By: Jim Price
As PA Musician’s new era begins under new editor and publisher Josh Noll this month, I celebrate the completion of 31 years of writing for PA Musician this month, and kick off my 32nd year! Thanks to Josh’s parents and predecessors Robin and Whitey for allowing me to write for PA Musician all these years, and thanks to Josh for keeping me on board!
As I reflect on my years of area music coverage in these pages, I realize that one of the most rewarding aspects of that tenure has been the continual expansion of my musical horizons. I was a devout metalhead when I wrote my first article in 1987…And while I am still a big fan of metal music, my experiences in covering the area music scene have opened my ears to many other musical genres as well. In just this month’s writ alone, I am writing about rock, metal, punk, funk, folk, country, Celtic, soul, blues, rockabilly, jazz, EDM, West African drum music and more! It’s all good!
Let’s start with soul and folk…State College’s historic State Theatre hosted renowned singer and recording artist Bettye LaVette last month. Eric Ian Farmer and friends kicked off the evening. Flanked by ‘friends’ Denise Strayer on accordion and Josh Troup on drums, Eric again demonstrated his ability to bring a room to total attention through his talents and message. Strumming acoustic guitar and singing, Eric’s dynamic vocal style, clarity and cadence quickly grabbed the audience as he opened with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” As the original 1971 song subtly raised consciousness about realities facing America such as Vietnam, poverty and racism, Eric’s treatment made this song newly urgent again as he referenced recent news headline locations that have caused national soul-searching such as Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, Orlando and many more. Eric brought the State Theatre to pristine silence several more times as he addressed social issues on subsequent songs, underscored by Denise’s gentle accordion tones. He then finished with a hopeful tone, closing his set with an uplifting rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” Several minutes later, three-time Grammy nominee Bettye LaVette and her band took the stage and opened with Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” the title track from her latest album of Dylan song interpretations. Backed by her support cast of guitarist Brett Lucas, bassist James Simonson, drummer Darryl Pierce and new keyboardist addition Evan Mercier, the 72-year-old singer showcased her Dylan interpretations, following with her passionate and soulful makeover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” As her set unfolded, Bettye captivated the audience by emotionally investing in and becoming every song she sang. On her rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” Bettye sounded so convincingly distraught that an audience member responded with “I’m here for you baby!” at song’s end. Sharing her insights and wit along the way, Bettye gave new perspective to such Dylan numbers as her keyboard ballad treatment of “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind,” “Seeing the Real You at Last,” “Ain’t Talkin,’” “What Was It You Wanted,” “Emotionally Yours,” the sharp and sassy “Do Right to Me Baby,” and her fitting departure number at set’s end, “Going Going Gone.” Bettye then returned moments later for her encore, performing her own number “Before the Money Came,” before bringing the audience to total silence with her a cappella treatment of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” to end the night. Through her performance, Bettye LaVette demonstrated a knack for recasting pieces of Bob Dylan’s song catalog in her own seasoned style and perspective, making for a stirring, fascinating display.
McGarvey’s in Altoona hosted two prominent national recording acts in recent weeks, including Mississippi recording artists Saving Abel. Local rockers Negan opened the night strong with their set of 1990s, modern rock and original songs off their just-released Burnt Pages EP. Opening with Stone Temple Pilots’ “Wicked Garden,” singer Mike Davis, guitarists Bob Gray and Jeremy Ashurst, bassist Josh Yahner and drummer Damien Falatek heated up the crowd with tunes from Live, Queens of the Stone Age, Nirvana, Chevelle, Tool, White Zombie and more – including a scathing take on Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight.” They also did the four tunes off their EP: “Where Do We Go From Here,” “We,” “Obsolete” and “The Devil’s Coming.” Rolling into town after a 16-hour journey from Mississippi, Saving Abel soon stormed the stage and delivered their rowdy “Southern Rock” party. Before a packed house, singer Scott Austin set the tone of the performance early by getting the crowd loud and rowdy, something he would do frequently during the set. He, guitarists Jason Null and Scott Bartlett, bassist Scott Wilson and drummer Steven Pulley commenced with “New Tattoo,” and proceeded with tunes from throughout their career. They did their FM radio hits such as “The Sex Is Good” (which singer Scott turned into a crowd sing-along), “18 Days” (which Scott led into with a salute to members of the military), “Drowning (Face Down)” and the group’s 2008 breakthrough song “Addicted” to end the night. Other numbers included “Contagious,” “You Make Me Sick” and a few more. Saving Abel delivered full-throttled energy from start to end, and singer Scott kept the crowd at a feverish pitch with his rallying calls and wild humor along the way. Saving Abel convincingly proved to McGarvey’s that they are a fearless, fun live act, and they delivered their promise of a rock party from start to end. Afterward, Saving Abel happily stayed late and hung out with the crowd, did photos, signed autographs and showed appreciation to the folks who came out to enjoy them this night – even going above and beyond to make the night special and lift the spirits of a Stage 4 cancer patient in attendance.
Popular late 1980s hair-metal rockers the BulletBoys also performed recently at McGarvey’s. Local rocking favorites Fyre and Hair Force One, along with Chicago’s 20 Spot, opened the evening. Lone remaining founding member, singer (and now guitarist) Marq Torien, is now flanked by bassist Chad MacDonald, guitarist Nick Rozz and new drummer Anthony “Tiny” Biuso. The BulletBoys mixed some of their classics with tunes off their new album, From Out of the Skies. Marq displayed his trademark vocal howl early and often, and fired off generous dosages of guitar solo work as well. One of my favorite highlights was their third song, “Hell on My Heels” – this song sounded powerful when it first came out in 1988, and it still sounded powerful this night! BulletBoys did an extended version of this number, with both Nick and Chad executing solos on their respective instruments. The group also performed two of their MTV staples; their popular heavy-rocking take on the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” and – saving it for last – “Smooth Up In Ya.” They also performed “THC Groove,” “D-Evil” off the new album plus several more. Although the crowd wasn’t huge, it was loud, and the group increasingly fed off the crowd energy as the set continued.
Several outdoor highlights transpired in recent weeks, including last month’s 51st edition of the Blair County Arts Festival at Penn State Altoona. Jazz was a prominent musical flavor during the festival’s first day. I arrived at the festival’s Misciagna Portico stage in time to catch the last few songs of the Steve Johnopolos Trio, who performed jazz standards and favorites. Namesake Steve demonstrated his prowess on keys, along with Randy Rutherford on bass and lead vocals, and Randy Servello on drums. This trio sounded skillful and smooth as they did such numbers as the Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra-popularized “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” Eddy Arnold’s hit “You Don’t Know Me” and more. Later at the Food Court stage, the Jay Vonada Jazz Quartet performed their mixture of original modern jazz and select favorites. Namesake Jay on trombone, Kirk Reese on keys, Jeff Beck on bass and Kevin Lowe on drums dazzled with stellar musicianship on numbers such as “Inspired,” the bossa nova-flavored “Serenity,” “That’s What I Said,” “The Midnight Waltz” and “Early Morning Chill,” as well as their variation on George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Among other performances I saw this day was the latter part of Camara Drum and Dance’s set at the Food Court stage, as they demonstrated West African percussion and dance music and welcomed audience members to play and dance along…On the Pavilion stage, Born and the Beanstalk – the strumming and singing duo of Sean “Born” Osborn and Ben “Beanstalk” Bower – demonstrated captivating vocal harmonies as they did popular numbers from the Beatles, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Faith, America, the Moody Blues and more…And closing out the Food Court stage this day, the acoustic edition of Pittsburgh’s Michael Christopher Band – Michael on lead vocals and guitar, Zach Reeder on guitar and Ben Pentz on drums – mixed original country songs with favorites from Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Johnny Cash, Brantley Gilbert, John Denver and more.
During the Arts Festival’s second day, I arrived in time to enjoy perennial Festival favorite Jay Smar on the Misciagna Portico stage. Brandishing acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle, Jay sang and educated the audience as he performed a blend of original folk songs and classic American folk music. Jay demonstrated his clawhammer banjo technique on such numbers as Mike Paxton’s “Thirty Inch Coal” and the pairing of the Appalachian folk tune “Cluck Old Hen” with his own instrumental “Banjo Wipeout.” And he sawed on the fiddle for his finale, blending together “Turkey in the Straw,” John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Says,” “We Bid You Goodnight” and “Sally Ann.” In a similar vein, Minnesota-based performer Paul Imholte closed out the Portico stage with his folk-based set, singing and performing on acoustic guitar, hammered dulcimer, fiddle and banjo. Paul’s song list ranged from Jimmy Driftwood/Doc Watson’s “Tennessee Stud” to the Scottish fiddle number “Neil Gow’s Lament,” to original numbers such as “Tarvy Road” (‘tarvy’ is Minnesota slang for asphalt) and his dulcimer instrumental “Yet As Yet.” In between the Portico stage performances, I took in two performances at the Food Court stage. Altoona area favorites R2B2 struck up an upbeat set of dance-friendly favorites. Singer/keyboardist Mary Villani, singer/guitarist Rick Wertz, bassist/singer Fritz Wyland, guitarist/singer Ric Criste and drummer/singer Beau Saller triggered smiles and some dancing with hits from Jennifer Lopez, KC & the Sunshine Band, B-52’s, DNCE, Wild Cherry, Gloria Gaynor, Escape Club and more, before a power outage cut their set slightly short. Power was restored in time for the next performer, young West Virginia-based singer and songwriter Lucia Valentine and her band. Flanked by her father, Dominic Valentine, on bass, guitarist Scott Smith and drummer Eric Calhoun, Lucia displayed a smooth, gentle voice as she crooned a mixture of light funk/rock-toned original songs and classic hits. She sang tunes off her self-titled debut album such as “Magic,” “Up For This,” “Be My Love Tonight” and “We Are One,” and also did fresh-sounding renditions of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love in Your Heart.”
Helping to usher in the outdoor festival season was Huntingdon’s 14th annual Mayfest celebration in late April. Happening along several blocks of Washington Street in downtown Huntingdon, this year’s Mayfest featured plentiful food and craft vendors, children’s activities, and several performance stages with live music and other entertainment. Keeping with recent tradition, my own band, the Backyard Rockers, helped open Mayfest at the Desert Garden Spa stage, before I then caught a few of the day’s other performers afterward. Next on the Desert Spa stage was Hawestone, who battled arriving raindrops to deliver a variety of country favorites and original songs. Singer/guitarist Ken Gray, lead guitarist Eric Smith, bassist Dick Shoemaker and drummer Tim Guthridge mixed up numbers from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Brantley Gilbert, Jon Pardi, Luke Bryan, their own original “Had You for a Day” and more.” Meanwhile at the Renaissance Faire stage, Full Kilt entertained passers-by with their Irish-flavored sounds. Singer/guitarist Mike Zerbee, fiddler Mandy Passmore-Ott, bassist/singer Chris Myers and drummer/singer Pat Boland injected a wee bit o’ Irish into favorites such as Alabama’s Mountain (Irish) Music,” Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to (Dublin)” and more. And up the street at the Colonial Times stage area, Dylan E. Miller hosted a singer-songwriter showcase that featured performances from himself, along with New Jersey-based songwriting friends Wyl White and Dre Brown.
On the same day as Mayfest, ArtsAltoona – along with partnering organizations and neighborhood businesses – presented the inaugural StART Here Block Party, a community event that took place along three blocks of 4th Avenue in Altoona’s Juniata section. StART Here featured three performance stages with musical entertainment, artists, art and other vendors, food and refreshments, and neighborhood beautification projects. I caught some of the day’s many performers on the three stages – including young singer Maggie Park (who was joined by Block Party host Rue Moyer), Felix & the Hurricanes (with Pat McGinnis standing in on bass), singer/songwriter Dee Hartman, EDM artist Sascha Damon Frost, Nag Champions Mystery Band, Ride the Song and Happy Hour (the country, rock and pop-crooning acoustic duet of Sarah Mellott and Tommy Fix). The combination of live music, artistic creativity (including painting of a fence and a building front along 4th Avenue), and sunny skies resulted in a well-attended, successful event that elevated community spirit and togetherness. ArtsAltoona is planning other similar events, and a sequel to the initial StART Here event is likely.
Brewers, bands and fans of beer and music converged at Altoona’s People’s Natural Gas Field last month for the 11th edition of the annual Pints For Pets Brewfest fundraiser for the Central PA Humane Society. Pints For Pets again featured two sessions, where beer connoisseurs could sample creations from more than 90 craft brewers from throughout the region and country. Live music was again part of the Pints For Pets festivities. Johnstown’s Tree opened the afternoon session’s music with their blend of Irish and traditional folk sounds. Singer and guitarist Mike Harnett, fiddler Jen Harnett and drummer Mike Dixon set the day’s tone with rowdy takes on numbers such as “Wild Rover,” “Johnny Jump Up” and more. The new roster of Walkney followed; joining founding singer and guitarist Derek Mrdjenovich in the new lineup are guitarist Jextin Pugh, bassist Nate Nagle and drummer David Applas. Walkney mixed original alternative rock/pop songs with select covers; among the original songs was “Lucia Rose,” which was recently included as a ‘What’s Next’ track in the hit music compilation series Now That’s What I Call Music. The group battled arriving thunderstorms and rain, but were able to complete their set as the weather turned wet. Before the evening session commenced, the acoustic duo of singer Lauren Johnson and guitarist/singer Joe George – Lauren & Joe – entertained attendees to a special VIP session that took place in the ballpark’s upper concourse level. As the evening session then got under way, Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band continued the music. Rogan Allen took over lead guitar duties with the group this day, joining namesake Chris on acoustic guitar and vocals, Nate Beatty on keys and trumpet, Bill Smith on bass and Randy Servello on drums. The group mixed original groove-driven songs with their own distinctive takes on select covers, including Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” More thunderstorm issues briefly interrupted their performance, but the group kept brave rain-soaked onlookers happy. As the rain continued, the Chrome Hearts closed out the music with their blend of country, rock’n’roll and originals. Singer Stephanie Onkst, guitarist/singer Bob Onkst, lead guitarist Chad Buterbaugh, bassist Brian Baum and drummer Doug Fetter weathered the rains and brought smiles with original tunes like “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” and “Jealous of You,” plus favorites from CCR, Gretchen Wilson, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and more.
Besides the national names mentioned earlier, McGarvey’s hosted several touring acts in recent weeks, including nomadic rock’n’rollers The Living Deads during Cinco de Mayo Saturday last month. After Ben Dumm & the East Side Band opened the night, the duo of drummer/ guitarist/singer Randee McKnight and singer/upright bassist Symphony Tidwell mixed up a variety of styles into a unique musical concoction all their own. Punk, folk and rockabilly all blended into varying configurations as The Living Deads did original numbers such as “Sh*t Men Say to Symphony,” “God Damn,” “Like A Bad Girl Should,” “Walk Away” and more. Randee frequently switched instruments between guitar and drums, and a few times played both simultaneously. When the McGarvey’s crowd called for an encore, The Living Deads returned for a mini-set of cover songs that reflect their influences, including a song by The Cramps, Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” the Misfits’ “Astro Zombies,” and Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “Jackson” to end the night.
San Diego punk trio Some Kind Of Nightmare brought their brand of vinegar and velocity to McGarvey’s for a rare Monday night show last month. Sets by Lose The Name and Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Gutter Villain opened the night, before Some Kind Of Nightmare delivered their raw punk-rocking speed and reckless abandon on a set of original tunes. Singer and guitarist Chy Mess, singer and bassist Molly Mess and drummer Tai slammed out furious numbers such as “F.D.A. Approved,” “Survive,” their closer “Back to San Diego” and more. One highlight was their song “Last Round,” dedicated to Molly’s grandmother who fought breast cancer – the group sold a pink vinyl 45 of that tune with proceeds going toward cancer research. Their velocity was infectious, and although not a big crowd for a Monday night, Some Kind of Nightmare kept the onlookers in attendance cheering.
New York’s American Pinup returned to McGarvey’s as part of a four-band bill last month. The Snipped led off the night with their punk-rocking “dadcore,” followed by Washington, DC-based indie rock duo DoubleMotorcycle. Singer/guitarist Joe Jalette and drummer Colin McGuire offered a wild, off-the-wall blend of pop melody, punk agitation and quarky antics on their set of original numbers, resulting in an unpredictable presentation that kept the crowd attentive and entertained. In the midst of a month-long tour, American Pinup showcased songs from their new EP, Get Better, as part of their set of edgy, high-octane melodic pop-punk rock. Lead singer and guitarist Lauren West sang with a potent, clear voice and friendly personality, flanked by guitarist A.J. Chiarella, bassist Tim Robbins and drummer John Casale. And Altoona’s Dilemma closed the night with their punk-driven hard rock sound. Singers/guitarists Micah Button and Devin Conrad, bassist Duane Ferrell and drummer Joel Kyle fired off charged original numbers such as “High Tide,” “Force Fed” and “Stain,” as well as versions of Nirvana’s “Lithium” and Blink 182’s “Dammit.”
Pittsburgh’s Legendary Hucklebucks brought their over-the-top brand of roots rock back to McGarvey’s in late April. Altoona’s Black Ridge PABG opened the night with their punk-toned brand of bluegrass and Americana music, doing numbers from their just-issued EP. The Legendary Hucklebucks then delivered their fire-and-brimstone assault of high-powered, psychotic rockabilly. Tattooed singer Ted Bundy, upright bassist Uncle Piddles, guitarist Johnny Devil and drummer Dave Fresch kept the action nonstop as they delivered driving original anthems like “3 Sheets,” “One Less Drunk,” “Honky Tonk Angel,” “Black Eyed Susan” and “Don’t Feed the Rats,” as well as their own torrid takes on the Kinks’ “I Need You” and Motorhead’s title song “Motorhead.”
And I caught my first look at State College-based punk rockers Owned By A**holes at McGarvey’s last month, headlining a punk triple-bill. Dave Hates Everything set the tone with their opening set of lively punk rock original tunes. Singer and guitarist Pat Orr also set the humorous theme of the night after happening upon a quantity of protein bars, which he brought along to McGarvey’s to share out to willing fans and musicians. The Snipped’s bass player, Rik Golden, celebrated this bounty by brandishing and raving about his protein bar during his band’s set, and The Snipped – Rik, frontman/guitarist Mikey Wax, guitarist Jeff Reid and drummer Justin Burket – rewarded Pat by “knighting” him into their realm of “dadcore” using a garden rake and a workshop magazine. Owned By A**holes then closed the night with their bold, bristling brand of punk rock. Singers/guitarists Kyle Hartzell and Pissed Off Christoff, bassist Andrew Ball and drummer Josh Griffith mixed original songs with select covers, all delivered with fury and enthusiasm. Their original song arsenal this night included tunes such as “Alcohol,” “Generation Z,” “Social Mannequin” and “Garbage People,” and they also did numbers from Screeching Weasel, NOFX and more.
And I caught up with Railtowne last month during an eventful performance at Altoona’s Four Dees Lounge. Railtowne – singer/guitarist Ty Ayers, lead guitarist Kenny Murdick, bassist Paul Rainey, keyboardist and soundman Nate Beatty and drummer Eric Wertz – had special guests in the house this night, as the newlywed This Albatross tandem of singer Autumn and guitarist Phil “Philly Grooves” Wagner brought the wedding reception to the Four Dees. Bouquet and garter tosses punctuated the night as Railtowne kept the celebrants happy with their mix of modern country favorites from Lee Brice, Big & Rich, Joe Nichols, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Johnny Cash, John Michael Montgomery, Jason Aldean and more.
Other performers I saw recently were the father and son reunion of Greg and Dustin Burley – Acoustic Mayhem – at McGarvey’s, as Dustin was back in the area from his current home base of Durango, Colorado…And I saw Felix & the Hurricanes during one of their weekly Sunday shindigs at Altoona’s Black & Gold Tavern.
News and notes…Special benefits for two area sound engineers battling cancer will take place this month; the Rawken for Hawken benefit happens June 10 at Slammin’ Sam’s in Johnstown to raise money to help Brad Hawken, recently diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer; performers thus far include Inside Out, Chasing Frequency, The Holy Gift and members of Octane…And a benefit for Alan “Delbert” McConnell will take place at the Barnesboro VFW in Northern Cambria on June 30; Negan, Downshift, Nag Champions, Talisman, Acoustic Stew, Rust and the Backyard Rockers are among many performers taking part…The Clarks, Penntera, Josh Gallagher and national recording artists Puddle Of Mudd are some of the featured acts performing during Altoona’s inaugural Pennsylvania Roundhouse Rally, happening June 20-23…The Marauders have reformed after a nine-year hiatus, and have been added to the lineup for Johnstown’s annual Flood City Music Festival in early August…Fireside Collective, The Hillbilly Gypsies, Mama Corn, Colebrook Road, The Crooked Line, Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, Doug Forshey and the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners are among many performers at the 15th annual Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival fundraiser for the Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania, happening June 14-16 at Quiet Oaks Campground in Cross Fork (north of Renovo)…Shallow 9, Downshift, Inside Out, Negan, R2B2, Zach Wade & the Good Grief, Matt Pletcher and the Backyard Rockers are among the performers at the 12th annual Day Of Rock benefit at Altoona’s Railroaders Museum on June 16…Matt Otis & the Sound, Rue Moyer and Afro’n’at are among the performers at the third annual Great Eastern Arts Festival, happening at Tenley Park in Everett on June 2…Western PA progressive rockers We Came From Space have issued their second CD, called While You Were Away.
We offer our condolences to the family and friends of Ken Earnest, who passed away on April 28 at age 88. Ken was a longtime Altoona area musician and guitar teacher, and played in such area bands as The Legends, The Cavaliers and The Prime Time Band. He was also the father of area musicians Troy and Jody Earnest…And the regional music scene was saddened by the unexpected passing of Smokin’ Gunnz singer and drummer Robert Morris, Sr. on May 7 at age 52. Bob was a member of Smokin’ Gunnz for most of their 20-plus year history. He is survived by his wife of 24 years, Vickie, along with two sons. We at PA Musician express our sympathies for Bob’s family, friends and musical colleagues.
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!