By Jim Price
I’ll never accuse post-holiday season winter of ever being my favorite time of the year, but a few seasonal live music-related events make it more bearable. One of them is the Millennium Music Conference (MMC) – this year’s 22nd annual edition happens at a new host facility, the Park Inn by Radisson Harrisburg West in Mechanicsburg. MMC will again feature a two-day business conference, keynote speakers, the trade show, the PA Musician Acoustic Stage, and showcase performances around the Harrisburg vicinity from nearly 300 different bands and artists. And participating Millennium bands and artists are again invited to submit recordings into my 105.9 Qwik-Rock “Homegrown Rocker” radio show drop box for airplay on the show – and one recording will be randomly drawn at the end of the end of Saturday’s trade show, with the winner scoring an instant guest interview on the March 25 edition of the program!
Another event that helped to warm up my winter was last month’s fifth annual Feel the Heat Chili & Soup Cookoff, presented by Downtown Bedford, Inc. Various local eateries, catering services and taverns – with some as far away as Cumberland, Maryland – provided their tastiest and most creative chilis and soups for participants to sample, with sampler votes determining the winners. Live music was again part of this year’s event, as each of the seven downtown Bedford tasting venues hosted acoustic performers. My first stop was at HeBrews Coffee Company, where Brandi Naugle was singing and strumming country-flavored numbers from Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, songs from her CD and more. Brandi demonstrated a smooth and sturdy singing voice and a pleasant stage presence. I then headed up Pitt Street to Bedford Candies, where Happy Hour – the duo of Tommy Fix and Sarah Mellott – was performing. With Tommy playing acoustic guitar and both singing, Happy Hour mixed up a variety of hits spanning country, pop, rock and soul – including numbers from Johnny Cash, Zac Brown Band, Bill Withers, Florida-Georgia Line, 4 Non Blondes and more. My third stop was Founders Crossing (antique and gift shop), where Coltt Winter Lepley entertained, strumming and singing a selection of country, folk and gospel numbers. (More about Coltt later.) I then caught Dunnings Creek as they performed at Pigeon Hill Studios (art space). The duo of Mark Diehl and Duane Sipe strummed and sang a mixture of rock and pop hits, including numbers from Rick Springfield, John Mellencamp, Collective Soul, Green Day, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and more. At Oak Spring Winery’s new Bedford location, the duo of Eric Delozier and Mo Yon mixed up acoustic classic rock and folk numbers from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others. I then headed to Locality art space, where the Bad Luck Lover Boys performed original songs and select covers. Singer/guitarist Chris Diehl (son of Mark from Dunnings Creek), guitarist Matt Godisart and bassist Brennon Miller performed indie rock/punk toned original songs, plus versions of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and more. I finished my chili and soup-tasting tour at Briar Valley Winery, where Dave Howsare wrapped up his performance with Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” and the Classics IV’s “Spooky,” which featured some very detailed guitar work. The mixture of music, chilis and soups made for a fun day. When the votes were tallied, the Most Creative Soup honors went to Fairways Bar and Grill for their Dill Pickle Soup, and Most Creative Chili went to Omni Bedford Springs Resort for their Smoked Beef & Ham Hock Chili with Shishito Relish. Bedford Elks won Best Flavored Soup for their Cream of Mushroom, while Maddie Lou’s Barbeque took Best Flavored Chili honors for their Smoked Sweet Meat Chili.
The recent holiday season provided several live music highlights. One of the final shows I saw in 2017 occurred at Altoona’s Four Dees Lounge, as local rockers Agent Smith continued to build their resume as musical chameleons by morphing into “Agent INXS” to mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence in November, 1997. Joining the Agent roster of singer Steve Oswalt, guitarist Phil “Philly Grooves” Wagner, bassist Mike Stanley and drummer Shawn Gioiosa were guests Phil Steele on keys and Randy Rutherford on sax. Transforming for their second set of the night, Agent INXS mixed up hits and curios from throughout INXS’s career; starting with “Don’t Change,” and including “Listen Like Thieves,” “Disappear,” “Elegantly Wasted” and “The Devil Inside.” Randy then stepped in during “Need You Tonight,” and added his sax talents for the remainder of the set. The group continued to crank up the INXS hits and dance floor action with “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Original Sin,” “Suicide Blonde,” “New Sensation” and “What You Need.” The group sounded airtight through it all; they delivered pulsing rhythms, driven by Mike’s throbbing bass work on the more dance-friendly numbers. Agent Smith also sounded strong on their first and third sets, doing numbers from Tom Petty, Billy Squier, Loverboy, Cracker, Toadies, Van Halen, the Tubes, Cheap Trick, Alice In Chains and more. Guest Autumn Shiffler belted out impressive lead voice on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Agent Smith wrapped up the night with a funky “Play That Funky Music” medley that infused portions of the Temptations’ “Shakey Ground,” Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” Watch for more chameleonic behavior from Agent Smith in the months ahead, including a possible Soundgarden tribute “Agent Cornell” angle.
D.D. & the Pub Crawlers provided the musical soundtrack during my transition from 2017 into 2018 as they rang in the New Year at Altoona’s Unter Uns Music & Entertainment Society. The Pub Crawlers – nine members strong with four-piece horn section and Kevin Siegel filling in on drums – brought the party as they mixed it up between soul, ska, rock’n’roll, swing, pop and other favorites. Singer Dana “D.D.” Martino’s voice was in great form, backed by Art Martino on bass and backing vocals, guitarist Jim Howsare, keyboardist Tim Boland and Kevin on drums. The horn section – Anthony Martino and Lyndsay Reilly on saxophones, Adam Lingenfelter on trumpet and Nick Martino on trombone – brought their vibrant brass assault out onto the dance floor early and often, mixing it up with dancers and serenading the dance floor crowd. The group’s song selection tapped everything from Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” to Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Impression That I Get,” Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive and Wail,” Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” Aha’s “Take On Me,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot,” Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “You and Me and The Bottle Makes Three Tonight” and more. Coupled with the traditional champagne toasts plus hot dogs and sauerkraut at midnight, D.D. & the Pub Crawlers helped the Unter Uns crowd start the New Year on a happy note – and the group is already scheduled to bring in 2019 at the Unter Uns as well.
The first new band I witnessed in the New Year was area country performers Railtowne during their first visit to the stage of the Four Dees Lounge last month. Five familiar area music scene names converge on this new project: Ty Ayers on lead vocals and guitar, Kenny Murdick on lead guitar, Paul Rainey on bass, Eric Wertz on drums and Nathan Beatty on keys. Playing their second show overall, Railtowne kept the dance floor busy all night with their blend of modern and classic country, including favorites from Jason Aldean, Joe Nichols, Sawyer Brown, Lee Brice, Big & Rich, Cole Swindell, Eric Church, Dwight Yoakam, Johnny Cash and more. Ty demonstrated a sturdy voice up front and also introduced an original tune toward night’s end, while Kenny – in his first country project – showed some dazzling guitar work of a different flavor. An additional highlight was guest Matt Pletcher stepping up to sing on a few songs, including Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” A good-sized crowd greeted Railtowne on their Four Dees debut; watch for more of this group on area stages in the weeks and months ahead.
Already established on State College stages, The Tommy Roberts made their first Altoona foray last month, playing at McGarvey’s for the first time. I arrived in time to catch the last song from show openers The Blacksnakes, who sounded strong on their brand of charged electric blues. The Tommy Roberts has expanded in number since the last time I saw them in 2016; joining the original acoustic inception of singer/guitarist Brian Cleary and guitarist, singer and harmonica man Nate Cutshall are bassist Chuck Haegele, drummer John Macko, fiddle player Aly Martin and Brian’s sister, Mary Ann, on backing vocals and tambourine. This fleshed-out version of The Tommy Roberts mixed up alt-country, folk-rock, blues and rock on a variety of original tunes and select covers. This group was musically strong and showed different angles on each tune, with Nate showing some fiery harmonica wailing and Brian delivering some hearty guitar solos along the way. The new original tunes sounded good, as well as their one of their established favorites, “Fishin’ for Pearls.” They also demonstrated fresh arrangements on “Hard to Handle,” a hip-hop-edged take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” and a funk-blues encore rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The Tommy Roberts will go on hiatus for a little while, as Brian takes over guitar duties in the band Pure Cane Sugar and Nate will be working with other projects.
While the Penn State student populace was out of town for the holiday break in late December, I finally caught up with Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s as they performed one of their weekly Friday shows at the Phyrst in State College. I observed a stripped-down version of the Hi-Fi’s this night, with namesake Ted on lead vocals and guitar, Jack Wilkinson on drums and Rene Witzke on bass. Every Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s show is high-energy fun and surprises, and this one was no exception, as the group mixed up an eclectic range of sounds, from Modest Mouse’s “Float On” to Todd Rundgren’s “Bang on the Drum,” an extended jamming display on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” AC/DC’s “I’m a Rocker” and “TNT,” Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died,” Jack belting out the blues on “Stormy Monday,” and the night-ending Nirvana jam version of “Come As You Are” with Ted taking his guitar out onto the dance floor to mix it up with some fans. This performance was feverish and enthusiastic, with Ted and the Hi-Fi’s delivering sharp and dazzling musicianship. Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s can reliably be seen on Fridays at the Phyrst and Saturdays at Bar Bleu in State College.
I also saw Jack Wilkinson in action behind the drum kit at the Phyrst in December, this time as he filled in with another group I had not seen in a while, The Nightcrawlers. Jack joined frontman/guitarist Noah Figlin, singer Veronica Auger, bassist Peter Jogo and keyboardist/guitarist Erek Kapusta. I caught their last two sets, as The Nightcrawlers lit up the Phyrst with a mix of classic and new rock, pop and soul. Veronica shined on voice and demonstrated an upbeat stage presence as she belted out tunes from Sublime, Pat Benatar, Amy Winehouse, and especially Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and the night-ending take on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Besides his stellar drum work, Jack showed he has a voice as well, delivering a hearty blues howl on Jimi Hendrix’s “Redhouse.” Noah dazzled on the guitar strings, Peter was rock solid on bass, and Erek fleshed out the group’s sound with his key and guitar underscores, fills and backing vocal work. The Nightcrawlers are also weekly inhabitants of the downtown State College music scene; see them Tuesdays at the Phyrst, Thursdays at The Saloon and Fridays at Bar Bleu.
Ember’s Fall performed in two different hard-hitting bills I saw in recent weeks at McGarvey’s. They capped a triple-bill with Dragline and One Adam 12 just before Christmas. I missed Dragline’s opening set, but eyewitness accounts gave rave reviews – watch for the lowdown on this group in next month’s writ. Cambria County rockers One Adam 12 then performed a set of new and older originals, reprising tunes off their debut CD Earworm and introducing tunes from their new Sophomore Jinx follow-up album. The group’s sample specialist, Anthony Dostal, is back in action after his recent medical leave, rejoining singer/guitarist Lloyd Rummell, guitarist Bill Stiles, bassist Joe Stiles and drummer Brandon Adams. One Adam 12 provides a sound that cannot be pigeonholed, blending elements of hard rock, metal, punk, surf, Misfits-toned horror rock and more. They have forged an identifiable, signature sound, defined by Lloyd’s bold, soaring voice, the rhythm section’s authoritative rumble to drive the tunes forward, and Anthony’s digital touches, from theramin-flavored fills to sonic booms, surges and more. Ember’s Fall then brought the heavy artillery, slamming their brute-force brand of technical metalcore. Now based in northern PA, the group played as a four-piece this night, with frontman Dennis Ray Gee Jr. wielding rhythm guitar duties, with Jairo Cerritos on lead guitar, Adam Schaffer on bass and Josh Sheesley on drums. They pummeled McGarvey’s with tight executions of selections from their original song arsenal, including “No Escape,” “Wrath,” “Between Hope and Hopeless” and more. Ember’s Fall was powerful and precise, providing dynamic song arrangements that varied between melodic elements and all-out fury.
Ember’s Fall also closed out a three-band, one solo performer bill at McGarvey’s last month. Austin, Texas-based solo artist Alex Culbreth and Harrisburg-based metalcore rockers If Not For Me performed before my arrival, and Fyre was in the midst of their set as I entered the venue. Singer Matt Stoyanoff, guitarists Zach Kensinger and Sean Stringer, bassist Joe Earnest, drummer Tanner Kaurudar and backing singer Denice Stoyanoff sounded strong on several new originals, including a lengthier progressive metal-geared epic called “The Life and Times of a Demi-God.” At full strength this night, Ember’s Fall again scorched the walls with their intense set, mixing tunes from their recently-issued Faceless EP with other new songs and select tracks from their Cessation debut CD. The group introduced a new bass player this night, as Kyle Linscott replaces Adam Schaffer, joining the aforementioned band members and guitarist Westley Sickler (who did not perform during the December show). Ember’s Fall returns to McGarvey’s on Feb. 23.
Also at McGarvey’s, I took in the ‘Christmas Eve’s eve’ bill of Zach Wade & the Good Grief and The Unknown Legends. Their debut performance, The Unknown Legends brings together singer/guitarist Eric Delozier, percussionist Ed Hofer and cellist Kirsten Leigh. These three pooled their talents into a fresh, rustic sound and drew unanimous cheers as they performed a variety of folk-toned numbers. They captivated with their creative arrangements on such tunes as Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” a folk rendering of Blink 182’s “Dammit,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Pink Floyd’s “Time,” and the seasonal set-ending folksy read on “Silent Night.” Zach Wade & the Good Grief then performed two sets of upbeat original acoustic-rock numbers and select covers. Namesake, singer and guitarist Zach, lead guitarist Rogan Allen, bassist Devin Pierce and drummer Keegan Allen introduced several new song compositions, as well as favorites from their EP @ the Bitter End. They also did select tunes from Counting Crows, Dave Mason, Michael Jackson, Gin Blossoms, Foo Fighters, Stevie Wonder, Rusted Root and a version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” According to Rogan, the group plans to get back into the studio this year to do more recording.
I also saw two-thirds of The Unknown Legends – Eric and Kirsten – last month at the U.S. Hotel in Hollidaysburg as part of an artist showcase hosted Charles McClanahan. The drummer for Matt Otis & the Sound, Charles is also a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Charles used this show to “pay it forward,” sharing his stage with other rising area talent. I missed opening performer Brandi Naugle, but arrived as Bedford-based singer/songwriter Coltt Winter Lepley was performing. Coltt did nice work on a variety of acoustic classic rock, folk and country favorites, showing a good voice on numbers from Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel, Marshall Tucker Band, John Prine and more. Eric and Kirsten followed Coltt with an eclectic mixture of acoustic folk numbers. With Kirsten providing cello accompaniment, Eric sang out modern and back-of-the-rack folk tunes, including Todd Snider’s “Play a Train Song” to close the set. I’m always impressed with how Eric becomes immersed in each song and ‘becomes the song’ – another seated observer remarked to me his amazement at this as well, that Eric knows and lives each song as he performs it. Kirsten provided just the right touches with her string accompaniment as well, resulting in a pleasant, tranquil performance. Host Charles closed out the show with his own set, strumming and singing a mix of original songs and a few spiritual numbers, such as acoustic takes on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Charles displayed a sturdy, smooth voice and pleasant personality, continually thanking the audience for their support. Watch for all of these talented and rising performers as they bring their music to area stages.
Matt Pletcher continues to maintain a busy solo schedule around the area. During his performance last month at Altoona’s Family Pizza & Pub, Matt’s voice was in good form as he mixed up acoustic country, rock favorites and original songs. He performed tunes from David Allan Coe, John Mellencamp, Cole Swindell, Foo Fighters, Chris Janson, George Michael, Green Day and more, and he also broke out the title track from his debut album, Sure Thing. Keep an eye open for Matt’s solo, trio and full group performances around the region.
I also caught Rich Edmundson in action last month at McGarvey’s. Rich presents one of the more unique shows on local stages, improvising and freestyling on original songs and a few select covers. This night’s performance featured off-the-cuff vocalizations and expansive adventures on his acoustic guitar. It’s not uncommon to see Rich ‘enter the zone,’ with a wide grin appearing on his face as he launches into his guitar excursions and rides the moments for all they are worth. Rich is currently in the process of assembling a band, and can be seen performing solo or collaborating with other musicians on local stages.
Felix & the Hurricanes are closing in on three decades of entertaining audiences far and wide. The group – namesake, singer and guitar slinger Felix Kos, singer/bassist Jeff Clapper and drummer Bob Watters – continues to perform every Sunday night at Altoona’s Black & Gold Tavern. During the show I caught last month, the Hurricanes performed a wide variety of material. This group is constantly adding new songs to their large arsenal; this night included at least two I hadn’t seen them do before, versions of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and Bob Seger’s “Betty Lou’s Getting’ Out Tonight.” They also energized the crowd with tunes from the Allman Brothers, Eddie Money, the Beatles, Molly Hatchet, Johnny Cash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Chris Stapleton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and more. A guest singer named Rachel stepped up to display her impressive voice on Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the group also did original tunes such as “The Feeling” and “Beale Street.”
Other performances I saw recently included…New York’s American Pinup, headlining a triple-bill last month at McGarvey’s with their charged brand of female-led, original power pop/punk…And I saw (and performed at) several installments of the weekly Tuesday Open Mic Night at D’Ottavio’s Gran Sasso in Hollidaysburg, and the weekly Wednesday Open Mic Night at Altoona’s Unter Uns, presented by the Live Music Preservation Society.
News and notes… After a nearly 20-year run on area stages, the “Party Plane” has announced its final landing; Flight 19 will close out their run on area stages, which began in 1999, performing shows through the end of June. A special “landing party” show will take place at Altoona’s Four Dees Lounge on April 21, during which past and founding members of the group will reunite on stage…The band Star 69 will host a benefit dance at the Bedford American Legion on Feb. 10, with proceeds helping out Fueled By Ignorance (F.B.I.) singer Ronnie Sheirer, who recently underwent a major surgery and is unable to earn income until he recovers…For those thinking about warmer weather, Quiet Riot and Great White have been announced as headliners for Johnstown’s Thunder In the Valley motorcycle rally in late June, and Blues Traveler has been announced to headline Johnstown’s Flood City Music Festival in early August…Singer Pat Conway is retiring from live performing, and stepping away from Cambria County rockers Bazooka Joe, who have also announced their farewell from area stages…Former Bazooka Joe drummer Jared Fetcko takes over drumming duties with Johnstown hard rockers Rust…Duane Sipe is taking over bass duties with area rockers Urban Myth…Hate Grenade will release their second full-length CD, called The King Is Dead, on March 10…Small Town Horror Show’s second CD will be called Way Past Indifferent, and will be issued later this year.
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!