Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: YEAR IN REVIEW
Dustin Douglas released one of the best local albums of 2014

Weekender music writer shares his thoughts on the year’s highlights

By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU

As some readers may know, I covered music extensively for both The Times Leader and The Weekender from 1992-2011. In 2011, when I left the company on excellent terms, I stayed on as a music correspondent and told our readers that I still might be contributing a few articles per year. And that’s what I did. From 2011 through most of 2014, I probably did about 10 stories in total.

This past fall, however, I came back into the fold on a more frequent basis. And the reasons were simple: 1) I still love to write about music, and 2) I continue to receive many records from local artists, who send them my way in hopes that we’ll give them some airplay on my weekly radio show. And since they’re often very good, and since I‘m already playing them, I wanted to write about them, too. Thus, since October, I've been back in The Weekender almost every week, and because of that, they've asked me to share my thoughts on some of the musical highlights of 2014.

One of the things I really like to see on the local music front is people trying new things. Sometimes, you need to take a chance. Last year, in 2013, the band Cabinet decided to take on the challenge of holding a musical festival at Montage Mountain. And this year, with the “Susquehanna Breakdown,” they were back with another such event. Major props to that group, and their manager, Bill Orner, for making that happen. It’s not easy, but they've got something good going, and they've already announced that they’ll be back again in May. Congratulations also to Will Beekman and The F.M. Kirby Center for its successful “Chandelier Lobby Series,” which recently hosted two sold-out shows with Cabinet. It’s another fine example of someone taking a chance on something new and then seeing the public respond in a positive way.

Along those same lines, you've got to love what Ken Norton and Joe Caviston pulled off in Scranton back in October with the inaugural “Electric City Music Conference” and the “Steamtown Music Awards.” This was a particularly ambitious undertaking and once again, it was well received by the local music community. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the people that I work with at 105 The River and at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. In June, we launched the new “Music On The Menu Live Original Music Series” at Breakers. Once a month, we select one of NEPA’s best original artists and we put them live on stage and, just as importantly, live on the radio, where they are given the opportunity to play their songs for a wide listening audience. There’s probably not anything quite like it being done by any other station in the country and I’m proud to be a part of it.   

As I said at the top of this article, one of the reasons you've seen my byline a bit more in The Weekender in recent months is because I wanted to write about some of the fine local albums that have come my way at the radio station. Some of this year’s highlights, which I did write about, were “Black Skies & Starlight” by Dustin Douglas, “Rhythm of Our Hearts” by Mike Dougherty, “Under The Covers: The Songs of Tom Flannery” by Tom Flannery,” “In The Aftermath” by Eddie Appnel, “Diary” by Jane Train and the self-titled release by the Phyllis Hopkins Trio. Other gems from late 2013 or 2014 were “Eleven” by Dani-elle, “Sound Makes Waves” by Nick Coyle, “Change.Adjust.Continue” by Graces Downfall and “Sounds From Thursday Evening” by Suze.  And just a few weeks ago, I received an album from Black Tie Stereo that also ranks among the year’s best local releases.

Sometimes people ask me, after more than 20 years of being involved with the NEPA music scene, what I still like about it the most. That’s it right there. It’s writing about records like those and playing them on the radio.

Other interesting items that I enjoyed writing about in 2014 were the 20th anniversary of longtime area favorites Flaxy Morgan and a book, “Counting Down Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs,” by Old Forge native Jim Beviglia.  If you’re a fan of The Boss, you should pick up a copy.

In the summer, we learned about a new all-star band, Gentleman East, featuring Bret Alexander, Paul Smith and Ron Simasek of The Badlees and Aaron Fink of Breaking Benjamin. I was surprised to see The Badlees implode only a few short months after the release of a fine double-disc album, but so far, I’m liking what I’m hearing from Gentleman East. The band’s debut CD should be one of the most highly anticipated records of 2015.

Gentleman East, a new all-star project, made its debut in 2014. 
As for Breaking Benjamin, just when it looked like the band might be done, it surprised fans with two club shows at Brews Brothers West, the former Voodoo Lounge, which was where the group first cut its teeth as a live band. I was there. And it was mobbed. These shows led to a mini-tour of the east coast and there should indeed be new music from Breaking Benjamin in 2015.

As for the national music scene, I don’t cover it nearly as much as I once did. Our own Brad Patton does a great job with that. But it was fun to dust off the old notebook and cover the Soul Asylum show at Mohegan Sun, and to interview Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Katner of Jefferson Starship. And another big interview is what led to my personal favorite musical memory of 2014 …

Mary Ann Stout meets KISS at Montage Mountain
In August, I interviewed Paul Stanley of KISS. It was the sixth time that I’d interviewed him on the phone over the years, and I’d also met him in person several times. I am a big fan. And the band knows that I am a big fan. Thus, I was invited to go backstage for a brief hello with the group when the band came to Montage. What made this one special was that, for the first time, I took my seven year-old daughter with me. When Paul first saw her standing with me, he pointed to her, looked at me, and said “Is she yours?” When I said, “Yes,” he bent down to look at her at eye level and made a bit of a fuss over her. And later, during the show, he tossed a few guitar picks her way. Pretty cool stuff from the Starchild. And a great memory from 2014.

Looking forward to 2015 and making many more.

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs every Friday from 9-10 p.m. on 105 The River. This story also appears in the December 31, 2014 edition of The Weekender)