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Sounds of silence

Area musicians miss performing

Top: The Backyard Rockers perform at the Holiday Bowl Strike Zone Bar & Grill in Altoona in November 2018. Members of the group are (from left) Mo Yon, Jim Price and Rich Dasch. Bottom: Felix Kos of Felix and the Hurricanes plays his guitar during a Blues Cruise on the Proud Mary Showboat at Lake Raystown Resort. Courtesy photos

For many, New Year’s Eve means listening to live music until the clock strikes midnight, but such frivolity will be missing this year because of restrictions placed on restaurants and bars due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bob Watters, drummer for the popular local band Felix and the Hurricanes, said a bar owner in Surf City, N.C., contacted them to play New Year’s Eve and three outdoor shows, but now the gig is “up in the air” with burgeoning cases and tighter restrictions. “And, even then, if we play, it will be from 5 to 9 p.m. because their restrictions shut places down at 9. So, I guess we’d do a countdown at 9, not midnight. It would be like phoning it in. It’s strange.”

Richard McGarvey, owner of McGarvey’s Pub & Grill at 623 N. Fourth Ave., has relied on local musical performers and national comedy acts to draw crowds. He had the popular local band Shallow 9 set to play until the most recent restrictions.

“We did some outdoor shows during the summer,” McGarvey said. “All the musicians are missing performing for their fan base. They’re a little depressed as they feel their art is going to waste.”

McGarvey is a member of National Independent Venue Association, which represents more than 3,000 independent venues. NIVA’s mission, according to its website, is to save the stages and venues.

Stormy is comprised of (from left) Brandon Stewart, Luke Leiden, Ray Fedeli, Charlie Leiden and Mark Montrella. The band played regularly for the past five years at the U.S. Hotel Tavern and the Argonne Cafe in Hollidaysburg, but has been silent since mid-March. Courtesy photo

Local music expert Jim “The Professor” Price said area musicians are handling the inability to play to crowds differently.

Some, Price said, like State College musician Ted McCloskey are using the time “by turning inward. McCloskey has been a prolific songwriter and he’s made two albums inspired by the events of this year. That’s one way musicians are handling it. I know some groups are learning new songs for when they can play again.”

For solo acts, opportunities to play smaller venues like coffee houses and wineries still happened, but bands have “largely gone dormant and are riding out the storm,” Price said. “Gig musicians and really anyone doing entertainment is hoping it doesn’t go too much further in 2021. They’re trying to keep their heads up.”

Stormy, a local band that played regularly for the past five years at the U.S. Hotel Tavern on South Juniata Street in Hollidaysburg, and the Argonne Cafe on Bedford Street in Hollidaysburg, has been silent since mid-March.

“We really miss it,” said band member Mark Montrella, a retired physical education teacher.

“It’s just so much fun to play. I hope that as the vaccines roll out, people get the vaccine so that we’ll return to normal,” he said. “Many of the crowd that routinely came out to hear us are older so we’ll have to see how comfortable they will be.”

At the U.S. Hotel Tavern, more than 125 events have been canceled since March, said owner Don Delozier. “We lost a lot of holiday parties recently. It’s a shame for the musicians, too. We have a lot of local talent.”

Among them is Todd Harshbarger, who plays with Shallow 9, the PennSOULvanians, and the PubCrawlers. If he’s not playing, he’s likely working as a sound technician for many outdoor festivals in the area through his business Bubba Go Boom Productions.

The Pub Crawlers have been on a forced hiatus, while Shallow 9 and The PennSOULvanians played “parking lots and boat docks. We zigged and zagged and took whatever we could possibly play and stay safe,” Harshbarger said.

While he’s employed at Penn State Altoona as an audio-visual technician, he makes as much or more from his music, either playing or doing sound at events each weekend during the summer.

Unlike a musician who may invest in a single instrument, Harshbarger said he and other professionals also invest in sound equipment, lighting and other high tech gear, which requires a trailer and a truck to pull it all.

“I lost half my income,” he said. “I’ve had to go into business mode.”

Outdoor gigs at McGarvey’s and at Roundhouse Harley-Davidson in Duncansville helped him “put food on my plate,” he said, but he also had to rely upon the generosity of relatives, and his bank extended some “grace periods” on his truck loan.

With so much downtime, Harshbarger said, he’s experienced a range of emotions since March.

“I was stressed and really worried during the first part, but now I have a better mentality. I know when we come out of this, everyone will want to be entertained and will want to party. In the meantime, I’m working on other business ventures. My plan is to try to make it up on the back half of 2021,” Harshbarger said. “If I’m having a bad day, I go sit behind the drum kit for a half hour and then I’ll be OK.”

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