As a former brassy band nerd, writing this preview for a Williamsport horn group gave me pleasure and an excuse to editorialize on the State of Modern Music a bit.
The contemporary airwaves are dominated by music made in bedrooms and on laptops — modern technology has made it possible for a one-man band to churn out hit singles without even breaking a sweat, or learning to play both the banjo and accordion. In a time of such sparse pop, when even twin lead guitars are scarce, a group no longer needs the traditional 17 musicians to qualify as a “big band.”
“Spencer and the T-Bones,” who come together this August 24 for the second year in a row at the Community Theatre League, 100 W. Third St., put out a serious modern big band sound, with some heavy rock ‘n roll low end.
Vocalist and Williamsport pastor Spencer Sweeting provides vocals for the group, and the rest of the 9-piece is made up of veteran area musicians and educators. A third of the group is trombones – the “T-Bones” in the group’s name refers to the slide brass instrument, not a beefsteak.
Founder Kevin Henry (a Williamsport Area middle school band director), Bill Grose (Mifflinburg schools), and Brett Rynhart make up the ‘bone section, a concept that had its inspiration in a Don Henley-arranged 2000 tour version of “Hotel California” that used four trombones.
The group began with a four trombone line fronting a rhythm section. The T-Bones’ instrumentation evolved over the years, adding Sweeting in 2009, as well as swapping in Sunbury reedman Larry Fisher (Pine Mountain schools) on baritone saxophone for one trombone and adding Loyalsock teacher Lee Saville-Andree on keys and the Hammond B-3. Tim Breon of Lycoming College and the Uptown Music Collective plays guitar, Williamsport Area High School orchestra director Matt Radspinner lays down the bass line, and Bob Leidhecker, a Loyalsock educator and Williamsport Symphony Orchestra percussionist, plays the drums.
Those who think that mix sounds anything but fresh should take a trip online and check out Spencer and the T-Bones on YouTube, and then take a listen to Bonerama, out of New Orleans, another three-bone group out of New Orleans who serve as something of a model for the T-Bones’ approach. Playing through a bunch of effects, Bonerama’s repertoire leans more towards Jimmy Page than Glenn Miller.
At this year’s CTL show, The T-Bones will have plenty of fresh material, drawn from both old and new sources.
“There will be some Stevie Wonder, some Otis Redding,” Henry says. “After last year, everyone said ‘you gotta do Chicago,’ so we’ve got a Chicago set for this year.”
New original work by area composer Rob Byham will be played, as well as arrangements of new hits by Fitz and the Tantrums and Cee Lo Green, artists whose fusion of rock, soul, funk and pop inform The T-Bones’ sound.
“’Fitz’ is a little retro-feeling, but it’s new — they fit our style well,” Henry says. “We’ll even be doing some Dave Matthews, and the White Stripes, but in our own style.”
That style incorporates guitar effects on the trombones, like distortion, an octave pedal, loops and the venerable wah-wah pedal, giving The T-Bones a new-school edge that polishes up the trombone’s staid image.
“From my standpoint as a band director, we’d like to see more trombone players in the schools,” Henry says. “This is a little bit of a way to promote the trombone, with three in the group.”
Spencer and the T-Bones have had a quiet summer, due to graduate studies and an onslaught of weddings. Their return to the CTL for the second straight year will give audiences a chance to see how they’ve developed in the time they have had to play together.
“I had never played with a group in there (before last year),” Henry says. “It’s got great acoustics, it’s a place where you can see everybody’s face in the audience and really connect. We hope to get some people out of their seats and moving.”
Spencer and the T-Bones perform at The Community Theatre, 100 W. Third St., Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at ctlnet.org: $25 buys two seats, or they are $15 for adults and $8 for students.