Thursday, February 14, 2013

Welcome to Hoonah

The Soundcheck, February 2013
Welcome to Hoonah

By J. Gabrielle


There was a brief period last summer, when sultry, sexy leading lady, Jessica Larsen would quietly hold her hand out as though begging for change and say, “Have you any Hoonah?”  I thought at the time that hoonah was like manna?  Perhaps, for the band it is. 

Hoonah is in the panhandle of Alaska located 30 miles west of Juneau and there resides 747 people who don’t know a band in Virginia is named after them.  This town is the namesake of the band from Roanoke called “Welcome to Hoonah”.  Visionaries, band mates and lovers Jessica and Spencer McKenna happened upon the sleepy fishing village during an Alaskan cruise.  They later found out “Hoonah” means a place on a precipice: a perfect name for their fledgling start-up band. 

 “Hoonah” makes visions come upon me of the quirky T.V. show of the early ‘90’s: “Northern Exposure”.  The band looks like they could live in the little town of Cicely, Alaska with its cast of eclectic characters. 

This band came upon the scene in 2012 with a strong sense of itself.  They have a decidedly 1930’s depression-era approach to their graphics, marketing and costuming. This is perhaps due in large part to lead singer/guitarist Spencer McKenna.  He continues to serve in the popular band “Grass Monkey” and is in his own right an excellent graphic designer.    Jessica gives him his kudos.  “Spencer wants to be a full-time musician”.  She notes that he practices hours daily on guitar, scales, harmony, and anything else he thinks will improve his performance.  They also work with photographer Rabiah Kwhah Gohar.  Jessica loves the timelessness of her photographs and the golden tones.

“That is what we’re going for!  Really retro, sultry, Americana!  A Melting Pot of every culture feel!  She upholds the mystery and timelessness the band radiates in their performance (“Is it jazz?  Is it country?) and in their ephemera.

Jessica and Spencer fine tune their concept and write most of the music they perform in their concert settings.  They have been writing together for several years now.  I asked them in this Valentine’s Month of Lovers how they perceived performing together and being mates.  “We really thought hard on that question!” says Jessica.  “We have learned it’s made us communicate better as a couple and given us a better ability to solve problems.  We HAVE to communicate within the band, so we HAVE to communicate within the relationship!”

Kevin Kittredge, longtime writer for the Roanoke Times is the bassist for this tight unit.  It is really nice to see him so at home in something he has wanted to do for such a long time.  At a recent show at Schooners, Kittredge kept a dance beat that was hard to resist!  Jessica credits Kevin with giving her the push to get her performing.  The couple met Kevin at the Open Mic at Village Grill. 

The band’s website says their mix of music is “is a fusion of folk-Americana, swing and Bakersfield country music, with a definitive Appalachian flavor and a touch of urban verve”.

Of course, the landing page of their website ( calls it “Dustbowl HonkyFunk”. 

Comparisons?  Many.  Old Crow Medicine Show and Larry’s Flask come to mind.  Also, Jessica and Spencer’s unique vocals harken back to early recordings in America, particularly, Jimmie Rogers the Singing Brakeman.  Both of these performers have unique voices that invoke 1920’s recordings and that make it so satisfying in 2013.

Recently they added the long searched for drummer Josh Smelser, chosen for his jazzy, swingy and suave feel.  Also, Liam Kelly has come to them to round out the melting pot of sound.

I am in a unique position to ask the musicians how they want their story to end.  Jessica reiterates what many hometown musicians feel….

“Welcome to Hoonah” went on to make a living playing music despite their obvious Dust Bowl Upbringing.  They performed for the Heads of State and the Queens and Kings of the World and they lived, happily ever after….

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Soundcheck, January 2012
By j. Gabrielle

The Rarely Available Band

When the stage lights illuminate #The Rarely Available Band (RAB) at Schooners, it is as a colorful dawn in a mystic, misty valley half way between Brigadoon and Edward Hopper’s much parodied painting “The Nighthawks”.  Like the mythical Scottish Kingdom that appears for one day every hundred years, they are at once rarely available, rural, rustic, idyllic, magically transient and unaffected by time.  Yet, they seem also neon-lit, afloat in caffeine and wired with anticipation and longing as the painting illustrates.

These troubadours have been rockin’ it for 33 years.  Often separated because of day jobs, the boys have been known to rent a van to travel to three states just to practice.  With perhaps some of the biggest hearts in the business, RAB plays many benefits and collects donations at every show.  In the last couple of years RAB has raised $8,140.16 for non-profit organizations and people in our area”, says leader @Steve Virts.  With their annual Alzheimer’s Benefit, the cause nearest their hearts, they hope to top $10,000!

The group has among them three strong songwriters.  In fact, in a 2008 live radio interview country legend @Merle Haggard said these words, “@Steve Virts is a good songwriter!”  The two men are old friends and get together to sing, trade licks and write.  Wayne Fulp, who plays acoustic guitar and has a killer tenor voice also writes.  “Wayne and Steve sing like breathing”, says @Al Coffey the third writer of the group.  Al, the “Swiss Army Musician”, so named for the many instruments he plays, adds the icing to the band’s excellently performed repertoire.

@Tim Caldwell sings harmony and trades off on pedal steel, dobro, harp and electric guitar.  He says, “these guys keep me young” and his eyes twinkle.  I believe him.  This trading off on instruments that Tim and Al do is so seamlessly and gracefully done one hardly notices the shuffling.  This is part of the energetic calm the band beams out.  One feels in the presence of greatness as though at Austin City Limits or the Ryman Auditorium.  The music feels sacredly presented.

There is @Danny Altic on bass and “we can’t force him to sing” says Al.  Danny says of their music, “you can’t pigeonhole it, so don’t even try”.  This is true, they go from Rolling Stones, to originals, to Johnny Cash and the Beatles with fresh arrangements.

Drummer @Brett Reynolds fills the shoes originated by @Dave Hartman who went on to fame with @Southern Culture on the Skids.  Brett moved here from Rochester, New York after touring the U.S. and Europe with his band, and doing some recording with ex- Rolling Stone Mick Taylor “adopting kids, because of the schools – it turned out music is a blessing in Roanoke and these guys are like brothers to me”.

The band “family” got larger recently with the addition of @Nate Stoehr as full-time soundman.  “I’m as much a part of this as they are!  These guys welcomed me as part of a band of brothers!” says Nate. 

The silent partner in all of this is “Band Mama” @Val Virts who is cheerleader, sound engineer, roadie and manager.  “She’s kinda cute too”, grins grateful husband Steve.

As many of my interviews reflect, there is a need for an accessible venue in Downtown Roanoke for the local band.  Also, there is a hope for local music to be more cherished and recognized.  “Martin’s had us play outside under a tent for a benefit Dash fundraiser and all these musicians were playing for free.  The runners and athletes, thousands of people were just walking right by, not checking it out, not exposing their kids to it”, noted Brett.

Back to Hopper’s painting, often transformed to hold Elvis, Marilyn, Bogart, Dean and others at the counter and called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”.  This time, I see this band of brothers and “Mama” at the counter after a satisfying show.  They are plotting the next adventure, identifying the next non-profit in need, picking the next song to be sung.  This painting is called, “Boulevard of Promise”.