Sunday, April 19, 1998


April 19, 1998

SCRANTON- The names of the rock and pop musicians from Northeastern Pennsylvania who have had some national success make for a very short list.  But rightfully on that elite roster is the band Dakota, which recorded a string of nationally released albums in the late '70s and early '80s.

Now, after a 12-year absence, Dakota is back. Still a popular act among collectors and fans of '80s-rock throughout Europe and Japan, the band has released a new album, "The Last Standing Man," which is available as an import at Gallery of Sound stores.  And with rave reviews pouring in from overseas, Dakota co-founder Jerry Hludzik is feeling a sense of musical revival.

"I knew this was a possibility for me to dig down and get some of the writing juices flowing again and maybe finish some of the legacy of the band," says Hludzik.  "It's a long shot - in other countries far away - but it's a chance."

The Legacy

Hludzik has always taken chances. He has dozens of road stories and tales of record company politics, power-plays and inner-band squabbles that have at times helped and at other times hindered his career. But whether the stories have good or bad endings, there's always a sense of pride in his voice when discussing any aspect of his musical past.

The history of Dakota can be traced to The Buoys, the area band that recorded the song "Timothy," which became a national hit in 1971. Hludzik and vocalist Bill Kelly were members of the group, but left in 1978 - straining some relationships - and released the Jerry Kelly album for CBS/Epic Records.  In 1980 the group changed its name to Dakota. That same year, they released their self-titled album on Columbia/CBS Records, and later snagged the opening slot on part of Queen's U.S. tour, which included three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.  In 1984, the band released "Runaway" on MCA Records, but label politics and changing musical trends prevented the band from reaching national stardom. The Kelly/Hludzik creative relationship and friendship soured, and the group disbanded in 1987,  giving a farewell concert at Montage Mountain.  "The Lost Tracks," an independently released recording featuring previously unreleased material, was distributed regionally in 1987.

In 1995, Hludzik says he was contacted by representatives from a Swedish label who informed him that the band was still selling albums overseas and had maintained a fan-base there. In 1996, Hludzik reached an agreement with Escape Records to re-release the "Lost Tracks, with a few minor changes, throughout Europe under the title "Mr. Lucky." Soon, Escape asked Hludzik if he was interested in recording a new Dakota album.

After some deep soul-searching, he decided he was.

Hot Nights

Keyboardist Rick Manwiller - who had joined Dakota in 1982 and has remained friends with Hludzik - was contacted, and a reformed Dakota began to take shape.

"I told him I decided I was going to give it a go, and that I hoped it was with him rather than without him," says Hludzik. "He called back the next day and we decided we were going to do it."

Guitarist Jon "JL" Lorance, who played with Hludzik and Manwiller in SecretCity, a post-Dakota project, was enlisted, and the drum stool was filled with Hludzik's teenage son, Eli.  Soon, the band was working at Sound Investments studios in Scranton, writing and recording new songs and looking to spark some new musical chemistry.  New numbers such as "Hot Nights" and "The Last Standing Man" seem to address, even lyrically, the fact that there's still some unfinished business left in the Dakota story.

Hludzik says he felt compelled to make a record that stylistically complemented the band's previous work.

"We had to make another Dakota record," he says. "And I had to exorcise a lot of demons.  It was the first thing I would be involved with Dakota without Kelly being a part of. I knew there was a possibility people would rip me apart ... but I'm not afraid of falling down.

"Failure to me ... I've been on my face so many times ... it’s just a word. If you lay down and don't get up, then it's a tag."

Overseas reaction to the album has been positive. Lawrence was featured in an interview with Young Guitar magazine in Japan and there have been flattering articles in Music Life and Music Guide magazines. There was also a four-star review in Belgium's Rock Report.  The CD was also spotlighted as the "Album of the Month" in Power Play magazine in England, and there was a "four-skull" review in Italy's "Metal Shop" publication.

"You've got to promise bite the head of bird to get a review in that magazine," quips Manwiller.

The music

Now in their mid-40s, Hludzik says the band's members - who are also involved in other musical projects - are still able to make their living performing, writing and producing music. Still, he and Manwiller say inspiration for songwriting now comes from different sources than it did in the '70s and '80s.

"I don't think either one of us could have written songs like this when we were 20 years old," says Hludzik. "You have to go through a little experience with a lot of different things to come up with where you are at the present time."

"We both have teenage kids," adds Manwiller. "A lot of the lyrics Jerry came up with were about parenting. It becomes more important to you, and you think of things that might help somebody."

One track, "Mama Teach," which Hludzik describes as "therapeutic," is about his son Eli leaving the house to go off to college.

"No matter how old your son or daughter is, you want another day," he says. "You want another day of sitting down with them before they leave the fold. It's about letting go. If someone can relate to that, and it helps them - that's the joy of it.

 Also a joy for Hludzik was working with his son. He points out that Dakota had never had a permanent drummer, and that Eli, now 19, is the first drummer to be an official member of the band.

"To have my son playing with me at my side was something you can't describe as a father," he says. "And it wasn't because we were throwing him a bone, but because he deserved to be there. I can't think of another drummer around that I would have wanted to use. He's so beyond his years, as far as music savvy ...

 "That was really instrumental in making the album sound the way it sounds," he adds. "What Rick and I brought to the table was one thing, but Jon and Eli upped the game of Dakota. The guitar playing ... I could have had three hands and couldn't have played as well as Jon played on this record."

Hludzik - who says there are no immediate plans for Dakota to perform live - adds that the recorded project and the positive response it's received has rejuvenated his interest and love for creating music. It's a feeling he admits had at once left him. He reiterates those sentiments - and his appreciation to those who still have an interest in Dakota's music - by referring to the lyrics to the album's title track:

"To remember how it felt to touch through expression," he says, quoting the song ... "I had forgotten about that."

He then finishes the line:

"Now we'll take our place, in your hall of grace, and sincerely - thanks to you all."

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in NEPA since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on 105 The River.)