2024 has now entered the building. As with all New Years holidays, this one symbolizes another beginning with a clean slate, as well as a chance to reboot and work toward betterment and new goals. I wish all of our PA Musician readers and the state’s music community much success and prosperity in the New Year!
Several Christmas-themed events provided highlights during recent weeks…It had been on my bucket list for years, but I finally got to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) live in person for the first time last month at the Giant Center in Hershey. This concert – part of this year’s “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve: The Best of TSO” tour – lived up to everything I ever had heard about it, as TSO – some 17 members strong including 10 singers (if my count was correct) – generated a spectacle of multi-tiered music, lights, lasers, pyro, fog, theatrics, props, storytelling and Christmas magic before a packed arena. Guitarist Chris Caffery and a representative of local radio station WINK 104 stepped onstage before the performance to greet and thank the audience, before announcing that TSO – who donates part of their ticket proceeds to local charities in every city where they perform – was donating $16,000 toward the local Salvation Army chapter. From there, the adventure began, as TSO mixed elements of symphonic and classic heavy metal, classical, soul, funk and Christmas music into a flowing, dynamic performance. The first portion of the concert featured performances of music from TSO’s 1999 film/2003 DVD “The Ghost of Christmas Eve,” which musically presents the story of a runaway who takes refuge in an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, and the apparitions she encounters from the theatre’s past. The “Best of TSO” portion then compiled an assortment of the group’s songs from the rest of their discography, as well as a few numbers from the group that spawned TSO, Savatage. Highlights were constant throughout all of it; some of my favorites includes the spotlights on all 10 singers (Zak Stevens, Caleb Johnson, Russell Allen, Georgia Napolitano, John Brink, Mackenzie Meadows, Gabriela Gun, Gabbie Rae, Natalya Rose and Robin Borneman); Savatage numbers such as “The Hourglass,” “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” “Temptation Revelation” and “This Isn’t What We Meant”; and the group’s seamless merger of symphonic metal with classical interludes and Christmas standards such as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This?” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and more. The only down side to this concert was that I took ill during the middle of it and had to step out of the arena for several songs (the first time that has ever happened to me at a concert), but returned to see the last 45 minutes. (Of course, this means that I’ll now need to go see TSO again during a future tour, so I can hopefully enjoy the whole concert experience without interruption.)
The Root Hovett Hall near Patton hosted its third annual Toys for Tots Benefit in early December. The first two years of this benefit have raised more than 300 toys and more than $800 in monetary donations to help local families to have brighter holidays. Five bands and performers provided the music for this year’s benefit. Many donated toys had already arrived as I entered the hall to catch the latter part of the Lee Miller Experience’s opening performance. Lee on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Mike Davis on percussion and vocals, Bob Gray on acoustic guitar and mandolin performed a mixture of covers, including songs from Charlie Daniels, Grateful Dead, R.E.M., Old Crow Medicine Show and others. Back for their third appearance at this benefit, Altoona’s Abstentious cut loose with their speedy, high-octane brand of original punk rock. Now expanded to a quartet, bassist and singer Noah Keller, guitarists Gage Ickes and Jaxon Swisher, and drummer Jake Hicks fired off numerous new originals from their latest album, “The Album…Ever” such as “Milk 2” and “Fast Timez,” tunes from their previous “Without A Moral Compass” album such as “Off The Wall,” and brand new songs such as the Gage-fronted “When Will I See You Again.” Always a highlight of seeing Abstentious is observing how Josh slams away on his drum kit, seemingly hellbent on turning that kit into kindling! Bringing the speed and intensity back down was Desperate Sounds, the performance alias of Clearfield County singer and songwriter Jeremy Gross. Mixing acoustic folk, indie, punk and even Irish flavors, Jeremy provided a hearty and powerful voice as he did numerous original songs such as “Hurricane,” “Nothing Left to Burn,” the Irish-toned “Don’t Count On Me,” “My Greatest Sin,” “Too Far Gone” and more. Bringing the metal intensity was Johnstown’s The Heathen Parade. This was the first time I’ve seen this group since Chad Straw took over the bass position, reuniting with his brother Jason Straw on guitar and vocals, and Rik Golden on drums. The Heathen Parade unleashed several new numbers during their set, including “Horse Head in Your Bed,” “Last Broken Lie,” “Blood Red” and “Oh How My Mother Tries.” They set a powerful, rampaging pace throughout their set, culminating with the driving double-shot finale fusion of “Dead Heat (For Dead Last)” into “Born Again Leviathan.” Electric Swamp then closed out the benefit with their blend of rugged original country and southern-toned rock. Guitarists Tom Bearer and Sam Bassett, and drummer Bryon Stanek shared singing duties, with Garret Cunningham playing bass. Electric Swamp introduced such songs as “Keep On Drowning,” “Early Morning Shakes,” “Hollywood Hotel,” the new song “Headstone” and more. This year’s Toys for Tots benefit was the most successful so far, raising 224 toys and $659.
According to German holiday season mythology, the Christmas demon Krampus and Saint Nicholas make their rounds visiting children, with Saint Nicholas giving good children gifts and treats, and Krampus beating naughty children with branches and shrubbery. Altoona’s Unter Uns Musical & Entertainment Society played host to both characters last month during their “Krampusnacht” event, with Fortune & Glory again providing the music. Closing their first set as I arrived, the group – singer Dana “DD” Martino, guitarist Art Martino, bassist Nicholas Martino, keyboardist Aaron Baranik and drummer Bryan Starr – were setting the tone for the visitation with Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone.” Before Fortune & Glory started their second set, Krampus and Saint Nicholas entered the building. In lieu of gifts this year, St. Nicholas blessed all the good adult kids with a ticket good for a free beer, while Krampus thrashed the naughty kiddies with his handful of weeds. Fortune & Glory successfully tamed the beast by getting him to groove to their second set opener, Ghost’s “Square Hammer.” The group continued their mix of classic rock and pop favorites from such names as Queen, Elton John, The Rascals, Melissa Etheridge, Janis Joplin, Scandal, Led Zeppelin, Great White and much more. Dana sounded strong on the singing end, and Fortune & Glory shined instrumentally, especially Aaron’s keyboard work on The Police’s “Synchronicity 2” and Art’s slide guitar display on the night-ending rendition of Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Johnstown’s Venue Of Merging Arts (VOMA) regularly presents “Blues Gathering” events, and one of Pittsburgh’s finest – guitar master Jimmy Adler – came to bring bluesy fun during Thanksgiving weekend. Jimmy sang and played guitar, backed by bassist and singer Jim Spears, guitarist Lenny Grove and drummer Brice Foster. Jimmy led his group through a wide variety of blues flavors, from jump blues to slow blues to New Orleans, funky flavors and more; blending original songs and his versions of blues classics along the way. He got folks dancing with numbers such as “Cordelia,” “Drivin’ My Cadillac,” “Sugar Cookie,” “Fingertips,” “You’re Lookin’ Good,” “Grease Alley” and others. He honored requests for several songs such as the jazzy “Walk Right In, Walk Right Out” and the slower “Midnight Rooster,” and did select covers of Muddy Waters’ “Rich Man’s Woman,” B.B. King’s “Jump With You Baby,” Jimmy Reed’s “Found Love” and Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Jimmy made his guitar sing early and often, displaying finesse with nuanced solos that always served the mood of each song. He ran the gamut from mild to wild, playing the guitar behind his neck on one song. His bandmates were skilled as well, all providing the proper accompaniment and also serving each song. Jimmy also added humorous and witty quips along the way, and as a high school English teacher by day, offered up a story about teaching Shakespeare and even reciting some Shakespearean lines to open the group’s final set. It all made for a fun and grooving evening that triggered dancing and cheers. Jimmy and his band return to VOMA on March 23.
After Jimmy’s show concluded, I headed a few miles east to the Windber Hotel in Windber to catch the last set of the SuperAlrights’ performance. Singer and bassist Wil Fine, guitarist and singer Mike Lux and drummer and singer Kraig Maldet have become frequent flyers on Johnstown area stages with their catchy mixture of 90s’era rock. Their last set featured tunes from 3 Doors Down, Pearl Jam, Everclear, The Ataris, Lit, Collective Soul, Goo Goo Dolls, The Killers and more. The SuperAlrights triggered some vigorous action on the dance floor and cheers along the way. Guest Ben Frick took over drum duties on the night-ending rendition of Silverchair’s “Tomorrow,” with Mike ripping the guts out of his guitar at song’s end to close the evening.
Astral Shakedown made their debut on State College stages during 2023, and I got to see them for the first time during Thanksgiving weekend at Zeno’s. This group features members of The Perkolators and Obvious Pocket; Kate Terry sings lead vocals, with Eric Milinchuk and Dipak Sahoo on guitars, Ed Colby on bass and Jason Halterman on drums. Astral Shakedown triggered dancing and grooving in front of the stage early and often with their spunky blend of jam, soul and funk flavors. This group showed a knack of taking a wide range of cover material and making it their own, often stretching the songs into improvisational, grooving excursions that kept dancers in front of the stage area the entire night. I was pleasantly surprised with some of the songs they did this night; including versions of the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” and “Shakedown Street,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good” and more. Get your groove on and discover Astral Shakedown on area stages in 2024.
After Astral Shakedown finished, I walked a short distance to the nearby Phyrst in State College to check in with Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s during their weekly Friday night party. Although Penn State students were out of town for the Thanksgiving break and the Phyrst wasn’t quite as populated, Ted & the Hi-Fi’s – namesake Ted on guitar and vocals, singer Molly Countermine, Rene Witzke on bass and Chris Maguire on drums – went all-out to give the folks in attendance a fun, high-energy party. This group again showed the knack of pulling out the unexpected – this night, versions of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” A-ha’s “Take On Me,” Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl,” a mash-up between Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” and Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” plus songs from the Spin Doctors, Black Crowes, Rolling Stones, Foster the People, Cranberries, Doors and more. Ted and the Hi-Fi’s kept the music uptempo and feisty; Molly handled most of the singing with her fiery voice, with Ted fronting on a few numbers and the night’s sound engineer, Roy Long, singing lead on a request for Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and dueting with Molly on the B-52s’ “Love Shack.” Ted frequently demonstrated his guitar talents, especially his attention to guitar tones and nuances; he also took his guitar out to the floor to jam to the onlookers direct during Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” The group did at least one song off Ted’s new “Behind the White Noise” album, “Love Bomb Cult,” and they even got the crowd into the Christmas spirit with renditions of “Sleigh Ride” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Catch Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s any Friday night at the Phyrst, and Ted & Molly’s acoustic duo every Sunday at State College’s American Ale House.
The area music scene’s youth movement continues strong entering 2024…I caught up with young gun trio Open Ends early last month at McGarvey’s. Lead singer and guitarist Tyler Bollman, bassist Evan Mathers and drummer Gino Passanita enthusiastically took on music that came years before them this night, injecting their own energy and excitement into classics spanning Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” to the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Blitzkrieg Bop,” plus numbers from Poison, Sublime, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Nirvana, Metallica, plus two of their own original tunes, “The King” and “Awaken.” A pleasant surprise this night was when Sweet Desire frontman Jordan McCaulley and guitarist Kenton Lewis joined Open Ends onstage to perform Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.”
Altoona’s Kryptonite Nightclub hosted the youthful double-bill of Sweet Desire and Walkney early last month. Walkney was under way as I arrived, doing their charged blend of original alternative-geared songs and select covers. Founder, singer and guitarist Derek Mrdjenovich has assembled a local supergroup with Nate Nagle (The PennSoulvanians) on guitar, solo artist Nik Mik on bass, and David Applas (The Jaded Lips) on drums. Walkney’s catchy and punchy original tunes drew fans up in front of the stage to groove along; the group also did a version of Simple Minds’ “(Don’t You) Forget About Me.” Sweet Desire then followed with their classic rock/blues-rooted sounds. The group mixed original songs with late 1960s and early 1970s rock classics. Singer Jordan McCaulley, guitarist Kenton Lewis, bassist Joshua Simpson and drummer Trey Boore introduced some new originals such as “Queen of the Dawn” and “Easy Woman…Lovin’ Woman,” as well as their first single, “Raspberry Joe Blues.” They also fired up classics such as Faces’ “Stay With Me,” the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.,” Cactus’ “Evil,” Free’s “Ride on Pony” and more. Sweet Desire sank full purpose into every song they did, with Jordan going full Jim Morrison mode on the Doors double-shot of “Roadhouse Blues” into “Back Door Man,” and the group jamming out heartily on their mash-up blending of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” into Rush’s “Working Man” to close out the night.
I caught the latter half of a three-band punk rock banger at McGarvey’s early last month. I arrived too late to see openers Cryptic Rites from State College, but did catch the latter part of X’s For Eyes’ set. Guitarists Tom Noel and Tim Mort, bassist Oob and drummer Justin Fair delivered full force punk-rocking speed and velocity on what sounded like some new original tunes to wrap up their set. Lock Haven punk trio Suburban Downgrade slammed the lid on the night with their rowdy and unpredictable set. Guitarist and singer Zach “Spatz,” bassist and singer Andrew “The Eel” and drummer Craig “Crater” brought the noise and fury with their original song arsenal, rooted in punk but also including touches of ska, reggae and even polka. I didn’t catch any song titles other than the opening number “Falling Down,” but enjoyed Suburban Downgrade’s velocity and tenacity, which also brought a number of other fans to the front of the stage.
News and notes…Lzzy Hale now has a guitar named after her…Kramer Guitars partnered with the Halestorm singer and guitarist last month to introduce the new Kramer Lzzy Hale Voyager guitar; as Kramer is now a division of Gibson Guitar Corporation, Lzzy now becomes Gibson’s first female guitar ambassador with the new guitar’s introduction…Somerset County rockers Fuse welcomed aboard two new members; Brett Mulhollen takes over guitar duties to replace Tom Buck, and Alex Shumaker joins the group on drums…And Monster Track Supergroup – featuring White Witch singer Jeff Pittinger, Bret Alexander of the Badlees and former Breaking Benjamin drummer Jeremy Hummel – released their third EP, titled “Volume III,” late last month.
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. SUPPORT LOCAL and LIVE MUSIC IN 2024!