By: Jim Price
Summertime outdoor live music has roared to life in central Pennsylvania, with numerous concerts, festivals and other outdoor events to keep this local music connoisseur busy and happy.
“Ron and Teresa, they had a good plan-oh/Pick a little bluegrass, Smoked Country Jam-oh!” (from the song “Smoked Country Jam” by Mama Corn) One of my favorite summer season events is the Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival. Created 15 years ago by Ron and Teresa Kodish, this year’s edition took place last month at the Quiet Oaks Campground near Cross Fork (north of Renovo) in the northern “Pennsylvania Wilds,” celebrating bluegrass and traditional American music while raising money for the Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania. Each year’s festival presents a smorgasbord of groups and artists performing bluegrass, new-grass, folk, country, traditional string music and more on two stages, and each year presents its fair share of pleasant surprises and discoveries.
I got see 15 of this year’s 21 performing acts over the three days I attended. One of my favorite discoveries was Asheville, North Carolina-based quintet Fireside Collective. This group features two Pennsylvania natives, singer/mandolin player Jesse Iaquinto and guitarist/singer Joe Cicero; along with dobro player Tommy Maher, upright bass player Carson White and banjo player Alex Genova. Fireside Collective merged a traditional string music foundation with adventurous song arrangements, elements of jazz, rock, reggae, funk and other flavors, irresistible song hooks and bright harmonies. Their fresh sound and bright presentation captivated new fans early on, and their crowd size increased with subsequent performances throughout the weekend. Another crowd favorite during the weekend was the Becky Buller Band. An International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) multiple award-winning singer, songwriter and fiddler, namesake Becky previously wowed Smoked Country Jam audiences as a member of Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. Leading her own band, Becky performed tasty selections of original bluegrass, country and folk-flavored numbers, displaying bright melodies, a mixture of tempos, uplifting vocals and harmonies, and sharp instrumental performances. Her band included Dan Boner on guitar, Nate Lee on mandolin, Dwayne Anderson on upright bass, and bluegrass legend Ned Luberecki – known as an on-air personality and performer on Sirius XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction and More Banjo Sunday. Ned provided some comic relief with vintage radio commercial-styled ad-libs promoting Becky’s merchandise, but also spotlighted the group’s sense of musical adventure by leading them on a bluegrass version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Based in Washington, D.C., Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen also mixed traditional string music flavors with instrumental prowess and improvisation. Namesake Frank dazzled on mandolin, flanked by Mike Munford on banjo, Chris Luquette on guitar and Jeremy Middleton on bass. During their Saturday night set, they performed original bluegrass compositions, but also tapped early rock’n’roll with their grassed-up take on Roy Orbison’s hit “Oh Pretty Woman,” as well as offering their unique take on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
Returning festival favorites also delivered numerous highlights…Harrisburg’s Colebrook Road dazzled the Saturday night audience with their rootsy reworking of Billy Joel’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man”…From Pittsburgh, Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers showcased songs off their newly-released CD Poison River, including “St. Anne’s Prayer,” a song written by Sue Cunningham which they dedicated in her memory (Sue was a fiddler and founding member of progressive bluegrass group The Hickory Project; she passed from lung cancer in 2015)…Albany, New York’s Jim Gaudet & the Railroad Boys, offering up their feisty blend of bluegrass and outlaw country with a touch of funk…Owego, New York’s Bug Tussle with their upbeat mixture of modern bluegrass and country tones…Altoona’s Mama Corn – joined by Bug Tussle’s Dave Carey on mandolin – inspiring dancing children and families with their pleasant mix of folk, bluegrass and humor…And the ever-present happy and relaxing vibes generated by performances from Virginia duo Herb & Hanson, Jersey Shore’s Bronze Alley Boxer, Nashville-based singer and songwriter (and Huntingdon native) Doug Forshey, State College’s Tussey Mountain Moonshiners and The Crooked Line. Although I didn’t get to see them, this year’s festival also featured performances from Doc Pappa & the Renegade Ramblers, the Lockport Drifters, Strawberry Ridge, Grain, Chris LaRose and Mountain Ride.
Another festival highlight was the return of Danville-based singer and songwriter Van Wagner. The creator of more than 1,000 songs – many about Pennsylvania’s history, heritage, people and folklore – Van performed established song favorites during his set such as “Mountain Lion,” “Churches and Bars,” “North of 80,” “Shikellamy”…and his ode to the popular handyman multi-tool, “Leatherman,” highlighted afterward by a marriage proposal, as suitor Mike used a Leatherman to offer the engagement ring to his betrothed Chelsea, who said yes! Near set’s end, Van received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Pennsylvania Heritage Songwriting Contest, presented by contest coordinator David Pinelli. Van also hosted a special workshop, “Pennsylvania History Through Music,” where he explained the history and stories behind his songs about the Keystone State.
I also attended other festival workshops, including the “Songwriter Round Table,” hosted by Doug Forshey, Mama Corn’s Johnny Stevens and The Crooked Line’s Chris Strait; and the “Jam Protocol and Etiquette” workshop offered by Bridgett and R.B. Powell.
And following festival tradition, Smoked Country Jam ramped up to its official Saturday night finale with annual headlining favorites – Morgantown, West Virginia’s The Hillbilly Gypsies. The founding couple of singer Jamie Lynn Buckner and singer, guitar and clawhammer banjo player Trae Buckner, along with fiddle and banjo player Ben Townsend, multi-instrumentalist Levi Houston Sanders and upright bass player Ryan Cramer, fired up the party with their high-energy brand of traditional bluegrass and string music, honoring audience requests along the way. The Hillbilly Gypsies performed requests for the Johnny Cash and June Carter hit “Jackson” and the traditional “Pretty Polly,” as well as versions of Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger” and the Grateful Dead’s “Brown Eyed Women.” The set reached its pinnacle as the Gypsies invited musicians from the festival’s other bands to join them onstage; the resulting multitude of musicians first performed Mama Corn’s ode to the festival, “Smoked Country Jam” (with Johnny Stevens singing lead vocal), before jamming and blending their talents on renditions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to close the book on this year’s Smoked Country Jam. Hats off to Ron and Teresa Kodish, George Powell and GP Audio for the excellent job on production, all the volunteers, the bands and musicians, and all the friendly fans and families in attendance for another great weekend!
Another recent highlight was last month’s night of blues at People’s Natural Gas Park in Johnstown, headlined by Tab Benoit. Johnstown blues favorites Black Cat Moan opened the night with their set of traditional blues and original songs. Singer and harmonica player TK Mundok, guitarist George Byich and drummer Rob Bonsell gently ushered in the night with their tasteful renditions of classics like “Statesboro Blues” and “John Henry,” as well as original tunes like “Anna Lee,” “Anyday” and more. TK invested himself in each song to bring out the full range of emotions while wailing some sinister harmonica licks, with George displaying great slide skills on his chrome resonator guitar, and Rob applying just the right blend of stick and brush rhythms to guide the tunes along. Black Cat Moan’s performance set up the crowd for the ensuing sets of fiery blues rock from four musicians in two bands. From New Orleans, Eric Johanson took the stage to introduce his brand of blues rock, opening with a solo rendition of Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” before the rest of his band joined him onstage – headliner Tab Benoit on drums, and Tab’s bass player Corey Duplechin. These three musicians further fired up the blues rock party, doing a number of songs from Eric’s debut CD Burn It Down including “Bang Against the Wall,” “Graveyard Queen,” “In the Morning,” “Live Oak,” “Till We Bleed” and the title tune to close the set. Eric showed excellent skills as both a shredder and slide player, and Tab showed he is quite good behind the kit. (During his own set, Tab explained that he started off as a drummer and later learned guitar.) Corey provided the solid and driving bass thread through it all. Tab Benoit’s performance marked his return to the venue he helped christen when it first opened in 2012, People’s Natural Gas Park. Tab later explained another special connection with Johnstown – it was the place where he discovered pierogies! Tab on voice and guitar, Corey on bass and Jeff “Jellybean” Alexander on drums delivered fire-and-brimstone Louisiana blues and blues-rock, mixing original tunes and a few audience requests. Tab quickly established himself as a performer whose guitar is an extension of his personality – as he was happy, enthusiastic and witty as he addressed the Johnstown audience, his guitar playing was happy, enthusiastic and all-out – he made those strings sing! Tab was all in with this performance – even a broken guitar string on one tune did not slow this guy down! Some of his songs this night included “Whole Lotta Soul,” “Night Train,” the slower and soulful “New Orleans Ladies,” the feisty “Too Many Dirty Dishes,” his own fresh take on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and more. Each tune became a heated, extended joyride with Tab pushing his guitar skills to the limits, and – judging by the happy expressions on Corey’s and Jeff’s faces – his bandmates hanging on for the ride and loving every minute of it! Much of the crowd gathered up front from the get-go, and danced, moved and grooved nonstop for the duration. When the crowd unanimously called for the encore, Tab and his band returned – joined by Eric Johanson – to slam the lid on the night with a hearty rendition of “Bring Me My Medicine.” This was an excellent show from start to end, and I’m glad I finally got to experience Tab Benoit on the live stage!
Altoona’s Railroaders Museum kicked off their annual Alive at Five summer concert series early last month with Long Island-based Pat Benatar tribute Fire & Ice. Opening the night was This Albatross, who did a great job of firing up the crowd for the headliners as they performed a mix of rock, pop and country favorites. This Albatross recently updated their roster, as P.J. Kelly now plays bass and Kirk Robison plays guitar, joining newlyweds Phil “Philly Grooves” and “Autumn Grooves” Wagner on lead guitar/vocals and lead vocals respectively, and Shawn Gioiosa behind the drum kit. Launching with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” This Albatross fired through tunes from Miranda Lambert, Tom Petty, Scandal, Alanis Morisette, Veruca Salt, Pink, Lita Ford and more. Highlights included their Joan Jett double-shot of “Do You Wanna Touch Me” into “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” the Autumn/FPhil duet edition of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” into Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and more. Heading into Fire & Ice’s performance, my big question was simple – did this group’s singer have the voice to pull off Pat Benatar? Within the first few moments of their first set, the answer was a resounding YES – singer Darion displayed the multi-octave range and vocal power on hits and classics from throughout Pat Benatar’s career. Influenced in his youth by Neil Geraldo’s guitar skills, Danny Balzano showed some stunning lead guitar work throughout Fire & Ice’s two sets, while Scott Heller on bass and Rob Cardone on drums provided the rhythms, and Tony Saraceni manned the keyboard. Fire & Ice did all the essentials from the Pat Benatar catalog, and even reminded me of a few songs I had almost forgotten – such as Pat’s version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and The Rascals’ “You Better Run,” “Little Too Late,” the title track from Pat’s Precious Time album and “Sex as a Weapon.” Pat classics performed included the opener “Shadows of the Night,” “Treat Me Right,” “Promises in the Dark,” “We Belong,” “Hell Is for Children,” “Anxiety (Get Nervous),” “All Fired Up,” “Fire and Ice,” “We Live for Love,” “Everybody Lay Down” and “Love Is a Battlefield.” Darion and Danny split the crowd and officiated a sing/shout-along contest to commence “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which immediately fired into “Heartbreaker” to end their second set. When the crowd demanded more, Fire & Ice quickly responded by saluting Joan Jett with their own take on “I Love Rock & Roll” to end the night.
As I returned homeward from the aforementioned Smoked Country Jam, I stopped in Lock Haven to catch the opening concert of the city’s Sunday summer concert series at the J.Doyle Corman Amphitheater and Floating Stage, featuring Williamsport’s Gabe Stillman Band. This band dazzled two audiences – the land audience sitting in the amphitheater, and the river audience of festive pontoon boat onlookers – with scorching blues and blues rock. Namesake Gabe sang lead vocals and wielded guitar, with Colin Beatty on bass and 17-year-old Tate Berkey on drums. Gabe, who at age 22 has already been to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis twice (once as a youth performer in 2012, and in 2016 after his band won the annual Billtown Blues Challenge), dazzled on guitar and voice, investing every ounce of his energy into his performance. Tate provided a commanding presence behind his drum beats, and Colin tied it together with steady bottom end on bass. The group did numbers from their just-released debut EP The Grind, including the grooving instrumental title track and “Ain’t Gonna Change,” plus numbers from Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, Freddy King and more. Gabe and his band roused the crowds on both sides of the stage; especially the boat folks, who danced on the pontoon decks, dove from boat roofs, tooted boat horns after songs and more! The Gabe Stillman Band will be part of the festivities during this year’s Central PA 4th Fest in State College on July 4, and – after recently winning the 2018 Billtown Blues Challenge – return to Memphis next January for the International Blues Challenge!
Summer also means fire company carnival season, and I caught northern Cambria County rockers Night Train during the first night of last month’s annual Patton Firemen’s Jubilee. Night Train continues to spotlight two generations of musicians, as Jerry Carnevali sings and plays guitar alongside his sons, Jesse on lead vocals and guitar, and Jared on bass and vocals; Tim Laney plays drums. Night Train entertained the street party audience with their uptempo mixture of classic rock favorites, performing numbers from CCR, Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, Rare Earth, Stray Cats, Styx, Hollies, the Beatles, Free and many more. Jerry, Jesse and Jared can all carry a tune, and they demonstrated crisp vocal harmonies along the way.
Keeping with my recent Memorial Day tradition, I again spend much of the holiday in Boalsburg – one of the locations that lays claim to the origins of Memorial Day – to check out the daytime festivities and evening memorial service at Boalsburg Cemetery. Live music was again part of the festivities, with performances both at the downtown Diamond and at Boal Mansion. It was at the latter where I caught the latter set of OverheaD’s performance. Singer Wendy Hanson, singer/guitarist Kevin Fagley, multi-instrumentalist/singer Eileen Christman, bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Tom Mallouk and drummer Rick Plut mixed up a variety of original songs, classic rock and pop hits and favorites. They remembered local music past by breaking out a version of “Catch a New Wave,” a 1980 local radio hit by State College’s Backseat Van Gogh. They also did tunes from Otis Redding, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, B-52s, and more. Highlights included Eileen demonstrating her fiddle talents later in the set on tunes from Green Day, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Patti Smith and the finale, Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” OverheaD will perform on July 15 at this year’s People’s Choice Festival of Pennsylvania Arts & Crafts in Boalsburg.
I caught my first look at young area singer-songwriter Elmira Hope last month at downtown Altoona’s Heritage Plaza, as she performed at the “Families Belong Together” candlelight vigil, held to address the situation about children being separated from their families at the southern border. Elmira did a short set of original songs before the vigil, and later performed a version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” before finishing the vigil with a sing-along version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Elmira demonstrated a strong, clear voice and a passion for the music she performed. In between the songs, various speakers addressed the border situation, and shared thoughts about families, immigration and the contribution of immigrants to American society.
I managed to escape central PA to spend part of Memorial Day weekend in Erie. Part of that trek included a visit to Erie’s long-established rock room, Sherlock’s, where a triple-band rock and metal bill took place. Headlining the night was the premiere of a new Erie-based band, Nighthunter, which features a cast of metal musicians from past projects; singer Bob Mitchell was previously with such projects as Savior From Anger and Attacker, bassist Brian Callin and drummer Joshua Shank also were with Savior From Anger, while guitarists Sean Nestor and Jazz Byers previously rocked with Homicide Black. On a mission to “bring back true heavy metal,” Nighthunter introduced a sound rooted in the classic heavy metal traditions of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Dio. Bob demonstrated an amazing, power-packed, soaring voice, and his bandmates brought the firepower on a selection of original tunes (from their forthcoming debut CD, expected out in September) and select covers. Their original song arsenal was impressive, including such numbers as “Ghost of the Valkyrie,” “March of the Bones” (co-written by Bob’s son and inspired by the marching skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts) and more. Nighthunter also brought the crowd to attention and loud cheers with their renditions of Judas Priest’s “Metal Gods” and Rainbow’s “Man on a Silver Mountain.” The two opening acts were impressive as well. Five members strong, Erie’s Glasswing launched the night with an intriguing progressive rock/metal sound that mixed elements of blues, jazz, metal aggression, tricky time signatures and unusual song arrangements. The group – singer Kyle Myers, guitarists Nick Vollbrecht and Aiden Sloppy, bassist Chris Fohner and drummer Ryan Javens – did a mix of new and older original tunes, each with a different flavor, before breaking out a version of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” toward set’s end. And first formed in 1985, northeastern Ohio-based fivesome Axemaster blasted full-force classic power/thrash metal, performing a set of original numbers from their more recent albums. Comprised of singer Geoff McGraw, guitarists Joe Sims and Damin Bennett, bassist Jim Curtis and drummer Denny Archer, Axemaster performed such songs as “Death Before Dishonor,” “Bed of Nails,” “Forsaken,” “Bravado,” “Crawling Chaos,” “10,000 Pound Hammer” and more.
Bands, musicians, fans and friends converged at Slammin’ Sam’s in Johnstown last month to raise money to help out friend, musician, sound and recording engineer Brad Hawken as he battles colorectal cancer. Jeff Perigo, The Dillons and Locked & Loaded performed before I arrived, and Stone Bridge was under way when I entered the venue. Featuring Craig Stiles on lead vocals and guitar, Steve Stull on bass and Darren Byer on drums, Stone Bridge fired off modern metal and hard rock favorites from Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, Staind and more. My favorite highlights included their heavy take on the “Fat Albert Theme” shifting into Monster Magnet’s “Powertrip,” as well as renditions of Coal Chamber’s “Big Truck” and Sepultura’s “Roots” to end their set. Next was a reunion set by Lies, Inc. Singer Lily Taylor, guitarist Nate Nagle, bassist Kent Tonkin and drummer Ron Brode delivered a powerful set of original heavy-hitting tunes from their career, including “Waking the Misery,” “Hypnotic,” “Plaster Apparent,” “Mommy Dearest” and more. Lily’s vocal power and range was again front and center, and it was cool watching audience members experiencing her powerful pipes for the first time. Darkness On The Radio followed with their scorched-earth metal set, delivering a full-force wall of sound as they showcased original assaults such as “Judas Take the Wheel,” “Sons of Devilry,” “The Snakes That Walk Like Men” and more. Johnstown hard-rocking favorites Inside Out then took the stage to introduce several new songs toward their next CD, such as “Find A Way,” “Burn” and the rowdy “Get Up.” Singer, guitarist and show organizer Tim Frick, guitarist Cody Williams, bassist Larz Philip and drummer Mark Gindlesperger also fired up the large Slammin’ Sam’s crowd with established original song favorites like “Sacrifice,” “Taking My Life” and “Demons Inside.” Next was Chasing Frequency, who did a strong blend of hard-rocking tunes from Ozzy Osbourne, Chevelle, Danzig, Dead Or Alive, Pop Evil and more. Singer Tori Miller delivered some great voice, backed this day by guitarist Jeff Bassett, Darkness On The Radio’s Jay Snyder on bass and Octane’s Chris Jimerson on drums. Guest singer Eric Voeghtly (former frontman of Stone Krow and Deviance) joined Chasing Frequency for versions of Audioslave’s “Tell Me How to Live,” Volbeat’s “Lola Montez” and more. Then Johnstown’s new Tool tribute project, The Holy Gift, took the stage. Singer Mark Lux has shown in past projects that he can capture the voice and charismatic demeanor of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, and he totally lived up to the task here; flanked by guitarist Darien Lux, bassist Mike May and drummer Frank Tomaselli. The Holy Gift did excellent work on Tool classics like “Opiate,” “The Pot,” “Schism,” the set-ending rendition of “Aenima” and more. And Money Shot – a one-time collaboration featuring Undercover singer Jason Riek backed by the Octane contingent of guitarist James Forish, bassist Dave Bambino and drummer Chris Jimerson – finished the night strongly with their blend of hard-rocking favorites from Rage Against the Machine, Van Halen, The Cult, Journey, Eve 6, Def Leppard, Soundgarden and more. A big highlight of the day was show beneficiary Brad Hawken checking in for a short while, just days after undergoing surgery. Hats off to all the organizers and volunteers this day; Rawken For Hawken raised more than $1,800.
Other performers I saw recently included Felix & the Hurricanes, who rang in Memorial Day at Altoona’s Black & Gold Tavern with special guests Pat McGinnis on bass and Chuck Knepper on guitar…and the tail end of Zach Wade & the Good Grief’s show last month at McGarvey’s, which ended with guest Warren Peace firing up the crowd with his spirited performance on Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”
News and notes…Rising PA country performers Devon Franks and Jackie Brown & the Gill Street Band will be among performers during the July 4 Central PA 4th Fest near Penn State’s Beaver Stadium…The 52nd annual Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts takes place in downtown State College July 12-15…The return of northeastern PA rock powerhouse Harpo is one of the highlighting attractions of the 26th annual People’s Choice Festival of Pennsylvania Arts & Crafts, happening July 12-15 at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg…The annual Remington Ryde Bluegrass Festival happens July 4-8 at Grange Park in Centre Hall…The owners of Tubby’s Nightclub in Duncannon, which burned down early last year, announced last month that due to circumstances beyond their control, they will not be rebuilding the venue in Duncannon, and are looking into other locations to reopen the venue…Zac Grace, launching his solo career as singer and songwriter after years of playing drums for several area bands, has signed an exclusive songwriting agreement with Nashville-based independent publishing company Nashville Cool; he recently departed Chris Woodward & Shindiggin,’ and has taken over drum duties in Railtowne, freeing up Eric Wertz to become the group’s second guitarist…Scott Kinsey has taken over drum duties in the Chris Bell Band…Singer Matt Wagner teams with former members of Vs. the Earth, Pistol Peg & the Beer Kegs and Third Standard to form a new group, August Wake… A fundraising event to benefit the children of Matt Pacacha will take place Aug. 24 at Pittsburgh’s Hard Rock Café; Matt, the drummer for Pittsburgh-based metal rockers Conflict Cycle, died in a house fire early last month…More sad news arrived at press time, as Troy Lamey, drummer for Williamsport rock group C-4, passed away unexpectedly while performing with his group on June 23; our condolences go out to Troy’s surviving family, bandmates and friends.
Thanks again to my “street team” who helps get PA Musician to various locations in west-central PA: Mo Yon (Bedford), Zac Grace (southern Bedford and Huntingdon Counties), Deanna Trio-Schompert (Johnstown and Somerset), Rick Ramsey (northern Cambria County) and Dylan Miller (Huntingdon).
Please send correspondence and recordings to: Jim Price, 1104 S. Catherine St., Altoona, PA 16602. You can also e-mail me at email@example.com. And if you’re into social networking, look me up on Facebook or Google+. SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC!