By: Jim Price
We have again arrived at that time of year where outdoor temperatures start to rise, snow melts a little quicker (such as the foot-plus snowfall that deluged my home area, Altoona, on the first day of Spring), and the first outdoor live music events of a new warm weather season begin to happen. Several outdoor concerts and events are already on my radar, making me more anxious for the temperatures to warm up!
Again providing a big highlight to my winter was the 22nd annual Millennium Music Conference (MMC) in late February, happening at the Park Inn by Radisson Harrisburg West hotel complex in Mechanicsburg. One of the most valuable aspects of this conference for me each year is that it captures – through its panels, seminars, networking and keynote presentations – the current state of the music industry during any given year. By the end of MMC, I always come away with a clearer picture of where things are and where they are headed. The industry has changed vastly since this conference’s debut, and especially the definition of “making it.” The traditional goal for “making it” was to get signed to a major recording deal; but in the present day that is not necessarily the be-all end-all. Anything from getting a song to go “viral” online to passing an audition and achieving several weeks of success on a television talent show, to even being seen by the right person at the right time at an event such as the MMC (just ask Halestorm or Crobot) can punch a ticket to a performer’s music industry success.
Both of this year’s MMC keynote interviews addressed this changing music industry climate, and how musicians can best position themselves to take advantage of it. As she was interviewed during the Friday keynote by Bob 94.9 radio’s Nancy Ryan, Diane Lockner – regional manager for Triple Tigers Records – offered advice to musicians about nurturing fan bases, effectively using social media to market and promote their music, staying persistent, and – most importantly – believing in themselves and their music. “If you’re true to yourself, if you really believe that you can do it, you can do it,” said Diane. “I think the most important thing is, believe in yourself…stay true to yourself. Don’t chase fads.”
During the audience Q&A near the end of the interview, Diane was asked about ‘making it’ via the path of appearing on musical talent television shows like American Idol or The Voice and winning a recording contract. She responded that such contests present opportunities, but with a caveat. “It’s your ride, it’s your journey,” according to Diane. “If that’s how you think it’s gonna work for you and you get an audition, go for it. Every opportunity is an opportunity.” But she added, “If you win, know that you are an artist that has won a contest…What they don’t tell you is that said record label is only getting two percent. So, if you’re an American Idol winner and you’re signed to a major label like Universal Music Group, think about all the other artists who are on that label that are making that label a whole lot more money than two percent. Who do you think they are going to push more, they’re going to push the artists that are making them more money.”
Saturday’s keynote featured Andrew Goodfriend of TKO booking agency in New York, interviewed by Reverbnation co-founder Lou Plaia. Andrew provided tips about getting the attention of agencies like TKO and landing spots in music festivals and high-profile events. He stressed the importance of an artist’s strong musical identity, cultivating a solid fan base, visibility, accessibility to information and music via social media and the internet, and persistence in pursuing opportunities.
Of course, showcasing bands and artists were again a major part of my MMC experience. That experience began shortly after I first arrived on Thursday night, and attended the conference kickoff party at the host hotel’s Bravo 11 Mess Hall & Deck. On stage as I arrived was the same band I saw first during last year’s conference kickoff party, Saskatchewan, Canada rockers Autopilot. This trio again did nice work on their set, demonstrating a sound that merged elements of pop song craft with alternative and progressive-leaning arrangements. Autopilot’s tunes were catchy yet innovative, with interesting layering of guitars, soaring vocals and busy rhythms. Another international act then took the stage: Glasgow, Scotland’s Single By Sunday. Sporting brightly-colored hairdos, these young Scotsmen were fun, cutting loose with a raucous brand of melody-based punk/pop rock. Bright red-haired lead singer and rhythm guitarist Josh, blue-haired lead guitarist Jonny, purple-mopped bassist Jack and drummer Jorge fired up the crowd with their original song arsenal. Their songs were powered by rapid fire punk rhythms, but their melodies suggested they might have heard of some famous folks named John, Paul, George and Ringo. Their song hooks were infectious, and their choruses were easily memorable; they had the large audience cheering loudly by the end of their set. Closing out the night were Johnstown rockers Silver Screen, who gave a strong performance in their mission to ‘make grunge great again.’ Singer/rhythm guitarist Stephen Platt, lead guitarist Ben Ressler, bassist Alex Richardson and drummer Austin Danel mixed original songs and select covers, and as the last band of the night, got to play a lengthier set. They did songs off their debut EP ‘Inertia’ such as the slower “Codeine,” “Talk to Me” and “Labelled Off,” and they also did tunes from Kiss, Weezer, Silverchair, Jet, Nirvana and more. An electrical snafu late in their set prompted international cooperation between Silver Screen and Single By Sunday; after a breaker malfunctioned, drummer Austin started up a beat, while Josh and Jonny of Single By Sunday free-styled a rap on the microphone until power was fully restored!
During the daytime conference Trade Show on both Friday and Saturday, I was able to see abbreviated acoustic sets on the PA Musician Day Stage by many of this year’s showcasing performers. Performers I experienced on the Day Stage this year included Austin, Texas-based Megan Flechaus and her self-named band…Ben Bollinger of Harrisburg’s Six Bar Break…Harrisburg native (now based in Nashville) Meaghan Farrell…Chicago-based Ryan Pleckham…Michigan-based Alex Schofield…New York City’s The Foxfires…State College’s Chris Rattie (more on him later)…Chicago folk artists Almond & Olive…Los Angeles singer and songwriter Smolsky…Lancaster’s Justin Angelo…Bucks County native and Houston, Texas-based singer and songwriter Jeannine Higgins…Easton-based traveling troubadour Eli the Hawk…Johnstown’s Silver Screen…Austin, Texas’ The Human Circuit…Connecticut-based EDM artist A/8 (Alon Gordon)…Cleveland’s Oblivea…Harrisburg folk-rock trio Jelli…Maine-based Tom Emerson…Connecticut’s EZ Bluez…Michigan’s Neil Obremski…Nate from New Hampshire’s Epic Season…and MMC frequent flyer Chris Whitmer. Among my favorite highlights from the Day Stage included the spirited and adventurous music of New Jersey’s Random Hubiak…Upbeat music and a dance clinic from Harrisburg’s D-Bo…the dazzling string-bending and fingerstyle of Harrisburg-based singer and guitarist Suzi Brown…youthful Canadian lady performers Girl Pow-r (more on them later) and the return of the rollicking keyboard music of Columbus, Ohio’s Bill Kurzenberger. And as the Day Stage concluded on Saturday, Jeannine Higgins’ self-titled CD was drawn from my radio show dropbox, so Jeannine won a guest appearance on the March 25 edition of Qwik-Rock’s “Homegrown Rocker” program!
Multiple showcase performances happened on both Friday and Saturday night, as nearly 300 different bands and artists performed throughout the Harrisburg area. My Friday showcase adventures began at the aforementioned Bravo 11 at the host hotel. The first band up was Added Color from Brooklyn, New York. Four members strong, this group provided an intriguing blend of funk, rock, alternative and even progressive elements in their original sound. They delivered often intriguing song arrangements anchored in tight grooves as they performed original songs plus a cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade.” Their instrumental skills were strong; I especially noted bassist Danny Dahan, who enthusiastically invested into each groove he played. Next up was the two-man acoustic edition of Baltimore’s Skinny Is Green, who played a selection of original numbers, including some from their forthcoming new album coming out this month.
I then headed to Harrisburg’s Pourhouse on Derry, arriving just before my first look at Chris Rattie & the New Rebels. I was anxious to see this latest chapter in Chris’ musical story, and it is a rowdy one. Chris on vocals and guitar, guitarist Brian Cleary, bassist Jeff Downing and drummer Forrest Schwartz quickly awakened the Friday night crowd with the sharp-witted opener “Country Boy” off the group’s recently-issued album Porch. Chris and company mixed edgy Americana-rock songs from the new album with some of his past material. His new songs included “Prisoner 743” and “My Mountain,” and the group did songs from Chris’ 2013 All These Things CD such as “So Long” and “Hotel By the Highway.” Chris sang with a clear, authoritative voice, and his songs displayed heart and purpose. He and the New Rebels generated strong cheers from the crowd by the close of their set. Next was Bowie, Maryland’s Wise Eyes, who demonstrated their brand of soulful rock. These guys showed a tight and together sound, sturdy melodies and some freewheeling jams as their set progressed. Among their songs was a new reggae-toned original called “Diamond,” and a fast-moving take on CCR’s “Green River.” Again showcasing at MMC was Jake Tavill & the Indigo Child Blues Band, who closed the night with their intriguing blend of sounds. Singing and playing keys, Jake and his band – sax player Michael Squillace, bassist Casey O’Connell and drummer Ben Ley – played several numbers off Jake’s new Twisted Ideology album such as the feisty set opener “Legs in a Twist,” the Motown-meets-Tin Pan Alley number “It Don’t Matter” and “Gold.” They also broke out a few older originals, plus strong takes on Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Jake’s innovative song arrangements, soulful vocals, and the fun spirit he and his band exhibited throughout their set made for a joyful close of the night.
My Saturday night showcase adventure again started at Bravo 11, with York rockers Small Town Titans convening their performance shortly following Andrew Goodfriend’s keynote interview. Singer/bassist Phil Freeman, guitarist Ben Guiles and drummer Jonny Ross sounded sharp as they fired through their original song arsenal, opening with “Wreck” and hard-hitting numbers such as “We Owe You the Truth,” “Sky High,” the new composition “Junkie for You,” “Me, Myself & Monster” (featured on this year’s MMC compilation CD), “Party In Hell,” “9 to 5,” their take on Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” and more. Phil delivered a commanding voice and charisma up front, and these Titans were constant action as they maneuvered about the stage.
I then headed to my second showcase destination of the night, the Keystone Musical Arts Center in Camp Hill, where youthful talent was being celebrated. Three different performances at this showcase proved The Who’s adage that “the kids are alright,” as teenaged performers delivered jaw-dropping performances. Performing as I arrived was 14-year-old North Carolina guitar shredder Johnny Zostant, who demonstrated nonstop fretboard pyrotechnics on original compositions and select covers. Playing along a backing track, Johnny’s fingers were nonstop as he delivered arpeggios and other rapid fire solo work. The clincher for me was one of his covers, as Johnny did the Jeff Beck Group’s “Going Down” – great to witness a young talent tapping into the Jeff Beck catalog! Next up was a group I saw earlier in the day on the PA Musician Day Stage, Canada’s Girl Pow-R. Five women strong this night (their total ensemble numbers 13), this teenaged group sang, played instruments and danced on a selection of pop/dance covers and original songs, with each member introducing a song while sharing a positive thought or encouraging message. Among their originals was their current single “Krisi” and “Stronger Than Yesterday,” and the group covered hits from Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga and more. Closing this showcase was teenaged PA jazz fusion trio Teen Town. These youngsters – Connor Rohrer on keys, Gabriel Severn on bass and Logan Bedard on drums – were amazing as they showed incredible instrumental skills on jazz numbers from Weather Report, Tribal Tech, Adam Nitti and more. They improvised, soloed off one another, and had fun exploring the musical cosmos as the audience cheered on. This led to the finale, as Johnny Zostant joined the group on a funky jam, while the members of Girl Pow-R danced along.
My MMC 2018 experience then concluded at the Grotto Pub in Enola. I had hoped to see Indiana, PA bluesmen the Jukehouse Bombers, but only got to see half of their last song, as they started performing early when the first band of the night didn’t show up. The Hall Williams Band from the Baltimore/D.C. area was next, and they stunned with their mixture of blues, funk, soul and jazz flavors. Namesake Hall Williams on guitar and lead vocals, bassist Lorenzo Sands, keyboardist Justin Taylor and drummer Rodney Dunton delivered stirring grooves and superb musicianship, capped by one of the best versions of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” I have ever witnessed – Lorenzo’s bass solo fireworks had to be seen/heard to be believed! Annapolis, Maryland’s Rickshaw Lizard then closed out the night with their hearty mixture of groove-laden funk, rock, blues and jams. Guitarist/singer Dr. Move, bassist Hans Tronic, sax man Joe Sax, drummer Pete Kaster and David Gorozdos on keys punched out a variety of sounds on their original set, elevating their songs into heated jams along the way. They did numbers from their Move With Me EP such as “Rick’s Rumble,” “Kudzu” and “Notion,” plus several other tunes as well, and they inspired more dance floor action as their set progressed.
Closer to home, musicians, friends and fans last month remembered an area musician and colleague, Terry Croft, with a benefit show to help with his final costs at the Altoona Grand Hotel. Ed N’Born and R2B2 kicked off the afternoon, before Rokkandy took the stage. Singer/keyboardist Patricia McConnell, guitarist/singer Bob DeArmitt, bassist/singer Kelly Montgomery and drummer Doug Stephens generated a strong set of classic rock, pop, country and dance favorites. Rokkandy kept the musical action constant as they did numbers from Young MC, Jimmy Eat World, Styx, Luke Bryan, Walk the Moon, 4 Non Blondes and more. Pat and Bob alternated most of the singing duties, and the group pulled off some surprises, such as Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” the Bob-fronted take on Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and the Pat-fronted version of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll).” I then joined my Backyard Rockers brethren – singer/guitarist Rich Dasch and guitarist, bassist and singer Mo Yon – as we provided acoustic favorites from Steve Earle, Neil Young, The Band, Elton John, Tom Petty, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and more. Mama Corn then brought their stringed sounds to the stage, mixing original tunes with their diverse range of grassed-up covers. Mama Corn brought smiles as they did favorites such as their take on Banjo & Sullivan’s “I’m Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Getting Nailed,” Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” original tunes like “The Hanging of Alfred Andrews” and “Another Couple Days” and more. And providing much of the backline this day, Bone Jacked closed the benefit strong with their set of classic-rocking favorites. Decked in clown shoes and partial clown make-up as he served double-duty with the ToonTown Klowns this day, new singer Dave Mitchell sang on the first several tunes, joining guitarist Chris Guella, bassist Dave Collins and drummer/show organizer Terry Wilt. Jacob Baskin fronted the group the rest of the way, belting out voice on tunes from Tom Petty, Doobie Brothers, Counting Crows, Hootie & the Blowfish, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Palmer and more. When all was said and done, more than $1,000 was raised.
The Central PA punk rock scene has remained steadily vibrant over the years, and the area’s punk musicians celebrated that vibrancy with last month’s second annual “Who Says It’s Dead” Punkfest at McGarvey’s. Seven area punk bands brought their visceral brands of music to the stage. State College’s Owned By A**holes and Altoona’s Railroad City Murder Machines launched the event and had performed prior to my arrival. X’s For Eyes was wrapping up their torrid set as I got there, with Lose The Name then taking the stage. Reconvening last year, the roster of singer/guitarist Brandon Kane, guitarist/singer Jimmy Gehrdes, bassist Brad Davis and drummer Toby Hunter mixed up older and newer high-velocity punk anthems that kept the crowd excited and turbulent. State College favorites The Whatleys maintained the momentum, slamming down their reckless abandon punk anthems. Singer/bassist Eddie Fraud, singer/guitarist Hiro, guitarist TJ Fadehawk and drummer JLaw fired off tunes from their American Party CD such as “Go For Broke,” “Balloon Drops (Over Confetti Falls)” and “CJ Ramone,” plus other favorites like “My Way Home.” For the next band, The Flannels, it was the swan song for frontman John Brehm, who departs the group to devote time to family and career. John, guitarists James McNulty and Mike Lanzendorfer, bassist Chet Lafferty and drummer Josh Ryan let fly with their melody-driven, high-velocity take on punk, doing numbers such as “Be There For Me,” “10:38” and more. Closing out the show was The Snipped, performing their punk-rocking “dadcore.” What is “dadcore,” you ask? ‘Old’ guys playing punk rock music, and expressing anger at things dads might be mad about – such as one of their songs that vented punk rock venom at getting stuck behind a school bus while you’re already running late for work. Singer/guitarist Mike Wax, guitarist Jeff Reid, bassist Rik Golden and drummer Justin Burket presented several such original numbers, plus a few older punk rock covers during their set. These enthusiastic performances and the large, brisk attendance to support them showed that area punk rock is certainly not dead, and the “Who Says It’s Dead?” punk fest proved that the spirit of punk will live on in these parts for a long time to come.
The Arena in State College and 105.9 Qwik-Rock commenced their second annual Battle of the Bands competition at The Arena last month. The competition features five preliminary battles, with each winner advancing to the finals on April 14, and the top three winners scoring prizes. I caught the second preliminary competition, featuring performances from four band hopefuls. From Down The Road launched this night’s battle with their unique mix of styles, spanning modern and classic rock flavors, ska, reggae, punk rock and more. Singer Guy Mauro, guitarist Ben Eberhart, bassist Eric Baker and drummer Tyler McEvoy mixed original tunes and select covers from Jimi Hendrix, Green Day and others. Pittsburgh’s Forsaken By Society stepped up the intensity with their set of brute force metalcore. Frontman Matt Micenko, guitarist Allan Trail and drummer E.J. Novak unleashed furious original numbers such as “Self Destruct,” the anti-hate “Back Down,” “Breathe” and more. The night’s third act, Scranton’s Traverse the Abyss, also escalated the intensity with their blend of power metal and hardcore, performing original songs from their CD The Gamble of Life plus newer numbers. Singer Eric Abyss took his performance to the crowd, often venturing off the stage to engage with observers around the room. Flanking him were guitarists Mike White and Matt Mierzejweski, bassist Mike Bieniecki and drummer Nathan Cardona. And Altoona’s Dilemma closed out the Battle with their presentation, which mixed elements of punk, alternative and postpunk. Singers and guitarists Micah Button and Devin Conrad, bassist Duane Ferrell and drummer Joel Kyle performed original numbers and their take on Nirvana’s “Lithium.” After scores from the three judges were tallied and averaged, Traverse the Abyss scored highest and moves on to the finals.
Also at The Arena, I caught up with the Chris Bell Band early last month. Assisted by Nashville’s Joey Dotson on drums, Brian McHugh on bass and Jonathan Phillippi on rhythm guitar, Chris demonstrated supreme skills on the guitar strings, delivering fiery lead solos throughout the night on a variety of country and Americana favorites. Chris and company did numbers from Jason Aldean, Kip Moore, Toby Keith, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Blake Shelton, Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton, Travis Tritt, Old Crow Medicine Show and more. They also broke out a few of Chris’ original country compositions, such as “(That’s How) Country Girls Do It.” The band was strong and the music pacing was tight, and despite a lighter attendance this night, Chris and his band still played for broke and left it all on the stage – they even played almost 30 minutes past their scheduled end time of 1 a.m. to give the fans their money’s worth. For upbeat country and excellent guitar fireworks, make the effort to see the Chris Bell Band when they hit stages in these parts – you won’t be disappointed!
Pittsburgh’s Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers visited McGarvey’s stage for the first time last month. As they have demonstrated the previous times I have seen them (at the Smoked Country Jam and Windber’s Bluegrass In The Park festivals), the Stragglers showed abundant musical skills as they blended folk, bluegrass and string music with jazz-styled improvisation on a selection of original numbers, including a few from their latest CD, White Lightning Road. All five musicians – singer/guitarist Gary Antol, singer/fiddle player Libby Eddy, mandolinist Ray Bruckman, dobro player Jody Mosser and upright bassist Evan Bell – displayed precision on their respective instruments, delivering exciting solos and interaction on each number. Some of their numbers this night included the CD title track “White Lightning Road,” “Things Take Time,” “Tumbleweed” and “In Harmony,” and they also did a refreshing take on “I Know You Rider.” Along the way, Gary shared some humorous insight on the actual location of Jakob’s Ferry (a blink-your-eyes-and-you’ll-miss-it landmark in Greene County). The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers will release their new CD, Poison River, shortly and will play dates in North Carolina later this month, gearing up for a busy summer season of bluegrass and music festivals – including Smoked Country Jam in June and Johnstown’s Flood City Music Festival in early August.
Work duties limited my Irish-themed merriment during St. Patrick’s season last month, and I spent the latter part of St. Patrick’s night witnessing Nashville-based singer and songwriter Nathan Kalish and his group, the Lastcallers, at McGarvey’s. Flanked by Karen Frederick on upright bass and Jackie Ray Daniels on fiddle, Nathan introduced his brand of grooving Americana string music, demonstrating a calm and sturdy voice as he sang original songs from his latest CD, I Want to Believe, plus select covers from roots performers like Gram Parsons and more. Given the St. Patrick’s occasion, Nathan and the Lastcallers also broke out versions of the traditional “Irish Washerwoman” and Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.”
I also caught two-thirds of a triple-bill at McGarvey’s early last month, seeing Making State and Walkney in action. Dilemma started off the night, and Making State was just under way as I entered the building. Singer Nick Myers, guitarist Sam Magliaro, bassist Billy Vaughn and drummer Jaymeson Rowles hammered original tunes that blended elements of alternative, pop, punk and classic hard rock. They did a few songs from their debut EP Waiting for Signals such as “All I Need,” as well as a bunch of newer songs. Nick’s voice was in good form, and he demonstrated confidence and swagger to engage the crowd. The rest of the band sounded tight, and Making State drew cheers and good crowd response. Walkney – a.k.a. singer and guitarist Derek Mrdjenovich – ended the night with his solo acoustic set, introducing a number of new songs and his own update of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.” At press time, Derek has been auditioning for and being spotted on the new season of American Idol, and was headed to Hollywood for the latest development in that journey.
News and notes…Waka Flocka and New Politics will headline the second annual Ivyside Off the Rails “Glow On” concert, happening at Altoona’s Railroaders Museum on April 22; the concert is presented by Penn State Altoona’s Campus Activities Board…Logic, Daya, Judah & the Lions and Mick Jenkins perform at Penn State’s annual Movin’ On festival on April 27 at the university’s Intramural Fields…The Reverend Horton Heat returns to McGarvey’s on April 3…The Allegheny Ukulele Kollective presents the fifth annual Ukulele Soiree on April 20-22 at Laurel Lodge near Altoona, featuring ukulele workshops, jam sessions and open mics and guest performers including Sarah Maisel, Craig Chee, Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Jim D’Ville, Mim of Mim’s Ukes and more…Jim Donovan & the Sun King Warriors release their new album, We See Through It, this month; a CD release show happens April 6 at Mr. Small’s Theatre in Millvale…Nobody’s Heroes is disbanding after a seven-year run on area stages; their final performance took place opening for Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band at McGarvey’s late last month (recap in next month’s issue)…Guitarist Brian Pavlic has parted ways with Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band to pursue other musical interests…To end confusion from fans expecting rowdy Cajun music, western PA’s Crawdad Joe has changed his band’s name to his own last name, Dedon.
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!