R&R at the R’n’R Hall of Fame

I’ve had quite a busy year so far, between working on my book, running back and forth between Pittsburgh for my day job and Ligonier for my night gig, and trying to get back on track with other long term writing projects and a community band.  So a weekend getaway was desperately needed!  We recently went to Cleveland and visited The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 01Regardless of certain opinions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the institution’s questionable nomination criteria and practices (I probably agree with you), I think the museum showcases a wonderful collection of historic musical artifacts and that’s what I appreciate about it. It has Roger Daltrey‘s fringe outfit from the The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus! It has Bruce Springsteen’s lyric notebooks! Look, there’s Neil Peart’s snare drum! The rock hall has also opened up a library and archives on the outskirts of he city where I’d probably give my right arm to work.  Imagine all of the cool documents and artifacts they have there that are NOT on display!  Imagine putting together one of the rotating exhibits such as the current Rolling Stones exhibition! Imagine researching those pieces of history and writing those informative exhibit labels!  (Hire me?! I’ll work remotely from Pittsburgh!)

But I digress! I think Dave and I spent about five hours walking through the museum.  Both of us have been there before, but it was great to take our time absorbing every single bit of information imparted on all of those exhibit labels, gaze at the details of the guitars on display and find our favorite bands’ signatures on the Hall of Fame wall. We also found Dave’s name in a leather-bound notebook containing the master list of charter members who joined when the museum originally opened!  Here are some of my highlights from our visit:


American Songline Concert Tour Hits Ligonier on May 2

Feel like taking a road trip today?

Courtesy of Cece Otto

Courtesy of Cece Otto

Chicago-based singer and composer Cecelia Otto will be performing a free concert tonight, May 2, at 7:30p.m. at the town hall auditorium in at 120 East Main Street in Ligonier, Pennsylvania – her fourth stop during her American Songline journey across the country.

Cece is in the midst of a pretty awesome and ambitious project celebrating the centennial of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first named transcontinental highway.   In April, she kicked off a six-month concert tour where she’ll be performing early twentieth century popular music and highway songs in venues along the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway. All concerts are free admission. You can follow Cece’s progress throughout her singing travelogue project through her website and social media.

ALincoln Highway Signfter an inaugural performing in New York City, the site of the eastern terminus of the route, Cece has already traveled through New Jersey and headed west through Pennsylvania, stopping at historical sites and tracing the route of the highway as much as possible, until she arrived at the western terminus in San Francisco, California.  Portions of the original 1913 route have been rerouted, renamed, decommissioned and even destroyed, so it’s a difficult yet fascinating endeavor that Cece is taking on.

Cece stops in Ligonier tonight, where she’ll perform with pianist Aaron Gray, a junior at Saint Vincent College. Her set list will include popular operettas, classical pieces and vaudeville songs, music written about the highway and two original songs composed by Dr. Nolan Stolz that are based on The Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, published in 1916. After corresponding with Cece over the last few weeks, I’m really excited to see her performance, meet her in person and hopefully have some adventures learning more about the Lincoln Highway and its impact on the Ligonier Valley and western Pennsylvania in general.

Brian Butko’s map showing the Lincoln Highway across America can be found on his Lincoln Highway blog: http://lincolnhighwaynews.wordpress.com

The The Lincoln Highway really changed the way people traveled by car from town to town and cross-country in the early twentieth century.  Until bypasses were built to reroute increased traffic, the Lincoln Highway was the main thoroughfare through cities and towns like Ligonier, with visitors and tourists bringing revenue to the businesses and roadside attractions that sprung up along the route in 14 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. In Ligonier, the Lincoln Highway passes right through the middle of town along East and West Main Streets.

The Lincoln Highway Pennsylvania Traveler's Guide by Brian ButkoFor more information on Cece Otto’s American Songline project, check out the April 29, 2013 edition of the Latrobe Bulletin, in which appears a feature article I wrote about her upcoming performance.  I’ve written a section on the Lincoln Highway in Ligonier Valley Vignettes, but I highly suggest to anyone that wishes to learn more about this historic highway to consult books by Brian Butko, who I consider the foremost authority on the Lincoln Highway, especially in Pennsylvania.  Also check out Brian’s Lincoln Highway blog, where he reports current news happening along the highway. If you want to see the different generations of the Lincoln Highway, the Lincoln Highway Association has a fantastic interactive map posted on their website.  I hope to use this map to help me navigate during my own little Lincoln Highway journey that I’m planning for this spring or summer.

Vacation Values: “Rush”-ing Around Toronto

As I mentioned in a previous post about my vacation priorities, whether it means checking out a local band at a bar, attending a concert or simply visiting musically significant sites and venues around town, I love connecting with music while I’m traveling. So, to satisfy the music portion of our Easter vacation in Canada, Dave and I paid homage to one of our favorite bands, the Toronto-based Rush by casually visiting a few places in and around the city connected to members of the band.

Peart’s Place

St. Catherines

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

On the way up to Toronto, we stopped to have lunch in the beautiful city of St. Catherines, located about 32 miles south of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario.  The waterfront village of Port Dalhousie, which was incorporated into St. Catherines in 1961, is where Rush drummer Neil Peart grew up – hence our first Rush connection. We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the outskirts of the downtown area during our brief visit, unfortunately, but I learned that “The Garden City” garnered its nicknamed from the beautiful gardens and parks that are found within its boundaries.  St. Catherines is also considered the metropolis of the Niagara Region and lies along a major telecommunications route between the United States and Canada.

I’d love to go back and see more of the city now that I’ve learned a bit about its history, which dates back to the late 18th century (1760s perhaps), when the area was settled by United Empire Loyalists. Since its inception as an agricultural settlement over 250 years ago the character of St. Catherines has evolved into the thriving city it is today.  First an agricultural community called “The Twelve,” the settlement was later known as Shipman’s Corners and became populated by sawmills and gristmills, leading to its establishment as the principal milling site of the eastern Niagara Peninsula.

By the first quarter of the 19th century, the area was renamed St. Catherines, probably after the wife of a prominent businessman, the Honorable Robert Hamilton.  Thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and businessman William Hamilton Merritt’s canal system connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, St. Catherines transformed into an industrial hub.

The town of St. Catherines, incorporated in 1845, continued to grow and develop throughout the 19th century thanks to farming and industry, but it also became renowned as a health spa due to salt springs that had been discovered earlier in the century.  It was also a critical location for fugitive slaves and abolitionists after the American Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and served as the home base for Harriet Tubman for a period of time.

In 1876 St. Catherines was officially designated as a city and became increasingly urbanized thanks to the introduction of manufacturing and the expansion of business throughout the city.  The city’s boundaries grew with the absorption of surrounding towns and villages, including Port Dalhousie, in the latter half of the 20th century.  As mentioned before, St. Catherines functions today as a major city in the Niagara Region, which is distinguished by the vast number of local wineries that benefit from its fertile soils and streams.

The Merchant Ale House Brew Pub & Restaurant

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Anyways, getting back to our journey, we enjoyed some wonderful local beers brewed on site at the Merchant Ale House Brew Pub and Restaurant, which was an adorable brew pub recommended to us by friends who had discovered it during a previous trip to Canada.  I’ll elaborate more on our experience trying the beer at the ale house, plus some additional information on the Niagara Region in a later post. Needless to say we had a very lovely afternoon filled with sunshine, beer and appetizers, even thought we tried to order fried pickles and our waitress somehow misconstrued that to mean we wanted fish and potatoes (still yummy, though).

If we had more time, I would have like to stopped at Port Dalhousie and checked out Lakeside Park, immortalized in the Rush song of the same name.


Rogers Centre

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Thanks for indulging my historical ramblings while in St. Catherines.  Continuing along our journey, once we arrived in Toronto, we headed over to the CN Tower to have a drink and see the city from the clouds.  Rogers Centre – the home of the Toronto Blue Jays – stands right next door to the tower.   Rush bassist Geddy Lee is a huge baseball fan and so it was neat to see the home of his beloved team, even though I am a die-hard Pittsburgh Pirates fan.  If we were in town longer we might have been able to grab a pair of tickets to the April 2 home opener, where Lee threw out the first pitch.


Another friend recommended dining in the quaint Little Italy section of town that evening.  After wandering along the main drag, College Street, we finally chose the small yet classy Trattoria Taverniti.  Our choice of restaurant was an example of what I picture as the quintessential Italian restaurant – warm brick interior, red and white checkered tablecloths and the Italian grandmother (executive chef Rosina Taverniti) slaving away in the kitchen creating our delicious margarita pizza and fried calamari.  Anyways, it turns out that we planned on heading to that area anyways to check out a small music club with our third Rush connection.

The Orbit Room

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

After dinner at Taverniti, we hopped right across the street and grabbed a drink at The Orbit Room, a music club that was co-founded in 1994 by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and features live local bands every night of the week, including classic rock, blues, reggae pop, funk and soul and Stax groups, even a Steely Dan tribute band.   I really liked the cool vibe of the small, dimly-lit dive bar located on an upper floor in the building, which wasn’t indicated by the narrow, nondescript entrance.  If it wasn’t for the sign outside we would have passed the place right up.  In fact, it actually looked closed and abandoned!  We tried to get in earlier before dinner to have a drink but found out that the club didn’t open until 9:00p.m.  The Dave Murphy band, the featured band on Friday nights, didn’t take the stage until 10:30p.m. After already being up for twelve hours and traveling for over six of those, we were too exhausted to make it to see the band.  Another time!

The Best Concert Year Ever

In addition to local history and classic literature, I also love popular music, particularly classic rock, sixties pop and early Rock and Roll.  I love listening to it, researching its history and learning how to play it on the guitar and drums.  I especially love listening to live music, so I try to attend as many concerts in Pittsburgh or within a reasonable driving distance as possible, depending on my schedule (and finances!).   I was thrilled to discover that my top five favorite groups and artists were touring throughout 2012 and I would be able to see them all, in addition to an unexpected reunion tour.  It was the best concert year I’ve ever had and one I will never be able to repeat.

The Beach Boys
Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, PA
May 11, 2012

The Beach Boys - May 11, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

I never thought I’d see the day when all surviving Beach Boys, including the legendary Brian Wilson would reunite on the same stage.  But they did, to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary and brand new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.  I highly recommend their new album, with it’s outstanding production (duh, Brian Wilson), beautiful pop compositions and gorgeous harmonies.  The group’s vocals sound as fresh as they did when these guys were in their early 20s and the songwriting is still strong.  It’s an incredibly joyous album that it makes the listener feel just as joyous.  It was a pleasure to see these guys together (with dearly departed band members Carl and Dennis Wilson fondly remembered) and hear some of the greatest and most beautiful pop songs in history performed live.

Neil Diamond
Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH
July 1, 2012

Neil Diamond - July 1, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

He’s the Jewish Elvis… and probably the only instance where my musical taste and my sister’s musical taste cross.   As a Pittsburgher and die hard Steelers fan,  it really takes something special to get me to drive to Cleveland (enemy territory) and Neil Diamond is something special.  I’ve seen him several times and each time I am struck by the look of gratitude on his face as he gazes out into the crowd after performing each of his songs.  His eyes sparkle just as much as his legendary sparkly shirts.  He truely conveys how much he loves his vocation and appreciates his audience.   He’s such an geniune singer-songwriter; his compositions are truely touching with their honesty and intimacy and his voice is so warm and honeyed.  It’s a wonderful experience to join Neil and thousands of rapt fans in a “Sweet Caroline” singalong.  My sister and I both agree he is “so good, so good, SO GOOD!”

Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA
September 11, 2012

Rush - September 11, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

I love being in the female minority when it comes to being a fan of the band Rush.  I feel very unique and privileged to be connected to the musicianship and wordsmithing that characterizes the progressive rock band’s catalog of music.  While I love the primitive driving rhythms and simply lyrics of early Rock and Roll, I equally love the intelligent, thoughtful, creative compositions of Rush.  The band has constantly evolved throughout their long career yet remained consisted in their musical integrity.  I wasn’t immediately drawn to their most recent album Clockwork Angels until I heard it performed live – the best execution of a new musical work – but it had me as mesmerized as the anthems you expect to hear at a Rush concert such as Tom Saywer and Subdivisions.   Their musicianship has inspired countless drummers and guitarists (on tangible and air instruments alike); their album-centric storylines have solidified their rock as art.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA
October 27, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band - October 27, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

The first band I ever remember listening to was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  At five years old, I sat in front of my dad’s stereo, repeatedly listening to a cassette tape of Born in the USA that my uncle had made.  The first songs I even remember hearing were “Dancing in the Dark” and “I’m On Fire.”  At five years old I had no idea what those songs were talking about, but I loved the sound of the music and I loved Bruce’s voice.  25 years later I had the thrill of hearing my earliest musical memory played live and understanding the message within those powerful, emotional lyrics.  Springsteen’s superhuman endurance and exuberance on stage and absolute committment to his music and his audience are overwhelming.  It’s always a party in Pittsburgh when The Boss is in town and that October night was complete with crowd-surfing, microphone stand-straddling, epic guitar solos and a touching tribute to the badly-missed Big Man, Clarence Clemons.

The Who
Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA
November 11, 2012

The Who - November 11, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Let’s keep it simple: The Who are the greatest rock band in history.  I knew when I heard that my favorite band of all time, would be performing my favorite album of all time, Quadrophenia, in my hometown of Pittsburgh that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and not even an act of God would keep me from the show.  From the 12th row I was bombarded with the lush, orchestral, pounding rock that tells the story of Jimmy the Mod in post-World War II England and his struggles to reconcile his four personalities and musical themes that reflect the four individual personalities of the Who.  I found myself not only dancing to the music, but conducting along with it.  The first time I saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend live on stage I was taken aback by the fact that these men were actually not immortal gods, but simply regular hard working people who accomplished amazing things using their musical talents and sheer determination and perseverance.  It’s the way Townshend captures universal experiences, emotions, struggles and celebrations in the group’s “power slop” rock and the way Daltrey bares his soul on stage with his roaring vocals that really overwhelms me whenever I see these two live.  I was equally touched by the duo’s inclusion of their dearly departed bandmates through piping in John Entwistle’s epic bass solo on “5’15” and Keith Moon’s vocals on “Bell Boy.”  It was an unforgettable evening of “organized chaos” and a display of one of my favorite characteristics of The Who’s music: their combination of powerful rock and emotional honesty.

The Monkees
Lakewood Civic Auditorum in Lakewood, OH
November 17, 2012

The Monkees - November 17, 2012

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Once again, it must be a pretty unique event that draws me to the Cleveland area, especially when it involves driving to and from that city in the same night (thank you energy drinks).  When I heard that Mike Nesmith was joining his former Monkees bandmates Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork for a short tour in tribute to the late Davy Jones, I knew I had  to find a way to the closest show.  The Monkees were my first pop culture obsession and Davy was my first teen idol.  I’ve seen Davy solo, Davy and Micky, and Davy, Micky and Peter, but never had to chance to see the elusive Nesmith perform until now.  It was such a treat to hear some of the group’s Nesmith-penned tunes performed by him, a selection from their cult movie Head and their quintessential hits.  I teared up as the audience took the lead on “Daydream Believer,” a song that no Monkee could sing in place of Jones.  It was a special, emotional night, and I’m proud to say that I have now seen all four Monkees in concert.

God Only Knows What I’d Be Without Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys - "Pet Sounds"No other album besides The Who’s Quadrophenia has impacted my life more than The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which was originally released on May 16, 1966.  The album is celebrating its 46th anniversary today.

Songwriter and producer Brian Wilson (with lyricist Tony Asher) created a kaleidoscope of teenage emotions with Pet Sounds: the hopeful romanticism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”; the spiritual paean to love and devotion that is “God Only Knows”; the troubling introspection of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”; the heartbreaking disillusionment of “Caroline No”; and all the feelings and anxieties that fill the songs in between.

Thank you Brian for this groundbreaking work of pop music.  It is no wonder that this unorthodox pop album has withstood the test of time, with its universal themes of love and heartbreak, brilliant instrumentation and gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies. I love this album so much.

Good Vibrations

Tonight I saw all surviving Beach Boys on the same stage together, celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary. I can’t believe it.

Remembering Dennis Wilson

Dennis WilsonThey say I live a fast life. Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will. – Dennis Wilson

I’ve been remembering Dennis Carl Wilson today.  On this day back in 1983, he dove into the waters at Marina del Rey in California, trying to recover possessions from his beloved yacht, Harmony, that were lying at the bottom of the sea.  He never came back, succumbing to the ocean that he he loved so dearly.  His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

I was born into the city life
It’s all that I’ve ever known
You know it’s rough gettin’ round this place
So crowded I can hardly breathe

You can only see about a block or two
In L. A. that’s the truth
I’m lookin’ for some country life
Some kickin’ room no more city life
I want the river
-“River Song” (Pacific Ocean Blue)

Dennis was the original inspiration for the Beach Boys.  His passion for cars, girls and surfing inspired his older brother Brian’s compositions that skyrocketed the group into mainstream success as America’s band.  Dennis was The Real Beach Boy – the only member of the group who actually surfed. He lived the life described in Brian Wilson’s songs all too well.

Dennis WilsonWild, impulsive, reckless, volatile, womanizing, alcoholic, unfortunate friend of Charles Manson… all accurate descriptions of Dennis Wilson.  But I remember him as a haunted poet, a true Byronic Hero.  A deeply troubled soul yearning for acceptance and true love.  A pained, tortured and lonesome man who loved both the the sea and music.  A musical genius in his own right.  Unfortunately, his life ended tragically and all too early before he could find the redemption he craved.

The sunshine blinded me this morning love
Like the sunshine love comes and goes again
I love you I love you
The sea air it’s flowing through my room again
Like the thoughts of you fill my heart with joy again

I’m sorry
I miss you

All things that live one day must die you know
Even love and the things we hold close
Look at love look at love look at love
Look what we’ve done

Loneliness is a very special place
To forget is something that I’ve never done
Silently silently you touch my face
-“Thoughts of You” (Pacific Ocean Blue)

Dennis Wilson was truely an underrated talent.  Although sparsely included in the Beach Boys’ catalog, some of his compositions do appear on several Beach Boys albums and reveal at the genius that lay beneath the surface of his wildman persona (“Be Still” and “Little Bird” from Friends,  “Only With You” from Holland “Be With Me” from 20/20,”Forever” from Sunflower, Cuddle Up” from Carl and the Passions – So Tough, “Baby Blue” from L.A. (Light Album), etc…)  

Dennis WilsonIn 1977, Dennis released his first and only complete solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue.  I highly recommend listening to this exquisitely heartbreaking album.   His dark, melancholy music serves as a poignant counterpoint to the joyful exuberance that has stereotyped the Beach Boys and really gives an insight into his troubled soul.   The soulful ache in his  gravelly, crackling voice combined with a creative blend of symphonic sounds and rock and roll to create an inspired album.

After being out of print for many years, Pacific Ocean Blue was released a few years ago, including tracks from Dennis’ unfinished follow-up album, Bambu, which are equally as stunning.  Adam Webb wrote pretty good biography entitled Dumb Angel: The Life and Music of Dennis Wilson, which I recommend reading.  There are some inaccuracies, but I really enjoyed it overall.  The Drummer, a biopic focusing on Dennis’ life during the period surrounding his solo career is currently in the works, featuring Aaron Eckhart as Dennis.  I’m really interested in seeing how that turns out, especially in light of the surviving Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion in 2012.  Hopefully we will see a resurgence of interest in and appreciation for Dennis’ music and the man himself.  Rest in peace in the Pacific Ocean Blue, Denny.

Here we are
With our dreams in the sky
We all have our dreams
It’s wonderful to know we’re alive
At the end
It’s over
– “End of the Show” (Pacific Ocean Blue)