The Big Band, T-Bone Sound Returns To Williamsport

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.

Kansas (the state) Won’t Buy Lunch For Kansas (the band)

Here’s a preview for Kansas playing a Sunbury winery’s annual classic rock show

In the last few years, Kansas, the band behind hits like “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind,” has performed numerous live shows with full orchestras all over the world. On July 7, the group will collaborate with the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra for a one-time-only, outdoor show at the Spyglass Ridge Winery, 105 Carroll St.

Kansas has made a habit of playing with symphony orchestras since 1998, when the band collaborated with the London Symphony Orchestra on the studio album “Always Never the Same.”

“Getting all (the music) charted (for orchestra) is the tough part,” says guitarist Rich Williams. “Once you have that, it makes it a lot easier—and having the album done, that was something to put in the hands of symphony directors, which was a big help.”

The band released “There’s Know Place Like Home” in October 2009, a concert DVD/double album recorded with the Washburn University orchestra in their hometown of Topeka. Since then the band has embarked on a string of concerts with collegiate orchestras and other organizations. Proceeds from their shows with scholastic organizations go into scholarship funds.

“It’s a turnkey deal,” Williams says. “The orchestra shows have been very popular—we give the colleges a cut of the merchandise, and we show up and do long sound checks the day of the performance; for us, there’s just a lot more people on stage, and since they follow us, it’s not bad for us at all.”

“Everything goes smoothly unless the conductor falls off us — which they don’t, usually — and those guys do have a long day of it,” Williams adds. “You can tell which orchestras have been practicing at home or not.”

Kansas still plays plentiful dates every year, but their touring life, once an on-the-bus stop-to-stop grind, no longer resembles Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” chronicle of cross-country travel. They’re now frequent fliers.

“The ideal situation is we take off on Friday, and we’re home on Sunday—we fly everywhere,” Williams says. “Our equipment’s on the ground, but maintaining a bus just isn’t worth it; what if you’re in Wyoming one night, and then in Arkansas or something? It’s just too much driving.”

That doesn’t mean Kansas doesn’t play far away from home: Indonesia and Australia are two of the international destinations the band has played recently.

It’s not always been a story of easy cruising for the band. After Kansas sold over four million copies of their “Leftoverture” and “Point of Know Return” albums in the mid-Seventies and enjoyed steady if more modest success throughout most of the Eighties, there was a time when a break was forced on the group.

“23 years ago, I think, everybody told us ‘go home, nobody cares,’” Williams says. “We kind of did — we went home and waited, and then an offer from Germany came in to play for a couple of weeks.”

The band met their overseas obligations, then decided to play a homecoming show upon returning to the States.

“We played that show as a ‘hey, why not?’ thing, and then we wondered ‘what if we do that every year?’ and then one show turned into two weeks and then three and five weeks, and we’ve been playing ever since,” Williams says. “Everybody grossly underestimated our fanbase — after all that, we book ourselves and manage ourselves — we’re not tied to anybody.”

Though Kansas began their career in the vinyl era, the band is fully attuned to the advantages of managing themselves in the digital age.

“People buy songs and stuff off Facebook and the web page,” Williams says. “The days of working with the record company who’ll pay you and then screw you blind is over—we had the worst contract known to man, and made pennies on the dollar; it was grocery money, really.”

Though Kansas didn’t get rich off their hits, Williams says the band still feels fortunate that their career turned out so well.

“The (record companies) refused to change with the times, they’re committing suicide, and I couldn’t be happier for them,” Williams says. “We were on the top of the heap—there were thousands and thousands of artists that had their lawyer look at (the contract) and they got screwed: no one ever heard their name again”

There’s little mystery behind the band’s moniker; like other bands that formed in the late Sixties and took on a place name—like Boston, Chicago or America—Kansas is from Kansas.

“I’d like to give you an artsy-fartsy clever answer,” Williams says. “But we’re just a band from Kansas. There were a bunch of guys who played in Kansas who played together under the name White Clover who were under contract with Kirshner (Records), and needed to get out, and White Clover was a shitty name, so we went with Kansas, and it worked.”

Nevermind the nomenclature, though: any trip to Pennsylvania is a homecoming for this band from Topeka.

“Pennsylvania was always the most pro-Kansas state we played,” says Williams. “We couldn’t get a free lunch in Kansas anywhere. We might not still be able to, and we were selling out in Pennsylvania, we were headlining there when we were opening everywhere else. We always look forward to coming back.”

Kansas plays a rain-or-shine show July 7 with the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra, directed by Geraldo Edelstein, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42.50. Food and wine will be available on the premises, and gates open at 5 p.m.