Man Voyage VI: New England

September 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

In 2016 I was winding down Man Voyage IV with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade, Jared A. Conti AKA The Oracular Beard in the upper reaches of New York’s Finger Lakes.  We were chatting at length on the last stop of our three day beer & brewery pilgrimage with a knowledgeable server at Genesee’s Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market when he wholeheartedly recommended, nay commanded us where to go next: Vermont.  

His claims that Vermont breweries were churning out some of the best beers in the country weren’t entirely unfamiliar to us.  Any craft beer drinker worth his/her weight in IBUs knows The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper is one of the most highly rated & sought after IPAs on the market, and it more than lived up to the hype when a friend gifted us a few cans years ago.  My wife & I received a case of assorted bombers from Rock Art, McNeill’s and others as a wedding present from a Brattleboro-based friend, and Hill Farmstead’s unpasteurized farmhouse ales are the only exceptions from the “drink local” rule we adhere to during our visits to Philadelphia.  As I reflected on all of this, I began to wonder why we hadn’t made this trip sooner.  

Initial Google searches pointed us toward Burlington, Stowe and more northern locations.  We were hoping to stay central & southern due to time constraints so as always, we dug deeper to find some gems that haven’t yet been touted by the national beer press and looked forward to the journey as much as the destination.  And journey we did: the past few years we’ve combined Man Voyage with some Echo & Sway tour dates, losing travel & leisure time to radio interviews, promotional efforts, load ins & soundchecks, etc. For the first time in years, we were getting back to basics: eating, drinking and combing America’s highways & backroads at our own pace.  

I recall a time, maybe a decade ago when we had visited most of the breweries & brewpubs in Pennsylvania, save for the bigger cities.  My wife & I would open the latest Ale Street News to the map page, cross off the newer ones as we made our monthly treks and it seemed fairly manageable.  Now there are over 300 scattered throughout the rural parts of the state and in trying to find somewhere new on our way out of northeastern PA, we had nearly half a dozen to choose from.  We went with Nimble Hill Winery & Brewery in Tunkhannock because, well, they were the only place that was open at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning.  

That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our visit.  Options may have been scarce but Nimble Hill made for a fine first stop: not so exceptional that it wrecked the curve but good enough to whet our appetites for the long day ahead of us.  Located unassumingly off of Rt. 6 N it couldn’t have been easier to find. It doesn’t look like much from the outside; like a consignment shop or antique barn but it opens up into a beautiful wood-lined tasting room with matching bars & wine racks, and a corridor that wraps around to a smaller room with nearly a dozen beers on tap.  We each built our own 4-beer sampler, with a nice mix of IPAs, porters, Belgians and sours. Considering the brewery aspect of the business is relatively new, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch and a few – particularly the Midnight Fuggle (robust porter) and Oud Bruin (brown sour) – were even great.  

The woman behind the bar sensed our need for manly reflection and gave us our space to chat, but checked in periodically while tending to both spaces.  The decor isn’t exactly our taste (generic beer themed signage in that “Live, Laugh, Love” style) but it’s got a welcoming vibe and some solid brews. The free popcorn was a nice bonus.  We packed up a few singles to go and continued east.  

With a 7+ hour drive to reach our evening’s destination we relied a bit more on major highways than we would have liked, but we cranked up the tunes and let the miles fly.  We’re generally forward thinking dudes so when we reminisce, it’s for good reason and there’s none better than Cartoon. An area staple since the early 1980’s, the folk & bluegrass quartet featured Jared’s uncle on bass, vocals, & songwriting duties.  Performances at State College’s Central PA Festival of the Arts served as an annual reunion of sorts for their family, and were the catalyst for Jared’s interest in forming our musical partnership. I’d heard a few songs here & there over the years but strangely we’d never played an album start to finish… with nothing but uninspiring stretches of highway laid out before us, it was the perfect day to listen to several.  

We made our way to Clemson Bros Brewery in Middletown, NY for a quick lunch bite.  Housed in a beautifully restored factory building from the 1800’s (where family descendants made hacksaw blades), it looks to be the cornerstone of a neighborhood in transition, like so many breweries in small American towns.  Middletown doesn’t look particularly rough but a bit sparse, and the Clemson building really stands out. Just inside you’re greeted by brewery tanks and brick-walled surrounds in a decent sized barroom that gives way to a long dining hall with pew seating and chandeliers (brewpub staple: classic rock on the sound system?  Check). I’d read good things about the parmesan truffle fries, and those sentiments were echoed by two locals at the bar: they talked us into ordering a large platter with our two pints, and we carried it all outside.  

The fenced in beer garden behind the building is stunning with a newly installed full bar, picnic tables, string lights, clinging vines climbing brick walls and overhead industrial piping running through an old rope & pulley system, likely remnants of the building’s factory days.  A fresh rain shower kept everything nice and damp, so we had it all to ourselves. The fries were delicious as suggested, and we took a crowler of session IPA to go. A delightful if lonesome Tuesday lunch visit; it’d be nice to see that outdoor space alive & hopping.  

We stopped for gas on the way out of Middletown and happened upon the New York, Ontario & Western Railway Company train station, built in the late 1800’s but gutted by fire & closed for good in 2004.  The shell of the former O&W hub is a sad & beautiful landmark in a Richardsonian Romanesque style (thank you, Wikipedia), befitting a listing on Atlas Obscura.  We walked the perimeter but thought better of jumping the fence to better explore the inside; Man Voyage has not included any arrests to date and we wanted to keep it that way.  There are some fantastic photos on I Ride the Harlem Line.  

More major highways brought us to New Britain, CT where the relatively new Five Churches Brewing offered us a chance to get in on the ground floor, so to speak.  Named for its location between the steeples of five churches, it’s an open second floor space with light pouring in from large factory windows and a panoramic view of downtown.  If you’re going to limit your menu to one item, wood-fired pizza is probably the best choice and theirs is stellar. We ordered the daily special (poutine pie: gravy, mozzarella & tater tots) and took a few pints outside. 

It’s definitely a rough neighborhood.  The first thing we saw while exiting our vehicle was a dude pissing in a trash filled alley. From the balcony we also had a prime view of some shady dealings involving a decrepit apartment building and several cars with tinted windows. Breweries & brewpubs can do so much to revitalize areas by adding jobs and stimulating the local economy.  It’s encouraging to see them set up shop in communities like this that can truly benefit, and I hope the change is exponentially positive for everyone. 

We contemplated a few rounds of Guardians of the Galaxy pinball or squeezing into the photo booth for some Man Voyage commemoratives but pressed on, happy knowing that we’d strictly adhered to Commandment #5 posted in the stairwell: Thou shalt absolutely enjoy your time with us here at Five Churches. Enjoy our time we did.  The ESB and IPA were both tasty, and I’m sure the quality will only improve as the brewery gains traction.  The pizza couldn’t get any better.  

It was getting dark by the time we reached Greenfield, MA so I can really say nothing of the town except parking was easy & convenient, in a bank lot after hours.  I can, however, say many positive things about our experience at The People’s Pint brewpub on Federal Street. Admittedly I was sold on the place upon learning my late hero Anthony Bourdain had once dined there with his crew off-camera; I’m not sure what circumstances led to that but I can see why he would’ve appreciated the place.  It was lively for a Tuesday evening, but not obnoxiously loud… dim, but Jared could still read his beer menu (scroll down to our 2018 afternoon at Ann Arbor’s Jolly Pumpkin brewery for the scoop on that)… locally focused, but very welcoming to visitors. There are an abundance of bicycle parts adorning the walls, seemingly random until we learned that partial proceeds of certain beers benefit a local bike shop & association.  We knew it the moment we sat down: if we lived here, this is where we’d spend our evenings.  

The People’s Pilsner and Training Wheels session IPA were fresh, quaffable brews, served up in moments despite the crowd our waitress had to wade through.  Our food was served up equally fast: pulled pork tacos with cilantro cream sauce, and whatever Jared got. I can’t remember because the tacos were so fucking good I was temporarily unable to focus on anything else. Quite possibly my favorite meal of the trip.  I think Jared got some sort of Szechuan noodle bowl and the few bites he shared were good, but those tacos were so fucking great they warrant multiple fucks. We enjoyed it all to the sounds of Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, Fugazi and more good stuff over the sound system.  We felt embraced as we do at our own Broken Axe Brew House back home; The People’s Pint is truly the perfect name for this place. If you’re anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic/New England regions, find time to visit. And order the fucking tacos.  

I don’t feel as though we can properly judge Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery in Brattleboro.  Much of the appeal is the second story deck complete with outdoor bar & fire pits that overlooks the Connecticut River, and it was too dark to enjoy the waterfront view by the time we arrived.  The bartender grumbled when we took more than 20 seconds to peruse the draft menu, trying to choose one of their four house beers among the other dozen guest taps. Maybe there were more of their own inside but one would think they’d be available in the extremely expensive looking outdoor space that’s clearly the focal point of the restaurant. The Penguin Porter and, um, whatever Jared got were okay.  We didn’t order any food for fear of further upsetting the bartender by needing two minutes to look at a menu. Again, it feels wrong to judge too harshly considering we technically didn’t even set foot inside but the vibe was a bit pretentious and a real letdown after our wonderful experience at the People’s Pint.  

A friend of mine who once lived in Brattleboro raved about McNeill’s Brewery, describing it as “random,” “unorganized” and “strange” but also “one of the best breweries I’ve ever been to.”  If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, he gifted my wife & I a few of their beers for our wedding, and their oatmeal stout remains one of the best I’ve ever had in the style. I’d been looking forward to it all day, and it did not disappoint in the least.  

Anyone I’ve ever talked beers & brewpubs with knows that my favorite bar in all the world is the Wharf Rat in Baltimore.  It’s a divey, kitschy British pub full of old sailor relics, whose patrons don’t fit in at any of the trendy, touristy spots in Fells Point.  I once asked the bartender what time they opened in the morning. She stared at me blankly for a minute before muttering “Whatever time all the old Navy guys line up outside to drink beer and watch the Price is Right.” I immediately made it clear to my wife that this is now my retirement plan: TPIR over lunch beers at the Wharf Rat, Monday through Friday.  Rerun days included.  

McNeill’s is Brattleboro’s Wharf Rat counterpart.  These are my favorite types of bars: dark & quirky but 100% authentic, with no apologies or attempts to be something they’re not. Don’t like what they have to offer?  Move along. We sat for a few minutes before the bartender emerged from outside: she’d been one of half a dozen people smoking in front of the place. She hooked us up with a couple of beers and again, I paid no attention to what Jared ordered once I spotted a proper British ESB on cask.  When done right it’s my favorite style: easy drinking, low ABV% and perfect balance of malt & hop bitterness. The Oliver’s ESB at the Wharf Rat is in my top three all time favorite beers and from the moment we set foot inside McNeill’s I had a feeling they would do the style justice. They did.  I could’ve sucked back three or four of them easily.  

The clientele was equally charming: mostly McNeill’s staff settling in for post-shift drinks with friends who came to meet them.  One girl had sliced open her thumb doing prep work in the kitchen, and fixed up a makeshift bandage at the bar while shooting tequila, a Guatemalan fella detailed the foibles of his love life in broken English while the bartender poured herself a drink for each one she served.  The entire room emptied onto the sidewalk outside to smoke at least three times in the 45 minutes we were there while shouting back at us to “not steal anything” and instead of simply putting an out of order sign on a disabled urinal in the men’s room, they chose to write “STOP: don’t pee, you will die.”  We spotted a cabinet with a dirty sheet tacked to the front where the door should be, covering a small drum kit. When Jared asked what type of music they typically booked someone answered “Uh, I dunno. Whatever.” The Beastie Boys played over the sound system all the while. There was no better place to end our night.  

We retired to our evening’s digs, The Colonial Motel just a few miles up the road.  Cheap, no frills, park-outside-of-your-room accommodations with two comfortable beds and a shower.  We didn’t even turn on the TV. Lights out.  

After a fantastic night’s sleep and full, hot breakfast we wandered downtown in search of coffee and followed some locals into Mocha Joe’s on the main drag.  Admittedly it’s a generic name but we could hear Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me” playing from outside, and by the time we ordered our espressos and coffee from the barista wearing the same Descendents t-shirt I had on, we were tapping our feet to Charlie Feathers’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It.”  Posters of jazz musicians line the walls and there are stacks of art & music publications everywhere to leaf through. It’s an aging hipster’s paradise. Coffee is damn good too.  

We poked around town a bit, bought some books & political buttons for the revolution to give to our kids and stocked up on Vermont microbrews at the Brattleboro Food Co-op for our wives before walking back to catch the waterfront view we’d missed the night before.  It is indeed gorgeous, with a stream cascading through a lock that runs underneath the main street into the river. We followed some worn looking railroad tracks a short distance to a cove of graffiti covered rocks descending to the water. It was the perfect place to enjoy some relaxing quiet time before spending the rest of the day on the road.  

If you’d told me while I was looking at stops for this trip that Long Trail Brewing Company would be one of our favorites, I’d have laughed at you.  Their beer has been available in PA for years and it’s never been terrible, but not particularly noteworthy either. I wouldn’t have even considered it but I read so many positive things, and it was on our way up north.  

At long last, we traded the highway for some scenic back roads.  The weather was perfect for a rural drive out to Bridgewater Corners, an absurdly adorable name for a town if I’ve ever heard one, like the fictional small town in a sitcom like Little House on the Prairie. Long Trail is a large, beautiful space with an outdoor beer garden, lawn games, fire pits and small walking trail that leads down to the Ottauquechee River.  They’ve obviously got big money for the type of renovations and distribution they boast but somehow it feels like a smaller & more intimate place. We sat outside on the deck overlooking the river, and each ordered up our own 4-beer sampler, both heavy on the brewery exclusive options.  Everything was fresh & tasty, and even the beers we’d previously not overly enjoyed in bottles were fantastic on tap.  

My fish tacos with mango chipotle slaw & green chile sour cream were great but for the first time on this trip I was envious of Jared’s food: a shaved pork loin sandwich with maple beer mustard & a CBD infused house sauce.  They’re two of the best condiments we’ve ever tasted, and Jared paid extra to have some of each packed into small containers to go. I’d have bought a gallon of each if I could’ve. Long Trail was a pleasant surprise that completely subverted our expectations.  There’s a summer music series on the patio and as our criteria for most gig applications is based on food & drink, it’s likely The Echo & Sway will be throwing our hat into the ring one of these years.  

We headed north, relieved to still be on the types of roads where a 30 mile journey would take us 50 minutes.  We were greeted in the Drop In Brewing parking lot by a dog who sat briefly at our feet then headed inside, turning his head back to see if we were following him.  It was either a total coincidence or they have this dog very well trained. It’s a small space with a few couches, two or three tables and a wraparound bar. Countless bottles & growlers from New England breweries line a set of shelves that run nearly the length of the room, and the brewer’s excellent taste in music is on full display throughout with concert posters of the Ramones, Clash, Frank Turner, Alvvays and more.  

The dog directed us to two seats at the bar (that may not have happened) where the bartender handed us a binder with the day’s offerings.  I went festive for Christmas in July with a Christmas Cake ale. So many holiday beers are thin bodied spice bombs but theirs is a tasty dark brown ale brewed with raisins, currants, almond essence and some other things that keep it from tasting like a light beer with a cinnamon stick in it.  The bartender & bookkeeper chatted us up about Vermont breweries while I strummed a Stratocaster propped up in a corner near the front picture window (it’s always awesome when a brewery offers live music but I have no idea how they’d host a decent crowd with their size & layout… maybe we’ll have to try and organize a long weekend with a gig at Long Trail to find out).  

They have a small cooler with a build-your-own mix ‘n match, and they discounted one of my cans because the label had been manually applied slightly crooked during a labeling machine malfunction.  Totally unnecessary but much appreciated. Solid brews, friendly staff and a fun atmosphere… so glad we dropped in (their name appears to be a nod to the start of a snowboarding run but it works well for dad jokes too).  

It seemed like most of these places were in the middle of nowhere but Foley Brothers  Brewing truly felt secluded.  A few miles and some twists & turns off of Rt. 7 brought us to a cozy tasting room in an old barn next to a farmhouse B&B.  Vines climb damn near every tree, post & vertical service (even the outhouse), there’s a gorgeous garden area with lawn games and a decorative arbor that overlooks the back of a golf course.  The whole property is stunning. 

We ran through everything on tap with a combination of two 5-beer samplers, poured one at a time to leave room for a little discussion.  There was a heavy focus on single hop IPAs, a delicious oatmeal stout and my favorite of the bunch, the Earl Pale Ale brewed with black tea.  I’m generally not a tea guy but it turns out it’s fantastic when brewed into beer. We took our last samples out to the garden and relaxed in a few lawn chairs; this view even makes the golf course look pretty.  We snagged a few 4-packs of pounder cans and continued south. I would definitely look into staying at the B&B sometime in the future. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful to wake up, and the oatmeal stout would make a damn fine breakfast beer.  

We made one last stop en route to our AirBNB at Madison Brewing Company in Bennington.  We hadn’t eaten since Long Trail (admittedly only because neither of the two stops that followed offered food) and in trying to pace ourselves with take home purchases, we realized we hadn’t picked up much at all.  Madison looks nice, if a bit ordinary at first glance with wooden floors, brick walls & bay windows, and the classic rock playing didn’t do much to distinguish it but it’s got it where it counts. The Old 76 English Strong Ale and Ju-C double dry hopped IPA are both exceptional.  At this point in the day all we wanted was some good ol’ bar food and the No Bones About It chicken strips drenched in melted cheese & maple chipotle BBQ hit the spot. It took less than ten minutes of driving for us to regret only buying one four pack of the Ju-C.  For the second time that day our expectations were completely distorted. The lesson? Don’t judge a beer by its label.  

Man, were we on a roll.  The only thing that could quell a damn near perfect day was a lousy AirBNB experience and really, how bad could a crash pad above a nano brewery be?  

Yet another drive to the middle of nowhere on what have to be some of the loveliest back roads this region has to offer brought us to the Beer Diviner in Petersburg, NY just as the sun was setting.  Perhaps it’s a different situation during weekend hours when the brewery is open but stepping out of Jared’s vehicle this peaceful Wednesday evening, all we could hear were crickets and a babbling brook in the woods interspersed with the clanking of brewery equipment inside.  Wednesday is brewing night and after getting us settled into the space upstairs, proprietor John invited us inside for a few complimentary pints and glimpse into his brewing process.  

John is a laid back fella, and we enjoyed sharing a few beers with him over discussion of our travels, and how he earned his name: during a stay in a small African village years ago, he was tapped (pun absolutely intended) by natives to figure out how to brew beer for everyone.  Once successful, they dubbed him the Beer Diviner. You could hear the pride in his voice, and listening to him tell this story is one of my fondest memories of this trip. We retreated upstairs after a few tasty pints (Belgian dubbel and IPA), left a window open to take in the night air & sounds of the surrounding woods and drifted off to a playlist of Tom Waits ballads. 

The only downside to being this far out in the boonies was a lack of breakfast options.  We made an impromptu dash to Albany after a quick Google search produced an enticing looking brunch at the Iron Gate Cafe.  In one of our finer moments we drove right past the “Valet Only” sign in the garage and parked ourselves. The attendant was fairly annoyed when we confessed though changed his tune when we overtipped him to compensate for our stupidity. 

We walked through an iron gate (imagine that) into a beautifully landscaped garden with a brick pathway and overhead string lights.  It’s 20 feet from bustling Washington Ave but feels a world away. The Morning Madras mimosa (cranberry & orange) is a fruitier cocktail than I’d typically order but what the hell, it was early.  Jared’s a Bloody Mary guy, and his Bayou Bloody came with a big ass shrimp. We both ordered french toast stuffed with an absurd amount of Vermont maple sausage, eggs & cheese with homefries, on our waitress’ recommendation.  She said it was a lot of food and she wasn’t kidding. We were, fittingly, stuffed. I went to check out the inside and saw three different Iron Gate t-shirt designs based on Ramones album covers. Pretty great for a spur of the moment find.  

Sloop Brewing has two locations: a former IBM factory in East Fishkill NY, and the weathered post & beam barn on an apple orchard we visited in Elizaville.  Another welcome country drive to the back of beyond, and another farm brewery with a fantastic view for miles. We arrived not long after opening and it was quiet, with only one other person at the bar.  There were maybe 10 beers on tap, many of them different variations of the hazy NE IPA. We would’ve preferred a bit more diversity but the few we sampled were delicious. Jared partook of their two sours; not my favorite style but the red sangria was decent (as with wine, I preferred it to the white).  The bartender was a bit temperate but it was early and he looked pretty focused. This location’s only food option (aside from chips & a few other bagged munchies) is hot dogs and if we hadn’t just eaten enough food to last us two days I may have gotten one. The artwork for their beer releases is striking, and displayed on posters throughout the barn.  In keeping with the dad jokes… I’d sail on this Sloop again anytime.  

Less than a mile from the PA border, Port Jervis NY is not a town I would’ve guessed to have a brewpub as terrific as Fox N Hare.  Perhaps I’d never been to downtown proper but in the few times we’ve passed through for gas it didn’t seem like much more than a stopover town.  Now I know better. Fox N Hare is stunning from the moment you walk in: plenty of places have their brewing tanks & equipment in full view somewhere, but theirs is in a pit with a birds eye view just inside the door. The layout of the restaurant is equally unique, situated in a U-shape around a long, narrow bar in the center, all brick & iron with industrial piping overhead.  Their full bar has a great selection of bourbon & whiskey; too bad I was driving.  

We were told to seat ourselves and chose a table right next to the open garage door window.  We made it through half of our beers (Primitive Pilsner and Hop Forward IPA) before the sun baked us enough to convince us we should move to the bar.  The menu has some innovative sounding dishes and I’d read rave reviews about the buffalo brussel sprouts but we were still full after our massive breakfast.  We settled for sharing a Blackberry Blossom sour before hitting a comic book shop nearby on our way out of town. Yet another bright spot; Fox N Hare is a gem.  We’ll be sure to return, hungry next time.  

We hadn’t planned on stopping again but not long after leaving Port Jervis we began to get hungry.  During Man Voyage II in 2014 we had a few interesting experimental beers and the absolute best IPA of that trip at Breaker Brewing in Wilkes-Barre, and conveniently we were cruising that way on 81-S around the time food started to feel like a possibility.  Breaker is situated on a hill in a residential neighborhood, in a renovated old schoolhouse. It’s grown a bit since our last visit; we arrived early in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, got the last parking spot and table inside.  

All that was left of the several unconventional beers we had last time was a blackberry jalapeno ale, which we put in a sampler with a few IPAs, a pilsner and porter.  The pilsner was solid and everything else was good but nothing jumped out at us nearly as much as the Mosaic Hop IPA did five years ago. The food was bangin’ though, especially Jared’s buffalo chicken balls.  We didn’t stick around long; maybe brewpub fatigue was setting in, or we were just anxious to get home and see our families a bit before work/reality bit us in our asses the following morning. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the place but had maybe invested too much hope in having that Mosaic again.  Still a worthy visit.  

We missed the shows, and even all of the pain in the ass promo work that goes with them but were happy to revisit the reasons we started taking this trip in the first place.  It’s more relevant now than ever with our political climate the way it is: living in this country sucks sometimes, but watching it go by in a blur out of the car windows while stopping periodically to patronize the hardworking, innovative culinary institutions that represent its heart & soul with one of my best pals make me proud to be here, and reflect on the good things in life.  Returning home with a case’s worth of various New England beers didn’t hurt either.  


Man Voyage V: Ontario & Midwestern US

October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

August marked year five of Man Voyage, my annual male bonding trip & tour with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti.  The MV intro has been done to death and I’ve nothing new to add so you can read the full mission statement here if you’re so inclined (the gist: we drive, talk, eat & drink).  With the shit show that is our current political climate, we decided to get the hell out of Trump country for a few days and hightail it to Ontario where, if our previous visits have been any indication, we’d be in for a refreshing and much more tolerant change of pace.  We struck gold.

Man Voyage rule #2 requires a heavier use of back roads over major highways, and we started our day with a beautiful drive up through rural Pennsylvania and New York, twisting & turning our way through glorious stretches of landscape that would make Ansel Adams blush.  Interspersed with melancholic little ghost towns and the eccentric characters who occupy them, it’s poetry in motion: one minute you’re coasting by endless fields of sunflowers, the next you’re admiring a woman walking her dog in nothing but her underwear and a thick winter coat before entering a sleepy tourist town full of chalets, anxious for the ski season to start.  The highways are faster but not even half as interesting.

We met our friend, alt-rocker James Martin at Big Ditch Brewing in Buffalo for a quick lunch before crossing the border.  It’s a relatively new brewpub, and looks to be a cornerstone for a neighborhood in resurgence.  You can see a ton of potential in the empty warehouses lining the surrounding blocks.  We lucked into street parking half a block away and immediately spied the brewery’s garage-style doors that opened into a sidewalk patio; we liked the place already.  Service was a tad slow for a Thursday afternoon but we probably wouldn’t have even noticed if we weren’t worried about a potential holdup at the border.

I always appreciate a brewpub that offers a smaller size option, for times like these when I wanted to try a few different beers but didn’t want to commit to a whole sampler in case again, potential border holdup.  We shared a handful of 5oz pours including some signatures (Hayburner IPA, Excavator rye brown) and seasonals (Squeezer dry-hopped sour kolsch, FC session wheat IPA and Cinnamon Apple amber) with not a bad one in the bunch, and the FC was exceptional.  I kept it light with a turkey club while Jared went whole hog with a bacon wrapped meatloaf, which I was grateful for – it gave me an opportunity to mooch a bit.  Don’t feel too bad for him; James offered up half of his pastrami sandwich as a parting gift so he made out just fine.  Swell guy, Mr. Martin.  His material has a distinct 90’s feel so it’s not for everyone but if you’re into bands like The Cult, STP and Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails collaboration phase, James Martin might just tickle your ears.

Crossing the border is always unpredictable but we needn’t have worried: we zipped through in about two minutes.  We even got an agent with a sense of humor, ribbing us for going to London (“Listen fellas, I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but basically there’s nothing there”).  We resisted the signs for breweries, wineries and distilleries that lined Queen Elizabeth Way and stayed the course all the way to our Airbnb just three blocks from downtown London.  It was a flawless first Airbnb experience for both of us.  We rented a two-story carriage house with a full bathroom, kitchen and complete privacy. Jared took the loft bedroom upstairs (complete with an outdoor deck) and I crashed on the sectional couch downstairs that was so comfortable it may as well have been a bed.  Our host knocked once to tell us we could pull our car up a bit more into the driveway but aside from that it was like we had the run of the place.

En route to the first of our two gigs that evening we stopped to get re-energized at Locomotive Espresso, just up the block from our Airbnb. Truly the heart & soul of any local community, it’s amazing how these independent coffee shops all have their own quirks and special touches, yet offer the same sense of familiar comfort from town to town. Locomotive is no different with its worn-in wooden floors & fixtures, soft pendulum lights, small pastry & sandwich selection, engaging staff and welcoming vibe. Their special touch?  An old locomotive hauling bags of coffee beans on a looped track suspended from the ceiling.  We’re suckers for a commitment to a theme and the only thing we would’ve liked more was if the train had been running.  The barista offered us a choice of two different espresso roasts for our double shots and Jared got a coffee as well.  Everything was dark, strong & delightful.  We had a gig to get to but two minute walk + the promise of fresh donuts = we’d be back in the morning.

We drove a few blocks south to Grooves Records for a short promotional set in anticipation of gig #2 later in the evening.  Like the neighborhood cafe, local record stores always seem to offer a glimpse into the local flavor despite not being terribly different from one another.  My younger self was way into the dingy atmosphere of a cluttered underground shop but the older my eyes get, the more they appreciate a bright, organized space like Grooves with the music on the sound system kept to a non-deafening level.  They had a great selection of local & regional artists right up front and were spinning Canadian treasures the Tragically Hip periodically during our setup & shopping times.  They offer performers a discount on all purchases and I’ll be forever kicking myself in the ass for not abusing that privilege to fill what little empty space we had left in our vehicle to the brim but hey, burgeoning adult here.  I responsibly only purchased a few used soul albums and the newest Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ reissue… goddamn, being an adult sucks sometimes.

The staff was friendly and helpful in having the PA set up for us ahead of time so all we had to do was plug in my guitar.  The booker warned that a weekday afternoon spot in the summer before the university students came back would be a hard sell for an out-of-town band but if nothing else, we saw it as a chance to get loose and tune up for our evening gig after six hours in the car.  It was sparsely attended to say the least, mostly by shoppers who paused to give a quick listen on their way out but we did earn one loyal observer toward the end.  He plopped down on the floor directly in front of us and listened intently for the duration of the last song, with a look on his face excited & engaging enough to let us believe our art had truly spoken to this lost soul searching for meaning in this harrowing journey we call life, and that his salvation & solace would be found in the poetry of an Echo & Sway song… then we finished, and he spoke.

Boy, did he speak.  It would be impossible to recount everything he said but for several minutes he rambled incessantly about our songs, my guitar, his guitar, Jared’s beard and current trends in facial hair, the fact that my hair is thinning but he liked my hat, other color hats he thinks would work for me, Jared’s shirt, something about chocolate chip cookies, whether or not I’ve ever heard of Johnny Cash, whether or not this store carries Johnny Cash because he’s “not real well known,” garbage and littering, and tattoos, which thankfully brought things to a climax as he declared tattoos OK for men, but not women.  We were still trying to process the first thing he said when we heard a loud “WHAT THE FUCK?” from the back of the store.  The girl who’d been cataloging stomped up as we were attempting to refute such an offensive remark, but then he made it worse: “Well, I guess they’re OK on women some places, just not on their public real estate.”  I can’t even gesture or mime the way he did for maximum effect.  She handled it like a champ by sternly growling at him “Is there anything I can help you find sir?” as if she wanted to embed a few records into his head, and we couldn’t blame her.  He went on a brief search for albums by the unknown up-and-comer Johnny Cash but sensed the abrupt change in the atmosphere and quickly showed himself out.  If there’s some mental illness issues there I hope he gets some help… if he’s just an asshole, I hope he gets hit by a bus.  We chatted a bit about Canadian music & culture, she recommended a spot to get a few local beers and we were on our way.

Our continuous search for unique venues wherever we go wielded Taproot, a performance space above the Root Cellar gastropub in the Old East Village neighborhood, just a few blocks from our Airbnb.  The venue was forthright from the beginning that their pay scheme wasn’t the most lucrative for touring bands, and we’d likely make bigger bucks elsewhere but they dug the album and offered us a gig, suggesting we secure some local support to help fill some seats.  We reached out to folk collective Esther’s Family and in quite the happy accident, they were able to finish their debut EP in time for the gig to double as their album release show.

The space is beautiful.  Newly restored wooden floors with matching bar & seating, brick walls and lamps made of repurposed bicycle parts make it feel fresh and weathered all at once.  Farm-to-table fare from the Root Cellar and organic beers by the London Brewing Co-op round out the menu and would’ve ensured we took the gig even if we weren’t making any money at all.  We ordered one of those trendy charcuterie boards with a slew of delicious meats & cheeses, veggies, breads, nuts and dips our simple palates couldn’t identify but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless. There’s a larger selection of London Brewing beers downstairs but we were content alternating our way through the Norfolk Red IPA, London Lager and Tolpuddle Porter, careful to pair each properly with their food platter counterparts to emphasize the subtle flavor notes… ha, I’m kidding.  We shoveled it in and poured beers on top of it all, finishing it faster than we ought to be proud of.  What a damn fine dinner.

EF arranged a sound tech for the evening who had us plugged in and ready to folk ‘n roll in mintues.  We eased our way through much of the album (have you heard it yet?  Stream it here) before turning the evening over to the band of the hour.  I love groups that can’t be simply defined by genre and while it’d be easy to shoehorn them into the folk category, there’s something about EF that gives ’em that little something different.  Frontman Lliam Buckley commanded the room with the charismatic charm of a old timey minstral, and the quartet kept pace nicely with bass, keys, cello and drums.  They were a bit scattered but still incredibly tight despite limited percussion as the drummer had lost his scuffle with a kitchen knife earlier that day.  They filled the silences during tuning & adjustments with jokes and lighthearted stories, and had us fully engaged all the way through their show-stopping medley of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” with “Funky Town.”  Their new EP ‘High Fantastical’ is a great mix of poetic lyrics and romantic melodies, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing the evening with us.

We’d passed up the earlier recommendation of Milo’s Craft Beer Emporium because we were uncharacteristically attempting to improve our time management skills before the gig, but the Grooves staff had spoken so highly of it we ventured over for a nite cap and a late bite.  In a decent sized town with a university and a college, Milo’s feels like a more of a locals place: many of the patrons looked closer to our age, scattered throughout booths & smaller tables in the main dining room but seemed to be mingling with one another.  The vibe was friendly & fun.  When we told our waiter the Grooves staff had recommended the place we briefly chatted about records which led to him asking what we’d purchased, and just as we began to peruse the menus we heard ‘Blue Valentine’ begin to play over the sound system… he may have just been negotiating a big tip but shit, he was going to get one.  We ordered up a few lighter Ontario beers (a pilsner & a sour from breweries I wish I could remember) and some sort of boneless curried chicken from the late night snack menu we were in no way prepared to enjoy as much as we did.  I can’t speak for anything else but this was far from standard pub fare, and if we’d been hungrier I would’ve ordered a few other things to try.

We retreated to our pool house for a fantastic nights’ sleep.  Our host communicated quickly in the morning to coordinate a check out time, and within an hour of our leaving she’d left several kind remarks about us in a review on my profile.  We’d love to return to London for another go-around with EF and I can’t imagine staying anywhere else.  We nabbed our morning caffeine and some homemade donuts at Locomotive before heading west toward Sarnia to cross the border into Michigan.

Rt 402 might’ve saved us 20 minutes but we drifted a bit slower on the farm road alongside, enjoying some breathtaking views of dozens of wind turbines in the distance.  We stopped at Refined Fool Brewing Company in Sarnia for lunch and hopefully a few to-go beers, as we hadn’t yet purchased anything to bring home.  Refined Fool is a large industrial loft-style space, with nearly an entire wall open to outdoor seating and colorful murals throughout.  The bartender welcomed us immediately, gave us the run down on beer tasting options and directed us across the room to order food from Burger Rebellion.  She apologized several times for the multi-line food court setup, as their #1 complaint is people having to place two different orders but hell, there are burgers & beers in the end… the dumb shit people complain about.  We were still waking up so the Uprising breakfast burger (fried egg, bacon, hash brown, ketchup & maple syrup) with two tasting flights (four 5oz beers) hit the spot.

We constructed our flights based primarily on the beer titles.  We wanted a good mix of styles but of the four IPAs on, chose “And Then Bernice Flipped the Canasta Table” because well, an absurd amount of effort devoted to nonsensical titles is a hell of a lot more interesting than the IBU count… further proof that while we enjoy good beer, we could never be referred to as “snobs.”  Much of the draft selection was available to go in bombers so we filled a few boxes and headed for the border.  As always, Canada bats a thousand and if the winters weren’t so cold, I’d move here in a heartbeat.

The Blue Water Bridge crossing was only a slightly longer wait than the day before. Our agent didn’t have quite the sense of humor as his New York  counterpart but let us through quickly and though I’d looked up a few potential beer stops along the way, we made a beeline for Ann Arbor to get settled and try as many of their five breweries as we could squeeze in.  All the highway travel was necessary but damn was it getting old fast.  We lucked into a parking spot right in front of our evening gig so we took a few minutes to scope things out; it’s one of the few we’ve booked over the years that required a signed agreement and though probably harmless, we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting in over our heads… turns out it’s just a nice space in a well preserved building and they want to keep it that way by weeding out the riffraff.  We ventured off to celebrate our subsided fears by drinking beer.

My wife and I have long enjoyed bottles of assorted Belgian styles from Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery and with Jared’s ever expanding palate allowing him a new appreciation for sours, we hit there first.  Grabbing two seats at the bar in the main room we immediately noticed the fulfillment of three requirements for every nice but ordinary brewpub in America: dark wood, dim lighting & classic rock (henceforth to be known as the brewpub three), though the chandeliers made of old kitchen utensils were a nice touch.  The plain atmosphere was more than made up for by our charismatic bartender who, from the moment she handed us our beer menus, playfully ribbed Jared without abandon when he casually muttered to me that he wished the print were larger. Now I understand it’s a college town but she was way more amused by this than she ought to have been but even Jared loved every moment of her shameless laughing: “Larger print?  How old even ARE you?!” She proceeded to giggle a bit each time she walked by as we sipped our Bam Biere and Oro de Calabaza, and injected the the experience with that little something extra we’re always looking for.  We tipped her well and passed on the bottle selection since we didn’t see anything we can’t get at home.  While any beer is better on draft we were hoping for a few brewpub exclusives but hey, can’t win ’em all.

We walked a few blocks to the Beer Grotto, hoping for some fresh pints from other regional breweries we wouldn’t have time to visit.  Their website mission statement describes them as “meddlers and experimenters, beer geeks and craft cocktail purveyors, friendly faces with discerning palettes. We’ve been thrilled for some time to offer a great selection of craft beer from all over. But we have a larger mission these days: to be much more than just a cozy taproom to imbibe at. We’ve truly become obsessed with fostering an approachable environment that celebrates progressive ideas, friendship, and of course, tasty drinks of all kinds” … we found them to be slightly above grumpy, begrudgingly pouring beers whilst attempting to communicate as little as possible and avoid all eye contact, though that’s based on one quick visit and all we wanted was to drink beers outside so we didn’t really give a shit.

We ordered up a few IPAs by Michigan’s Eternity and Avron breweries at the cafeteria-style counter, were granted permission to take them outside before being immediately met by a sign on the patio that instructed all glassware must be handled by a server.  We were confused and while I’m sure we could’ve crept to a table unnoticed we didn’t want to be disrespectful so we waited a few minutes for a highly trained purveyor of the serving arts to gracefully deliver our glass vessels of alcoholic nectar so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the established directives (READ: our awkward college-aged waiter spills 1/3 of my beer while clumsily dropping them on the table, barely apologizes and tells us if we want anything else we have to go back in because we’re outside of some designated patio area and table service isn’t offered).  The beers were tasty and the ivy-covered brick walls are very pretty but the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth.  Onward.

Jared went to browse comics at Vault of Midnight while I, with the hostess’ permission but still a vague aura of annoyance, grabbed an outdoor table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (am I missing something?  Why doesn’t anyone want you to sit outside in this town?) I probably didn’t need a third microbrew within an hour but I had been cheated out of 1/3 of my previous beer after all.  I’m loving the trendy beer of the moment; the New England style hazy IPA that everyone’s brewing these days and GP’s was exceptional. I ducked in to use the bathroom and sure enough the brewpub three were satisfied.  Sometimes you can set your watch by this stuff.

I’d been looking forward to Frita Batidos from the moment I read about it on a Michigan food blog.  Fast-casual Cuban inspired food & cocktails sounded like a can’t-lose situation.  We ordered up two chorizo burgers topped with shoestring fries, sweet chili mayo, avocado spread, muenster cheese and egg (another trend sweeping the nation I’m more than happy to partake in at every opportunity) and some crisped plantains with cilantro-lime salsa to go, and ate on the back porch of our B&B.  It was a gloriously delicious mess I would seriously consider having shipped to my house if anyone in Ann Arbor would be willing.  Cuba’s been on my list for a long time and Frita Batidos helped move it up a bit, especially with new regulations that make visiting easier.

Speaking of our B&B, we checked in quickly so we could eat before our food got cold.  The Cadgwith Too is located a few blocks from downtown, unassumingly on the corner of Third & Mosley.  We tried the B&B thing a few years back in Sackets Harbor and found the lower price & inclusion of breakfast most appealing, if slightly awkward: I’m guessing many B&B owners are used to guests being older, able to swap stories about grandchildren, etc.  The Sackets Harbor folks were sweet but didn’t have much to say to the tattooed troubadour and bearded poet.  I was hesitant about this place only because I could find very little about it online – reviews, listings, praise and criticism were all scarce, as if it existed in name only.  We took a chance because the price was right, and hoped it was just a case of the place being modestly old fashioned.  We arranged the date promptly through email, sent a deposit check and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations.  Comfortable twin beds in a private room with shared bath (though to my knowledge we were the only guests), complete privacy, peace & quiet with a spacious back patio overlooking a park where we could slop down our Frita Batidos.  If we’d had more time before the gig I would’ve taken a nap in the hammock.

When I emailed Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in February I was just looking to get a feel for the place and see if we’d be a good fit, so I was surprised when Michelle replied and said they were booked through 2018 and started into 2019.  Damn, this must be a highly sought after gig – who books that far ahead?  I started looking elsewhere until she contacted me again a week later, saying she’d listened to the album, thought we’d fit in well and had spoken to the local guy who had the date we were after – he was willing to move his show to fill a cancellation she had later in the year, and that freed up this evening for us.  Class act, that one.  Between the booking fiasco and aforementioned performance contract with more than a dozen caveats we were cautiously optimistic but needn’t have worried.

The tea room is a cozy, bright space on the second floor overlooking the main drag, and Michelle greeted us warmly upon arrival to get us set up and couldn’t have been more helpful or nice.  We intentionally planned this stop before the fall arrival of MU students, as I imagine they’re every bit as fervent as our Penn State crowds in PA, which bode very well for our leisure time but not so much for the gig – Michelle had warned how thin the summer crowds could be, especially on nice nights and this one was damn near perfect.  Still, while not packed to the rafters we had a few folks who stayed for the majority & chatted during the set break, and we sold a few CDs.  Michelle offered to have us again anytime we’re willing to make the trip, which will give us a great excuse to go back for more Frita Batidos.  Overall a superb time where our only real inconvenience was supplying our own PA.  A gig as established as this one could probably benefit from having an in-house sound system but we had enough fun we’d lug ours back again.

The coffee was delicious but more beers were needed to quench our thirsts after a two hour set.  Unfortunately we chose Arbor Brewing just around the corner and regretted it almost immediately when for the third time, our simple desire to sit outside and drink a few beers in the summer air came rife with unnecessary complications.  For fuck’s sake, most of the restaurants in town offer outdoor seating, so why did it so often seem like they didn’t want us to sit there?  I understand maybe they want to save the tables for diners, afraid they won’t make much on a check of just a few beers but it was late, peak dining hours had passed and three of the four tables outside were open.  The hostess resentfully complied, and when we asked our waitress if anything less than a full pint was an option, she treated it as an imposition on par with asking for one of her kidneys.  The kicker through all of it was the one IPA was actually really good, and we wanted to take some home.  We’d seen a cooler just inside with six packs but that particular beer wasn’t in it, so we inquired about a growler: “I’m sorry but we don’t fill growlers with our higher alcohol beers.”  We doubled checked the ABV on the menu, and it was a little over 8%.  I’ve no idea what they found so offensive about two middle aged dudes who just wanted to sit quietly, drink beer and chat but it seemed they were actively working to get rid of us.  Fuck this place.

Since Arbor made it clear they had no interest in feeding us, we followed the light a few blocks up the street toward a large TAPAS sign, calling out to us like a beacon:  Eat!  Share!  Have a drink, outside on our patio without judgment!  Aventura is a bit upscale and it wouldn’t surprise me if their clientele is comprised largely of well-to-do professors and UM staff with too much money to spend but it’s got an authentic European feel and friendly staff WHO DIDN’T FUCKING COMPLAIN WHEN WE ASKED TO SIT OUTSIDE.  We practically had the patio to ourselves under the partial roof & string lights, and ordered up another cheese/cracker/jam/bread/vegetable menagerie, a few Spanish lagers and a glass of red wine, which our waitress brought in its own little carafe and poured into a glass at the table… again, the kind of elegant touch some stuffy conservative probably feels all self-important over but us salt of the earth types see as an extra dish that’s gonna need washed.  Nevertheless, a perfect late night snack and excellent way to end the evening.

After a fantastic nights’ sleep we enjoyed a heap of scrambled eggs, bacon & toast courtesy of Jeff at the Cadgwith Too.  He checked to make sure we didn’t need anything but gave us privacy and left us to check out at our leisure.  We’d have preferred to forego one of the more uninteresting drives in the country across Ohio on I-80 but I was hoping to make it home in time to catch the last baseball game of the season with my family in State College, and there were a few easy beer stops just off the highway.  Back in 2011 we stopped in Toledo en route to a wedding in South Dakota for lunch & beers at the Maumee Bay Brewpub, and our collective memories placed Toledo somewhere in the “filthy shithole” category.  Searching for the Black Cloister Brewery though, we found the downtown to have a weary, welcoming charm with new murals adorning the sides of historic buildings still bearing old storefront signs.

We arrived just as they were opening the doors (sorry to have been those guys; we really do try to avoid it whenever we can) and were welcomed into a large Abbey-style hall with sweeping arches and minimalist decor.  There was classic rock playing but the atmosphere easily evades the monotony of the brewpub 3 thanks to a few key touches in its large medieval style chandeliers and sprawling mural depicting historic war scenes interspersed with little pop culture blips like the Death Star.  We ordered up a Helles Angel lager & Pale Rider IPA and couldn’t even sit to drink them; the building dates back to the late 1800’s, it’s got soul in every nook & cranny and we couldn’t help but wander.  Tasty beers as well, this place is too cool.  Sometimes beers before noon are the best beers, especially on a rainy morning.

*Side Note* A guy from Toledo wrote to call me an asshole when I referred to his city as a cesspool after our 2011 visit… dude, I divided my time growing up between a ghetto in central Baltimore and a rural PA farm town where the locals went apeshit and offered thousands of dollars in reward money to apprehend some hooligans who tipped over Santa’s hut in our town square…. no actual vandalism was done, they just tipped it over.  I’ve still got a great deal of pride about both, yet I can’t help but laugh when someone makes a comment like “you grew up in Baltimore in the 80’s, how did you make it out alive?!”  The point: it’s obviously hard to pass judgement based on these little pocket stops, and rest assured any insulting words are more comedic effect than serious slander. 

I remember an old joke from the Drew Carey Show where he responded to someone’s insulting of Cleveland with “looks like somebody needs a trip to Youngstown for some perspective.”  Like much of the rust belt, time hasn’t been kind to Youngstown.  The burden is everywhere, in the burned out buildings, littered highways and lost, desperate looking souls wandering the side streets.  It looks a lot like our town.  There’s nothing like a visit to church to lift one’s spirits, however, and much like Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, Noble Creature Cask House has taken the religion out of an old house of worship and replaced it with food & drink, something I find much easier to put my faith in (side note: Jared is quite devoted to his faith, and I’d never want anyone who finds their way to his blog from here to think otherwise… my heathen ways are my own).  Noble Creature is much smaller and more intimate than CBW, with lots of light coming in the stained glass windows and some pew seating in addition to long high top tables and traditional bar at the head of the room where the altar would’ve been (fitting, yes?).

They had a good selection of eight or nine beer styles & a few sandwiches listed on a chalkboard and since we weren’t in Ann Arbor anymore, we were welcomed to sit outside where they gladly delivered our muffaletta & Cuban sandwiches each with a healthy handful of chips.  The bartender even smiled while doing it!  I’ll be damned.  Food was simple but damn tasty, and the Bohemian Pilsener, IPA and saison were all flavorful & seasoned enough you’d never know they were a newer brewery.  Posters advertised live original music, DJs spinning punk, ska & new wave and bring-your-own-vinyl nights.  Do they have a scene here?  Shit.  We were hoping to chat with the bartender a bit about it but they were getting busy.  They have a nice stage at Black Cloister too; looks like a few shows over a long weekend in Ohio is something we should look into.

That, my friends, is all she wrote.  We did a three hour haul back to State College, where Jared dropped me off at Medlar Field at Lubrano park where I reunited with my family, we gorged ourselves on much sausage & beer and watched the State College Spikes lose the fourth home game we attended this season.  Post-game fireworks over the stadium while “Born to Run” played over the loudspeaker…  perfect end to a perfect weekend.

A few photos by Jared.  More to come.

Otto’s Pub & Brewery: a Quintessential Central PA Brewpub

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment


Photo pirated from elsewhere on the internet

It’s hard to believe it’s been over five years since I wrote a scathing review on Beer Advocate of the newly relocated Otto’s Pub & Brewery, just up the road from their former Atherton Street location on the outskirts of State College.  They’d just moved into the much larger Quaker Steak & Lube building, solving many of their problems (namely their parking issues) but abandoning the charm and quaintness of the smaller brewpub my wife and I had come to love over the years. I’m not typically averse to change and am more than happy for their success but the bigger, louder restaurant overloaded with big screen TVs and cocktails with names like Screaming Orgasm all read like just another sports bar rather than a unique independent.

Fast-forward to the present and we visit more often than ever.  It started as a quick and easy dinner option after our weekly grocery run to the nearby Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s plaza – after all, their beer was still top notch, if often limited to their flagships and single guest tap, presumably due to brewing constrictions caused by the big move.  The menu was also a fraction of what it had been but again, we assumed it would expand as they became more settled into the new digs.  Over time though, we realized we were visiting so often because we wanted to, not just for the convenient location.

It’s still got TVs everywhere and they’re often broadcasting sports I have no desire to watch while I eat but we’ve accepted we’re in the minority where that’s concerned (especially in State College where, as I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, they’re fanatical about football and prone to rioting over it… it’s likely a crime to not have TVs in your establishment to show PSU games).  But it’s also got enough going for it that the pros far outweigh the cons:

  • The beer is consistently great.  Their flagship brews are standouts, and make the most of everyday styles to please casual drinkers and aficionados alike. We’re not huge red ale fans but their Red Mo is a fantastic anytime drinker, and the Mount Nittany Pale Ale, Slab Cabin IPA and Double D DIPA are better than most.  Even their Spring Creek Vienna style lager is a solid representation of a style I don’t overly enjoy.  They have two casks that alternate bitters, IPAs and the ever-popular Jolly Roger Imperial Stout. Best of all, they started churning out a great assortment of seasonals and one-offs once their brewing operations were firing on all cylinders again, and they’ve been better than ever.  Their Apple Tripel, Schwarzbier, Hefeweizen, Ottonator and Winter Warmer variations are all beers we look forward to each year.  There’s even a house-made root beer.
  • The food is as consistently great, and comes fast even during peak dining hours. The menu changes seasonally but maintains a number of “Otto’s Favorites” items like the cobb salad, beef on weck, black bean burrito (with optional chicken, steak, shrimp or pulled pork but equally delicious vegetarian style) buffalo mac ‘n cheese and beer brined smoked chicken. They also added wood fired pizza with a half dozen pies to the regular menu and a special to accompany their weekly features (my personal favorite: chorizo romesco manchego with red onion and roasted red peppers).
  • Much of the menu is locally sourced, a plus in any restaurant (and not a “hipster thing” as I’ve heard it referred to in my small-minded small town… eating local and fresh supports your community’s economy and is better for you… it’s just good sense). There’s a bulletin board in the lobby with a list of local vendors they utilize, everything from Hog’s Galore farm in Philipsburg to State College’s own Gemelli Bakery.
  • Their kids’ menu beats the shit out of every kids’ menu you’ve ever seen. Criticize Jamie Oliver and his annoying accent all you want but having something for kids other than chicken strips and fries ain’t a bad idea. Otto’s offers salmon with lemon herb butter, pasta from local Fasta & Ravioli company, quesadillas with cheese or beans and mini wood fired pizzas next to classics like PB&J and yes, chicken fingers, though they can grill them instead of frying.  $5 buys an entree plus a side (chips & fresh salsa, whipped potatoes, jasmine rice, apple slices, carrots & dip, among others), a drink and a warm chocolate chip cookie for mom & dad to split on the way home (before you call me a monster: our kid gets babysat by his grandparents all week and is fed ice cream and sweets on a daily basis.  Plus, we paid for the dinner… the damn cookie is ours).
  • They train their staff extremely well.  From the hostesses to the bartenders we’ve never had anyone be remotely rude to us, and most are exceptionally friendly.  The wait staff are keen to talk up their pub club benefits but have never been pushy about it.  Even the cooks working the pizza oven are more than accommodating when Enzo insists on staring, mesmerized by the fire and the assembly of pies.
  • Live music and entertainment: though I don’t believe we’ve actually seen a band here (if we’re in SC for weekend music we’re usually downtown to catch one of our friends’ bands at Zeno’s or the Darkhorse), I’m a fan of anywhere that supports live, local music.  It’s the folk, blues and Americana that typically accompanies a brewpub atmosphere and that’s not a bad thing. On select Sundays they have a magician that walks the dining room, though he won’t make you feel bad if you politely refuse his services because your kid’s just not ready for that yet (Enzo’s tendency to stare blankly at the unfamiliar would probably just bum the guy out).
  • The gift shop:  They’ve got every style beer glass imaginable, each imprinted with the name and logo of the corresponding Otto’s beer.  Shirts in all colors and sizes, growlers & caddies, beer-infused soaps, shampoos, chocolates and other assorted confections, and a Pennsylvania-centric takeout beer selection.  It’s the perfect gift shop for regulars and out-of-towners alike.
  • Firkin Friday: every Friday at 5:00 they tap a fresh cask, usually one of their flagships that’s been dry hopped with different varieties, or something more experimental.  They’re even priced slightly less than one of their regular pints, ensuring that they’ll go quickly – it’s usually kicked within the hour.
  • Everything is fairly priced. Dinner for the three of us plus a round of beers is usually between $30-35.  Ordering a 1/2 price pizza on Sundays makes it cheaper yet.

Otto’s doesn’t have the best of everything. I prefer Selinsgrove Brewery’s chili, Riepstine’s Alpha Deuce IPA and Elk Creek Cafe’s atmosphere to any of Otto’s counterparts, but they strike an impeccable balance of everything we enjoy.  In a region inundated with great options, Otto’s satisfies on all levels, and is somewhere I’d take an out-of-town visitor to without hesitation every time.  If they had one dining area without any damn TVs, they’d be better yet.

Old 97’s at the State Theater, State College PA

August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

“We’re not used to playing venues with seats.  I checked with management and they said it’s okay for you guys to stand.  Matter of fact it’s encouraged because I’m gonna be shaking my ass all night.” (Rhett Miller, beginning the evening’s festivities).

We’ve got to be choosy about our concerts and nights out in general these days, what with the kid and all.  We had tickets to see the Old 97’s in 2009, the year we bought our house. The closing fell on the same day, late enough there was no way we’d catch the show considering it was a four hour drive away in Maryland. My wife didn’t even remember this when she surprised me with tickets for my birthday, and the veteran alt-country rockers put on a great fucking show, more than worthy of one of our rare nights out together.

We had pre-show dinner and beers at Liberty Craft House downtown.  I’ve written about Liberty previously and still have mostly good things to say.  It was surprisingly not busy during peak dinner hour and the R&B/soul station they had queued up was ideal for a quiet dinner without our manic child. Fig/prosciutto/arugula/balsamic and kale/tomato/caesar flatbreads were tasty and filling enough to sustain us through showtime.

We saw the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers on the Rock & Roll Means Well tour at the State Theater in 2008 and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever been to. The only negative was the lack of alcohol – I don’t mind pre-gaming and am not above sneaking a flask sometimes when booze is prohibited but if there are two bands whose shows demand to be enjoyed with an open beer freely in one’s hand, they’re THS and DBT.  We were feeling similarly about the Old 97’s and were delighted to discover the addition of a liquor license and small bar to the theater lobby.  I was eyeballing a can of Sierra Nevada pale ale (and would have even settled for one of those Miller Lite cans with the screw-top lids) when we noticed they had local Elk Creek Cafe beer on tap. Double Rainbow IPA and Poe Paddy Porter, hot damn.  There was also wine and a small liquor/mixer assortment.

I’m a big proponent of catching the opener – back in my punk rock days, my band was often it.  They know you’re there for the headliner but are trying their damndest to make a name for themselves, and always appreciate having the majority of the crowd come early (one particularly discouraging incident occurred when my band opened for New Found Glory and much of the audience opted to flank their tour bus, only to find out what a huge bunch of snooty dickheads they were… served ’em right). Get your refreshments and use the bathroom but try and catch at least a little of their set.

1990’s fashion revivalists Western Star were a fitting opener. Their new album was produced by the 97s’ own Ken Bethea and you can hear it in their sound; sort of a twangy power pop with some garage leanings and southern harmonies. Learning that they relocated to Baltimore earned them a few extra points in my book.  A heckler repeatedly yelled “TEETH!  SHOW US YOUR TEETH!” between songs. Maybe it was an inside joke or he was new to heckling; either way the band obliged several times with big gaping smiles.

The 97’s were fucking great.  Between them and the Pixies last year I’m beginning to think bands approaching and/or past middle age are the shows to go to.  They played with the passion and energy of groups half their age, with 20+ years of experience on top of it.  They were unbelievably tight and looked to be having a blast.  At Rhett’s behest most of us were on our feet dancing and the front row even propped their drinks and elbows on the stage. The set list spanned their career with a good mix of greatest hits-type tunes (“Doreen,” “King of All of the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny”), deeper cuts (“Streets of Where I’m From,” “Stoned”) and a few Merle Haggard songs, who’d passed away the day before. Rhett gave a shout out to local radio station 98.7 the Freq, claiming the reason their tour stopped in State College at all was due to overwhelming listener demand.

Bizarre incident of the evening: toward the end of their set a burly dude with a beer walked down to the stage and stood with his middle finger pointed at the band for a solid few minutes.  Like the “teeth” guy we assumed he knew them and it was some sort of weird joke, but after a few minutes he angrily exchanged words with Ken then left via the emergency exit by the stage, followed by Ken’s guitar tech and a few security guards.  No idea what was going on there but they wrapped things up moments later with “Four Leaf Clover,” a hell of a closer even without the female duet. They returned a few minutes later for a short encore with “Victoria” transitioning seamlessly into “Timebomb” to end the evening altogether.  If that guy’s antics lead to the set being cut short as it indeed appeared to be, and us missing out on something like “Melt Show” or “Nightclub” then I hope security beat the shit out of him.

Ten years ago this week I proposed to my best girl in the bar where we had our first date by singing the 97’s “Question.”  It doesn’t appear to be a song they play much these days so we counted ourselves lucky when it was the first ballad of the evening. A  highlight for sure.

We popped down to legendary basement bar Zeno’s for a few post-show beers.  It’s a State College institution and one of the finer places to drink a few pints downtown, especially during university breaks when those pesky students go home.  The evenings range from cramped to crowded with a mix of drunken 21 year old idiots putting scores of drinks on Dad’s credit card, and locals who want them all to go the fuck away so we can enjoy our beer in peace, or hear one of the decent satellite radio stations above their screaming.

Food is available from the Corner Room restaurant upstairs – typical & tasty pub fare but beer is the reason to visit Zeno’s.  Their 21 drafts (and countless bottles) rotate a good mix of styles, rarities and aged brews, and always includes the rye ale brewed for them locally by Otto’s, a great standby and anytime drinker if nothing else looks particularly tempting.  They also feature an “Around the World in 80 Beers” passport and beer festivals of all kinds (we attended an awesome pay-as-you-go cask fest one year where the bar was lined completely with fresh barrels, replenished as they emptied, with a few beers unique to that event alone).

Their Friday night happy hour offers half price Pennsylvania micros from 9-11, a nice accompaniment to the regular lineup of live music ranging from bluegrass (King Cotton Rounders) and Americana (Pure Cane Sugar) to 80’s/90’s cover bands (Spider Kelly) and PA’s best rockabilly trio the Ultra Kings. It’s one of the state’s best beer spots though much more enjoyable during the day or an evening during school breaks, unless you’re into large groups of loud, obnoxious undergrads. The bathroom graffiti is as legendary as the beer selection, covering the entirety of the walls and offering a disturbing glimpse into the area’s vast array of frat boy douchery (bar tours… oh so many bar tours), with an occasional slice of veritable wit or humor. Sample philosophy: “Alcohol won’t solve your problems but neither will water or milk.” Retort: “Unless your problems are that you’re dehydrated or calcium deficient.”

Summary: a night out with my best gal, some aging rockers and a wealth of good beer.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Old 97's, State Theater

Photo pirated from Google search.  Mine were all blurry.

Live @ 5:00, 98.7 The Freq

February 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Diversity hasn’t been a strong quality in central Pennsylvania radio for many years. We’re bloated with this horrible Nashville pop garbage that passes for country music these days, with auto tuned banjos and wannabe cowboys in $200 designer studded jeans (if that weren’t enough, a good number of these studio-bred morons have begun incorporating rap into their songs, effectively disgracing two genres simultaneously). If that’s not coming through our speakers while the radio shuffles, it’s likely worn out classic rock staples interspersed with today’s “hard rock” (bands with names like Five Finger Death Punch) or top 40. Even satellite radio stations seem to rotate the same 20 songs and nothing else. On longer drives I’m happy to plug in my iPod or pop in a cassette but I shouldn’t feel the need to maintain radio silence during my daily 10 minute commute to work. [Side note: the Altville, Americana Overnight and Classic Country shows on 99.9 The Bear are quite good but only a fraction of that station’s programming].

While shuffling one afternoon last summer the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” caught my ear. At first I thought I’d mistakenly powered on my iPod but no, that was most certainly some horrible Blake Shelton crap playing just moments before. It was followed by Whiskeytown – not solo Ryan “I just covered an entire Taylor Swift album and expanded my fan base by 10 billion” Adams, but Whiskeytown.  A mere few weeks later my pal Timmy Tatts announced he was to be a guest on something called the Morning Mixtape, talking about his craft and shop.  I don’t know that we’ve ever had a station in the area cool enough to feature guests and music of this caliber.  What in the hell is going on?

In high school I was faithful to 101.1 (now a country station), specifically the Free Range Radio program on Sunday nights.  You see kids, back in the 90’s before the internet exploded with pirate sites, YouTube, iTunes or even Napster (damn, even that reference feels dated) you actually had to listen to the radio and call in requests when you wanted to hear certain stuff.  Here’s the kicker though: back then, the radio didn’t totally suck.  The Free Range playlist featured everything from Nirvana and Weezer to the Dead Kennedys, Elvis Costello, Springsteen, Pixies, early folk, old blues and anything else the other stations weren’t playing.  It’s been a long time but the radio gods have finally blessed us with 98.7 the Freq, and taken me back to those Sunday nights I had my ears glued to the beat up old radio in my parents’ kitchen.

Cooler still is their dedication to local music, and I mean ALL local music, not just the band the owner’s kid plays in.  They put area acts into their regular rotation, promote shows, work with the local newspaper to get band info and interview snippets into the weekly entertainment excerpt and best of all, host a 30 minute “Live at 5:00” program every Friday where local bands and singer/songwriters give interviews and perform.

Incidentally (and I swear not the only reason I’m championing them so heartily), my pal Jared and I were invited to bring our folk/punk duo The Echo & Sway to Live at 5 in January and we couldn’t have had more fun.  We arrived shortly after 4:00 and were welcomed by afternoon DJ Dave Snyder, chatting us up as we tuned and got gear situated. Our host Jason Crane arrived shortly after and along with his partner, my old man, studio interns, local photographer Jeni Kocher Zerphy and a small studio audience, we spent the better part of the afternoon nyucking it up, cracking jokes and generally acting juvenile. It was good company to be in for sure.

The shindig is catered every week by Gigi’s Southern Table, who provide an appetizer and carafe of their featured cocktail for everyone to share.  As if they knew my taste, this week’s was Renegade Manhattan, with Bulleit Rye Whiskey. We poured ourselves a few generous glasses (hey, nobody else was digging in and we weren’t about to let it go to waste) and prepped for showtime.  We didn’t have an opportunity afterward to partake of the spinach artichoke dip but I’d give Gigi’s a try sometime based on the cocktail alone.

We were able to cram in six songs amid our interview segments.  Jason very kindly described us as having an “economy” to our songwriting, when in reality I’m just too lazy to write longer songs. A slightly incomplete video of our performance is available to stream on YouTube, missing only Jared’s sultry crooning of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket.”  I won’t say it was my favorite part of our performance but I’m confident that Chrissie Hynde herself would approve of his interpretation. There’s also a collection of several other performances under the “Live @ 5” tab on their website.

Afterward we made our way downtown for dinner and a few beers at Liberty Craft House.  Relatively new, Liberty keeps in the tradition of many State College establishments in its mixing of pretentiousness and drunken student tomfoolery, but we tolerate those things because the food and beer is top notch. Their state-of-the-art electronic draft system houses nearly 50 taps and includes beer, wine, cold brewed coffee and even pre-mixed cocktails like the Hurricane and Moscow Mule.  Next to each is a symbol that depicts how much is left in the keg so you always know if it’s relatively fresh or that end-of-the-batch nastiness.

Liberty is a decent place to hang out on a Friday evening as well.  Hardwood floor, exposed brick walls, comfortable booths, nicely lit and not overly loud, though as usual I could do without the damn televisions. It’s probably a crime to not have them in a town known for their football fanaticism and prone to rioting over it; heaven forbid we have dinner or drinks without the ability to watch a game. We shared a charcuterie plate, pierogies and sausage sandwich. They advertise local, organic ingredients and the food reflects that (or as they put it, “foodstuffs” … read: pretentiousness).  Washing it all down with Troegs Nugget Nectar and a few limited release unpasteurized Stone Enjoy By IPA’s was a damn fine way to end the evening.

If you’re in central PA, tune your radio to 98.7 and give ’em a listen.  Elsewhere you can stream them on  Thus far they’ve been a refreshing game changer, reviving my ability to enjoy radio again and helping me discover a few new bands. Here’s to hoping they do the same for you.

2015 Gig Roundup: The Outlook, Hanover PA

February 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Playing a benefit show is never pleasant venture, especially when it’s for someone in your own family.  My dad’s ex-wife (for all intents and purposes, my mom) and her new husband had one motherfucker of a year. A space heater exploded in their garage and quickly spread into a fire that engulfed most of the house, burning it down to the studs. Just when they were beginning to recover and rebuild, he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that’s taken over portions of his liver and lymph nodes and even seeped a bit into his blood stream.  There’s only one word to describe a year of that caliber, and it is, indeed, motherfucker.

There’s a horrible feeling of helplessness when someone you love is in trouble and there’s not much you can do.  All I could offer was to perform a benefit, where we’d probably only raise enough money to put a small dent in their upcoming travel costs back and forth to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, but at least we’d gather friends and family to show support.  I was born and raised in Hanover and still have a good deal of family and friends in the area so I was pretty sure we’d pack the place.  I couldn’t be more grateful to Rachelle and David at The Outlook in Hanover for helping me put everything together, write up press releases and get the word out in the community. The local newspaper even contacted me for an interview to help spread awareness.

I brought my old man along for the ride, with a plan to visit my grandmother and explore Hanover’s burgeoning brewery scene before the show. This town has long been a difficult spot to acquire some decent micro brew.  Years ago there was Kclinger’s Tavern, which housed 30+ drafts and 500 bottles from around the world but closed in 2011, likely due to a staggering amount of bar fights (we witnessed more than one in our sporadic visits), generic sports motif and atmosphere that catered exclusively to macho bros and the dramatic Barbie Doll types they fought over. Hanover is also home to every chain restaurant known to humankind so you know, Sam Adams, Leinenkugel’s, or maybe a Dogfish Head if you’re lucky.  Four breweries have sprung up in the city since 2013 and we were anxious to try one or two of them.

We met my sister and her boyfriend at Miscreation Brewing, right in Center Square. We sat overlooking the square, in a booth with a mosaic backing made of recycled skateboard pieces. Too cool.  We shared a few paninis and some spent grain pretzels and cheese with mustard dip, all on par with standard brewpub food and that ain’t a bad thing.  Like many though, the food basically serves as accompaniment and the real focus is on the beer, or in this case, “miscreations.” The Powder Keg, Frank’n Stout, Pale Storm and Reckless Imperial IPA were all unbelievably crisp and fresh, better than anything I presumed brewed with Hanover water to be capable of.  The place is lit almost exclusively by the natural light coming in the first floor picture windows and very family friendly.

A sign above the bar advertised fresh beer to go with a single plastic cup pictured.  I presumed it was some sort of sippy cup type deal with a straw poking out of a hole in the lid.  The waitress brought me an open cup and bid us adieu… what the hell is this? This state has some of the most constricting liquor laws in the country and you’re telling me I can walk outside with an open beer and drink it on the street? Even after she assured us that was the case I was hesitant, especially when the first car to pass us on the street was a cop.  I took a liberal gulp as he passed and hot damn, it’s true. Hanover is not a town I’d have predicted to be so progressive with its open container laws but it’s awesome nonetheless.  I drank without fear of repercussion as we walked to our next stop.

Something Wicked Brewing Company is two blocks away from Miscreation, also a welcome addition to the PA craft beer scene. Industrial feel with exposed pipes is cool, and the wall-sized mural of beer themed quotes and electronic draft display are nice touches.  It’s got a great brewery atmosphere but I prefer the relaxing tone of a brewpub, so SWBC is the lesser of the two for me, if only slightly.  If Miscreation’s beers weren’t so fresh in my mind I probably would have enjoyed these more.  Chaos (chocolate coconut stout), Sinful (IPA) and black IPA were good but paled slightly in comparison. Complimentary tabletop pretzels and a friendly staff rounded out a nice first experience; I’d definitely recommend Something Wicked to anyone and look forward to trying it again myself sometime.

My sister was kind enough to return to Miscreation and refill my cup while I headed to The Outlook for setup and sound check.  It’s one of the most eccentric venues I’ve played and that’s absolutely a compliment.  The stage is a carpeted alcove overlooking a consignment shop with clothing, furniture, albums, memorabilia and anything else you can think of.  My only regret is not having enough time between playing and socializing to shop.  David (owner) and Rachelle (event coordinator) were friendly and very accommodating, setting up folding chairs, bean bags and coffee tables in front of the stage, making coffee and offering light refreshments.  The whole setup is reminiscent of the punk rock house shows I enjoyed as a young hooligan and I felt right at home.

They set up a big, comfortable lounge chair right in the center for the guest of honor, who arrived in great spirits and took all of his fanfare and excessive attention in stride.  I played my first set then socialized with our packed house while Harrisburg duo Weird Year performed.  Busy as it was I never got to properly thank them for donating their time and talent, and I enjoyed them immensely.  They’re a single electric guitar setup with everything sung in two part harmony, and it was beautiful. I hope we have an opportunity to share the stage together again someday.

We suggested a $5-10 donation, which Rachelle collected at the door and at the end of the night we were pleased to discover several people had given more.  I had no expectations and would have been happy with anything we’d taken in.  The Outlook donated every penny and were tremendous in helping throughout the evening, and never rushed us out when we all spent quite a bit of time socializing after my second set. They’re a unique venue I’d recommend to anyone looking for a change of pace from the usual bar gig.

Bullfrog Brewery, Williamsport PA

February 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

Williamsport is known primarily as the home of the Little League World Series & Hall of Fame, and drugs.  A whole lot of drugs.  Like most cities it’s gorgeous in parts and downright ugly in others, but was also one of the forerunners in the Pennsylvania craft beer movement, home to several of the state’s finest breweries years before every town in America had a brewpub popping up on every block.

The Bullfrog was their first, and has become an area institution for good beer and live music.  I’d never played there before my good pal David Pulizzi and his band Graveyard Rooster asked me to open up for them in January.  I offered to play for dinner and beer since I had the opening slot, his band are mostly working musicians and I was just happy to finally play somewhere I’d been enjoying so long. The Bullfrog was the first place I tried an IPA 13 long years ago (“It’s so fucking gross, it tastes like perfume!”) and their beer has maintained the same fantastic quality ever since, despite the departure of near legendary brewmaster Terry Hawbaker a few years back. Nate Saar’s style is a bit different but consistently great, and his farmhouse saisons have become real standouts in the area. Their food menu has changed a lot over the years and while I’m still bitter they did away with their chicken parmesan, their burgers are fantastic and the mac ‘n cheese with ale sauce is a welcome addition.

The best part about playing solo in an opening slot is getting to skip sound check, a necessary evil but tedious nonetheless.  When the whole band goes first and the the front man gets his guitar and vocals at the right levels, it takes very little tweaking for my acoustic guitar & vocal setup to sound right.  I offered to help of course but was repeatedly told to sit  and relax so I obliged.  I mingled with friends and the legions of new fans I was surely about to amass with my 45 minute set, and enjoyed my complimentary food and drink.  Jong Bruin Kriek (sour brown steeped with cherries) and Jon’s Jawn (wild fermented saison with cocoa nibs and merlot grapes) were easy drinkers, and fantastic predecessors to the coup de grace, the Figgy Pudd’n.  An 11% Belgian Quad with figs, it went down much easier than it should have and ensured I’d be taking my buddy Ryan up on his offer to drive us home.

The sound technician (who doubled as Dave’s drummer this evening) had everything up and running smoothly in no time and sure enough I plugged in, ran through a quick verse/chorus of The Clash’s “Train in Vain” and off we went.  It’s Williamsport’s premier venue for music but still a bar and restaurant, with a fair amount of people dining and socializing but the listening audience is listening intently.  The front 1/3 of the restaurant nearest the band setup were clearly there for music and showed it with liberal applause; many even took the time to come over and chat between sets.

Graveyard Rooster was incredible.  You can listen to some tracks from the album on their website and while the recording is solid, it hardly does them justice.  This show fell on what would have been Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday and the boys covered a few of the King’s songs in tribute. Add in some bruschetta with toasted baguette crisps and it was a damn fine evening.

I only wish I could take credit for designing a poster that features a rooster wearing sunglasses.

Graveyard Rooster

2015 Gig Roundup: Riepstine’s Pub, Williamsport PA

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here

Thanks to the versatility of my cohorts, Rattlesnake Gospel has the ability to alternate between foot-stomping, hand-clapping rockin’ barroom band and quieter, more mellow lounge trio to suit different venues and circumstances.  We’ll do either but are at our best when we can turn up the volume and let loose, especially after a good meal and a few pints of delicious microbrew.  My wife and I frequent Riepstine’s for dinner but this was my first time playing with any group.  It was a damn good time and I hope it’s not the last.

Bands have to provide their own sound which can be a hassle to lug around but at least it’s equipment you’re familiar with (it took me nearly half an hour to properly assemble and sound check with an unfamiliar PA system at a solo gig elsewhere last summer).  Ideally a venue will provide compensation, food and drink for their entertainment but if we only get one or the other, I’d much rather the beer be part of the package as it is here.  I’ve listened to different venues’ justifications for their policies and having been on that side of the operation, I usually understand their reasons.  In this case, Riepsteine’s beer is just so damn good it’s hard to care too much.

Ahh, Riepstine’s beer… a reason in and of itself to visit Williamsport, PA.  Alpha Deuce double IPA is one of the finest of its style I’ve had anywhere, their Oktoberfest and pumpkin porter are two fall beers I most look forward to each year and I don’t overly care for either style, the winter seasonal Reindeer Fuel is a Belgian-style whopper at 12% that goes down like its half of that, and their everyday flagship brews are among the best on the menu.  The food is limited to a handful of sandwiches, appetizers and shared plates, plus a weekly featured burger. It’s all quite tasty (not very vegetarian friendly, much to my wife’s chagrin) but as the slogan says, “it’s all about the beer.” We shared a few massive plates of pizza fries and drank like kings.

The place is divided into the main bar area and a back dining room where tables are moved for bands to set up.  After a quick and painless sound check, we tore through two hour-long sets of all original material and got to do a few songs with our friend and occasional harmony vocalist Todd Patterson, who was leaving this bleak and desolate land to settle in Hawaii with his new fiancée a few days afterward.  We played a slew of new tunes, which you can be on the lookout for this year… seriously, we are working on a new album.  We mean it this time.

We packed the place, barely left an open seat in the house and when we were paid at the end of the night, the bartender told us we’d brought a bigger crowd than any band in recent memory.  We couldn’t have been more flattered.  Next time I suppose we’ll have to shoot for no empty seats at all.

2015 Gig Roundup: Booth Theater, Danville PA

January 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here

I was turned onto the Booth Theater in Danville by my pal David Pulizzi, a fellow skinny guitar-slinging Italian from Williamsport, PA. It’s a small 40 seat theater situated beneath a music school on the main drag, newly renovated with music and performance serving as the primary focus, and refreshment as the background element (basically the opposite of the scenario presented by most bars, pubs and restaurants).  In June I brought my good friend Danny Brumbaugh of The Psychic Beat One Man Band along to accompany me on lead guitar and we played one of my favorite shows of the year.

The stage is small and wouldn’t fit more than a trio comfortably, but very classy with soft overhead lighting and grey curtain backdrop. Nice PA setup too, which you have to run yourself but I don’t mind that at all.  The green room is roughly half the size of the stage and houses several instruments and props from the music school upstairs so there’s not much room to lounge, but the half dozen bottles of wine and assorted cheese and crackers more than make up for the tight space (in our case there was even a bit of Knob Creek bourbon left behind by a previous band… John and Suzanne told us to help ourselves and we obliged).

I’d offered to treat Mr. Brumbaugh to dinner in exchange for his services so we stopped at nearby Old Forge Brewing Company beforehand (you can read about OFBC elsewhere on the blog here). It’s just a short walk up Mill Street; we had our beers with dinner but getting a growler filled would be a great way to take advantage of the Booth’s BYOB policy.  They had a nice assortment of pretzels, cheese, chocolates (York Peppermint Patties if memory serves) and miniature water bottles, all included in the $10 ticket price (split 50/50 between venue and performer).

I’d never played in Danville before and wasn’t sure what kind of crowd I’d draw. Booth proprietors John and Suzanne did a great job promoting around town and on social media and maybe a third of the seats got filled, which suited me fine considering it was my first time in a new area.  And in a true case of quality over quantity, it was one of the finest groups I’ve ever played to.  The audience was as engaging as we were, and the whole evening played like a participation story time, someone occasionally asking about a particular lyric or inspiration for a song mid-show, and all of us cracking jokes back and forth.  My favorite moment came off like a bit from a stand-up routine:

Me: “I forgot my capo backstage.  Danny, tell a joke or something.”
Danny (to audience): “What do you call two tubas?  A four-ba!”
Audience member: “Please, hurry with the capo!”

Everyone stuck around for a good half hour afterward to chat and finish drinks. We left with a sincere invitation to come back anytime and I fully intend to take them up on it. The Booth may not have the capacity of some bigger cafes or the food & drink selection of a pub or restaurant, but it’s hardly needed. I can’t think of a better venue for musicians to hone their craft or connect with their audience.  More establishments could stand to take a cue from The Booth.

2015 Gig Roundup: Avenue 209, Lock Haven PA

January 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here

I could write a novel about my love for Avenue 209, our beloved home town coffee shop.  For years, despite being a college town in need of an alternative to Dunkin Donuts, Lock Haven couldn’t support a decent cafe.  A few opened in the downtown area here and there but none lasted more than a year. Java Therapy finally made a lasting impression about 10 years ago, with decent coffee, food, board games and occasional music, albeit all in a space the size of a walk-in closet, before closing its doors when the building was purchased and the new landlord booted them out.

Thankfully that same year, Avenue 209 opened a few blocks down and have since featured even better coffee, a small but delicious food menu, monthly artwork on the walls and an exceptionally friendly staff in as welcoming of an environment as you could hope for.  It’s also become the pillar of Lock Haven’s music scene (for everything that doesn’t include overdone classic rock cover bands), with local and touring bands several nights a week.  They’re backed by the Common Place Church so technically it’s a church coffee shop, but they’re not pushy about their agenda and you’d never know if it weren’t for the church advertisements on the bulletin board. Heathens like myself aren’t treated any differently and I’ve never felt uncomfortable.

I’ve played Avenue many times with my various projects and there’s hardly a gig I enjoy more.  The Echo & Sway celebrated our seventh anniversary in February and had as much fun as we ever do.  It’s an eclectic and family friendly atmosphere, and the crowds are always a good mix of young parents with kids, students, music lovers, and occasionally an older dude slumped in a lounge chair, fighting to stay awake despite the abundant supply of strong coffee.

We usually pack in a good crowd and this night was no exception, even with the snow covered roads outside.  Many of the TE&S faithful were on hand to enjoy our crooning in two-part harmony about the open road, our reworking of 80’s pop tunes into acoustic balladry, Jared’s recital of several tongue-in-cheek selections from his two poetry chapbooks and the random dancing, whistling, stand-up comedy and other assorted hijinks that can only occur at a TE&S gig on our home turf. We’re not the most refined duo, often unrehearsed and flying by the seat of our pants but if you can’t find something to laugh about at one of our Avenue gigs, you sir have no soul.

It’s always free entry so payment is in coffee and tips, but they offer a prime spot right next to the coffee counter to display your merch.  If you’re a musician and only allow an occasional free gig in your performing and touring schedule, Avenue should be the one.  If you’re just a traveler passing through our little center of the state and in need of a friendly face, strong cup of coffee and some decent tunes, there’s nowhere better.

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