In Tune with the State College Music Scene

February 26, 2018 at 6:47 pm 1 comment

The cover story for our March/April issue celebrates some of the alumni who have shaped the sound of State College nightlife for the past 30 years. You can read more about them below, and—assuming you can’t get to Zeno’s or the Phyrst this weekend—relive the sights and sounds of some of your favorites live on stage.

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Molly Countermine ’02g

Born in State College but raised in the South, Countermine never lost her connection to Happy Valley: Her parents, Terry Countermine ’73g and Sherry Corneal ’76, ’87, ’90g, were around for the founding of the Phyrst Phamly. She grew up playing music, first with her father and then in bands in college, then went to grad school at West Chester and “kind of put it on the back burner.” When she returned to her hometown in her late 20s, she was eager to get back into it.

“I think I was back two months when I joined the Phyrst Phamly,” she says. “Around that same time, I started teaching at Penn State.”

Today, it’s hard to say which gig Countermine — that’s her on our March/April cover — is better known for: Professor of Health and Human Development, or vocalist in some of downtown’s favorite bands. While teaching and eventually going back to school to get her PhD, Countermine established her own legacy on the local scene, as a member of both Pure Cane Sugar and Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s, as well as her own band, Maxwell Strait. She left Pure Cane Sugar in 2015—as a full-time professor and mother of three kids, the schedule simply became too much—but still plays regularly in town.

And each semester, she still teaches HDFS 129: Intro to Human Development to 600 undergrads, many of whom eventually end up dancing and singing along at her gigs.

“Every week, I get somebody at the Phyrst who was in my class when there were 18, and now they’re 21, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s fun,” she says. “I’m not just this distant teacher—I’m this person who is doing what I love to do outside of the classroom. I get a little bit of credibility because of that.”

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Mark Ross ’83

The son of a coal miner and musician from southwestern PA, Mark Ross grew up with twin loves: baseball and music. Baseball was the priority through his high school days, but around the time he headed to Penn State, he saw a trio of memorable shows in Pittsburgh: The Nighthawks, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and a hot young Texas guitarist named “Little” Stevie Vaughan. “I bought their records off the bandstand, took one of my dad’s old guitars, and taught myself to play off these records,” Ross says. “It was watching guys who were better than me, trying to mimic them.”

After cutting his teeth with a number of State College bands, Ross teamed up with Tonya Browne ’85 to form Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band. The combination of Browne’s powerful voice and Ross’s hot-shot guitar playing made the bluesy quintet one of the most popular bands in town through the late ’90s, and also led to gigs on international festival bills alongside the likes of B.B. King.

Today, Ross plays a mellower style with Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats, but he’s still an integral part of the local scene—and not just as a player. He also owns the State College music store Alley Cat Music, and designs custom guitars and amps as co-owner of PennTone. He’s also a former children’s music specialist at Penn State’s Child Development Lab, and has written and recorded his own children’s book and accompanying CD.

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Bill Filer ’76

He’s a rarity on the local scene: A guy who’s made a long career as a solo act. He was in a number of bands in his younger days, and has played countless side gigs, but it’s as a solo guitar-and-piano act, most memorably at the Allen Street Grill, that Filer has provided the sing-along soundtrack to countless nights on the town.

“I think some people look down their noses at people who do cover songs, but people want to come and have a good time. They don’t need my ego, and I’m OK with that,” Filer says. “I work hard, I’m always on time, and honestly I’m not the greatest musician, but I’m fairly gregarious. I just can’t express how lucky I’ve been.”

You can still catch him on Friday and Saturday nights at the Grill, but for local musicians, Filer’s real home base is his home studio, Audible Images, just outside of State College. That’s where he puts his broad musical knowledge and his electrical engineering degree to work. “I’ve recorded most of the folks in town at one time or another,” he says, “and I don’t think there’s an instrument I haven’t recorded.”

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Daryl Branford ’96

If you’ve seen a great bar band in State College anytime in the past 20 or so years, there’s a good chance you heard Branford laying down the beat. From his undergraduate bands Out of the Blue and Pluv to Sideshow Bob and Original Soul Project to his current gigs with Pure Cane Sugar and Ted McCloskey and the Hi-Fi’s, Branford has been the scene’s go-to drummer for nearly 25 years.

“I’ve always been determined to play music, and to try to earn a living playing music,” Branford says. “However successful things were, I always try to remember that I’m doing it because it’s my passion. There’s a lot of cool things that have happened independent of me—a lot of great musicians, a lot of great bands. I’ve been fortunate to be able to play with some really great people.”

Branford moonlights—or daylights, more accurately—as a design visualization specialist at Penn State’s Huck Institutes of Life Sciences.

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Ted McCloskey ’90

A bandmate of Branford’s in Sideshow Bob, Ted McCloskey is the most prolific songwriter on the scene: His most recent album, 2016’s Last Flower Standing, was his ninth since 2002. He’s also got a new record coming out this year with Countermine, who refers to him as her “musical husband.”

McCloskey’s band the Hi-Fi’s might just boast the most connective tissue on the scene: Both Countermine and Branford are part of the regular lineup, as is bassist Rene Witzke, who is both Countermine’s actual husband and a former member (with Mark Ross) of Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band.

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My Hero Zero

The kings of the current party scene, MHZ are paced by Jason Olcese ’06, who recorded an album for his undergraduate thesis in the Schreyer Honors College. Music has long been the focus for Olcese, aka “Jason O,” who says he left rural Northeast PA for State College because “with 40,000 students, there had to be somebody to play music with.”

He found those collaborators with My Hero Zero, whose lineup includes fellow alums Mike Lee ’95, Greg Folsom ’95, and Jordan Thompson ’13. Their trademark sound relies on uptempo covers that get—and keep—the crowd moving.

In addition to regular gigs at the Phyrst, downtown Champs, and the Jersey and Delaware beach scene, MHZ are also longtime favorites at THON. Olcese says that when the band first started playing their set in the packed BJC, “It was the most exciting thing we’d ever done, playing for that many people. But then we started getting to know some of the Four Diamonds families, and it shifted the focus from us to how we can make it all about the kids. The FTK thing really started to sink in.”

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Velveeta

The “Original Un-Originals,” proud purveyors of ’80s cheese, Velveeta seem to have mastered the obvious idea of building their act on rockin’ covers of fun, popular songs. It just so happens that the idea wasn’t all that obvious at the time. After forming as a grunge-inspired band called Broken, the band that would become Velveeta realized that playing originals would only get them so far in Central PA. So they figured they’d give it a go as a cover band—but with a twist.

“We decided to try this experiment to see if we could play these songs that nobody would touch—stuff that was considered very uncool at the time,” says bassist John Matthews ’94. “It was like fishing: You throw a certain type of bait out there and see if they bite.”

The bait was mostly 80s classics like “Come On Eileen” and “Jessie’s Girl,” songs that the band put through a “grunge filter,” as Matthews puts it, but stayed largely faithful to the originals. Within months, he says, most of the band members were able to quit their day jobs. “It exploded,” Matthews says. “It was a unique live music experience in those days. Nobody else was doing it.”

It’s proven to be an approach with staying power, as Velveeta remains a favorite in State College and pretty much anywhere Penn Stater congregate: In December, they traveled to Florida for a wedding of Penn State alums who hired and flew them down for the reception. Matthews and the rest of the band—Brent Martin ’93, Brian Kriley ’93, and John “Bones” Harper—were happy to oblige.

‘We never intended Velveeta to be serious content—hence the name,” he says. “We just wanted it to be fun.”

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Natalie Berrena Race ’06 ’08

She was used to performing in front of a crowd, but for most of her college days, that meant chasing a ball across artificial turf as a member—and eventual co-captain—of the Nittany Lion field hockey team. Natalie Berrena had always loved to sing, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to do it in front of an audience. It wasn’t until her senior year that a friend who knew her secret—and her talent—convinced the booker at The Brewery that she was a manager who repped an up-and-coming singer-songwriter looking for a local gig. “She went behind my back,” she says now. “Then she came to me and said, ‘I have you booked for a gig, and you’re doing it.'”

She did indeed, bringing a keyboard to play and sing through her very first set: “It was something I always wanted to do, I did it, and I loved it. Then I didn’t want to stop.” She hasn’t, playing with Pure Cane Sugar and her own band, Raven and the Wren, where she gets to showcase her original songs.

Like so many local musicians who came here for school—and in her case, a memorable run as a student-athlete—State College has proven a hard place to leave. “I’m so incredibly grateful that I get to do what I love and get paid for it,” she says, “in a community that really supports the arts.”

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Jeff Tomrell ’06

For Go Go Gadjet, the goal has always been getting the crowd moving. That’s just fine with Jeff Tomrell, whose background as a party DJ helps keep him focused on that goal. “When we started in ’05-06, our set was all current pop songs mixed with ’90s throwbacks, and we built our sets so that the music didn’t stop once, one song running into the next,” he says. “We wanted to be as close to a DJ set as we could.”

That commitment to non-stop energy remains even as Tomrell and his band mates have fine-tuned their approach over the years, mixing in some originals with punched-up covers of popular hits, like their recent version of the iconic early 2000s hit “Drops of Jupiter.” And while they play most of their shows these days outside of State College, their hearts are still in Happy Valley—as is (at least) one very memorable gig each year. Earlier this month, they played THON for the 11th time, including their ninth in the coveted closing spot.

“Year after year, we get to see some of these same families, and some of them come out to clubs we play in their area,” Tomrell says. “We’re trying to deliver this experience to these people who have this insanely difficult life, and now that some of us have children of our own… it’s our most important show.”

Ryan Jones, deputy editor

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Entry filed under: Alumni, From the Magazine, State College. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Love at Penn State Inside Our March/April Issue

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. RICHARD h DAVIS  |  February 27, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Anyone remember the group Shotgun Wedding? Had horn guys, drummer, guitars, and an outstanding female singer. From the early 70s, curious if they played after that time…Thanks

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