By: Jim Price
Unleashed after mostly being on the shelf since March of last year, live music has come back like gangbusters in recent weeks, with more indoor venues getting back to hosting bands and performers, and outdoor live music action returning with a vengeance. And there seems to be an increased sense of appreciation from fans, venues, musicians, production and support staff that live music is back and some sense of normalcy has returned.
Family, friends, musicians and fans converged on a rural location near Liverpool last month to remember and celebrate PA Musician founder Whitey Noll, who passed away in January. I was traveling in from the Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival in northern PA (see next paragraph), and arrived just after Robin Noll delivered her opening welcome and prayer. Arriving rain didn’t dampen the spirit as much of the audience stood in the raindrops to listen to Robin’s words, followed by Danielle Farhat’s stirring a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” and her guitar rendition of “Way Maker.” Pastor Tim then presented a sermon that recalled Whitey and his faith, and shared a message about not being judgmental of others. The musical celebration of Whitey then commenced, with one of Whitey’s longtime friends, Charlie Hood, stepping up to perform a rendition of “Ukaboom Man” and another song. Whitey’s son-in-law, David Greene, and long time friend and jamming partner, Rick Beck, then performed a few more Whitey original songs, before The Syn D’Cats took the stage. While a steady rain fell, The Syn D’Cats let the rock’n’roll fly with a number of their rowdy original songs – including some from their 1995 “Cataphonic” album such as “Junkyard Women” and “$60 Bill,” as well as “Bitchin’ the Blues” and an edgy, rocking update of War’s “Me and Baby Brother.” Next up was Shea Quinn and friends…Shea on bass was joined by friends such as his Sharks cohort Steve Zero on guitar, singer and guitarist Ian Rawhauser – son of the late Sharks singer and guitarist Sam (Lugar) Rawhauser – as well as Ryan Sohmer on drums and James Klippel on keys. Together they celebrated the music of The Sharks, doing numbers from the group’s catalog such as “You’d Better Watch Her,” “Do You Remember,” “Holiday,” “Standing in the Rain,” “Will Tomorrow Be Too Late” and others. Then the Martini Brothers lit up the stage with their hearty, roots-driven brand of rock’n’roll. Frontman Deuce Gibb and company brought the rock and the swagger as they dished out feverish meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll. Road Case followed with their set of hard-hitting classic rock favorites. Singer Chris Redding, guitarists Chris Dellaporta and Clint Lyons, bassist Jeff Lawrence and drummer Ed Piccolo jubilantly hammered out classics from The Cult, Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Humble Pie, Queen, Def Leppard and more. And Suicide Puppets slammed the lid on the night with their set of intense, original heavy metal. Donned in facepaints and black attire, lead snarler Twisty Suicide, guitarists Steven Suicide, Tattuicide and Donnie Von Gailinger, bassist Jonny Suicide and drummer Veritas Suicide mixed power metal and industrial elements into their own distinctive sound, with a charged stage show to match. The group dedicated their terse rendition of Real Life’s “Send Me an Angel” in memory of Whitey, and performed other intense numbers such as “Man in Black,” “Blacker Days,” their closer “Porn Star” and more. It was heartening to see everybody who showed up this day to celebrate Whitey and show their support to the Noll family; hats off to everybody who attended, as well as Dave and Linda Russell for donating their property for this day, all the musicians, Keith Hummel on the sound, and everybody else who was a part of making this event happen!
As mentioned, my two days prior to the Whitey Noll celebration were spent in the northern PA Wilds, taking in the return of the Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival at Quiet Oaks Campground in Cross Fork (north of Renovo). I arrived on Thursday evening, and set up my tent accommodations with enough time to catch the last three performers this night, starting with Harrisburg’s Dead Horse Revival, who had youngsters hula-hooping in front of the stage with their upbeat mixture of traditional-flavored bluegrass. The group’s newest member, upright bass player Katie Powderly, showed a strong voice on the group’s rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Next was Danville-based Strawberry Ridge, providing their tasty mixture of bluegrass, folk, country and blues flavors, topped with some great-sounding harmonies. Singer and guitarist Renee Goocey, guitarist Robert Shuey, upright bass player Dave Kessler, banjoist Mark Doncheski and mandolin player Rick Marcera did a few original numbers plus songs from the Gibson Brothers, Tim Hardin, Dolly Parton, Claire Lynch, a version of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” dedicated in memory of Joe Sullivan, and more. Closing Thursday night’s music was Pittsburgh trio The Millbillys, whose blend of traditional musical styles, chops and humor made them an instant favorite. Singer and harmonica ace Charlie Barath, stand-up bassman Jeff Scheller and guitarist Mark Snider did a variety of colorful original songs, many from Charlie’s just-released album “Just Me and My Friend(s).” Tunes included the country-flavored “She Drives Me to Drink,” the Texas swing-geared “Losin’ My Mind Over You,” the bluesy and funky “Travelin’ Woman,” the oompah-toned “Sick, Sober and Sorry,” “Little Turtle Nightlight,” and their catchy closer “Guacamole,” which had various audience members yelling that word the rest of the weekend.
I also caught many of Friday’s performances between both the Quiet Oaks and PA Wilds stages, starting with Beaver County-based family group Echo Valley. Five sisters and a brother strong, Echo Valley delivered great harmonies as they presented a blend of gospel and traditional bluegrass flavors, as well as a bluegrass-driven rendition of the Chordettes’ “Lollipop.” Altoona favorites Mama Corn mixed their traditional-geared bluegrass sounds with their own touches of humor as they did original songs plus bluegrass takes on Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” Manfred Mann’s “Fox on the Run,” “Down Home Girl” and others, and for the encore, their song about this event, “Smoked Country Jam.” I also enjoyed sets from New York’s Jim Gaudet & the Railroad Boys, Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, western PA’s The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, Harrisburg’s Colebrook Road, West Virginia’s Silas Powell & the Powell Family Band, and renowned Danville-based singer, songwriter and educator Van Wagner. Headlining on the PA Wilds stage was one of the weekend’s highlights, a western PA-based four-band performance of the soundtrack to the popular 2000 film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” All dressed in 1930s-period clothing, the rosters of the Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, Echo Valley, The Millbillys and Well Strung entered by walking through the crowd and singing “Po Lazarus” as they made their way to the stage. All four bands and combinations of band members then took turns performing songs from the soundtrack (including each of the album’s four renditions of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”), with Jeff Scheller of Well Strung/The Millbillys narrating along the way. After this, nationally-popular Missouri-based bluegrassers The Hillbenders headlined on the Quiet Oaks stage, delivering an energetic mix of bluegrass and newgrass stylings plus stellar musicianship. The group that converted The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” into “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” did ‘Whograss’ renditions of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” into “Love Reign O’er Me” plus “Pinball Wizard.” The Hillbenders also did their own songs such as “Wrong Way,” “Psychic Lady,” “Radio” and others, and kept a large crowd in front of the stage happy for the duration.
Before departing on Saturday morning for the aforementioned Whitey Noll celebration, I spent some time with Van Wagner and watched his “North of 80” workshop presentation. The title of one of Van’s most popular songs, “North of 80” has spawned a community on Facebook that celebrates Van’s music as well as the heritage of Pennsylvania north of Interstate 80. For the “North of 80” workshop, Van welcomed many of these fans to bring instruments and songbooks (free and downloadable from his website) and perform with him as he did various songs and requests from his catalog. (You can hear excerpts from this session when Van is a guest on my “Homegrown Rocker” radio program on Q94 on Sunday, July 11.)
Other performers at this year’s Smoked Country Jam that I didn’t get to see included New Jersey’s Bug Tussle, Baltimore’s Dirty Grass Players, Huntingdon County native and Nashville-based performer Doug Forshey, West Virginia favorites the Hillbilly Gypsies, Clinton County’s Lockport Drifters, North Carolina’s Fireside Collective, Grass Stained Genes, Nashville-based family group Williamson Branch, Texas Rose Band and Well Strung. Also taking place was the award ceremony for the 13th annual Pennsylvania Heritage Songwriting Contest, which awards prizes for the best original song submissions about the state of Pennsylvania, its people, history, traditions and heritage. First place went to William Ryan of State College for his song “Pennsylvania Grass.” Second place went to Leonardo DiSanto of Lancaster for his song “Letters from Centralia,” and third place was John Kingman Smith of Baltimore for his song “Grainery Road.” All three winners received cash prizes, festival passes and the opportunity to perform their winning songs on stage at Smoked Country Jam. Proceeds from the festival benefited the Lupus Foundation of America Philadelphia Tri State.
Besides at Smoked Country Jam, I also got to see Van Wagner during a supper stop en route to a mini-vacation I spent in northeast PA during late May. Van performed at the Iron Fork Restaurant, part of the Frosty Valley Resort in Danville. Van spotlighted a number of his new songs, including numbers from his forthcoming bluegrass album, his fascinating song “Hey You Yankee Boy” (about the ‘Pennamite War,’ a pre-Revolutionary War conflict between Pennsylvania and Connecticut militias that Connecticut initially won), and a song called “Be Real” from his new rap-geared album called “Rap Is Folk” (see the CD review elsewhere in this issue).
The first of five PA Roundhouse Rally concert weekends happened in late May at Roundhouse Harley-Davidson between Altoona and Duncansville. The three-day event featured food, beverage and other vendors, a motorcycle run to Bedford, the ‘Bacon & Bourbon Fest’ to benefit Ronald McDonald House, and live music. Hair Force One opened the musical slate on Thursday, celebrating the 1980s hair-band “decade of decadence.” Singer Victor Synn, guitarists Michael J. Cox and Milo Nuttz, bassist Peter Fitzwell and drummer Shawn Toppuver rocked the crowd with favorites from Quiet Riot, Scorpions, Skid Row, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Poison, Ratt, Guns N’Roses, Cinderella, Ugly Kid Joe and more…Although deluged by rain most of the day, Friday’s leg of the Roundhouse Rally featured two Altoona area favorites, Felix & the Hurricanes and Shallow 9. The Hurricanes entertained the early audience who braved the rains with their mix of classic, southern rock, blues and original tunes. The trusty trio of Felix, Bob and Jeff pulled out favorites from ZZ Top, Pat Travers, Delbert McClinton, Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Clarks, original numbers such as “Walking a Straight Line,” the instrumental “Whirlwind” and more. Shallow 9 followed with their dance-friendly performance, mixing pop, funk, hip-hop and modern rock favorites. Singer Erika Marino-Ankeny, guitarists Greg Larrimore and Ryan Weaver, bassist Mitch Neuder and drummer Todd Harshbarger generated the party with songs from Cheap Trick, Panic! at the Disco, Blink 182, Cake, Charlie Puth, plus funk/hip-hop hit medleys, a soul/funk medley, an emo-rock medley and more…And two bands entertained on Saturday, starting with the Matt Pletcher Group. Matt on lead voice and acoustic guitar, Nate Beatty on bass and vocals, Ben Eberhart on lead guitar, and Randy Servello on drums and vocals provided the musical entertainment during the “Bacon & Bourbon Fest” portion of the afternoon, mixing rock’n’roll and country favorites over two sets. Opening with Matt’s original song “Sure Thing,” the group did numbers from Social Distortion, Dion, Chris Stapleton, Foo Fighters, Bob Seger, Steve Earle, the Beatles, Zac Brown Band, John Denver, David Allan Coe, Hootie & the Blowfish, Hank Williams II, John Mellencamp and a lot more. New York City-based Guns N’Roses tribute Get Your Guns then closed out the event with their lively and exciting presentation of Guns N’Roses music. Frontman Paul Zartler did a good job in the Axl Rose role, carrying the voice on Guns N’Roses favorites, while Jimmy Robinson did a convincing Slash both appearance-wise and on the guitar strings. Bassist Chris Tristram is a former member of House Of Lords and Jack Russell’s Great White.
Altoona’s historic Baker Mansion hosted their second annual Mansion Mania Rockfest last month, raising funds for the Blair County Historical Society. Like last year, the bands Challenger Deep and Half Tempted provided the rock. Challenger Deep – featuring singer Haley Hallinan, lead guitarist Brian Lazinski, bassist and singer Max Knott, and drummer and percussionist Lisle Weaver – led off the afternoon with their mixture of mostly 1990s era rock and pop favorites. They warmed up the audience with tunes from Lady Gaga, Sublime, Charlie Puth, The Cult, Nine Inch Nails, 4 Non Blondes, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Billie Eilish, Blur and more. Longtime classic-rocking favorites Half Tempted followed with copious amounts of 1970s and 1980s rock. Guitarist and singer Jimmy Mincin recently returned to the fold, joining lead singer and mainstay Ron Dalansky, bassist Todd Batzel and drummer Doug Stephens. They rocked the Baker Mansion grounds with tunes from Free, Grand Funk Railroad, Thin Lizzy, Kiss, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, Cheap Trick, Poison, Ramones, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest and many more.
Fuse lit the fuse on rocking fun last month when they entertained during the Nanty Glo Community Days celebration, hosted by the Nanty Glo Fire Department. Featuring lead singer Nick George, guitarist Tom Buck, bassist Rich George and drummer John Tedeski; Fuse quickly filled the dance floor area with their high-energy selection of rocking 1970s and 1980s favorites. All four members of this group were excellent in their respective roles – Nick displayed an excellent voice throughout the night, achieving David Coverdale’s high notes and power on Whitesnake’s “Fool for Your Loving” and Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight.” Not to be outdone, John showed great vocal range from behind the drum kit on The Outfield’s “Your Love,” and his beats were strong and steady. Tom fired off excellent and precise guitar solo displays throughout the night, and Rich’s lean bass lines helped fuse it all together. Their vocal harmonies were on the money as well. Fuse’s selection included songs from Foreigner, John Mellencamp, CCR, Loverboy, Huey Lewis & the News, Van Halen, ZZ Top, Bad Company, Jackyl and more. Fuse’s strong performance kept this community celebration happy from start to end.
I caught up with local rockers Bone Jacked last month as they performed at Altoona’s Valley View Amphitheater. Singer and guitarist Kip Woodring, guitarist Chris Guella, bassist DJ Gates and drummer Terry Wilt performed favorites spanning the 1960s through 1980s. Their presentation was enthusiastic and tight; Kip brought his guitar out into the audience to jam up close with the people, even demonstrating his slide skills on George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” and “Move It On Over.” He also handled most singing duties, with DJ fronting the group on Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy” and the show-ending version of Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World.” Bone Jacked also did songs from Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, Georgia Satellites, CCR, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, Dire Straits and many more. You could tell that these four musicians were happy to be entertaining these onlookers, and their heartfelt performance won this audience.
It’s not often that I get to see a hot dog perform live music, but the opportunity presented itself when the musician and performance artist who brought you Elvis Chicken and Sharky – Altoona’s Tom Brunner – introduced his latest incarnation, Hot Dog Boy, who performed for diners and curious onlookers in late May at Burger Hut between Buckhorn and Ashville. Clad in a hot dog outfit complete with mustard and bun, and with his electric guitar adorned in a plush fuzzy hot dog, Hot Dog Boy mixed original music creations with his own unique send-ups of pop standards and favorites. His song selection was unpredictable and improvisational; only Hot Dog Boy knew where he was going next. Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” veered into his original ‘jingle’-type song “Saucey Sausage,” and his metal guitar curveball take on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” led into a guitar rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and a version of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” It was interesting to observe onlookers’ reactions; some folks looked bewildered, while a couple seated behind me at the picnic tables expressed appreciation for what Hot Dog Boy was doing, and two young ladies from Penn Cambria High School requested selfies with him (which he gladly obliged). Having played in bands for four decades, Tom likes his current solo path and the freedom to create and express himself musically. He doesn’t take his solo incarnations too seriously, and likes occupying the middle ground between musician, performance artist and clown. Like his other incarnations, Hot Dog Boy is Tom Brunner’s creative outlet, and allows him to explore musical paths and visual themes. My hat’s off to Hot Dog Boy for daring to be different and original. Altoona Curve baseball fans can see Hot Dog Boy and Tom’s other new incarnation – as performing ice cream cone “Mr. Whippy” – as part of People’s Natural Gas Field’s “Awful Night” promotion on July 7 before the Curve takes on the Akron Rubber Ducks.
While delivering the June issues of PA Musician in downtown State College last month, I came upon a refreshing sight, as live music was happening outside 3 Dots for the first time since 2019. It was the first installment of 3 Dots’ weekly Tuesday evening Open Mic, hosted by Jason Adams. Singer and guitarist Joe Miller was entertaining as I arrived, and I parked my delivery dolly and took in the rest of the music. After another unidentified performer did a few songs, Jason took the stage and played a mix of his own originals and select covers. Initially strumming acoustic guitar, Jason started with the original “Path to Rock Bottom,” before doing songs from Bob Marley, Tom Petty, the Animals and Johnny Cash. A little extra unexpected entertainment occurred, as the State College Borough Water Authority showed up to flush a fire hydrant mere feet from the stage. But the worker skillfully directed the spraying water out onto Beaver Avenue, and no musicians or gear got wet. Jason finished the Open Mic by turning his attentions to the house piano sitting outside the door, where he did a sing-along rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Open Mic will happen at 3 Dots each Tuesday through the summer season.
I witnessed a lot of shows at McGarvey’s in recent weeks…From Austin Texas, Hanna Barakat and her band visited McGarvey’s stage as part of a northeastern trip last month. After The PennSoulvanians opened the night with their strong and soulful set, Hanna and her band demonstrated her unique brand of modern rock, which fuses hard, Evanescence-like rock dynamics with a distinct Middle Eastern edge. Hanna showed a strong, versatile voice and engaging personality with the crowd, flanked by guitarist Carson Carter, bassist Anthony Basini and Altoona’s own Lisa Fazenbaker on drums. Hanna and band did many of the songs from Hanna’s album “Siren,” including the title song as well as “Let Go,” “Criminal,” “Damage Done,” “Wildfire” and the pop-toned “Leave Your Light On.” Inspired and intrigued by her father’s former homeland of Lebanon, Hanna did several songs that strongly represented the mixture of rock and Middle Eastern styles along with words addressing some of the realities in that part of the world – numbers such as the set-opening “In the Night,” “Cycle” (including a spoken passage from her father), “Separation” and “Wanting to Go Home.” During mid-set, Hanna and Lisa did a four-song acoustic duo segment. Engaging and thought-provoking music; Hanna and her band delivered the goods and won the crowd this night; if you missed them, the group will be back in October to perform at the Bedford Fall Foliage Festival.
Other shows I caught recently at McGarvey’s included Samara’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes to present their intense, audiovisual heavy metal spectacle in late May, with guest bands The Heathen Parade and Off the Top Rope…Also high-velocity shows from Pittsburgh favorites the Legendary Hucklebucks and The Filthy Lowdown, the first Altoona visit by State College-based musical adventurers Gelatinous Cube, and a strong showing from Altoona-based hard rockers Buckshot Tea Party with guests Mellissa Vella & Rick Ramsey in late May.
And the Nag Champions Mystery Band musically initiated a new eatery in Cresson last month, when they performed at The Brick on Front (formerly Tre Regazzi and the Blue Moon Saloon). Lead singer and guitarist Derek Gresh, guitarist and singer Gary McCloskey, keyboardist and guitarist Tim Homerski, bassist Graham Albright and percussionist Ed Hofer blended elements of funk, groove, jam, Americana and rock via their original song creations, including several from their forthcoming fourth album. They also did select covers, applying their own distinctive flavor to such tunes as Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire,” the Allman Brothers’ “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” several Grateful Dead numbers and more. Nag Champions’ presentation was inventive and freewheeling, as they let the vibe of each song carry them with frequent improvisation. They were well-received by the audience this night; and more appearances at The Brick on Front are likely.
The area music scene was saddened by the loss of several longtime members in recent weeks…Longtime sound engineer Rick Claar passed away on June 3 at age 66 after battling health issues. Rick ran sound for many of musician John McKelvey’s band projects, including The Front, The Housepets, Paradise Lost, Issues, Flight 19 and others, plus ran sound for numerous other area bands, performers, shows and benefits. He also was involved with the Blair County Community Action Agency, and ran sound for many of the Agency’s summer concerts at downtown Altoona’s Heritage Plaza in recent years. He also engineered and produced recordings for a number of bands and musicians…William Ford passed away unexpectedly on May 25. Formerly of Hollidaysburg, William was a bandsman in the United States Air Force in the early 1960s, and retired from the 28th Division Band of the Army National Guard in 1995. He was a private drum teacher at Ford Music in Altoona and a freelance musician for nearly four decades…And Ben Nelson, father of Mama Corn’s Jeremy Nelson and a long-renowned area bluegrass musician, passed away on June 24 at age 75. A member of such groups as The Grass Strings and Alder Creek, Ben wrote many songs, some which Jeremy and Mama Corn continue to perform and preserve.
News and notes…While many festivals and community events have returned in 2021 after missing last year due to COVID-19, not everything is back; last year’s pandemic scuttled fundraising and resources to enable several community events to take place this year. Local examples include Portage Summerfest, which has cancelled their usual three-day event for this year and is instead holding a one-day FundFest on Aug. 15 to help raise funds to bring back the full-scale festival next year…Richland Community Days in Johnstown has also cancelled their August event for similar reasons…The Altoona First Frontier Festival will return to downtown Altoona’s Heritage Plaza on Saturday, July 31.The reunion/farewell show from Altoona rock’n’roll legends The Front is back on; after being shelved twice last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show will now take place on Saturday, November 6 at The Casino near Altoona’s Lakemont Park…Somerset County rock band Diamond Star Halo has reached its end. Drummer Todd Reffner made the announcement this past week, citing his own health issues and another band member retiring as factors in the decision…After appearing as a guest with the group over the past few months, singer and keyboardist Caryn Dixon has officially joined the ranks of popular State College rock and pop group My Hero Zero…Johnstown-based singer and songwriter Dan Stonerook has teamed with two Pittsburgh area musicians to form a new band project called Moonshine Jasmine…Now based in Huntingdon, singer and songwriter Jack Servello has teamed with his son Richie Servello in a new duo project called Acoustic Express…Currently the bass player for Jim Donovan & the Sun King Warriors and Matt Otis & the Sound, Kent Tonkin is creating and recording music toward his solo project called Scorched Earth Syndrome; numerous musicians appear on the recordings, including Kent’s longtime collaborators Bob McGarvey and Ron Brode, plus Lily Taylor, Zach Wade, Michael Kensinger, Matt Otis, Mellissa Vella, Kenny Murdick, plus his Sun King Warriors brethren Jim Donovan, Dan Murphy, Kevin McDonald and Bryan Fazio. A release date for the music has not yet been announced…Altoona-based musician Pat McGinnis is in the midst of a special journey; starting in late May, Pat is pedaling his bicycle from San Francisco to Virginia Beach in a quest called “Salt to Salt.” At press time, he had just crossed into Kansas – follow his progress and updates on his “Salt to Salt” page on Facebook…Once again, I extend big thanks to my “street team” who helps get PA Musician to various locations in west-central PA: Deanna Trio-Schompert (Johnstown and Somerset) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re into social networking, look me up on Facebook. SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC!