The Professor’s “Live Reviews” – December 2023

The holiday time of year has again arrived, and we’ll soon be turning the page into a new year. As always, I look forward to enjoying some down time during this special time of the year, taking stock and being thankful, and recharging my batteries for 2024 to come. I wish all of our PA Musician readers, friends and the state’s music community a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year 2024 and pleasant holiday season!

I managed to squeeze in one more outdoor music event for this year during late October, as I journeyed to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney for Joe-Fest 2023, a celebration and remembrance of Joe Serian. A longtime singer and musician best known for his tenure as frontman for popular western PA classic rock powerhouse Down To The Wire, Joe passed away in May from heart complications at age 70. This event was an excellent time, as the remaining members of Down To The Wire plus some special guests played three sets of classic and arena rock favorites, with Gary Bickerstaff singing lead vocals. Gary, lead guitarist Matt Taladay, keyboardist and singer Kevin Cielo, drummer John Tedeski and – splitting bass duties – Dominic Catanzarito and Steve Leach did many of the classics Joe was best remembered for; including songs from REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Autograph, Bon Jovi, Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Toto, Cheap Trick, Aldo Nova, Boston, Foreigner, Golden Earring and more. Joe was nicknamed “That Journey Guy” by some folks because of his ability to sing like Steve Perry, and Down To The Wire played several Journey favorites such as “Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lights,” “Don’t Stop Believin,’” “Stone in Love,” “Separate Ways” and others. Many people awaited the day’s finale, as Down To The Wire closed the show with another song Joe was known for, Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason.” The band members shared stories and memories of Joe onstage, and several audience members told me happy teenage memories of seeing Joe perform in such 1970s-era bands as Nexis, Jericho, Thumbs Up and others. After Down To The Wire finished, a special retrospective video tribute to Joe was shown inside the pavilion building. Partial proceeds from this event were donated to the Indiana County Humane Society; more than $2,200 was raised.

 Another recent highlight was getting to see Boston Celtic-punk favorites the Dropkick Murphys during their tour stop in late October at Johnstown’s 1st Summit Arena at the Cambria County War Memorial. The night opened with Boston-based singer and songwriter Jesse Ahern. The first artist to sign with the Dropkick Murphys’ new Dummy Luck Music label, Jesse steadily won over the crowd with his blue collar-themed folk-rock. Displaying a hearty Springsteen-like growl, Jesse introduced several songs from his latest album, “Roots Rock Rebel,” sharing inspirations and stories along the way. Some of his songs included “Pray,” “Back Against the Wall” and “The Older I Get,” where he was joined by Dropkick Murphys’ Jeff DaRosa. Following him were Los Angeles ska-punk rockers The Interrupters, who quickly fired up the audience with their energetic, action-packed performance. Flanked by brothers Kevin Bivona on guitar, Justin Bivona on bass and Jesse Bivona on drums, singer Aimee Interrupter fronted the group on a variety of catchy, uptempo numbers; including many from the group’s latest album, “In The Wild.” The Interrupters delivered constant movement onstage as they did hard-driving numbers such as “Take Back the Power,” their latest single “Raised By Wolves” and “Gave You Everything,” plus ska-toned songs like “She’s Kerosene” and their version of Bob Marley’s “Judge Not,” where they were joined by trombone player Billy Kottage. My first time seeing this group, I enjoyed The Interrupters’ continuous energy, catchy melodies and constant interaction with the crowd. The Dropkick Murphys then picked up the ball and ran with it, delivering feverish, go-for-broke energy on their trademark brand of fiery Celtic-geared punk rock. Group mainstay and singer Ken Casey led the group as they fired off nonstop tunes from throughout their career; often with captivating video footage and backdrops. After opening with “Worker’s Song,” the group went directly to “The Boys Are Back,” backed with video footage of their hometown Boston Bruins hockey team playing and brawling. The group also did such numbers as “Mick Jones Nicked My Pudding,” “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya,” the gang shout-driven stomp “Blood,” the surf-toned “Cadillac, Cadillac,” “Two 6’s Upside Down,” “Boys On The Docks,” “Queen of Suffolk County,” “The Warriors Code,” a sing-along rendition of their popular “Rose Tattoo” and more. The Dropkick Murphys also celebrated AC/DC with hearty versions of “It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” The tunes were fast-firing and continuous, and it was fun witnessing the circle pits and the crowd energy in response to it all. When the crowd called for the encore, the group quickly returned to finish the night with their feisty punk anthem “Barroom Hero,” followed by – you guessed it – the ever-popular “Shipping Up to Boston,” with the whole arena shouting their lungs out on the choruses! My first time seeing them live in person, the Dropkick Murphys further cemented me as a fan and earned my T-shirt money at the end of the night…Excellent concert!

The Rockin’ the Yard Summer Concert Series presented The Lords Of 52nd Street – The Legends of the Billy Joel Band on the stage inside Altoona’s Jaffa Shrine last month. The Lords Of 52nd Street were Billy Joel’s backing band during the 1970s and much of his hit-making career. They appeared on many of his hit songs, as well as recorded on his Grammy award winning albums “52nd Street,” “Glass Houses” and “The Nylon Curtain.” After a nearly 30-year hiatus, drummer Liberty DeVitto, rhythm guitarist Russell Javors and sax player Richie Cannata reunited in 2014, and with a current Lords Of 52nd Street lineup have continued celebrating the music they helped Billy Joel to create. Sans Richie (who was sidelined with a recent medical issue), the Lords entertained a receptive Jaffa audience with a wide assortment of Billy Joel’s music, including numerous hits as well as a few deeper tracks. Opening with “A Matter of Trust,” the group – Liberty and Russell, along with lead singer and keyboardist Dan Orlando, bassist Malcolm Gold (replacing Doug Stegmeyer, who passed in 1995), keyboardist Doug Kistner and a lead guitarist named Anthony – performed hits such as “My Life,” “Allentown,” “Pressure,” “Don’t Ask Me Why,” “Keeping the Faith,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Only the Good Die Young” and more. They also dug out such numbers as “Sleeping with the Television On,” “Laura,” “Angry Young Man” and “A Room of Our Own,” as well as the title song from “The Stranger,” also “Captain Jack” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” The Lords sounded tight and polished, and singer Dan filled the Billy Joel role quite well – his voice was convincing, and his presence and enthusiasm quickly earned the audience’s hearty approval. When the audience called for the encore, the group soon returned to finish the night with two more Billy Joel hits, “You May Be Right” and “Piano Man.”

Two shows I witnessed in recent weeks were themed around classic record albums. As 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s iconic 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon,” Penn State Altoona’s Division of Arts and Humanities presented a special tribute to the album in late October at the Wolf Kuhn Theatre in the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts. Directed by Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, Harold Hayford and KT Huckabee, the tribute featured a cast of area musicians, along with student singers plus dancers from both the Allied Motion Dance Company and Ivyside Dance Ensemble, lighting effects and more. Having heard “Dark Side Of The Moon” countless times over my lifetime (including wearing out my older brother’s vinyl copy on my close-and-play record player as a teenager), I was intrigued to experience what these musicians, dancers and creators could do with it. The musical cast – Harold Hayford on keys, guitarists Ben Eberhart and Rick Wertz, drummer Eric Wertz, bassist Randy Rutherford, saxophonist Eli Byrne and singer Steve Oswalt – was excellent in bringing this music to life on the stage, and it was exciting to see the student dancers and singers add their angles, interpretations and energy into songs and interludes like “Breathe,” “On The Run,” “Time,” “The Great Gig in the Sky,” “Money,” “Us and Them,” “Brain Damage/Eclipse” and more; music likely created even before many of their parents were born! The dancers included Haylei Libran, Olivia Ruble, Ruth Packard, Samantha Bacza, Katherine Cava, Adamari Cortez, Charlie Popson, Emma Peterman, Kylie Hammond, Morgan Ratcliffe and Sarah Christofer; while the vocalists included Adria Schmidt, Danielle West-Habjanetz, Emmett Hibbs, Megan Cooper, Nailea Vega and Xingzao Zhuang.

During the weekend before Halloween, the other show involving classic record albums was the latest installment of Johnstown’s Classic Vinyl Concert Series, which took place over two nights at the State Theater of Johnstown. An ensemble of 11 Johnstown area musicians played two classic albums in their entirety – in conjunction with Halloween, Michael Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller,” along with Prince and the Revolution’s 1984 album “Purple Rain.” The cast – director, singer and keyboardist Jeffrey L. Webb, keyboardists Eric Foose and Mike Meketa, guitarists Josh Covert and Jono Poltrack, bassist Scott Jeffreys, drummer Dominick Peruso Jr., and singers Venus Hall, Jane West, Bruce W. Harris and TK Mundok – brought both albums to life with their crisp arrangements, strong musicianship and inspired performances. During “Thriller,” some highlights included various duets between Jane, Venus, Jeff and Bruce (including the latter pair’s ‘quarrel’ in the Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney roles during “The Girl Is Mine”), keyboard fireworks between Mike and Eric during “Beat It,” Venus’ strong lead vocal during “Human Nature,” and the Michael Jackson video providing the backdrop during the performance of the song “Thriller.” “Purple Rain” had its share of highlights as well, especially TK in the Prince vocal role – he invested total soul and spirit into the renditions of “Let’s Get Crazy,” “Darling Nikki” and the finale rendition of “Purple Rain,” which evolved into a glorious audience sing-along finish. The mood was joyous and uplifting through it all, with the musicians and audience both feeding the energy in the theater. The next edition of the Classic Vinyl Concert Series will take place on May 18 of next year, with the album(s) soon to be announced.

The 13th annual “Patched Together: A Day of Music to Benefit the Healing Patch” event took place the weekend before Thanksgiving at Altoona’s Bavarian Aid Society Hall. Seven bands and performers donated their talents to raise funds and awareness for Home Nursing Agency’s Healing Patch Children’s Grief Program, which provides services and a space for children and their families who have suffered the death of a loved one. This year’s event, dubbed “The Monster Patch,” featured Halloween-styled décor courtesy of Imaginarium Sanitarium, along with children’s activities, baskets giveaways and 50-50 drawings, food and refreshments, and – of course – live music from seven bands and performers. Kicking off that music was Centre County-based foursome Nothing Much, who played a strong set of rock and pop numbers spanning the 1970s to 1990s. Lead singer and guitarist Jay Ammerman, guitarist Kyle Myers, bassist Andy Wixom and drummer Charlie Hullihen mixed together crisp-sounding numbers from Flock Of Seagulls, Billy Joel, ZZ Top, Free, Tears for Fears, The Darkness, Wild Cherry, AC/DC and others. Next were the Sun King Warriors, who delivered their “roots rock with two tons of drums” to further arouse the growing audience. Opening with the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” the cast of singer and guitarist Jim Donovan, guitarist Kevin McDonald, multi-instrumentalist Dan Murphy, bassist Kent Tonkin, hand percussionist Bryan Fazio and drummer Joe Marini mixed Sun King Warriors original tunes with a select variety of covers. It didn’t take long for the Sun King Warriors to draw dancers onto the floor, and the group kept the grooves and energy level high – leading up to their signature “two ton” drum and percussion jam between Joe, Jim and Bryan, followed by the dancefloor-filling finishing rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” A part of every Patched Together event so far, Chris Vipond & the Stanley Street Band returned next to bring their brand of groove and funk-infused original music. Namesake, singer and keyboardist Chris Vipond, guitarist Ben Eberhart, bassist Bill Smith and new drummer Rob Bonsell (replacing Randy Servello) played songs off the group’s three albums, including favorites such as the set-opening “Be,” “Tupelo Tree,” “Weird Angry Hard,” “Never Again,” “Shine” and more. Following the presentation of this year’s John Manion Award to recipient David Taylor, The Jaded Lips kept the music lively with their mix of rock’n’soul original songs and select covers. Singer and guitarist Mike Wertz, bassist Hunter Karns and drummer David Applas played numerous songs off their debut album “Lip Service” such as “Whiskey Breath,” “Souls,” “Save Me,” “Black Lashes,” “Shallow Woman” and more, along with songs from Prince and the Rolling Stones. Solo performer Greg Burkey provided acoustic relief with his performances of roots-geared rock, blues and country numbers. With his sturdy voice, Greg sang his own variations on numbers from Neil Young, the Beatles, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top and others. Then marking their 52nd anniversary as a band, Altoona’s U.S. Sound Theatre reconvened to light up the house with their blend of brassy rock and soul favorites. Founding members Jim Pastore on lead vocals, Mike Pastore on bass and Ric Criste on guitar and vocals; along with singer and guitarist Rick Wertz, keyboardist Harold Hayford, drummer Jeff Crownover, and the four-man brass and woodwind section of trumpeters Jay Arnold and Don Emery, trombonist Brian Rutter and saxophonist Bob Scholl quickly filled up the dance floor with spirited hits from Huey Lewis & the News, the Grass Roots, Chicago, Tower Of Power, Average White Band, Wild Cherry, James Brown and more. Altoona classic rock favorites Half Tempted then capped the event with powerful guitar rock spanning the 1960s to 90s. Singer and guitarist Ron Dalansky, guitarist and singer Jim Mincin, bassist Todd Batzel and drummer Doug Stephens rocked the hall with numbers from Thin Lizzy, Tom Petty, Jimi Hendrix, Mountain, Kiss, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick and more. The money amount raised from this year’s Patched Together will be announced soon; but the first 12 editions of this event have raised more than $150,000 to ensure that grief services remain available to area children who need them.

I journeyed to witness a taping of Jeff Pittinger’s Pennsylvania Pipeline Music-TV program at Jeff’s studio and “batcave” compound near Muncy early last month. Before a studio audience, Williamsport country-rockers The Heartstrings kicked off the music. The sibling trio of singer and guitarist Jacob Yoas, singer and bassist Maria Yoas and drummer Brian Yoas let it rip on four songs – the rowdy original tunes “Whiskey River” and “High” awakened the observing studio audience, before the group did their takes on The Cadillac Three’s “Slow Rollin’” and Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead.” My second time seeing them, I was again blown away by The Heartstrings’ tight sound, feisty vocals and go-for-broke energy. Next up was Gettysburg area singer and songwriter Faith Noel, who sang with heart and clarity on her four-song selection of original songs and covers. Faith introduced her original songs “Only You Know Why” and “Anything,” as well as renditions of Gabby Barrett’s “One Of the Good Ones” and Lainey Wilson’s “Heart Like A Truck.” Jeremy Edge then capped the session by doing acoustic renditions of four of his original blues-driven numbers. He started with a song off his Jeremy Edge Project “Saints and Souls Vol. 1” set, “Ghosts of the Living,” and followed it with “Sunrise” off the Project’s self-titled debut album. Jeremy then introduced two new numbers – “Austin Valley” (inspired by the 1911 Austin Dam break and flood) and “Heaven, Hell and Whiskey.” Jeremy sounded strong on all of it, and showed excellent skills on the acoustic guitar strings. It was again fun to observe one of these TV show tapings, and Jeff supplied complimentary pizza and beverages to those in attendance. The air date for this taping will be announced soon; you can watch Pennsylvania Pipeline Music-TV on Wednesday and Saturday nights on WHVL in State College, and episodes are also available for viewing on YouTube.

I caught my first looks at a couple of area bands in recent weeks, including the Blazing Suns at the Windber Hotel. Two-thirds of this band – drummer and singer Logan Yonkoske, and bassist and singer Gabe Riva – previously played with the Jukehouse Bombers, with Steve Frye playing guitar and singing. The Blazing Suns take blues and blues-rock to the woodshed to slap it around for a while, resulting in raw and aggressive renditions of familiar numbers plus stormy original tunes. They introduced original songs such as the hard country-flavored “Your Mom” and “Sunrise,” and also delivered amped-up and slamming versions of songs from Led Zeppelin, Leadbelly, Doobie Brothers, Cactus, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath and more. Blazing Suns’ debut EP, “Volume I,” is available on streaming media, and they are working up more songs toward a future release.

I also saw Centre County-based quintet The Extractors in action recently at The Arena Bar & Grill in State College. Comprised of guitarists Mike Cullin and James Miller, bassist Eric Rosengrant, keyboardist Steve Fishbaine and drummer Dave McKee (all sing), The Extractors play a wide variety of rocking classics spanning the 1960s through 80s, with a slight emphasis on songs you don’t normally hear other groups doing. The group was in the middle of Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” when I first arrived, and they did other numbers such as Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Reeling in the Years,” Supertramp’s “Give A Little Bit,” and even a rendition of The Spinners’ “I’ll Be There!” With all five members sharing singing duties, The Extractors generated some strong harmonizing along the way, plus kept the music constant and sounding fresh throughout the night. The crowd cheered steady approval throughout. 

I caught several shows at McGarvey’s in Altoona recently…I saw a good chunk of The PennSoulvanians’ Halloween party in late October, as the band – decked out as characters from “The Wizard of Oz” – did grooving and soulful songs from their recently-issued debut EP before a busy house…New York City-based Tool tribute Schism returned early last month to show their musical precision, intensity and passion on compositions from Tool’s complex song library; Alice In Chains tribute Deny Your Maker and Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute RHCP opened the evening…And I witnessed two-thirds of the face-melting metal triple-bill at McGarvey’s last month, featuring Black Sun, SamarA and The Heathen Parade. Work duties kept me from seeing The Heathen Parade, but I arrived in time for SamarA’s scorched-earth set with fierce metalcore originals performed against a backdrop of haunting video imagery. Black Sun followed with their brand of “blackened heavy stoner doom thrash”; constructing musical themes that gradually escalate into intense walls of improvisational dark heavy metal sound.

Likewise, I witnessed three shows at Altoona’s 4D’s Lounge in recent weeks, starting with Velveeta’s October return to this venue for the first time in at least a decade. Velveeta’s musical brand of 80s “cheese” filled the dance floor and generated the party. The Shallow 9 contingent of singer Erika Machiel, bassman Mitch Neuder and guitarist Ryan Weaver joined Velveeta onstage late on songs from Tears For Fears and the Killers…I saw 4D’s frequent flyers the Giants Of Science last month, as they continue to break in their new drummer, Shoe, who replaces Steve behind the kit. Based on this night, the roster change is working out well, as the Giants kept the dance floor full…And I caught up with Autumn Rising at the Dees late last month, and enjoyed as they fired up the dancefloor party with their energetic mix of classic rock, pop and country favorites. 

Other performances I witnessed included Brother Jack at the Spring Dam Brewery in Roaring Spring, bringing his “weird folk” brand of original songs and eclectic range of covers – spanning Gordon Lightfoot and Tom Waits to “On Top of Spaghetti” and “Jeepers Creepers” – in front of a receptive and cheering audience…Also Native Sons – the duo of singer and keyboardist Mark Rossi and percussionist Bill Hocherl – as they performed a colorful variety of blues, rock’n’roll, country and pop favorites at Molly’s Pub in Altoona…And I reminded myself that Hurricanes season never ends on Sunday nights at Altoona’s Black & Gold Tavern, as Felix & the Hurricanes again stirred up fun classic rock, southern rock and blues, and triggered happy dancing along the way. 

The region’s music scene was saddened recently by news of the passing of Hybrid Ice founding member and bass player Jeff Willoughby on November 1 at age 68. Jeff co-founded Hybrid Ice in 1969, and was a member of the group well into the 1990s. He left the group to raise a family and pursue other interests, and formed a computer graphics and animation business. He also taught guitar, bass and singing to aspiring musicians, became an aviator and aircraft builder, a World War II reenactor and a published author, especially of historical books…The Altoona area music scene was saddened with the unexpected passing of James McNulty on November 18; he was 39. James was involved with several bands over the years, most recently as a guitarist and singer with The Flannels; he also built custom guitars.

News and notes…Great news emerged from western PA last month with the announcement that Pittsburgh area rock great Donnie Iris is returning to the live stage after his battle with cancer through much of this year. According to a message on the official Donnie Iris and the Cruisers’ Facebook page, Donnie is doing great and is no longer undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and doctors are no longer seeing any cancer. Donnie was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his 80th birthday concert in March, and had to cancel several performance dates during the summer months. Donnie and the Cruisers will return to the stage on March 16 of next year; the concert, billed as “Luck of the Iris,” will take place at the UPMC Events Center in Moon Township northwest of Pittsburgh…The Lee Miller Experience, The Kiara Smith Band, Electric Swamp, Negan/Deny Your Maker with special guests, The Heathen Parade, Abstentious and Jeremy Gross acoustic are some of the names taking part in the third annual Toys For Tots benefit happening on Saturday, December 2 at the Root Hovett Hall near Patton…The Central PA Music Hall Of Fame will induct its first Blair Countian next March; the Hall announced its 2024 inductees in October, and one of them will be Fred Waring. The Tyrone native was a musician, bandleader, radio and television personality, and was referred to as “America’s Singing Master” and “The Man Who Taught America How to Sing.” Fred will join Fuel, Hybrid Ice, Blitz Dynette and Vince DiCola as a member of the 2024 Hall Of Fame induction class, and will be formally inducted posthumously during the official ceremony at the Hershey Theater on March 28 of next year…Huntingdon County-based rock group Reboot has announced the addition of longtime musician Dan McCorkle to their roster; Dan will handle guitar and bass duties in the group…Clearfield area horror-punk rockers Less Than Zero have parted ways with bass player Mindy DeVill; Mindy is now seeking a new band.

Please send correspondence and recordings to: Jim Price, 1104 S. Catherine St., Altoona, PA 16602. You can also e-mail me at And if you’re into social networking, look me up on Facebook. SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!