Wednesday, January 29, 2020



Our friend, Bret


Bret Alexander is admired as a musician and loved as a friend

By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU
January 29, 2019


It was in Bearsville, New York, near Woodstock, in October of 1997 when I learned everything that I needed to know about Bret Alexander as a musician and as a songwriter. And that knowledge came from his answer to one simple question …

We were in the recording studio, late at night, listening to some tracks from the Badlees “Up There Down Here” album, which the band was recording at the time. I was there on assignment from The Times Leader. The paper had asked if I’d like to do a story about the recording of the album, which all of NEPA was eagerly awaiting. The band said they were fine with me hanging around for a few days, and so off I went.

The Catskills, as you’d imagine, are gorgeous in October, and the studio sat in a picturesque wooded area that I’ve always felt helped shape the sound of “Up There Down Here.”  It’s as though the surrounding ambiance actually bled into some of its tracks. And as Bret and I sat there in the studio listening to the music, I asked him if what we were doing – listening to a completed track, perfectly mixed, with all of its layers and instrumentation – was his favorite part of making music.

Bret in Bearsville, 1997

“No,” he said. “The best part is when you first write the song. I can kind of hear in my head what might become of it later - with the band and in the studio - but the best part is when you’re just sitting on your couch with a guitar and you know might have a good song.”

For Bret, it’s always been about the songs. Nothing more. And no one that I’ve known in my 28 years of writing about rock music has written better songs. I saw, in him, a very special talent back in 1993, when we first met, and between my former newspaper column and my radio show, there is no other artist that I’ve interviewed more. And that’s because his songs have always deserved the most attention.

Bret, it was revealed last week, has a genetic degenerative kidney condition that requires a kidney transplant. The operation will take place in February, and while he recovers, he will be unable to play shows and work in the recording studio, which is how he makes his living. And thus many of his friends here in NEPA have come together to present “BANDing together for BRET,” a benefit show that will help him out, financially, as he recovers from the surgery.

As mentioned, I’ve written a lot of stories about Bret, the musician. But today I’m writing about Bret, the musician, and Bret, my friend. I have never shared some of these stories before, and so you might want to grab a coffee or something and get yourself comfortable …


Last night of the "River Songs" tour.
Bud Light Amphitheater, Harveys Lake, 1996 
My review of the Badlees “River Songs” album was published on the day it was first released, independently, in February of 1995. I was absolutely floored by some of the songwriting, and in that review, I compared Bret Alexander to a young Springsteen or Mellencamp. That same week, at the band’s CD release party, he thanked me for the kind words and it was during that brief conversation that I told him, for the first time, how I felt about him:

“You,” I said, “are a very talented man.”

We didn’t know each other that well at the time. I’d only done a few stories on the group back then, but after reading the songwriting credits on “River Songs”  I realized it was Bret who was the creative force and the soul of The Badlees, and thus from then on I always made sure to chat with him a bit at the shows and to make sure that he was a part of any Badlees story that I was writing. To me, a band is all about its songs. And Bret was the songs.

In 1996, The Badlees held a video release party for “Angeline Is Coming Home” in The Woodlands Grand Ballroom. It was, to this day, one of the biggest crowds that I have ever seen there – probably about 1,500 people. The next day, the band was heading out to go on tour with Bob Seger, and so I asked Bret to give me a call in a few weeks, after they’d done some shows, to let me know how the tour was going. All of the group’s fans were excited about what was happening and I knew they would enjoy reading an update from the road. Bret said he would call and a few weeks later my phone in the newsroom rang. It was Bret. We did the story. And I also knew right then that he was not only a very talented man, but also a man of his word. Today, 25 years later, he has never shown otherwise.  
Bret performing at "We All Shine On."
River Street Jazz Cafe, 2005 

Years later, after our friendship began to develop, Bret would sometimes give me an early listen to some of the band’s new recordings. The fact that he valued my opinion meant a lot to me and I was very flattered. In 1998 he gave me an early and still unreleased copy of “Up There Down Here," and when I heard the song “Don’t Let Me Hide” for the first time, I once again realized what a brilliant songwriter he was.  And not just because it’s such a great tune, but because of the backstory behind it, which I don’t believe has ever been told …

The Badlees told their fans on stage several times in 1997 that the follow-up to “River Songs” was going to be titled “Up There Down Here.” The reason, they said, was because, sonically, it contained some of their heaviest songs and some of their softest songs. (Examples: “Middle of The Busiest Road” and “Running Up That Hill.”) But on another occasion, I’d heard that the name of the album came from the sessions themselves, as most of the recordings were done “up there” in Bearsville, while some tweaking to the tracks was done “down here” in Pennsylvania. I was told that “up there, down here” was a phrase that the band often used during the sessions - ”We’ll do that up there. We can do that down here” – and thus the name of the album. It was also about the journey of being on stage for so long and then finding yourself back in the audience, right where you started. The fact that there were a few stories floating around about how the album got its title didn’t really matter. They all made sense and it was a cool title. But there’s a much better part to the story …



Bret performing at "Concert For Karen."
Voodoo Lounge, 2000.
“Don’t Let Me Hide,” which would later become the album’s first single, was not recorded in Bearsville. In fact, it wasn’t even written yet when the Bearsville sessions ended and when it was initially thought that the “Up There Down Here” album was complete. But after hearing the final Bearsville sessions, the group’s label, Atlas/A&M, told the band they wanted a few more songs. What was it that Tom Petty sang? “Their A&R man said, “We don’t hear a single.” That was the deal. And so Bret wrote some more songs. But I remember him telling me that he wasn’t too happy about it. He thought the record was done. And he really didn’t like having someone else tell him that it wasn’t. Still, he got to work. And he wrote “Don’t Let Me Hide.” And if you listen to it -  now that you know this story - you can see that parts of the lyrics are actually about writing a song that you don’t really want to write. It’s about toiling away in the basement, working on the song, while his wife was upstairs. That’s where the line in the pre-chorus of song comes from … “You’re up there, and I’m down here.” It's about facing adversity, and not losing yourself in the process, and asking your loved ones for strength. That's what Bret wrote about. And in doing so, he not only delivered another fantastic song, but he also brilliantly tied it into the name of the album – an album which had already been named several months prior.  

“Don’t Let Me Hide,” which was recorded in Los Angeles, several months after Bearsville,  was the lead single from “Up There Down Here.” Ironically, one of Tom Petty’s Heartbrteakers played on it. And, now that you know the story behind it, you know that even back then Bret was already starting to flip the music business the bird.

“You want another song? How about THIS.”

Once “Up There Down Here” was completed and Bret gave me that early version of it, I fell in love with it. The songs were incredible: “Luther’s Windows,”  “Thinking In Ways,” “34 Winters,” “Silly Little Man,” “Middle of The Busiest Road,” “Running Up That Hill,” “Don’t Let Me Hide” … I thought it was even better than “River Songs.” But just as the album was completed also came the $10 billion dollar Polygram/Seagram sale, which later led to the formation of the Universal Music Group. And for well over a year, no one heard the album. It, like the Badlees and hundreds of other bands, was tangled up in corporate limbo. And as a fan and friend of the band, it was killing me. I felt the album needed to be heard. I felt it must be heard. But whenever I talked to Bret about it, he seemed totally unconcerned. He said he enjoyed writing the songs and recording them, but if no one ever got to hear them, it didn’t really bother him. He’d just write more songs.

Bret at "Concert for A Cause"
The Woodlands, 2007
And that’s what he did. And that’s what he’s continued to do. But how he handled that turbulent time in his career told me so much about him as an artist. He wasn’t about to mourn the loss of those songs. He’d already gotten all that he could out of them and he was moving on to new creative projects and new tunes. And like he told me in the studio that night, the best part is always when you first write them.

Eventually, in 1999, The Badlees, tired of the ongoing delays, asked to be released from Polygram. And as soon they were freed, they dropped a new album, “Amazing Grace.”  Of course it contained some of Bret’s best songs, including “Amazing Grace To You,” “Time Turns Around” and “Poison Ivy.” All were done at his home studio. A few months later, another label signed the Badlees, acquired the rights to “Up There Sown Here” and finally released it. And so, within just a few months, fans of the band got two great albums.

I guess Bret was right when he told me not to worry about it.

One of the things that has meant the most to me throughout my career in journalism and in radio is my friendship with Bret and the fact that he has at times considered me a confidante. Trusting me with an early copy of “Up There Down Here” was an early example, and I remember a year or so later, when The Badlees released the “The Days Parade” EP, he told me the band was thinking of including a cover tune on the record and he asked me which song I thought they should record. I suggested Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” because I loved they way he sang it at the band’s shows. It ended up on the record. In 2002, he came over to my old apartment one night and gave me an early listen to the “Renew” album, which was the first Badlees record in three years. As we sat there listing to the tracks, I was particularly captured by the song “Too Many Changes” and I told him that it didn’t sound like anything the band had done before. He told me he was going for a bit of a Motown vibe on the tune, and that he kind of imagined guys from the ‘70s with old-school long skinny microphones and polyester suits singing along to the bridge section. Once again, he nailed it. I think it’s one of his best songs. And I am grateful to have had been able to have had such conversations with him about his music.

Bret and I have also gone to see some pretty good shows together. We caught U2 in Philly, Springsteen at State College and B.B. King at The Kirby Center. Bret loved the late B.B. King. He always plays that black Gibson guitar because of B.B. And being able to meet B.B. with Bret after the show at The Kirby was a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’d ever seen him so happy. When we went to see U2 do a big stadium show, Bret took in the whole concert in silence. Anyone that knows him knows he’s not going to be standing on his chair, singing along to every song or waiving a lighter in the air. That’s just not his way. And so I had no idea what he was thinking. After the show, when we were walking back to the car, I asked him if he liked it.


Bret at Montage Mountain in front
 of the Saturation Acres stage.
 Anti-bullying benefit, 2012.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I thought it was great. I don’t think most people have any idea how hard it is to pull something like that off, on that scale, and do what those guys do.”

I think if U2 ever heard some of Bret’s music they’d say the same about him.

Like everyone that knows him, I also have some funny Bret stories. And the better you get to know him, the more of his humor you’ll see. For 12 years, from 1999-2011, I worked on a benefit show called “Concert for Karen/Concert For A Cause.”  And at a few of the first few shows, I played bass with The Badlees on the song “Laugh To Keep From Crying.” I am nowhere near the musician that those guys are, but the song had a lot of meaning to us, regarding “Concert For Karen,” and so I played it with them. The first few times that I did it, I played pretty well. It sounded good. But by 2002, the show had grown so much in size that we moved it to The Woodlands Grand Ballroom. We had two stages and twice as many bands on the bill, and as one of the show’s organizers, I guess you could say that I was a bit too busy to spend enough time with my bass in the days leading up to the show, and on stage, during “Laugh To Keep From Crying’” I briefly lost my way. It probably wasn’t even noticeable to those at the show, and I soon got back on track with the band, but musicians notice these things.

“Well, that was a (expletive) train wreck,” I said to Bret with a smile after the set.

“Well, you had a (expletive) year to practice,” he said with laugh.

We still laugh about that one.

I’ve also recorded with Bret at his studio, Saturation Acres, many times. Sometimes it’s been a song that I’ve written and sometimes it’s been a cover song, just for fun. Those days in the studio with him are always among my favorite days of the year because it also gives us the chance to catch up on things. And as anyone that has ever recorded with him knows, you are working with the best. And on one special occasion, Bret went the extra mile for me. I’d written a song called “Summer Days” that I thought was OK and that I wanted to record, but I knew it needed something more. I knew it needed Bret. At that point, I’d already recorded with him before, but for this song, I asked him if he would help me finish writing the tune. I know that I can’t write a good bridge to save my life and that I needed some help with the arrangement. And though we were already pretty good friends by then, I idolized him as a songwriter, and I was still a bit nervous about asking him to help me write a song.

“Sure, man,” he said. “You know me. I love that stuff.”

A week or so later, Bret came over to my place and I gave him a tape of what I had. He took it home and then came back a week or two later with some ideas. He felt the chorus was strong and that the song should begin with its chorus, which is something the Beatles would sometimes do. He also, of course, had a bridge. And we sat at my kitchen table and finished it. I still have a recording of it, which was done on an old boom-box, and it is one of my favorite things. To me, it was no different than if Springsteen was sitting in my house helping me write a song.  A few weeks later, I went to Saturation Acers to properly record it, and it later received airplay on 14 radio stations throughout Pennsylvania and hit No. 5 of the NEPA singles chart.

I don’t have the talent nor the ability to write and record a song that could become a regional hit on the radio. But working with Bret, that’s what happened.

Most of my sessions with Bret have been fun and seamless. But there was one, when recording a cover of John Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels,” that was not. I was excited about the session all week, and the night before, I had total insomnia. Still, I drove to Danville, where the studio was located at the time, and Bret spent all day laying down the tracks for the song. Finally, after a long day in the studio, it was time for me to sing. And I sucked. We could not get a good take on the vocals. I tried a few times, but Bret finally told me to just go home and come back again another day.  I lobbied him to try again, but he was done. He said it was his daughter’s birthday and that he was going home. I came back a few days later to take another shot at it and got it right in no time, but we still laugh about the day he kicked me out and sent me home.  

There have been lots of good times and laughs at Saturation Acres. In 2010, on the night we recorded a final song for the “Concert For a Cause 9” album – a cover of U2’s “Walk On” - Bret began doing an imitation of me, adlibbing a tirade of lyrics about why we were no longer going to do the annual charity concert. Eddie Appnel, John Smith, Dustin Douglas, Tim Farley, Paul Young … we were all laughing so hard we were in tears. It was honestly one of the best laughs that I’ve ever had. 

It was also at Saturation Acres where I got a great glimpse of Bret’s humility. He’s accomplished a lot with his music. He had two national record deals. He’s done shows Bob Seger, the Allman Brothers and Plant/Page. Gregg Allman liked his tunes so much that he once asked Bret if he’d like to write with him. NBC-TV used “Fear of Falling” during the 1996 Winter Olympics. I once heard The Badlees on Muzak in the supermarket and The Badlees were once the answer to a question on “Jeopardy.” Here in NEPA, they headlined amphitheaters and the F.M. Kirby Center. It’s cool stuff. But you’d never know about any of it from just talking to Bret. He is too modest. He is too unassuming. And on one occasion, about 20 years ago, when I was recording a song with Bret and his partner Paul Smith at the studio, I got to see just how much.


At some point during the day, I started talking to an intern, who had been there for a few months.

“It must be pretty cool for you to be working here with these guys,” I said. “They’ve done some great stuff.”

He looked at me with look of confusion on his face.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, you know … working in the studio with a few guys from The Badlees … that’s pretty cool,” I said. “These guys are great.”

“I know The Badlees,” he said, as he rattled off the names of a few of their hit songs. “What do you mean … I’m working with The Badlees?”

Bret mixing a song at Saturation Acres


Bret and Paul were behind the studio glass at the time and could not hear the conversation.

“Those guys right there are Badlees,” I said, pointing to them through the glass.

I thought the kid was going to fall right over. You’d think that at some point, it might have come up in conversation. But not with Bret and Paul. There was not one thing in that studio that would give any indication of some of the things they had accomplished. 

Want another example of his humility? At one point, about 10 years ago, Bret told me that he didn’t even own copies of most of his own records. Usually, he said, if someone asked him about one of his albums, he’d just give them his only copy. I burned him a whole bunch of his best songs onto a couple of CDs and gave them to him. “Someday,” I said, “Your daughters are going to want to have these.”

In regards to the upcoming “BANDing together for BRET” concert, there is something else about Bret that I’d like to share …

Over the past 21 years, I have personally been involved with 16 different charity events that have involved music. From 1999-2011, there were 13 “Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause” shows, which aided numerous local charities, ranging from children's programs to homeless shelters to programs for veterans. There was a "We All Shine On" John Lennon tribute show, which took place in 2005, on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death, with proceeds benefiting the John Lennon Scholarship Fund. There was “Music, Motors & More,” which took place in 2012 at Montage Mountain, with proceeds benefiting local anti-bullying programs. In 2016, there was “Maximum Respect: A Tribute to George Wesley” and in 2017 there was “Jane Jam.”

Bret performed at every single one of them.

And he has donated his time and talents to countless other such benefits. He has always been there, sharing his time and talents, to help others. Even the former “Concert for A Cause” albums, which helped raised thousands of dollars for local charities, are totally linked to Bret. It was Bret, in 2002, that suggested a companion CD to accompany the annual “Concert For Karen.” And what he offered was extraordinary. He offered an EP that featured the first new Badlees music in three years. The band’s fans were clamoring for something new, and the first time they heard the songs “Renew” and “See Me As A Picture,” it was on the “Concert for A Karen” EP. And all of the money went to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America.

The “Concert For Karen” EP was such a success that we decided to do a companion CD, to accompany the show, every year. It soon evolved into the “Concert For A Cause” compilation CD, featuring songs from some of the region’s best bands. For 10 years, every spring, those albums would often spend several weeks at No. 1 on the local album chart. They helped countless people and numerous charities and they were great exposure for local talent. And it all started with Bret.
"Concert For Karen 4," The Woodlands, 2002


I am proud to call Bret Alexander a friend and I am grateful for it. I recall, when my mother passed away a few years ago, seeing him walk into the viewing and being so appreciative of that kind gesture. I also recall the good time that was had at his wedding reception, some 20 years ago, and I’m glad that he still has a strong woman like his wife, Kelly, in his life. And I enjoy hearing him boast about his daughters.

I also love how, even today, he always tells me, “The only time I drink gin is when I’m with you.” This is usually towards the end of one of our recording sessions. I bring the gin. And we always have a good time. I can also recall, from 2015, what a privilege it was to write the presentation speech when he received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at The Electric City Music Conference and to be there for him that night. And I recall how, 10 years ago, when my daughter was only three years old, the first song she ever sang was "Drive Back Home." And I recall how, for the last few tunes that I’ve recorded with him, I brought my bass to the studio even though I didn’t know the bass-lines to the songs. Bret taught them to me on the spot. It just happened, again, just two months ago.

Bret, as I said in 1995, is a very talented man. And he is always the coolest guy in the room. And for all of these years, he has been the heart, the soul and the center of this musical community. From The Badlees, to his great solo work, to The Cellarbirds, to Gentleman East, he has given us some of the best music that we have ever heard. And as a producer, he has helped hundreds of other artists. And when it comes to charity events, he has always been there.

To say we owe him one would be an understatement.

We’ve all owed him one for a long time.

See you at The Woodlands on April 11.



For information about “BANDing together for BRET,” visit www.facebook.com/musiconthemenu





























































































































Wednesday, November 20, 2019



MiZ to rock Jazz Café with full set of Clapton 


Mike Mizwinski, while finding success in Nashville,
returns home for special holiday show



By ALAN K. STOUT
Special to The Weekender

For more than 10 years, Mike Mizwinski has been regarded as one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s best guitarists. And on Thanksgiving Eve, he’ll be paying tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all-time.  

“MiZ plays Clapton, with special guest Justin Mazer,” will blast the River Street Jazz Café on November 27 with a show featuring nothing but the music of “Slowhand.” Mizwinski, a native of Pittston who relocated to Nashville last year, has done tribute-type shows before celebrating the music of Tom Petty, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. Wednesday’s show will be the third time he’ll be doing a full night of Clapton.  

“Growing up, I was a huge fan,” says Mizwinski, calling from Nashville. “My father got me into him. The first song I ever learned how to play was a Clapton song. The thing about Clapton that's fun is his songs are great vehicles to jam on, and to improvise on, and to extend and sort of interpret in your own way. With some artists you have to kind of have to stick to book, and then there's some that are more fun to just kind of interpret.  I just have a blast interpreting his songs and making them our own.”

Clapton’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career spans five decades. In the ‘60s, there was his pioneering work with The Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Later, “Times Pieces,” a greatest hits package that featured some of his best work of the ‘70s, contained tracks such as "I Shot the Sheriff," "After Midnight," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," “Wonderful Tonight," “Cocaine,” “Promises,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Layla." That alone would have made for a remarkable career, but Clapton forged on into the ‘80s with hits such as “Forever Man,” “It’s In The Way That You Use It,” “Pretending” and “Bad Love,” the latter two of which came from his multi-platinum album, “Journeyman.” In the ‘90s, Clapton gave a landmark performance on “MTV Unplugged,” which is best known best for his deeply personal performance of “Tears In Heaven” and his brilliant reworking of “Layla.” He has continued to tour and record, he has won 18 Grammy Awards, and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest musicians of all-time.

Mizwinski says he’s a fan Clapton’s complete catalog of work.

“I like it all,” he says. “If I had to pick a favorite era, I’d say it was the Cream days. I love that old Cream stuff. And I guess the reason that I love it is because it’s what got me so interested in him. That’s what got me playing.  ‘Journeyman’ was also a big album for me growing up. My parents had it and we used to listen to it. Later, when I went to college, I got into ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and the ‘70s stuff. Throughout my life I’ve gotten into different aspects of his career. There’s a few ‘lost’ albums in there, too, that I‘ve heard recently, but I hadn’t even heard of before. I really like his whole career.”

Success and artistic growth in Nashville  

Mizwinski himself has been actively recording for more than a decade and has released several critically acclaimed, roots-rock albums, including “East Hope Avenue,” “Parking Meters” and “A Year Ago Today.” And though he’s also lived in Central Pennsylvania and in the New York City area - and though Northeastern Pennsylvania has always been home - he decided last year to move to Nashville.

“I wanted to learn,” he says. “I wanted to further my career. I wanted to sit down with guitar players and songwriters that were better than me and that challenged me and that inspired me. And I wanted to become a better guitar player and a better songwriter. That was my real reason to come here. A lot of people come here and are straight out planning on ‘making it.’ My plan was a little bit different. I came here and kind of hung around in the background for a while and watched what's going on and got to meet a lot of people that were influences of mine. I got to take guitar lessons from some of my favorite players and got to do some recording. I just wanted learn. And I felt like it was the right move for my career as a musician.”


 Mike Mizwinski has found a welcome place for his music in Nashville 
Mizwinski says he received encouragement about the move from everyone, including Bob Lewis, another well-known NEPA musician that had also relocated to Nashville a few years prior.

“He's been a big part of me being down here,” says Mizwinski. “He’s over the house all the time and we've been writing together a lot. My manager had moved down here, too, and there were a few other people that I knew that were living down here. It just was like to the next step for me, and the right step, and I'm really glad I did it. I’ve really been loving it.”

Since his move to Nashville, Mizwinski has recorded two new songs - “Virginia and “High For Now” - at Gold Cassette recording studio, which is owned by multi-platinum country star Luke Combs. Working with Mizwinski on the music were producer Alex Gilson and guitarist Sol Philcox, who have also worked with Combs. And the tracks were mixed by Craig Alvin, who recently won the “Album of The Year” Grammy for his work on Kacey Musgraves.

“That’s been really exciting because obviously I hadn’t worked with Grammy-winning people before,” says Mizwinski. “We’re going to be releasing the songs soon. We’re just waiting on the mastering.”

Philcox is known as one of Nashville’s top session guitarists. Still, given his own capabilities, Mizwinski is asked why he felt the need to have a session player play guitar on his own original songs.

“That’s a funny story,” he says. “Sol and I barely even knew each other. He’s a mastermind in studio, but he didn't realize that I played lead guitar. He hired all these musicians and called in all of these all-star Nashville guys, and they charted out the songs. At the end of ‘Virginia,’ he said, ‘We’re just going to jam out the end,’ and he hits record, and we jam, and he plays a guitar solo, and I just kind of ripped into one after him, and that take is the one that we kept. It was the first time I ever actually did a live recording in the studio with five guys just letting it rip. The vocals. Everything. What you hear in the recording is five guys playing live in the studio. When we ended the song, Sol was like, ‘Holy crap. I didn’t know you played guitar like that!’ And since then - and it’s been a joy for me - me and Sol became buddies.”

The new friendship has helped open additional doors for Mizwinski, including performing live with Kashena Sampson, Emma White and Jenna Paulette. All three women appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of top-10 up and coming country artists.

“Sol has been sending me a lot of the work that he can’t do,” says Mizwinski. “He gets so many calls that it’s just insane. But I kind of quickly found out that was not what I want to do. Playing guitar for modern-country singers … it's just not my thing. It was a killer experience I can't say enough about how great it was to work with them, and their bands, and how nice they were. But it also made me realize that I really want to stay focused on my own music.”

Apparently, playing his own music in Nashville is also working out just fine.

“I got to play ‘New Faces Night’ at The Basement, which is one of the most prominent clubs in Nashville for the type of music I play,” he says. “It's a really, really big deal to get added onto ‘New Faces Night.’  After the owner saw our set,  I got a call, and he not only rebooked us, but he actually let me put my own bill together for my own night at The Basement. I played and headlined and I had to two other people come and play, too. It’s been great. My mindset coming down here has been strictly that I want to soak this all in and I want to purposely put myself around people that are that are better players, singers and writers than and I am.”

Even Mizwinski’s Nashville roommate, an artist named Boo Ray, is a talented musician. Stephen Ferrone, the former drummer for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, appeared on his album and he’s been getting airplay on Sirius XM Radio. Mizwinski has also recorded with Boo Ray and, once again, has worked with some of the industry’s top producers. Boo Ray also introduced him to the legendary John Hiatt, with whom he now sometimes meets for lunch.

“That’s just crazy,” says Mizwinski.

Coming home

For the “MiZ plays Clapton” show, Mizwinski will be joined by his friend Justin Mazer, another NEPA native and dazzling guitarist who has also toured the country and has been featured in national publications such as Rolling Stone, Relix, and Guitar Player magazine. Mazur has also played some of the country’s top music festivals and is currently working and touring with Ryan Montbleau.

“We’ve got backup singers and we’ve got some other guests coming down,” says Mizwinski. “It's going to be phenomenal.”

Though Mizwinski is making great strides in Nashville, he adds that it’s nice to come home.

“It’s always great,” he says.  “I miss it. I'm one of these people that loves Northeast PA. I think it's a great place, and I miss being there. I miss home. I miss seeing the people.  Coming home feels good, and when I do come home to play I feel so lucky. People are so good to me and they're so supportive of me. I’m so lucky to have this dynamic, or this opportunity, to be able to come home every few months to play, and to have people coming out and supporting me. It's really cool. Even moving down here, people were really supportive of it and I can’t thank him enough.

“It's a great, music-loving community.”

WHAT: MiZ plays Clapton with special guest Justin Mazer
WHERE: River Street Jazz Café, Plains Township
WHEN: Wednesday, November 27, 10 p.m.
TICKETS: $10 in advance, $15 at the door
INFO: www. riverstreetjazzcafe.com

Photos courtesy of Sam Watson. This story also appeared as the Weekender's cover story on November 20, 2019. The Weekender version can be found here: https://www.theweekender.com/wk_cover/32133/mike-mizwinski-while-finding-success-in-nashville-returns-home-for-special-holiday-show























































































Sunday, August 25, 2019



KISS kisses Pennsylvania goodbye in Hershey 

Cara Lombardo and Adam Nulton are all smiles before KISS’ recent show at Hersheypark Stadium.

Local fans share their thoughts on ‘End Of The Road’ tour


By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU 

HERSHEY, PA - For the past 45 years, the state of Pennsylvania has been a frequent tour stop for the rock group KISS. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Harrisburg, Scranton, Erie, State College … the iconic band has played them all. And on Wednesday, with its show in Hershey, the group made what was probably its final stop in the Keystone State. And for the 20,000 fans at Hersheypark Stadium – many of whom had traveled from Northeastern Pennsylvania - it was apparently a most memorable KISS goodbye.

Jim Donnelly of Back Mountain, who had previously seen KISS about 15 times, was at the show in Hershey. Afterwards, he had no regrets about traveling 100 miles to see the band again.

“I’d seen a lot of the new show on YouTube, so I kind of had an idea of what it was going to look like, but it was just incredible in person,” said Donnelly. “The guys were on fire. There’s a lot of energy in this show. They’re saying it’s their last hurrah, and I thought it was incredible.”

Angela Thomas (right ) poses with a fellow
KISS fan at Hersheypark Stadium
Donnelly has been on the annual KISS Kruise four times and will be setting sail with the band again this fall, and thus he will see the group perform again in a smaller setting. But Wednesday’s show in Hershey will likely be the last time he saw a full KISS arena/stadium show.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I had some friends there, and we were kind of looking back, because there’s a very good chance it will be the last show that I’ll see them at the level. But we say, ‘Thanks for the memories.’ ”

Adam Nulton of Wilkes-Barre was also at the show on Wednesday, which he said was about his 10th KISS concert.   

“I saw them a few years back and I thought that was going to be my last chance to see them,” he said. “But I think they felt the fans still needed the music that they deliver. And I think a lot of the fans that are older want to share that experience with their children and say, 'This is what I grew up on. This is what you need to experience.’ And people definitely need to see the band before they call it a day.”

Steve Middaugh and his friend Bill Evanicki rock 'n roll all
nite at KISS' 'End of The Road" show in Hershey
   
Nulton made sure that his girlfriend, Cara Lombardo of Tamaqua, was one of those people. And thus she was at her first KISS show in Hershey.

“I was so excited,” said Lombardo. “I’d heard it’s an experience that you’ll never, ever forget. Since I was so late in first getting to see them, I kind of wish they’d stick around a little bit longer, but I get it. They’re getting older. But I feel blessed to have been able to see them before it’s really farewell.”

According to Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs, the authors of “Kiss Alive Forever: The Complete Touring History,” KISS has played Pennsylvania 84 times. Additionally, they’ve played nine shows in Camden, N.J. – shows that were primarily aimed at the Philadelphia market. The band has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and as an America band, has more certified gold albums than any other group.  Steve Middaugh of Exeter saw his fifth KISS concert in Hershey on Wednesday. He said he’s been a loyal fan for most of his life and that it’s always been the band’s music that he enjoys the most. He added that he was not about to miss the “End Of The Road” tour.

“This is it,” said Middaugh. “That’s why I really wanted to get to the show. And I thought it was great. I really, really enjoyed it. We had a blast. The theatrics were so good and they played some of the stuff from the non-makeup era (“Lick It Up,” “Heaven’s On Fire,” “Crazy Crazy Nights”), and I liked that a lot. They really went all out.”

Traci Strungis of Mountaintop caught her third KISS show on Wednesday. She agreed with Middaugh about songs performed. 

Traci Strungis (left) and friends bid farewell to KISS in Hershey 
“The set list was really well thought out,” said Strungis. “It had a mix of old KISS and songs from different eras, so I think diehard fans were pleased, as well as first-time fans. It covered their whole timespan. And I liked that. I really love when they segue from ‘Lick It Up’ into ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ That’s awesome. The guitar work is incredible.  And the stage show was fantastic … with all of the pyrotechnics, fireworks and confetti. Paul Stanley flies out to the middle of the stadium on a zip-line so that you can be closer to him. It’s definitely a great visual show. 

“They looked so good and sounded so good that I think they should keep going,” she added. “But I realize that they would probably like to go out on top. And they are. I’ve seen them a few times before, and they just keep getting better. They were just phenomenal.”
     
Angela Thomas of Wilkes-Barre attended her second KISS show in Hershey. She said that KISS, live in concert, is still “The Hottest Band In The World.”

“I had a great time,” said Thomas. “Paul Stanley is my favorite and I just absolutely love seeing him. And there were so many people there that were there for the same reason that I was – for the love of their music. It was just, ‘Wow.’ I just had an amazing time.

“I get it,” said Thomas, when asked how she feels about this being KISS’ final tour. “They’ve been around for a long time. But hopefully it isn’t. They’re one of my favorite bands and I’d like to see them again and again.”

Dave Donati of Dupont has seen KISS in concert 22 times, including every tour since 1992. Wednesday’s show was his third time catching the band on this tour. Having seen every tour over the past 25 years, he ranks ‘End Of The Road’ as among the band’s best.

“I’ve enjoyed every tour, but this one certainly has more energy and more feel,” said Donati.  “The guys on stage have just given a new level of energy and have really given something back to the fans. There’s no opening band. There’s no foolin’ around. I saw the tours they did with Motley Cue and Def Leppard and I loved those tours, but I’m not a co-headline kind of guy. This is KISS’ show. Tommy Thayer has been on another level on this tour. I’ve watched him with awe.  And Gene has always been my favorite. That will never change. And I think he’s having a great time up there right now saying goodbye.

“I’m a concert junkie,” added Donati. “I’ve been to more than 100 concerts and nothing compares to a KISS concert. Nothing.”
Debra Ann Caruso channels her inner Starchild
for her 50th KISS concert in Hershey 

For Debra Ann Caruso of Jermyn, Wednesday’s show in Hershey was her 50th KISS concert and marked the fourth time she’s seen the band on the “End Of The Road” tour.  She says that at some point, during every show on this tour, she’s been brought to tears. She also feels it’s one of the band’s greatest tours, ever.

“The production is amazing,” said Caruso. “The first time I saw this stage was at Madison Square Garden. Then I went to Philly. Then I flew to Tennessee, to take my niece to see the show. And I’ve been blown away. I’ve been blown away by the production, and I’ve been blown away by how they’ve looked and how they’ve sounded. Paul Stanley is 67 and looks amazing. He’s miraculous to me. They’re just amazing.”

Despite perhaps being the band’s biggest fan in NEPA, Caruso says she’s OK with the group's decision to stop touring sometime next year.

“They deserve the break,” she said. “And their families, more than anything, deserve the break. But personally, I’m sad. I’m sad because it’s been a huge part of my life. When people ask me, ‘How are you still a fan after all of this time?’ and ‘How do you still get so excited and emotional?,’ I say that it’s the one singular thing that’s been in my heart and been in my life for as long as my love of family. I can’t imagine it going away. But I’m happy for them that they’re going out on such a high, and that they’re retiring with grace and on the top of their game.  And I feel like they’re doing that.”


(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on The River. Reach him at musiconthemenu@comcast.net) 



































































Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Woodstock turns 50 at Bethel Woods


Site of original 1969 festival celebrates golden anniversary


“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were a half a million strong, and everywhere was a song and celebration” – “Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.


By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU

Despite what you may have seen in the headlines this summer, Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration was not cancelled. It went on as planned last week, for several days, on the anniversary of the milestone event. Several acts that were on the historic musical bill in August of 1969 – Santana, John Fogerty, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Edgar Winter and Arlo Guthrie – also performed in August of 2019, as did Ringo Starr, the former Beatle who has made “Peace and Love” his personal motto. And it happened in Bethel, New York, at essentially the exact same site where Woodstock took place 50 years ago.

The four-day celebration, which happened at the Bethel Woods Center for The Arts, was planned long ago and most of the acts that performed were announced earlier this year. And it all went off without a hitch, which is why every time I saw a headline this summer saying that “Woodstock 50” was postponed, or had been moved, or was cancelled, I had to laugh.

For those that may be confused, here’s what happened: Michael Lang, one of the producers of the original Woodstock event in 1969 – and who had also produced Woodstock  ‘94 and Woodstock ‘99 – had hoped to do another large scale event for the 50th anniversary. And though he apparently has a nice relationship with the Bethel Woods Center for The Arts and has made appearances there in the past, he felt the original location, even with its gorgeous amphitheater, had become too developed and was now too small to host Woodstock 50. And so he made plans elsewhere. And those plans fell through. And thus all of the “Woodstock is canceled” headlines.

Thankfully, none of it had anything to do with what was happening in Bethel. And it was a fabulous anniversary weekend.


Woodstock - Bethel, New York, 1969 
The Bethel Woods Center for The Arts is one of the finest amphitheaters in the United States. On its historic grounds you will also find a wonderful Woodstock museum and the actual Yasgur’s Farm field where the original Woodstock event took place in 1969. A large “peace” symbol is cut into the grass of its slopping fields, which are nestled amid the rolling Catskills. An historical marker is also in place. It is the place where Woodstock actually happened, and thus where else would you rather be on its 50th anniversary?

Apparently, for about 60,000 people over the course of four days, that place was Bethel Woods. And I was one of them. I took a drive up on Friday and, in my own way, I tried to celebrate all-things Woodstock. Though the original event took place when I was only two years old, I’ve always felt a connection to it. At the time that I arrived on this Earth, America was changing, the war in Vietnam was raging, and thus, in some ways, I am a product of those times. In the photographs from my third birthday party, the balloons are decorated with “peace” symbols, and I grew up listening to most of the bands on the Woodstock bill, especially The Who. And though I’d been to a few shows in Bethel before, I was feeling a strong pull to go back for the 50th, and so off I went …

Historical marker at the original site of Woodstock 

The night prior, on the night they were showing the original Woodstock film at Bethel Woods, I was watching it at home. In one segment, Lang was talking about how when the promoters, after being displaced from two prior possible locations, were looking for a site to hold the event, they found themselves driving all throughout the hills and along backroads of the Catskills, looking for the right place. And when they came across Yasgur’s Farm, they knew they’d found it. When I drove there on Friday, my GPS, for some reason, took me on a different route from the way I’d gone there before, and I found myself on lots of little backroads, riding throughout the hills of the Catskills. And I loved it. I imagined those guys travelling those same roads 50 years earlier, and all of the young people jammed up in traffic trying to find this remote place without the use of anything like GPS. I imaged all of the hitchhikers and Volkswagen vans, and in an effort to try to harness some of that energy, I rolled down my windows, turned off the air conditioner in the car and breathed in the spirit of ‘69.  It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Though I’d been there before, I also visited the Woodstock monument, and for the 50th anniversary, you were permitted to walk around on the historic field of the concert. I strolled over to where the original stage was located, and of course I thought of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash and all of the others. At sundown, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful golden sunset over the Catskills. It was perfect.

Ringo Starr, Bethel Woods, 2019
Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band, which performed on Friday night, were fabulous. Not only did Starr sing his best Beatles and solo songs, but he also played drums throughout most of the show. Any night that you can see a Beatle playing Beatles’ songs is a good might, but I also really enjoyed just watching him drum. At 79, he played with sheer joy. He’s got to be the most youthful man on the planet.

One of the members of Starr’s All-Star band is Gregg Rolie of Santana, who actually performed at Woodstock in 1969. He talked about playing at the big how “right over the hill” 50 years prior and sang songs such as “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va.” It was incredibly fitting for the vibe, and Starr closed the night with “With A Little Help From My Friends” – which Joe Cocker had covered so beautifully at Woodstock - and then segued into a few verses of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Given how much the weight of the Vietnam War had hovered over the original festival, it was most appropriate.

About halfway through Starr’s set, a bright, beautiful moon rose from behind the amphitheater. It too seemed fitting, almost cosmically, on anniversary weekend. And just as the band was playing the final notes of its very last song, a dark cloud briefly moved in front of the moon and hid its light. The spirit of Woodstock had spoken. Day #2 of the celebration was over.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969

At one point, shortly after dusk, I walked from the amphitheater back over to the original concert field and pretty much had it all to myself. I thought of the more than 400,000 people that had gathered there 50 years prior, and how that moment in time has stayed with this country in so many ways for the past five decades. I also realized that a good portion of those young people that we see in those video clips may have since passed on. Woodstock, 50 years later, also reminded us of our mortality, but not in a somber way. It reminded us of how important it is to live life to the fullest and to appreciate the vibrancy of youth.

The Bethel Woods 50th anniversary celebration of Woodstock didn’t try to recreate anything. Traffic was managed perfectly and there was plenty of parking, food and restrooms. Nobody overdosed or slid down the hills in the mud. There were plenty of young people there, but a good portion of them were of the Woodstock generation or, like me, the following generation that also grew up with the music. And at this point in our lives, we prefer a clean restroom and plenty of choices of good food. Bethel Woods has all of that, as well as a great gift shop. Trying to recreate Woodstock would have felt forced, but celebrating it in a very 2019 way did not.

While walking in the concert field, however, I did feel a sense that, like in 1969, we are once again a nation divided. This time, it’s not over a war happening overseas, but rather one happening right here in America. I found myself - at a place synonymous with peace and love - thinking about gun control. And I was pleased to learn that Michael Lang himself showed up in Bethel over the weekend to talk about that issue. I'm glad he hasn't changed.
.
Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration was not canceled. It went on, in Bethel, as planned. And, more than anything, it was fun. And perhaps that was the best way to honor it. I recently watched the new PBS documentary, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation.” At one point during the festival, Max Yasgur, the owner of the farm, can be seen on stage addressing the enormous crowd. He was 49 years old at the time and was viewed as an old-school conservative, or in those days, as one of the “establishment.” Yet it was he who allowed Woodstock to take place on his land. And by all accounts, Max was a pretty cool guy. When the event ran out of food, he sent food from his farm. He said “we’ve got to feed those kids.” When the event ran out of water, he sent water. And though he was surely no hippie, he looked at them all – all 400,000 of them - as a bunch of nice kids having a good time. And he was happy to have them there.

Sunset in Bethel on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock
“I’m a farmer,” he said on stage that day, 50 years ago. “I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think that you people have proven something to the world. Not only to the town of Bethel and Sullivan County and New York State … you’re proving something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We had no idea there would be this size group, and because of that, you’ve had quite a few inconveniences … but the one thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children older than you are – a half a million young people can get together, and have three days of fun and music, and have nothing but fun and music. And God bless you for it.”

Indeed.

Three days of peace, love, music and fun. There is still an aura there. You can feel it.

Happy 50th Woodstock. And well done, Bethel Woods.



(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on The River. Reach him at musiconthemenu@comcast.net)  


























































































Sunday, June 30, 2019


Frehley’s guitar blasts Kirby


Photo courtesy of JA Donnelly

Backed by a polished and energetic band, former KISS guitarist delivers   


By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU

WILKES-BARRE – Ace Frehley must like Northeastern Pennsylvania. On Saturday night, the former KISS guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer performed in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market for the sixth time as a solo artist, dating back to 1985. This time, he was back at the F.M Kirby Center, where he had also played in 2016. And, like last time, he rocked the joint pretty good.

Frehley took the stage to the sound of “Fractured Mirror” – an instrumental piece which closes his 1978 solo album - filling the theater. He then opened the show with “Rip It Out,” the opening track from that same album. “Parasite,” from KISS’ second LP, “Hotter Than Hell,” followed, and chances are it probably wasn’t the first time Frehley performed the song on that same stage, as KISS had played the former Paramount Theater twice in 1974.

 “How ya doing Wilkes-Barre?” said Frehley after the second number. “You ready to rock?

The answer was ,”Yes,” and Frehley then tore into 1979’s “Hard Times,” a KISS gem that deals with Frehley’s teen years and the tough street life of the Bronx. Frehley offered an extended solo during the number, aptly displaying his lead guitar skills which have not diminished over the past 40 years.

One of the highlights of the show was Frehley’s new backing band, most of which he discovered last year while doing some shows with former bandmate Gene Simmons. Three members of the unit - guitarist/vocalists Ryan Cook and Jeremy Asbrock and bassist/vocalist Philip Shouse - had previously backed Simmons at some of his solo concerts. Frehley was impressed and hired them. The three additions, along with longtime drummer Matt Starr, give Frehley one of the best bands he’s ever toured with. The triple-guitar attack bolstered his sound and the harmonies were spot-on. Frehley was also generous to the musicians, allowing them take lead vocals on some numbers and solo. That, and their own charisma, made the concert experience even more enjoyable.

A churning performance of “Watching You” also connected with the KISS faithful and during a performance of the new “Rockin' With The Boys” Frehley frequently tossed guitar picks into the audience.

“It’s starting to get hot up here,” said Frehley, while taking off his blazer about five songs into the show. “I don’t want to pass out like I did last time.”

The comment - referring to his 2016 performance at The Kirby, during which he became ill,  had to cut the show short, and was treated for dehydration at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital – drew a chuckle from both Frehley and the crowd. On this night, however, all was well, and Frehley and the band then ripped through guitar-heavy renditions of “Rocket Ride,” "Mission To Mars” and “Strange Ways,” the latter of which featured another extended guitar solo. ”2,000 Man,” a song written and first recorded by The Rolling Stones, but has become a signature song for Frehley, also got one of the night’s biggest cheers.

“I’m looking out there and I think I see a few rock soldiers,” said Frehley, before launching into “Rock Soldiers.”  The anthem-like song, which appeared on 1987’s “Frehley’s Comet” album, remains a fan-favorite and also had the crowd singing along. And for his performance of the 1978 hit “New York Groove,” he brought out his famous lighted guitar which pulsated to the beat of the song. It, too, had plenty of fists pumping in the air.

It was during “Shock Me,” however, that Frehley showed his fans why he is the quintessential lead guitarist. Sure, he hauled out his trademark smoking guitar for a part of the solo, which made for a fun visual, but it was what he played that seemed to impress the crowd the most. It was one of the longest guitar solos Frehley has ever performed, full of both beefy riffs and quick playing. Frehley was already a guitar hero to many before the “shredders” of the ‘80s arrived on the music scene, and that’s never really been his style, but on Saturday night, at least for parts of his solo, Frehley was shredding. It was almost as if he was just having some fun showing off. And it was impressive.

The set ended with a pounding rendition of “Cold Gin,” which also featured an extended guitar solo.

Encores included “Detroit Rock City” and “Deuce,” and it is when you see Frehley tearing through the guitar parts of “Deuce” that you realize how important he was to KISS’ initial success. His sound is very much the sound of KISS “Alive,” the band’s now classic 1975 breakthrough album, and it is clearly a sound that he still holds dear and can still deliver.

Ace Frehley apparently likes Northeastern Pennsylvania.

And apparently it also likes him.

Another good show from the Spaceman.

------

This story also appears in The Times Leader newspaper and can be read online here:

https://www.timesleader.com/features/lifestyle/748533/frehleys-guitar-blasts-kirby


Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on The River. Reach him at musiconthemenu@comcast.net