Saturday, September 26, 2009

Black Moth Super Rainbow

Black Moth Super Rainbow, photo by Jae Rumberto

Black Moth Super Rainbow is... well, you decide. Their music contains elements of psychedelia, folk, electronica, and pop. Their unique sound is created by blending electronic instruments like synthesizers, Moogs, a vocoder, Rhodes piano, and Novatron, giving their stuff a distinctive "Lucy In The Sky" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" vibe. We'll stick with indie synth-pop.

Rolling Stone's David Fricke tried to explain their scene in April of 2007: "They didn't look psychedelic, just confused. The female drummer wore a toucan mask and her sweat-shirt hood pulled druid-style over her head. A woman playing keyboards had on a fur hat with bobcat ears. The singer sat on the floor, invisible, crooning through a vocoder."

(The singer would be Tobacco; he's known for sitting hidden behind an amp while on stage, heard but not seen by the audience. His real name is Tom Fec, who supposedly became Tobacco in honor of a Roger Corman zombie flick.)

"But musically, this bucolic-futurist quintet was a firmly directed trip: pillowy synth chords and day-glo songcraft nailed to Earth by insistent backbeats. Formed in 2003, Black Moth have a sizable library of CDs to their name. Renown should follow."

Rolling Stone was impressed enough to tag the band "artists to watch."

Its members are The Seven Fields of Aphelion (Maureen Boyle), IFfernaut/D.Kyler (Donna Kyler), Father Hummingbird (Seth Ciotti), Tobacco, and Ryan Graveface (who just replaced Power Pill Fist, Tobacco's cousin Ken Fec of Brookline, who's breaking out on his own).

According to its MySpace site, the band's influences are "Neckface, Odd Nosdam, Olivia Tremor Control, Led Zeppelin in search of the perfect riff, folk tales of western Pennsylvania, and people who broadcast stuff from hidden places."

It's said that Fec got his start when he began recording on his four-track in his bedroom. Not exactly singing along to the radio, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere.

From 1996 to 2000, beginning as a high school sophomore, Tom Fec performed with the Allegheny White Fish, local patois for a condom floating down the river; now there's some vivid hippy imagery.

From 2000 to 2002, he went by satanstompingcaterpillars. As SSC, he self-released his music, the albums "F**keroo (Flower Slides)" and "Side 8."

After a third album in 2002, "The Most Wonderfulest Thing," SSC added Father Hummingbird, The Seven Fields of Aphelion, and IFfernaut (D. Kyler) to the roster, morphing into Black Moth Super Rainbow in 2003 and becoming a full-fledged band instead of a motley collection of part-time collaborators.

BMSR began releasing their music on the 70's Gymnastics Recording label, which is the band's own imprint. It's logo is a tree-person jumping rope in a dress. Black Moth Super Rainbow's first album, "Falling Through A Field," was actually satanstompingcaterpillars' greatest hits.

After 2005, Chicago's Graveface label picked up BMSR and released "Lost," "Picking Flowers in the Woods," and bonus reissues of the Tobacco albums. "Dandelion Gum" was BMSR's third album, released in 2007, loosely based on witches who make candy in the forest. It resulted in their first music video, for the track "Sun Lips," and was the record that gave them a national following, even if somewhat cultish.

They released "Zodiac Girls - Single and Drippers," an EP, in November of 2008. In May of this year, BMSR issued "Eating Us." The album was recorded at Tarbox Road Studios and marks the first time Black Moth has ventured into an actual recording studio and made a hi-fi album; the others were lo-fi, pretty much home-made disks.

BMSR is also preparing to release a private pressing CD from 2001, "The Autumn Kaleidoscope Got Changed" and an accompanying EP, "Sing To Us," available through the band's website. The records include some older stuff and several acoustic tracks.

In addition to the group's discography, the members have released several solo projects, too. Tobacco cut "F**ked Up Friends" and "Super Gum." Power Pill Fist recorded "Extra Life" in 2005, and "Kongmanivong" in 2008.

Seven Fields of Aphelion's first album "Periphery" is due in the fall, and she's also doing a music/photography project.

But hey, they're not just a studio creation. The band's busy, playing to an active schedule of festivals and other dates. Its supposed to be a great show.

While the band doesn't exactly nosh with its fans, except for a furry critter that mingles with the paying audience handing out candy, a stunning video display accompanying them is enough to make the crowd forget there are actual folk performing on stage, and the outfits make their performances memorable, even without any James Brown showmanship.

On March 17, 2007, the band played alongside The Octopus Project at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, featuring music from their collaborative project, "The House of Apples and Eyeballs." And it was a true collaborative effort; the bands sat in together while recording the tracks.

Black Moth Super Rainbow opened for The Flaming Lips on their Fall 2007 tour, and again in 2008. They also played along with Aesop Rock in late 2008, and at the 2008 SXSW music festival.

Although they took a break this year while working on "Eating Us," they've been back on the road again since its May release. The only complaint among local fans is that BMSR is the only Pittsburgh band that doesn't perform in Pittsburgh.

Maybe they learned the lesson of so many other local acts - if you wanna break out, get outta town, although Tobacco had publicly griped about the local coverage, too.

And what community spawned our local mind-melters? The lore is that they're from rural western PA, and that they emerged from an obscure Pennsylvania forest glen to make their music.

But Fec admits that tale started as a dodge to avoid giving out his 411, and it's grown into BMSR mythology since, further fueled by some liner notes in "Dandelion Gum."

While it's true that their home studio is an exurban cabin, Tom Fec originally hails from Hampton and now lives in South Side while his cousin Ken is from the West End. The other members are identified hazily as Pittsburgh-area musicians. Hey, close enough.

Enjoy them while you can. Tobacco is sounding a little restless lately, having told Leilani Polk of Tampa's Calling that he has no real plans for any future recordings with Black Moth, and says that after this tour, “I think I just want to do something else for a minute and stop thinking about all this Black Moth stuff.”

So stay tuned to find out if this moth bursts into a butterfly or heads toward the flame.

Black Moth Super Rainbow - "Born On A Day The Sun Didn't Rise"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Up The Revolution, Pittsburgh Style

Photo by Jazmin Million at Toronto's Warped Tour

Hey, Pittsburgh's home-grown, kick-out-the-jams punkers, Anti-Flag, were all ready to welcome the G-20 gang to the 'Burg with a Club Zoo concert, sponsored by the Students For A Democratic Society.

But they were thwarted by Mayor Luke and the Secret Service; the security zone would have made it well nigh impossible to get people into the Strip District venue without a major hassle. Pity; it was the last chance to see them here for awhile.

But don't obsess over missing their cancelled show. You may still get to see them live later in the week, just on the avenue instead of the stage. "We are looking forward to joining the thousands of young people in the streets of Pittsburgh," the band said after they scrubbed the booking, "to resist the failed policies of the G20."

After a little street theater, it's on the road again for the group.

They have their visas stamped for a couple of months on the far side of the Atlantic. Starting October 7th, Anti-Flag will be part of the Eastpak Antidote Tour 2009 with bands Alexisonfire, Four Year Strong and The Ghost Of A Thousand.

For six weeks, they'll gig in England, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland.

A trek like that is nothing out of the ordinary for Anti-Flag. They’ve toured in Russia, the Baltic, Scandinavia and Europe. AF has appeared on the Big Day Out festival tour in Australia with Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, Arcade Fire and Bjork.

They were the only band to play two sets each day at the Leeds and Reading Festivals in England. Anti-Flag has headlined at the Rhein Kultur, the biggest free festival in Germany. And hey, they've pretty well criss-crossed the US, too, just finishing up the Warped Tour.

Why all the frequent flier mileage? Because they truly think music can change the world. Justin Sane (No, we don't think he's related to Justin Case), lead guitarist and band co-founder, explains:

"It is not a song, a record, a t-shirt, or a band that changes and shapes the world. It’s community and union. Our band writes songs to build community and union, to create awareness and preparedness for when the students and workers of the world push to level the playing field and bring equality."

All you have to do to understand where the band is coming from is to take a look at the play list on their latest release, "The People Or The Gun," issued by LA's Side One Dummy label and recorded in Pittsburgh at AF's newly-built studio.

It features “Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington D.C. (Sheep in Shepherd’s Clothing),” “The Economy is Suffering…Let It Die,” and “The Gre(A)t Depression.” No Pat Boone stuff there.

And the band does put its guitars where its mouth is. They’ve created the non-profit organizations Military Free Zone (opposing military recruitment in schools) and the Underground Action Alliance (a networking site for social justice).

Drummer Pat Thetic adds “It’s a priority to put the emphasis of our band and every show we play on community, whether it be canned food drives for local food banks, raising money to build wells in Africa, or clothing drives for the homeless.”

Hey, not every band in Pittsburgh is about the girls. Anti-Flag's message is all about social justice, and its chops have their roots in the Clash and the Ramones. And that's a sound worth listening to.

"Press Corpse" live from Pukkelpop 2008 (Kiewit, Belgium)

Saturday, September 12, 2009


itzy 3

In the late 1950s, Westmoreland County's Monessen was a jumping little city. It was home to Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and the Page Steel & Wire Company, and its folk worked hard and played harder.

They'd party at venues like the Dog House, Caminos, the Jumping Jive Bee Hive, the Twin Coaches, the Cougar Canteen, and the Blue Fox, along with the countless fire halls and social clubs scattered across the Mon Valley.

One day in 1957, five street-corner doo-woppers - John Brown, Tony Fafalios, Frank "Pancho" Olivio, "Khaki" Joe Olivio, and Dave Reday - from Monessen (except Fafalios, who was from Rostraver) decided to get in on the action as the Mon-Vales.

Without any agent (or for that matter, a clue on how to produce and sell vinyl), they cut a demo tape at Sadowski's Market in Fairhope, which had a top notch, cottage industry recording studio in its basement. The instrumental tracks were laid down by another local band, Donora's Highlighters.

Next came the hard part, peddling the songs to a record company. A connection in Pittsburgh hooked them up with a connection in the Big Apple. They fronted the guy some benjamins, and when nothing was shaking after awhile, they hopped in the jalopy and motored to NYC to find out where their tunes stood.

Well, the tunes were nowhere. It ended up that the producer had scammed about 40 acts, pocketed their money, and ran to LA. So they began to door-knock on Record Row, demo in hand.

And hey, it worked. Pen Joy Records on 45th Street liked the tape - it consisted of "Why Should I Cry?," "Jump Crybaby," "Carol-Ann," and "Cool Kat And His White Bucks."

Before you could say Daddio of the Radio, the platter "Carol-Ann" b/w "White Bucks" (Pen Joy #502, released 1958) was spinning on Porky's turntable, and the Mon-Vales had a local two-sided hit. John Brown took the lead for "Carol-Ann" while Dave Reday, who was the usual featured singer, did the honors for "White Bucks."

They took advantage of the New York visit in more ways than one, playing clubs there and in the Boston area, all the time honing a frenetic stage act. They even got to play one of Alan Freed's Rock and Roll shows.

The Mon-Vales came home to a busy schedule of hops, high school dances, and the local club circuit. Their high-energy act was center stage at the Stockdale Fire Hall, the White Elephant, the Monessen Italian Club, and the Greensburg Fire Hall, plus whatever Mon Valley gyms or social halls would have them.

But, as with most one-hit wonders, the twilight came quickly. In 1959, Pancho Olivio left to join another Mon Valley group, and that brought down the curtain on the Mon-Vales after eighteen months of fame.

The other members all had real-life responsibilities, and left behind the world of doo-wop for college and jobs. Now, only Khaki Joe Olivio is left from the Mon-Vales, 74 years young and still living in Monessen.

But their record is yet making the rounds. There are several labels affixed to the Mon-Vales' wax; the original Pen Joy, a version on Penn-Joy (perhaps a boot), an issue on Paris, and a 1970s reissue on Keystone Classics (#22), credited to Johnny Blue and the Monvales, carried by Carnegie's D & J Records.

"White Bucks" is on Itzy's PGH-III, and "Carol-Ann" is listed on a couple of compilations: "Doo Wop Honor Roll of Girls' Names" (Adam and Eve #502) and "The Terry Lee Show WMCK" album, also attributed to Johnny Blue and the Monvales.

Hey, musicians come and go, but the music lives on.

(Old Mon thanks Ron Paglia of the Tribune Review, whose 2007 article "Singing Mon-Vales Rocked the Valley" provided much of the background for this post.)

Carol-Ann - the Mon-Vales 1958

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wee Jams Still Jammin'

wee jams
Wee Jams, image from Beach Music 45's

The Wee Jams, founded by Barry Haughin and the late Jim “Doc” Halliday with some other Avonworth High class mates in 1964, started out as “The In Crowd," and became the Wee Jams in 1966.

They quickly made a name for themselves, churning out local hits like “You’ll Lose a Precious Love,” “You Are Everything,” “Zu Zu,” and "Patti Ann," featured on “Pittsburgh’s Greatest Hits”, Volume XII.

In the fall of 1967, the group was courted by ABC Records, the label headed by Ray Charles, The Impressions, Jim Croce, Dusty Springfield and Three Dog Night at the time, but never reached a deal; their manager was a little too pushy for the ABC suits.

The Wee Jams didn't answer when that opportunity knocked, and predictably, they all drifted off to college or careers, closing the curtain on their first act.

A few stabs at reuniting the group failed with the short-lived Wee Jams II and Father Maple. The band disappeared again until 1996, when two singles, "Patti Ann" and "Something Old, Something New," written by Haughin, were picked up by Mad Mike, who started spinning the records at dances and on the air. The group has been playing steadily since as William Dell and the Wee Jams.

Today the Wee Jams are heavily requested on Pittsburgh oldies radio, including KFB (770AM), WEDO (810AM and 103.9FM weekends) and 3WS (94.5FM), along with scoring steady gigs at clubs and festivals.

The current Wee Jams roster includes original members William Dell and Barry Haughin, with vocalists Hal Weiss, Louis Cioppa, and Dan Fera. The rhythm section is made up of Duane Weber on bass, Gordie Herbst on guitar, and Bob Fetherlin on drums.

And hey, the Wee Jams aren't all about oldies. They produced a hit single in 2007, "Most of Those Pretty Young Girls," that's getting airplay on Pittsburgh oldies stations. It was also picked up by radio stations in the Carolinas, which play beach "shag" music, and it was an East Coast monster.

“Most of Those Pretty Young Girls” reached the top spot in many Carolina playlists, and hit #9 worldwide on the Beach Music Charts of Cashbox Magazine. It was recently introduced into the Beach Music Hall of Fame.

In addition, they had two other beach-genre songs that charted, “Nothing Can Stop Me” and “I Love Only You”. Their CD, "Peepin' Through The Window," (SGW019CD) moved pretty well, too. They also get regular love from internet station

The group today:

Bill Dell was in the original Wee Jams in 1967 and co-founded Wee Jams II in 1971. He's a perfect fit, being retro all the way, from the antiques in his home to his rotary dial telephones; one of his band mates says he never moved on from the 60s.

Dell released several singles under his own name, the biggest being "You Are Everything" in 1979, a duet with Milly Tamburro, credited to William Dell with Amelia.

Barry Haughin, vocalist and keyboardist, is the group's songwriter, composing many Wee Jams' tunes including "Patti Ann," and co-founder of the original band. Not only does he make records; he's also an avid collector. Haughin lives in Boardman, Ohio.

Louie Chioppa's is the Wee Jam tenor, and learned his craft "...on the corner. We used to sing on the corner, and the police used to chase us off. My idol was Frankie Lymon." He was also a member of the DeVilles and the Magic Moments.

Guitarist Gordie Herbst joined the group during the Wee Jams II phase in 1971. His day job is financial administration at Edinboro University.

Hal Weiss plays both the horns and adds a falsetto to the band. His trumpet has backed acts like Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners and Five Guys Named Moe. As for his voice, well, he once filled in for Philadelphia soul legend Brenda Coates of Brenda and the Tabulations.

Originally a saxophonist, Duane Weber switched to bass in high school years. He also played for Wee Jams II and Father Maple. Weber wears the engineer cap on many of the group's sessions.

Dan Fera dates back to Etna's Molly Maguires, one of the Burg's busiest bands during the sixties. He sings second tenor, and makes his home in Sharpsburg.

Bob Fetherlin lays down the drum tracks, and also is behind the kit for The Craig King Band.

They're also a bit of an oddity in that they control their discography. The vast majority of their tunes are on the Stacy's Golden Wax label, owned by Dell and named after his daughter. The Wee Jams are represented on a couple of compilation records, too, like PGH-XII and "Old School Shag" on Repete #2388.

That's quite a career span, from young doo-woppers to graying beach boys, and the Wee Jams pulled it off. After all, how many guys from Avonworth are resurrected as Carolina shag heroes? It's every silverback's dream.

Wee Jams - "Patti Ann"