snippets of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” and U2’s “Desire,” the stormy rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” and the instrumental skills demonstrated by all six of these musicians throughout the course of the show.
After the VOMA Blues Gathering concluded, I decided to make it a Johnstown area tripleheader this night by heading to the Windber Hotel in Windber to catch my first look at the group Saturn Plan. Formed last summer, this project features Wine Of Nails collaborators John Charney on lead vocals and guitar, and Dominick Peruso on drums; Brad Barron plays bass, and the group was joined this night by guest keyboardist Mike Meketa. Saturn Plan performed an eclectic mix of tunes, blending select hits with some back-of-the-rack and obscure gems and surprises. Their diverse song mixture included Van Halen’s “Little Dreamer,” the Prince double-shot of “Take Me With You” into “Raspberry Beret,” Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” Elton John’s “Honky Cat,” a jamming version of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” the night-ending version of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” and more. The musicianship was strong, with John demonstrating his fretboard prowess often, and Mike showing some colorful and inventive keyboard work. Saturn Plan plays infrequently on area stages; keep an eye open for them in the New Year.
As Christmas approached, Altoona’s Unter Uns Musical & Entertainment Society featured Flashpoint as part of a holiday-themed night highlighted by visitations by Krampus (who beats and punishes children who misbehaved) and Saint Nicholas (who rewards good children with presents). Flashpoint – singer/guitarist Don Osborn, bassist Bill Hunter, keyboardist Ken Civils and drummer Jeff Crownover – provided their ‘rock’n’roll with a groove’ before and after these seasonal characters’ visit. Flashpoint mixed up a variety of classic rock, blues and pop hits; stirring up dance floor action with songs from Dire Straits, Van Halen, Van Morrison, Robert Palmer, ZZ Top, Wild Cherry, Stevie Ray Vaughan and more. Some of their highlights included their Cheap Trick take on “Don’t Be Cruel,” their Social Distortion take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” the ‘Under the Boardwalk Singers’ (comprised of several band members’ wives and friends) joining the group for the Drifters’ classic of the same name, and their fusion of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” with the “Peter Gunn Theme.”
I caught my first look at The Brew Dogs last month as they performed at The Brewery in State College. Four established area musicians comprise this pack of musical Dogs – Brian Lubrecht on vocals and guitar, Adam Becker on lead guitar and vocals, John Cimino on bass and Kevin Thomas on drums. The Brew Dogs barked up a variety of rock favorites from the late 1960s to 2000s, spanning the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to Kings Of Leon and The Killers – and lots in between, including tunes from Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, David Bowie, Black Crowes, CCR, Journey, Toto, Dropkick Murphys, Alice In Chains, and a pounding rendition of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” to slam the lid on the night. The Brew Dogs’ performance was solid, and stirred up increasing amounts of dance floor action as the night progressed.
Southern Illinois-based roots rockers The Number 9 Blacktops made their first visit to McGarvey’s early last month. Together since 2005, the Blacktops – singer/guitarist Jim Rotramel, upright bassist Kasey Lee Rogers and drummer Cody Beckman – played high-energy rock’n’roll rooted in early rock, surf-rock, rockabilly and blues as they mixed original songs with select covers. Their own songs centered on lyrical themes such as hot rods, women and the rock’n’roll lifestyle; some of their original songs this night included “Rock’n’Roll Band” and “Holy Holy Hell.” They also covered the Dusty Springfield-popularized hit “Son of a Preacher Man,” Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 2,” “Ice Cream Man,” John Prine’s “Paradise” into Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts,” and JJ Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.” The Number 9 Blacktops drew cheers with their rowdy and enthusiastic performance, with Jim frequently offering energetic solo work on his Gretsch guitar.
McGarvey’s also hosted a heavy-hitting tripleheader last month featuring Fÿre, Dilemma and Paradigm. Fÿre led off the proceedings with their blend of classic and modern original metal music, doing numbers off their III Ghosts CD plus several newer songs that showed a more experimental edge with more complex song arrangements. Matt Stoyanoff’s high-soaring voice brought the house to attention, backed by powerful backdrops laid down by guitarists Zach Kensinger and Sean Stringer, bassist Joe Earnest and drummer Tanner Kaurudar, plus Denice Stoyanoff singing backing vocals. Next was the debut performance for new Altoona-based rockers Dilemma. Featuring guitarists/singers Micah Button and Devin Conrad, bassist Theopolis T-Hammer and drummer Joel Kyle, Dilemma introduced a hard-edged sound that blended elements of metal, punk and alternative, performing songs from their recently-issued debut EP. Their songs were solid and their performance was on the mark, making for a strong debut. Bedford County’s Paradigm then slammed the lid on the night with their fiery blend of high-velocity power metal, mixing newer and older original song material. Lead howler Joel Gerber worked the crowd well with his blend of gentle persuasion and aggression to get folks up and rowdy. Joel, guitarist Art Hollabaugh, bassist Josh Savage and drummer Tyler Hillegass fired on all cylinders on numbers such as “Mindfreak,” the shout-along anthem “One Word One Voice,” the sinister “The Illusionist” and more.
It’s hard to believe it was almost a dozen years ago that I heard some buzz and then first saw the teenaged roster of singer/guitarist Tom Fronauer, guitarist/singer Mike Furry, bassist/singer Ryan Furry and drummer/singer Chris Conrad – The Syrins – doing music created long before they were born, ‘60s and ‘70s era classic rock. The Syrins have quietly continued to become a mainstay on Altoona area stages, and they remain rooted in vintage classic rock, demonstrated during last month’s performance at Hollidaysburg’s Old Canal Inn. With Tom, Chris and Ryan sharing lead singing duties, The Syrins performed classic hits from the Yardbirds, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tommy James & the Shondells, CCR, Them, Monkees, the Kinks and more. They also did some “newer” rock from the Romantics, Greg Kihn Band, R.E.M., The Smithereens, Simple Minds and others. The Syrins were amazingly tight and precise with all of it; their vocals and harmonies were airtight, their instrumental performances clean and on target, and they played each tune for keeps. They triggered dance floor action and hearty cheers throughout the evening. I salute The Syrins for staying rock solid for more than a dozen years, and continuing to keep ‘60s and ‘70s-era rock vibrant on this area’s stages.
Other performances I saw recently included various performers during both the weekly Tuesday Open Mic Night at D’Ottavio’s Gran Sasso in Hollidaysburg, and Wednesday Open Mic Night at the Unter Uns Musical & Entertainment Society in Altoona.
News and notes…A Happy Valley landmark and tradition, The All American Rathskellar in State College is set to close this month after 85 years in business…Members of Black Sun, Small Town Horror Show, Rain Must Fall, The Good Seeds, The Black Snakes and Saving Jake will take part in “Petty Crime: A Tribute To The Music Of Tom Petty” at McGarvey’s on Jan. 27…Altoona-based rockers Teazed played their final show last month…Guitarist Jason “Junior” Tutwiler is leaving the bands Pure Cane Sugar and Raven and the Wren to relocate to Nashville; replacing him is Brian Cleary…Drummer Rick Rock has parted ways with Johnstown-based heavy rock group Rust to pursue other musical interests…Bassist Mike Gherrity announced his retirement from full-time live playing, and is stepping away from Altoona-based rockers Bone Jacked…Big thanks and kudos to Deanna Trio-Schompert, Mo Yon and Zac Grace, who help me deliver PA Musician to Johnstown, Bedford and Huntingdon County locations respectively every month.
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 IN 2017!