The Strafing Run: A Friday Night in State College

"Located Directly Above the Center of the Earth"

One of the best bars in State College, Zeno's

Hello again, dear readers!

I wanted to give you a glimpse into the town and music scene I’m currently a part of. What better way than taking you through a typical Friday night in the teeming metropolis of beer, football and accidental academia that is State College, PA?

What’s a Friday night out on the town like where you live? If you live in NYC, endless options present themselves. Theater, stand-up comedy, a movie, some wild masquerade debauchery fest behind an unmarked door in the Village. What’s that, you say? You want to hear live music? What luck, NYC offers more original bands, and venues to see them, than just about anyplace I can think of.

If you live in another big city (Chicago, LA, Miami, Dallas), or even a smaller city (Pittsburgh), original music should be just around the corner: national touring acts, local bands mixed in with a few cover bands, live DJs, and the occasional jazz club (results may vary by city).

If, however, you’re like the author, living in Smalltown, USA, your Friday night options are a bit less robust. You can go bowling, see one of eight movies, or go out to a local bar.

Across America, bars are a place for us to get together, get tipsy and listen to music. Most bars have at least a jukebox, a great way to have drunken strangers eviscerate your musical desires. (Hint: telling people “I just looove to hear this when I’m drunk!” does not absolve you of guilt for playing something you know is awful, and making everyone else listen to it.)

If you’re lucky, that bar will have some sort of live music playing. In vibrant communities and college towns, you’ll often have a mix of local bands playing their own stuff, cover bands, and maybe an occasional visit by a band someone may have heard of once. In other places, not so much.

State College, PA is a strange place. It’s most definitely a “college town.” (With a name like State College, it’s hard to forget.) This inventively named town is about as in the middle of Pennsylvania as possible, roughly the same distance away from the two true metropolises of the state, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Both Philly and Pittsburgh have national acts play in their venues, and both cities are home to their own prolific music scenes. So naturally, State College has the occasional good fortune of getting an act to schedule a show here when the band’s practically passing through on tour anyway. But it doesn’t happen as often as music lovers here would hope.

Though State College is home to over 42,ooo residents (not counting students!) and 92,000 in the Centre region, this is still in many ways a rural community. Drive 15 minutes out of State College, and you’ll find farms and small communities. Some people in the area surrounding State College call taking a trip there “going to the city,” since it’s the closest thing to a city for many miles. This creates quite a mix of cultures and music tastes. At the Bryce Jordan Center, the biggest local venue in the area, a country act or WWE has as mush chance to sell out the place as Prince or Seinfeld does. So when we ARE lucky enough to get a national act, it’s just as likely to be Sugarland or Lady Antebellum over something I’d actually want to go to.

So that leaves bars, house parties, and alternate venues (like the local hookah lounge) for music. So this must mean the bars are hopping with awesome local live music from students, townies, and travelling national acts, right?

Once again, not so much. Instead, the local bar music scene consists almost entirely of cover bands. Bands like Mr. Hand, Velveeta, and The Screaming Ducks become living jukeboxes, cranking out the same 80s, 90s and 00s hits week after week to drunk audiences that just want music they’re familiar with as a soundtrack to getting some drunken booty. Some of these bands are entertaining, either putting their own spin on an old cover, or just performing the song with enough competency that you can forget for a minute that they’re just playing other people’s songs. Most of the bands are just jangly noise, something to be ignored while edging up to the crowded bar to grap another pitcher of Monkey Boy and flirt with one of the five girls wearing syncronized outfits, like they’re all on the same drinking team.

On this Friday night, we were fortunate enough to find Spider Kelly playing at Zeno’s. Spider Kelly is the Rolling Stones of local cover bands. They’ve been at it for years, bringing in steady money playing other people’s songs, night after night, week after week, sometimes in the exact same order as the week before. I say we were fortunate, because it could’ve been much worse. At least the band is made up of competent musicians, and some of their cover choices are off the beaten path enough to elicit a smile (“Istambul” by They Might Be Giants, along with songs from the Smiths, the Strokes, Johnny Cash and Cake).

Still, I’d rather see a good original band than a great cover band, as shown in my simple example below:

Good original band> Okay original band > Excellent DJ > Excellent cover band >  Good cover band > Good DJ > Crappy original band > Trivia bar games > Crappy cover band

So there we were, at Zeno’s in State College, listening to Spider Kelly play “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” Sitting at a small round woodtopped table, sipping on Elk Creek Something or other, watching a group of moderately intoxicated revelers working out how to dance to the Smiths, with unenviable results. Of course, if you’ve ever seen Morrisey dance, you know he sets a difficult example to follow.

I’ve heard there are places where no one ever dances, and the crowd just sits watching. Not here, not here. Folks in State College will dance, if you give them some music. And when the song is done, after each and every song, we clap. That’s a thing here, I guess. Good or bad, epic or decent, we tend to clap after everything. (Is it like that where you are? Comment and let me know.) When people are really moved by a song, they throw in a few hearty “Woooooohooooo!”s accompanied by the shaking of fists and such. (Whereas in comedy, laughter is the norm and applause is the the next level up.)

So the crowd claps, people get up and sit down, have casual conversation while the band plays on, cranking through the same songs, often in the same order, as they’ve played week after week for the last few years. And as I struggle to talk to the lovely gal next to me about The Mighty Boosh, I can’t help thinking about how great it would be to be seeing a real show right here and now. An original band, ripping its hearts open for us on the corner stage, playing something fresh and raw that no one outside that bar ever heard before.

Oh, to dream.

Why is it a dream? Lots of reasons. The first one is simple: The staff. The majority of the folks in charge of the bars and entertainment in this town see cover bands as a safe bet. They play common rock songs everyone’s heard over and over on the radio for years. Many of the older staffmembers likely grew up listening to this stuff over and over throughout their lives, and can connect with it immediately. Whereas a new edgy indie band trying to mine a new sound can scare the hell out of people just looking to groove to Duran Duran and have a good time.

Another reason is the crowd themselves. Customers at local bars don’t want to be challenged by something new. They want to travel down the same well-worn rock grooves they’ve been sliding down since they were old enough to notice their parent’s radio in the background belting out Madonna and Van Halen. There seems to be an inverse relationship between musical taste and amount of alcohol consumed. Odds are, if you hear a roomfull of dudes singing along to “Party In The U.S.A,” you can safely bet they’re all piss drunk. Something about lowered inhibitions and poor judgment. One can walk around on a busy State College night and hear drunks singing to all sorts of things. (Scenes like this one are all too common here.) Perhaps our town’s massive drinking problem is to blame for the lack of demand for original music here. Though I imagine if you play it, they will come. If they’ll sing along to Miley Cyrus, surely they’ll sing to Cloud Nothings once they’re drunk enough.

Perhaps the biggest reason has to do with the bands themselves, and the nature of being a band in a college town with an ever-changing population. It’s hard enough to keep a good band together in a city. To do it in a college town, where no one stays for more than a few years, is difficult at best. Band members graduate, get better jobs in other cities, or get married and move to the suburbs. Students form a band in college for a few years until someone finishes his or her degree and moves on. Since it often takes a few months (at the very least) for a new band to get used to playing together enough to be ready to play a show, the window for viable local, original bands is small.

Back at Zeno’s, Spider Kelly is playing some song about a short skirt and a long jacket. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh to cover bands; after all, it still takes talent to play music, and they’re getting paid for playing songs they enjoy for people they may or may not know. $400 a night for songs about skirts and jackets doesn’t sound too bad to me.

It’s like this all over town. The bars either hire cover bands, or have DJs spin the “hits.” Often this means whatever’s popular on the radio, or “in Da Club”…music meant to grind to. Few of the town’s cover bands are even near Spider Kelly. The worst of them are pure tragedy, like a living maniacal awful fleshy jukebox spitting out awful songs and playing random songs you enjoy so badly you start to question yourself for liking them in the first place.

I happen to know some people in cover bands, and many of them are pretty great people. Some of them aspire to have their own original bands some day, and see being in a cover band as a route to that eventual goal. Others just see being in a cover band as a great way to make extra money, live out their dreams of being in one of the bands whose music they play, and maybe score a sweet gal or twenty. I get it, and I understand why someone would do it. It’s just that I  have greater respect for bands forging their own paths, even if they stumble on the way to something wholly their own.

In this here column, I’ll be bringing you interviews with, and music from, some bands located right here in State College. Bands who could be playing places like Zenos on a Saturday night, but instead end up playing in their rooms, or in garages. Maybe once some of these guys get “bombed” into the larger musical world by this little column, we can make that sweet dream an awesomesauce reality. Till then, we’re stuck with stuff like this:

Awfulsauce, friends. Pure awfulsauce. Wouldn’t you rather see THIS at your local watering hole?

I know I would. So let’s make it happen. I’ll try to bring you some interviews and features with local folks soon (in between stuff like a review of the fantastic new Cloud Nothings album Attack On Memory), look at some of the venues where original bands ARE getting stagetime, and analyze what makes certain songs so great as opposed to others. Til then, support local original music in your community, and please refrain from excessive drinking combined with group singing. The results caterwaul for themselves.