Category Archives: Interviews: Artists & Bands (Freelance)

Interviews with Artists and Bands that I freelanced (No affiliation with promotion – just folks that interest me regardless of where they appear)

Joan Of Nightingale: Burton Brings It All

By Brian M. Howle

Singer/Songwriter Joan Burton brings a great voice and tons of talent to the show.

The late, South Carolina-born Godfather of Soul, James Brown, cemented his legendary career on the wings of a couple of seminal tunes.  Most are likely to think of the hit, “I Feel Good” – as well they should for its get-me-out-this-funk groove and happy happy, joy joy vibe. But for pure emotion, raw inner-exposure, confession and just a damn fine song, there is no finer example of lyrics that evoke and expose the soul than “It’s a Man’s World.”

Because after all, when some see a female solo performer, you hear a lot of this: “That little gal singin’ up on that stage, why, she’s right cute, now, ain’t she?  Pretty little ol’ thing … sings nice enough, but now, she can’t play that ol’ geetar, or rock out, like a man.”

However, if you bring the discussion of women who actually succeed in music into the equation, then New Jersey’s  Joan Burton would quietly yet effectively challenge that concept.  Actually, “challenge” is the incorrect word … it’s more like, eviscerate that concept.

She’s the male singer/musician counterpart who dispels the chauvinist myths, the vulgar assumptions and the almost always, universally incorrect labels that inevitably accompany the lot.

Burton is stand-alone capable on guitar; commanding and smooth on keyboards, and second to no one as a vocalist.  In short, a gal that same male singer/musician knows is not just his equivalent, but just as easily his superior.

Not that it would matter one stupid little bit to Burton, as she would simply laugh it off as unimportant.

Because this talented performer – and, oh-by-the-way, drop-dead gorgeous beauty with long, tasseled hair and deep blue -green eyes – possesses a vocal immersion that brings a progressively larger number of folks back to her venues each week, with measured, pragmatic certainty.

From the classic, timeless Etta James’ standard “At Last,” to Jefferson Airplane’s trip-launching “White Rabbit,” to Cream’s introspective “Sunshine of Your Love,” to Heart’s autobiographical “Crazy On You,” there’s no trying to pigeonhole Joan into one genre or style of music.  She wants it all, and the best part is, she has it all.

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The Nicest ‘Nasty Man’ You’ll Ever Hear: Musician/Vocalist Rickey Godfrey

Nasty Man CD Cover
Rickey Godfrey’s new CD, “Nasty Man.”

By Brian M. Howle

There needs to be an admission on my part right up front – I’m a very fortunate man in so many ways, and I honestly do try to keep them in perspective.   With the love of music as my guiding light, it has offered more rewards than I ever dreamed possible – but not just in personal satisfaction or achievements.  Because, you see, I’m not the smartest guy in the world – but I am smart enough to know how many incredibly talented folks there are in this field, all of whom are light years ahead of me in terms of ability.   But it’s the ones who have taken what most of us consider the drawbacks, the bad hands and the tough breaks of life – and never flinched in going forward and living life to its fullest – who are my true heroes.

And so, my own humbling received a fresh coat this week when I had the great privilege of interviewing blues/jazz/rock musician and vocalist extraordinaire, Rickey Godfrey, via the telephone as he prepared for a gig in Greenville, S.C.

By the way, Rickey can play guitar, piano, synth keyboards, and about anything he puts his mind to, as well as writing, arranging, producing, editing, recording – all with a laugh and a smile … well, you get the picture.  Oh yeah, and not that it matters – but he’s also blind.

Howle: Hey, Rickey – where are you right now, and how’s everything going?
Godfrey: Well, I’m in the Greenville area, visiting my mom and family before I go out and play tonight.   This is where I was born, and I have a big fan base here, so it works out great that I’m able to come back and play a lot around here.

Howle: So where do you base from now, and how many days a year are you on the road?
Godfrey: Well, I live in Nashville now.   But quite often what I’ll do is leave on Wednesday evening or Thursday and come to the Carolinas to work.   I’ve been doing a lot of that here lately; for the last two years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of solo gigs around Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson in the upper Carolinas – sometimes Charlotte, and occasionally Columbia – and every now and then in the Myrtle Beach area, particularly North Myrtle Beach and Wilmington.   That’s been my main playing area for the last couple of years, but hopefully that’s getting ready to change.

Howle: Hmmm … well, that pretty much begs the question:  What are you hoping to change?
Godfrey: Well, I’d like to get into a situation where I can get another band together and start playing the midwest area, generally no more than 4 or 5 hours out of Nashville.   And that’s great because Nashville is centrally located; there’s a lot of large cities around Nashville. For instance, Chicago’s only 7-1/2 hours from there; Louisville, Birmingham, Memphis and Knoxville are only 3 hours out; Atlanta’s 4-1/2 hours out; Cincinatti’s 5 hours out; and St. Louis is like, 6 hours out.   So in terms of working a really big area without having to cover more than 5 to 6 hours, Nashville’s in a pretty good location.

Howle: (Laughing) Well, if it’s good enough for FedEx, I’m sure it’s good enough for you!
Godfrey: Well, I imagine (laughs) .. yeah!

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Guitar Superstar: An Interview with Steve Senes, Guitar Player Magazine’s Guitar Player of 2009

Steve Senes

By Brian M. Howle

As we discovered in the last issue, Murrells Inlet’s resident guitar laureate Steve Senes bested nine other of the best guitarists on the planet to take the prestigious Guitar Player Magazine’s “Guitar Superstar: Guitar Player of 2009” title in San Francisco, CA, on Sept. 12, 2009.

Hot off the big win, Steve flew back home and began sorting through the hectic and fruitful week, and began making plans for taking his good fortune to the next level – which, as any guitarist worth his chops will tell you, is to be signed by a major recording label. But before that happens, this very accessible and extremely down-to-earth young man took the time to grant me an interview.

Howle: So, tell me … how did this long, winding musical road begin for Steve Senes?
Senes: Well, it’s because I have the coolest parents in the whole world … they took my sister and me to see KISS in concert back in ‘77 … and that was my very first concert … and that was it, man! I fell in love with the band and music in general, and rock and roll in particular. My folks bought me a little acoustic and I just beat the hell out of it the first day, you know? (Laughs)
So then when I was 9 or 10, I started taking guitar lessons from a guy, but didn’t really stick with it at the time. But when I was about 15, my friend and I were walking thru our neighborhood – him with a bass, me with my acoustic, like we’re badasses, you know? And this guy sees us walking by and says, “Hey, come over here and let me show you how to play that thing!” Turned out he had a Fender amp and Stratocaster … he taught me a bar chord, and then a major scale, and I was off and running. I got my first electric guitar and amp not long after that, and it’s all been downhill from there! (Both laugh) Everyone gets exposed to music in a different way, but I think it was this guy showing me how to play rock & roll.
One of the first songs he taught me was The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, and that turned out to be sorta prophetically cool because one of the guys from The Cars was one of the judges in the Guitar Superstar contest. So there I am, vying for this title, in front of a guy who recorded the first rock song I ever learned.

Howle: So what was the biggest influence on you, as far as the genre of music that really got your juices flowing?
Senes: When I was about 15, one of my friends turned me on to Alcatrazz’ Live Sentence , which featured Yngwie Malmsteen on guitar while we were setting up to play at a party. (For you neophytes: In 2007, Malmsteen was honored in the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II. Players can receive the “Yngwie Malmsteen” award by hitting 1000 or more notes in succession). I listened to that and thought, “Man, how the hell do you get a guitar to sound like that?”, and I focused from that point on, on teaching myself how to play in that vein. I played until my fingers were blue, and I realized, “Hey, I can play like that”, and from then on, I forgot about football and baseball and all that stuff I had been into before, and that was it, man! And I was a pretty good baseball player, you know? (Both laugh again)

Howle: Oh, and don’t I know that feeling well, as do a few other million guitarists. So when this fellow was teaching you guitar, did you learn to play be ear, or did you learn to read music?
Senes: Man, sometimes I don’t really know how the hell I learned or what I’m doing. I learned to play a lot of stuff by ear, like Twisted Sister, Iron Maiden or Mötley Crüe, because it’s really not all that complicated. But in order to grow as a musician, I knew I needed to learn the proper way. So when I graduated high school, I went to college and took music courses, and realized a lot of the things I had learned – in how to play – was basically wrong. So then I spent the next ten years or so unlearning that and reeducating myself the right way. But then I realized that pretty much took the rock ‘n roll out of it, and my way of playing and “feeling” it, you know .. so then I spent that time unlearning what I had learned in college, to get back to the way I really needed to play.

Howle: (Laughing) So that was a construction/deconstruction/reconstruction event?
Senes: Yeah, that’s pretty much the way it worked out!

Howle: I’ve seen you play several different types of guitar at your gigs here around the beach. What type of guitar do you prefer now?
Senes: The main ones I play now are made by ESP; the model is a Les Paul knockoff called the LTD EC-1000.

Howle: I first saw you playing a white Carvin, right?
Senes: Yeah, that was actually the electric that I learned on. But about a year or so ago, I found the ESP, and it really changed the way I play guitar. I have two of the them, and the sounds that come out of them when I play are amazing … I mean, there are harmonics and stuff that, in turn, bring out something else in my playing style that the other guitars just don’t evoke. It’s just a great sound that works for me in a very special way.

Steve had to stop for a few minutes to take a call from his buddy at ESP guitars (who flew up to San Francisco for the contest)…

Senes: Hey, that was my friend from ESP … just called to tell me he’s been having fun telling everyone that the guy who won the contest did it on a relatively inexpensive ESP … so now I’m in their official press kit!

Howle: Way cool! Sort of the whole idea of the fringe benefits of winning something like this, huh?
Senes: Actually, remember the guy I told you about, who saw my friend and I walking and taught me how to play? He works for PRS now (Paul Reed Smith guitars) as Quality Assurance Director.

Howle: Small world, huh?
Senes: Really! Anyway, what I was telling you about the ESP … when I was recording my CD, I would pick up any guitar and just do the same thing, you know, just shredding, running scales and stuff. But when I picked up the ESP for the first time, I started playing actual melody lines, you know? All kinds of new, different things started coming out, and I’m telling you, this guitar made it possible for me to make this CD.

Howle: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you have something set in your head, or do you just go in different directions and see what happens, or what?
Senes: It just depends on the material. I had one song on this CD , where I had this riff in my head for probably 7 or 8 years, but I never really sat down and worked the whole thing out. And then, like in “The Swami” there’s that intro loop; I just started that and liked it and then worked everything else around it. I remembered Steve Vai talking about how loops can be an inspiration for creativity. So when I got my gear that came with a bunch of different loops in it, I heard that one loop and started writing a solo over it.
Then I came back about a week later and started the middle break, and then the whole thing sorta wrote itself. And on another song, there was a drum loop that I sorta liked, and I got an idea for a bass line so I picked up the bass and started playing and did the whole bass line all the way through. And in two hours the whole song was completed and recorded. And them sometimes I’ll work on something for weeks and still never develop anything. It’s really weird … I wish I could come up with a reliable method for writing a song! But I guess it all works for the best …

Howle: Well, in my interviews with everyone from Lindsey Buckingham to Johnny Winter to Chubby Checker, the one thing that remains constant in all is that the best thing to do is stay true to yourself, and the way you are comfortable doing things … like they say, stick with who brung ya to the dance, you know?
Senes: And sometimes I’ll have a bass line, like one I had was an industrial sounding thing, and then I started fooling around with tempo changes and the next thing I knew, it had a funk groove to it. Like I said, I wish I could isolate whatever it is that makes it happen!

Howle: And then you could rule the world!
Senes: Exactly!

Howle: So how did you come about entering this contest, sponsored by Guitar Player Magazine?
Senes: Well, I read about it last year, and I thought about it, but I didn’t have anything prepared to submit for the entry process. And then this year I saw it again, and though, “Hey, what the hell,” and figured maybe someone at GPM would enjoy hearing something I played or something, never imagining I would be selected for the finals or anything. And one night at band practice (Steve is a member of Superswamp Heroes), I just mentioned in passing to the guys that I had entered this contest, and there was a date when they were having the finals and I said, “Hey, let’s leave this date open in the unlikely event I happen to get in or something”. And I had to set up an online account to submit the songs (a way to prevent a zillion wannabes who just picked up a guitar from cluttering the field with garbage) that required a fee, and they said finalists would be notified by Aug. 1.
Well, about Aug. 2 or so, I was getting a little tight on cash and was going to cancel that account to save the money. Now, when you click on the part to cancel, it prompts a box that says “Do you really want to cancel this account?” And I thought, “What the hell, it’s only 6 bucks and that’s not going to make or break me, so I’ll leave it there for a few more days.”
And not five minutes later, I got an email telling me that I had been selected for the finals.

Howle: Wow … that close to making a huge mistake, huh?
Senes: Yeah, and I can’t imagine how much I would have kicked myself for canceling and never knowing what would eventually come to pass.

Howle: How many people entered the contest? And how did GPM go about selecting the finalists?
Senes: One of their guys told me they got about 2,000 entries in all. And then the staff divided up the entries among them, and each one weeded out their choices and then they ended up with the Top 10 finalists .. and thank God, I was one of them.

Howle: Hey, when I’m out listening to musicians and I hear someone like you … I know you’re destined for bigger and better things. And it may sound a little odd, but I have to tell you, I’m really not surprised that you were selected – I’m happy for you and all, but I never doubted for a moment that you had that ability.
Senes: (In Steve’s typical, humble manner) Oh … well, you’re too kind .. thanks, man!

Howle: But, back to the details … what was the actual final, live competition like? How did that go down, and what was the time between when you played and when you learned the results?
Senes: Well, I flew out there a day early, to get acclimated to the time change and all and to be rested, so I got there on Thursday. And then I spent Friday practicing over and over, and then we went out Friday night and just hung out with all the other guitarists in the contest. And they were all just the coolest, nicest folks … I mean, really, nobody in the contest had an ego and it was just really cool.
So on Saturday, we all took the shuttle to the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center in Livermore, California (east of San Francisco) around noon for a soundcheck with the backing band. The contest is the centerpiece of Guitar Player LIVE!, a 3-day celebration of guitars, music, and gear.
We each had about half and hour to get our settings and stuff on our amps and dialing in our sound, you know, and I got the first half of the song, and then the second half, and then my time was done and I was just raw nerves by then. I mean, Ihear all the other guys doing their stuff and I’m wondering, “Man, what in the hell am I even doing here?”
Well, I was scheduled to go on last (out of 10), and I was up in the Green Room, and I had decided not to listen to anyone so as not to psyche myself out or anything, and then someone goes and turns on the TV up there and I was like, “Oh, great”. So I just put my headphones on and started practicing, and it seemed like every time I took them off, they were critiquing a contestant’s performance, and they would be ripping them apart (sorta like the American Idol format of judges), and that added to the nerves, but it was sorta like a Guitar Summer Camp. I mean, whenever they would rip someone, everyone else was like, “Hey, come on, man” … so there’s all the judges, and about 800 people at a sold-out theater, waiting for you to do your thing …
And then when I walked out on stage, all the nerves just went away. And the next thing I knew, five minutes had passed and I was playing like the best guitar I had ever played in my life!

Howle: Sounds like you were in the zone, huh?
Senes: Well, the crowd was so amazing … it was the first time in my life I felt a stage shake with the applause. Man, that’s better than any kind of buzz you can imagine!

Howle: Hey, I can relate to that … that symbiotic relationship with the crowd is what makes it so alluring. So with the backup band – did you have to provide charts to them, or what?
Senes: Well, they would take charts if you had them, but they said you could just submit MP3’s of your song and that’s what I did. One guy gave the band those, and then each member charted out their part. I can attest to how they did on the other guys’ stuff, but on mine, they were freakin’ unbelieveable.

Howle: I would think they would have to be, to take on 10 musician’s songs from a cold start and then play up to each one’s expectations.
Senes: Oh, easily, the best group of musicians I have ever had the good fortune to be on stage with. They were called “Thud Factor”, and man, they were just awesome.

Howle: Well, how long was it before you learned that you had won?
Senes: I was the last contestant to play, and I wandered outside to text message my dad, and when I came back it was just about ready … I’d say maybe 15 minutes from when I finished.

Howle: Oh … (Laughs) Oh, really? Hey, talk about your Karma justice … saving the best for last?
Senes: Actually, that’s what the guy from The Cars said – they saved the best for last!

Howle: I’ll say it again, Steve … I love ya, but honestly, I’m really not surprised that you won. You are really just that good, my friend.
Senes: Man, it’s disorienting to keep hearing that … all my friends say the same thing, and I’m wondering, “Man, am I the only one who’s surprised?” (Laughs)

Howle: And that’s what makes you so special, bud … So, what sort of things have been happening as a result of winning this puppy?
Senes: Man, it’s ongoing, but I’ve gotten some endorsements from Voodoo amps and Keeley effects … and I’ve been in touch with the guy that handles Gene Simmons … As far as goodies, let’s see … I got: • My choice of one of 3 Mesa/Boogie amps (I chose the Stiletto) • BC Rich Exotic Class Mockingbird in Spalted Maple • D’Addario Prize Package (dunno what’s in there) • My choice of a Seymour Duncan stompbox and pickup set • Voyage-Air Acoustic Guitar • Line 6 Spider IV 75 • Peterson StroboStomp 2 • N-Tune Tuners • Essential Sound Products – MusicCord PRO Power CordDean Markley Prize Package.

Howle: And when will this be in Guitar Player Magazine?
Senes: They print so far in advance, probably not until the first of the year, which is cool because that gives me more time to work on getting my CD mastered.

Howle: So what’s the long range goal now, bud?
Senes: Well, Superswamp Heroes is my main thing, you know .. what I’m really hoping for is to get a little money out of this, maybe get my name out there a little bit, and a recording deal would be nice … but really, whatever happens at this point is fine by me!

Howle: As it would be by all of us out here who are in your corner, Steve. Thanks for your time, and continued success in all of your endeavors.

And folks, that is what you get with this humble, grounded guitar wizard … an easy going attitude without the ego, and I just can’t say it enough … one of the nicest and most talented guys you will ever have the pleasure to meet.

So if you’re lucky enough to live in our little patch of Paradise, make a point to visit Steve’s website and then check out Superswamp Heroes (and his acoustic project, Pale Horse, which plays Wednesdays thru October at Bully’s in North Myrtle Beach). For further updates visit his MySpace site at and his website at
This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 8, 2009 at


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Mississippi Bluesman Johnny Rawls To Play Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival August 29

johnny rawls
By Brian M. Howle

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, arranger, producer and (whew!) bluesman extraordinaire Johnny Rawls will be performing as part of the roster of stars at this year’s Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival in Charleston, SC, running Thursday-Sunday, August 27-30, 2009. Rawls will perform at 4pm on Saturday, August 29 at The Citadel Alumni House, 69 Hagood Street, Charleston, SC.

As a teen in high school, his band instructor hired him to play in his band. Rawls backed singers like Joe Tex, Z.Z. Hill,Little Johnny Taylor, and the Sweet Inspirations. Determined to form his own blues/soul ensemble, he began backing up touring musicians.

In the mid-70’s, Johnny went to work for OV Wright as Wright’s band director. opening for the likes of B.B. King, Little Milton, Campbell and Bobby Bland. After Wright’s death in 1980, Johnny led Little Johnny Taylor’s band until 1985, when he began touring as a solo artist and made his first solo recording under the Rainbow label.

In total, he has performed on, written songs for, or produced over 40 albums.

Originally recording under Touch Records, Rooster Blues, Rock House, Reach and JSP Records, Johnny Rawls has done it all from producing, songwriting, horn arranging, rhythm, lead and bass guitar, keyboard, vocals and background vocals. Johnny started his own record company, Deep South Soul, in 2002 and has released his CD’s Lucky Man, Live in Montana, and The Best of Johnny Rawls. Heart and Soul was released in October 2006. His collaboration with fellow legend Roy Roberts, Partners & Friends, debuted in 2004 under Rock House. No Boundaries was released under the TopCat, Catfood and Deep South Soul labels in 2005.

His latest release is Red Cadillac (2008), and his music is available for purchase at

I caught up with the Mississippi-born artist as he awaited a flight out of Texas, and his wonderfully rich, Mississippi drawl put me at immediate ease. (It’s a Southern thing; some of you will understand, some of you won’t):

Howle: First off, thank for taking the time to speak to me about your upcoming show at the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival, Johnny.
Rawls: Oh, well it’s my pleasure and I’m happy to talk to you.

Howle: So tell me … how did you become interested in music; what’s the story behind the musician?
Rawls: Well, you know, I grew up here in Mississippi, and there’s always music going on around here, always has been from as long as I can remember. In church, in school, in the community, and of course, at home.

Howle: And what was the first instrument you learned to play?
Rawls: Actually, I began playing clarinet and saxophone when I was seven or eight years old.

Howle: So how did the guitar come into the picture?
Rawls: Well, when I was about 12 years old, my grandfather – who was blind – just pulled out this guitar one Christmas morning and started playing. I didn’t even know he had one, much less played one – that set the tone for me from then on.

Howle: Was he a blues player, or just guitar in general?
Rawls: He would play a regular guitar style, but was a well-known blues player around Hattiesburg, too. But it got my attention.

Howle: And it didn’t just stop at guitar, huh?
Rawls: Oh no, I learned rhythm, lead, and bass guitar, keyboards, vocals and background vocals, and later on songwriting, horn arrangements and producing. I started up my own recording label, Deep South Soul, in 2002.

Howle: And what is your songwriting process like? Do you go into it with a fully-envisioned song, or do you ask bassist and keyboardists …
Rawls: Oh, no, I have it all in my head, exactly what I want and the way I want it done. It’s the easiest way for me to try and do it, there’s really no other way for me to achieve what I’m after unless I see it all the way through.

Howle: I know you do your own charts for the horn sections. Do you prefer the big blues band with a horn section, or a more basic 3- or 4-piece band?
Rawls: Well, that all depends on the show, and the crowd. If it’s a big stage setup and a huge festival, oh yeah, I want that horn section burnin’ up there with the band. But if it’s a small club, tight, intimate … I just want that stripped-down 3- or 4-piece band, because it’s more personal.

Howle: And this isn’t your first time in South Carolina, is it?
Rawls: (Laughs) Oh, no, I’ve been there for the Blues Bash (in Charleston in February) several times, and for Harriet at the Beach Music  Shag Festival, and over in Camden … I’ve played South Carolina many, many times, and I always enjoy my time there. It’s a good place to be!

Howle: And we can attest to that, Johnny! So, over the course of your career, what’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the blues scene?
Rawls: Well, you’re a musician so you know, too; when we started out, the blues’ audience was mostly black – as well as the artists themselves. But over the years, white folks have really taken to the genre, and anymore it’s mostly white crowds at the shows we play. And the influx of young people, who have found this style of music and embraced it so much, has been one of the greatest joys to behold – and they are predominantly white, but now there’s a mix of other ethnicities in there, too. So now, the lineage is still true and always will be – the black man may have started the blues, but now the blues belong to everyone. And we’re all the better for it, and there’s just no denying that.

Howle: I couldn’t have said it better, Johnny. I’ll let you go so you can catch that flight; thank you again, and we look forward to seeing you in Charleston on August 29.
Rawls: And I thank you, Brian. And I’m looking forward to being there again!

I do love my job, especially when it allows me to spend some one-on-one time with a truly special someone who is not only a great talent, but a great person. And let me tell you … Johnny Rawls is one of those people.

So if you love the blues and beach music (and how can you not?), make plans on August 27-30 to head on down to the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival. On Thursday, Aug. 27, DJ Pat Patterson and his puppets greet you at J.B. Pivots at 7pm; On <Friday, Aug. 28, Angel Rissoff and Rhonda McDaniel open, followed by The Rick Strickland Band at J.B. Pivots.

On Saturday, Aug. 29 there will be a Shag Workshop at noon at The Citadel Alumni House, 69 Hagood Street, Charleston, SC, followed by Fabulous Shades at 1pm, Angel Rissoff/Rhonda McDaniel at 2:30pm, Johnny Rawls at 4pm, and Melody Makers at 6:30pm (then take a break at head back to Pivots at 9pm); and on Sunday, August 30 there is a Shag Workshop at noon, followed by The Catalinas at 1pm, East Coast Party Band at 2:30pm, The Swingin’ Medallions at 4pm, and it all wraps up with The Tams at 5:30pm.

Call 843-571-3668 or Toll Free 1-866-571-9362 for information or tickets, or visit the website
This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine at under “Nightlife & Entertainment”, August 13, 2009.


Interview: Cherry Picker – Black Stone Cherry’s Ben Wells

Ben Wells Large

By Brian M. Howle

In the realm of new bands that make a wide spectrum of fans sit up and take notice, the rise of Edmonton, Kentucky’s favorites sons – Black Stone Cherry – has been nothing short of spectacularly blue-collar, journeymen-like amazing.

Since they signed with RoadRunner Records in 2006, this group of talented young men has been fulfilling their musical equivalent of Rocky Balboa’s unrelenting training schedule in preparation for their shot at the title. They’ve recorded two extremely well written, performed and produced albums (their 2006 debut, Black Stone Cherry, and the most recent release, 2008’s Folklore and Superstition); embarked on a world-wide touring regime that has sharpened their musical chops and induced invaluable maturity in the process, and have culled a fervently loyal and dedicated following of fans that spans genres and generations.

The product of good ol’ fashioned, hands-on parenting and the beneficiaries of having family members who have already endured the rigors of musical success and touring, Black Stone Cherry are the exemplary incarnation of how a young band can do this music thing the right way.

With the signature vocals of lead singer/guitarist Chris Robertson, guitarist Ben Wells, drummer John Fred Young, and bassist Jon Lawhorn, they have done a masterful job of carving out a distinctive, unique sound in a cluttered field of cookie-cutter clones. Sounding far older than their glorious youthfulness, they’ve doubled the feat by writing – in a collective, give-and-take manner, as a band – extremely good songs that connect with all ages of people in the magical way that all artists ardently strive to learn and pray to achieve.

Actually, the secret to their success – which happens when anyone really listens to their songs – boils down to an incredibly simple formula, to borrow on an old campaign slogan from a few years back:

It’s about life, stupid.

The all-about-me eclectics can write about ethereal dreamworlds all they want, but when others hear real lyrics of the trials and tribulations of life that we have all experienced, regardless of social, economic or ethic background; things that snare our attention with a personal connection – it’s game over, man.

I had the good fortune to catch up with the band last March, while they were in Columbia, as they were opening on a bill with Shinedown. I climbed onboard their tour bus with guitarist Ben Wells for my second interview with the quiet, easy-going axe man and set about to find out what’s new with the band. We headed to the big, back room for some quiet time to chat.

Howle: Well, first of all, it’s great to see you again! I know you’re busy getting ready for the show, so thanks for the time.
Wells: Oh, hey, it’s my pleasure, and it’s great to see you again, too. (Laughing) We saw you walking up and we all said, “Look, it’s Gregg Allman from Myrtle Beach!” (Inside joke from when we first met while I was taking pictures of them onstage at House Of Blues; Ben thought Gregg was there taking pictures of them when he saw me, because all he could see was an older guy with long, blonde hair and a beard, leaning on the edge of the stage behind a camera.)

Howle: Yeah, yeah, that’s because you’re all too damn young to know any better! So, tell me, buddy – how’s the current tour going?
Wells: It’s going great, man, going great. We’re out here with Shinedown; we’ve known those guys for years and we’ve been touring with them for awhile now, and it’s been a blast!

Howle: I know you’ve been doing some extensive overseas touring. How’s the response over there been, and what’s the main difference between European and American audiences?
Wells: It’s hard to say, ‘cause it varies with every show; but over in England and all over the United Kingdom, everyone there has really, really picked up on the band. We’ve played rooms over there that are like, 3,000 to 5,000+ seats, and we’re selling them out every night on our own – and that’s pretty amazing. That’s the biggest difference between there and here right now. But everywhere we go, it’s been great .. the fans universally are just badass, and it’s really nice.

Howle: Oh, it always aggravates me about how American audiences take so long to accept new bands, whereas Europeans are always just so incredibly open to new music and talent. So many bands before you have found success overseas before the homefolks got a clue, you know?
Wells: Yeah, back here, folks tend to be a lot more fickle about that, but the fans in Europe are into what’s a lot more real, you know?

Howle: Yeah, we have that “Shiny, sparkly idol worship” thing going on more than they do. So, how long did you guys work on the current album, and what’s your songwriting process like now?
Wells: Well, we always write together. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be – the four of us get together in a room and start playing; hashing out different ideas, different melodies and lyrics and stuff. We tear it apart and then put it back together, pretty much. For this album, we started pre-production in February (2008) back home in Kentucky, getting all the songs arranged and ready, and then started recording in March – pretty much the month of March and a little bit in April. It only took a little bit over a month to record everything and get it all done.

Howle: And very nicely done at that. So, you have any new “toys” since I last saw you? Pick up any new guitars and stuff lately?
Wells: Oh, Chris and I got a couple of new amp heads from Peavey, the 6550, that are really nice. And I guess since the last time I saw you, I got a new guitar called the Midas that’s made in Japan, a beautiful guitar; and I got a new Gretsch. We still play the Les Pauls and Telecasters, you know. Whatever sounds good, that’s what we’re gonna play.

Howle: Ah, I was gonna ask about that Gretsch .. it’s the one you play on the “Please Come In” and “Things My Father Said” videos, right?
Wells: Right.

Howle: Yeah, those have such a nice, warm, live tone to them … I bet you’ve enjoyed playing that one. So, what was the video shoot like? And how many videos have you guys done now?
Wells: Well, let’s see … “Please Come In” was the fourth one. We shot part of it live in New Jersey when we were on the road; we shot it in the studio with the “Green Screen” for the trippy effects behind and stuff they put in. It was a lot of fun to shoot that one, we had a great crew. A lot of times they can be really tiring to shoot, but this was not one of those, it really flew by .. and the director was great, too! (They just released the video of “Things My Father Said” – in which the band’s performance scene was shot inside the legendary practice house in Edmonton, where they honed their skills starting out – and fans were asked to submit photos of themselves holding pictures of their dads for use in the video.)

Howle: Very interesting … I’ve watched some internet clips from your website with you and Chris giving tutorials to guitarists on how to play certain riffs from your songs – like “Blind Man”. That’s really great for showing young kids who are trying to learn guitar, you know? Are you going to be doing more of that?
Wells: Man, I hope so, it’s neat to be able to show young guitarists how to play stuff, you know? It would be neat to put out a DVD like that one day, you know, in a way that’s not over their heads. But we really like to keep in touch with our fans, by any means we can .. the Internet is a great tool for that.

Howle: How much time do you guys get to put into stuff like your MySpace site?
Wells: Oh, we’re on our MySpace site all the time. That means a lot to us because it’s how we’ve met a lot of our fans, both here and overseas. It’s such a great way to keep in touch with the fans, to do self-promotion, whether we’re overseas touring or here … we’re adding new friends there and on FaceBook all the time, checking emails .. so we’re very active on the Internet, yeah.

Howle: Well, that’s so great to hear, ‘cause like I told you last time (both laugh) … We’ve been watching you guys from the git-go, and keeping up with your progress, and I really hope this album is the one that will break you guys out …

Wells: Oh, well, thank you, thank you so much!

Howle: And what’s that support mechanism like that you guys have back home (in Edmonton, KY), and with your record label, while you’re going up this ladder striving to grab ‘hold of that big brass ring of rock superstardom?
Wells: Oh, it’s been an uphill climb all the way. But our families are very, very supportive of us; they’ve been behind us 100% all the way, and the label’s been great. We’ve matured as people as well as musicians, and we haven’t become jaded by the road or anything. We’re still very, very hungry; we’re still trying to top ourselves, and we’re still going for it, you know?

Howle: Well, for an older fan like me, it’s so reminiscent of the way songwriting and music should be – great melodies, great hooks, and great lyrics.
Wells: Oh, wow … well, again, thank you, man.

Howle: I’m just a fan, but I know others share my appreciation for your music, and perhaps as important, for the way you treat people while you pursue your dream in a somewhat narcissistic profession.
Wells: We just want people to dig the band, you know … we’re just four guys who write and play music from the soul; we love our fans and we hope they know we’re four guys who just got lucky, and we love to go out every night and meet them and thank them for supporting us.

Howle: Well, two years ago I asked you what were the best and worst things about being on the road – and you said the best was meeting and being with all the new bands you play alongside and getting to meet and hang out with your fans; and the worst was being away from mama’s cooking (both laugh)… What’s the answer to those same questions now?
Wells: Oh, it’s just great to be out here and meet new people, it’s just the greatest thing on earth. Any, yeah, you get homesick every now and then, sure; but the families are there for us all the time, and it makes it a little bit easier.

Howle: Well said, Ben. Alright then, I’m going to let you get back to getting ready for the show tonight … we’re looking forward to seeing you again, whenever you’re in our area, as always. Just remember us when you’re headlining the big tour!
Wells: (Laughs) Alright, Brian, you’ve got a deal. And thank you again for being so supportive of us and sharing the word with your readers. Thanks again for everything!

Hey, Ben – thank you, my friend … and for all of you out there, I still say the biggest favor you can ever do yourself and your closest friends is to beat feet to the front row whenever these very talented and personable guys roll anywhere near your town.

And allow me to add this one personal note: When I finished the interview with Ben, we made our way back to the front of the bus, where Chris, John Fred and Jon were hanging out with some friends. I stopped to tell them that, two years ago after I met them, I had asked their PR gal to please make sure to tell their moms and dads that they did a great job of raising them.

In their usual, humble manner, they thanked me in gracious unison, and then John Fred added, “Well, hey, in my case, you can tell him yourself!” as he pointed to the gentleman seated beside me. It was John Fred’s dad, Richard Young, former guitarist for the Kentucky Headhunters and now, official Black Stone Cherry bus driver and band consigliere. I earnestly shook his hand and repeated my assessment. “Oh, let me tell you, this is a twofer, then – because I got to enjoy seeing you on stage back in the day, too!”

Well, I can tell you from my own experience: In Richard’s eyes, my little observation about their collective upbringing brought out a pride that a dad can’t feign. And I know the other guys’ parents feel the exact same way.

But, hey – the cherry never falls far from the tree.


Chubby Checker: A Small Town Twist Of Fate

Chubby Checker
By Brian M. Howle

Odds are, a music artist and a lowly music writer – who both hail from a big city – is not that uncommon an occurrence. The odds of having one of the seminal music and pop culture icons and an entertainment editor from the same small town have to be astronomical.

I should have bought a lottery ticket last weekend. Because against all odds, I had the good fortune to interview the legendary Chubby Checker, who completely changed the music and pop culture scene in 1960 when he appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and introduced “The Twist” to the world. Both a song and a dance, “The Twist” solidly engraved his name in rock ‘n’ roll – and American – history.

Oh … and did I mention, he grew up in my hometown?

Born Ernest Evans in 1941 in Philadelphia, PA, the family moved to the little community of Spring Gully on the outskirts of Andrews, S.C., Chubby Checker turned two minutes and forty-two seconds of recording history into a lifetime of achievements. The amiable superstar granted me an interview last weekend, and I caught him tooling down Highway 101 on the California coast. With technology bridging the 3,000 miles of continent between us, he pulled over to a scenic overlook and reflected on his life, and his upcoming appearance at The Palace Theatre in the Broadway musical, “Grease!”.

Howle: Well, I guess I should tell you – you and I have something in common – I’m from Andrews.
Checker: Oh, you’re from Krypton, huh? (Both laugh)

Howle: Yes sir, it’s true.
Checker: Well, there aren’t many of us around, you know!

Howle: So how long has it been since you’ve been back home?
Checker: Well, if you remember, up until three years ago, I came back to Andrews every May for 18 years to raise money for the local kids. We helped them obtain books and school supplies, things they would need for schoolwork. And now I’m coming to Myrtle Beach to do “Grease!”.

Howle: So, how did your role In “Grease!” come about?
Checker: I started doing “Grease!” in 1996, when it first went on Broadway. Then they called me about three years later and I did it again, and then they called me about a year later – the intervals are starting to get closer together. (Laughs) They call me because I know the show, and if I’m not doing anything, I’ll do it – because it’s fun to do!

Howle: That’s great. How often does the tour come this way?
Checker: Well, I’ve never done the tour before, just Broadway. But I’ll be in Birmingham, Alabama on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Myrtle Beach at The Palace.

Howle: Well, I just wanted to let you know that I’m not going to take up a lot of your time – but when they told me I had a chance to interview you…
Checker: Oh, it’s wonderful .. Hey, listen, there aren’t many of us, you know … South Carolinians are very special people. Most of them are very successful, and you constantly find them in places you’d least expect. Did you know that Chris Rock is also from Andrews?

Howle: Of course! His mom (Ruth Rock) is a friend of our social editor (Hilda M. Carter).
Checker: There are some incredible people in South Carolina. And, not only I’m I doing “Grease!” in South Carolina, but you know the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain? Chubby Checker’s Checker Bar; Chubby Checker’s “Outside The Bun” Hot Dogs – you’ll find them at all the Piggly Wiggly stores starting next week!

Howle: Well, our connection just gets stronger, because my father owned the Piggly Wiggly in Andrews for about 30 years!
Checker: What a blessing! I mean, my first big account is in my home state, where I was born. It’s just incredible. They will also be sold in Pennsylvania, in Giant Eagle stores. And there are some large drug store chains that are going to be carrying our products, and that will cover all 48 continuous states.

Howle: Hey, that’s quite an achievement for a hometown boy!
Checker: Yeah, how about that?

Howle: Well, how has the industry changed over the course of your career? I mean, how does it stack up now as opposed to, say, forty years ago?
Checker: The industry, to me, is like these telephones that we’re using right now. How do you ask Alexander Graham Bell, “What do you think of the telephone these days?” What would he say? Alexander would say, “Well, it’s gotten better!” But before I happened along, we weren’t doing this. Now, how do I use that, in comparison to me? Well, Bell said to Mr. Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” And then we knew we had the telephone. Chubby Checker went on American Bandstand, and the whole world was watching – and in two minutes and forty-two seconds, we did “The Twist”. Freestyle dancing to rock ‘n’ roll; pop music, and now, hip hop. “The Twist” started it, and then came “The Pony”, and then came “The Fly”, which is “The Shake,” and then “The Hucklebuck” – and it changed the world forever. Whenever I see people doing what they do, all I see is what we did to the music industry, and it’s been going on 24/7 as a result of the opportunity that we got to do back then.

Howle: It’s interesting how everything seems to be cyclical; that it keeps reshaping and reinventing itself, but it basically goes back to the same format.
Checker: Like I say, there is no performer who has ever lived that can say, before they came along, rock ‘n’ roll did not have a dance. We gave rock ‘n’ roll its dance, and it evolved. In fact, right now, a whole new generation of music is named after one of our songs: “The Hip Hop” is “The Pony,” it’s my dance. “Throw your hands in the air, and wave them like you just don’t care” … that is “The Fly” … and if you’re doing “The Fly,” you’re doing “The Shake,” and then that very nasty thing that we did, that’s “The Hucklebuck”!

Howle: (Laughing) Hey, that’s right!
Checker: Hey, it all goes to the forefront of the dance culture. How does that go? – “I like it, it has a good beat, and I can dance to it.” I know the dances they do to the beat; we discovered the movements that make it all happen. So I feel very incredible about it all. And you have to understand, the only song that was #1 twice since God breathed breath into Adam, was “The Twist.” No one had done it before Chubby Checker, and no one has done it since. We had the first Platinum record. Many have achieved it since, but we were the first. We also had 9 double-sided hit songs, and no one has every done that. Also, in 1960 or 1961, there were 100 albums on the charts. In the top 12, Chubby Checker had 5 of them. All at one time!

Howle: Well I’m 50, and the first dance I ever did was at the National Guard Armory in Andrews, when I was 7, and it was “The Twist!”
Checker: Well, if you weren’t doing it, you weren’t doing anything. (Laughs) I mean, it was the biggest explosion in the music industry. Look around a convenience store or grocery store sometime, at all the products that have “twist” in the name. It didn’t happen before 1960 and Chubby Checker, and the business community realized they wanted to be a part of that success, so they started naming their products after it.

Howle: I have tell you, it’s always been sorta neat to be able to tell folks that Chubby Checker is from where I’m from …
Checker: Hey, you’re from where I’m from! (Laughs) Hey, you have no idea how much I appreciate the people of Andrews and Spring Gully, of Williamsburg, Georgetown and Horry counties. The most important part of my life, and the seed that went into what is me, was developed right there. By the time I left South Carolina, when I was eight years old, the good stuff was all there. If it weren’t for the values of South Carolina and the things my dad instilled in me, I wouldn’t be the man I am now. Why do you think I went back for 18 years? I wanted to give something back to the place that had given me so much. I’ve never really done charity for anything else, because it’s that important to me.

Howle: And we appreciate it. Is there any particular message you want to give to the folks here?
Checker: Please – come see me! (Laughs)

Heed Chubby’s plea, folks. Make plans to come see this enchanting icon in “Grease!” at the Palace Theatre on July 2, 3 and 4. For tickets and information, call (843) 448-0566, or visit their website, .
The previous article was originally published on July 1, 2004 in Alternatives NewsMagazine.


Interview – Point Blank: Tracii Guns Opens Up

LA Guns
LA Guns (L-R): Tracii Guns, Paul Black, Jeremy Guns and Chad Stewart.

By Brian M. Howle

The mean streets of Los Angeles have been the birthplace of quite a few bands over the years, but none have enjoyed the rock life more than LA Guns. Born in the ‘80s when metal met theatrical and Glam Rock was born, appropriately, in the warm dreams of West Coast life and LA nights. They ruled those nights with wild abandon, and some tasty riffs thrown in for good measure.

You may have thought your chance to ever experience LA Guns was long gone, but guess again! Because, dear hearts, I am happy to inform you that Retro Active presents LA Guns, featuring founding members Tracii Guns & Paul Black, with supporting/opening acts: 80 Proof & Shark Legs, at The Sound Garden (formerly Tim Clark’s Rock n’ Roadhouse), located at 2701 S. King’s Highway in Myrtle Beach, SC, on December 1, 2007.

Tickets are available at Retro Active or online at; in-store cash price is $10.00 each. Charges have a $2.00 service charge per ticket; online $12.00 each plus shipping (includes the service fee).

With a signature sound that is always high velocity and wide open, LA Guns (Tracii Guns-Guitar; Jeremy Guns-Bass; Paul Black-Vocals; and Chad Stewart-Drums) have cultivated a loyal and devoted following of metal maniacs who have a little something extra when it comes to recognizing what rock is supposed to sound like, whatever the genre might be.

Oh, and by the way – for the purist of fans out there, take note: LA Guns will be in Retro Active (same day, Dec 1) from 4:30-6:00pm signing autographs, taking pictures & hanging out. WAVE 104.1 will be broadcasting live from the store 4-6pm with the incomparable Scott Mann hosting the remote.

Retro Active is located in Broadway at the Beach, off of 29th Aveune North in Myrtle Beach. For more informatio, call 843-916-1218 or 843-902-2877.

I had a chance to speak with LA Guns guitarist Tracii Guns last week via telephone, and we covered a wide range of topics in preparation for their upcoming performance at The Sound Garden in Myrtle Beach on December 1. Here’s what the very outgoing and gregarious guitarist had to say:

Alternatives: So, my friend, what have you and the boys been up to recently?
Guns: Oh, man, we’ve been all over the place, literally. We’ve been touring for quite a while now … we just did a wicked summer tour that included Rocklahoma, which was very cool. We’ve just been really busy, and having a great time.

Alternatives: Well, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying it. So let’s go back a little bit and cover some early ground. How long did you play under the name “Faster Pussycat” before changing the name to LA Guns?
Guns: Well, Mick Cripps asked Paul to play in Faster Pussycat. LA Guns was formed after they met me in 1987.

Alternatives: And what’s it like, playing with Paul Black again?
Guns: (Laughs) Man, that’s like a double-edged sword, you know? I mean, he’s the greatest frontman, no bones about it. He really connects with the crowd, regardless of where we are – it’s just amazing to witness. Me? Man, I struggle with stuff like that, you know? I just want to play guitar! That works well for me, and for him, and for all of us.

Alternatives: Hey, that makes sense to me. Now, we’re fairly certain you guys will be doing material from “LA Guns” debut album and the follow-up, “Cocked & Loaded”. But will we hear songs from “Vicious Circle” and “Man in the Moon”?
Guns: Oh, yes, absolutely. We play about an hour and a half, so we tend to do at least one from each album. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed.
Alternatives: Is there any chance of a Brides of Destruction reformation (Traci’s collaboration with Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx), or has that project been put to rest?
Guns: Man, B.O.D. is something that is really dear to my heart. We started that whole thing out as a “let’s do this thing our way” deal, you know .. and then, well, labels got invovled with their usual crap and it just pulled us all apart. I would love to work with Nikki again, though.

Alternatives: Alright – well, what’s your relationship with other former Guns members? Would Phil Lewis (original lead singer) be in a new lineup, or is that completely out of the question now?
Guns: I’m sure glad you asked about that. (Laughs) You know, stories come from musicians themselves. And with Phil … I really like him; he’s The voice of LA Guns, I think we all recognize that – and I’d like to see him back with us. But he’s just insecure, you know, and he gets on the Internet and he just spews stuff. I’ve asked him to do it already, but I think he thinks I would just treat him like a hired gun. But I know the public would just love it if we could work something out.

You know, I’ve always said I wanted to be big, to really make it, at least once. After that, music is mood-altering. I love all music … I change and evolve. Not all do.

Alternatives: Wisely said. So, what are the biggest changes that have occurred during your life, with music? And any advice for the young musican out there just starting out?
Guns: Man, the music climate changes so much, it’s just dizzying. During the fourth LA Guns tour, in 1994 I think, we were playing theatres and small clubs that seated 1500, 2000 people. Man, we had just finished tours playing arenas for 70,000 … 70,000 sold-out seats! And we were asking ourselves, “Now what?” I mean, it was just something that really brought our morale down. But it gave us opportunities to explore metal and hard rock modes, and to continue to grow as musicians.

So to the young ones, I say: Experiences tell the tale. You will be forever learning. If you love what you’re doing, do it! There were so many bands who were just clones (of Metallica, Nirvana, etc.), and that just sucked. Be orginal. All of us in the original LA Guns, man, we were all over the place, musically. But that’s what molded our sound and gave us our sound. Be original!

Alternatives: Are there any major differences in your audiences, from West Coast to East Coast?
Guns: (Laughs) Yeah, well, the West Coast crowd exudes a party atmosphere, very laid-back. The East Coast tends to be a bit more cynical and inquisitive, but that’s upper East Coast. The further south you go, the heavier it gets; the timbre does. We recently played International Texas A&M, all college kids. We opened for Flock of Seagulls, and those kids knew all the lyrics and songs. We have a really strong Latino fan base that’s been there from the original LA Guns days, too. But the wildest was when we played this summer in Korea, for our biggest crowd of the year – 40,000 screaming Korean fans who loved us. (Laughs) Go figure, man!

Alternatives: Hey, do you remember the very first time you were ever in a recording studio, and how cool that first time was?
Guns: Oh man, my first recording was when I was 17. I had this Marshall amp, and through the headphones it sounded like frying bacon, you know? (Both laugh) Anyway, the guy who was producing it reached over and flipped on a noise gate, which I had never seen or heard before, and it was like a miracle! Silence – until you strum a chord or pick that lead. Cool! My first thought was, (Both of us say this at the same time) “Man, where can I get one of those things? I’ve got to have one of those!

Alternatives: Needless to say, I know exactly what you mean, Tracii! Anyway, what’s in your future, and is there anything you still want to do?
Guns: Man, I just want to keep learning and growing, both as a person and a musician, you know? I want to work with the next Lennon & McCartney. There are a lot of great high school kids out there who are really players, and I want to see that great mix of the old with the new.

Alternatives: And with that, we’ll end this aimless ramble between musicians (Both laugh). I really appreciate your time and gracious sharing, Tracii. We look forward to meeting you guys at Retro Active, and seeing you at the show at the Sound Garden on December 1 in Myrtle Beach.
Guns: And Brian, I thank you – I really enjoyed this interview. And we’ll be ready to rock when we get there, so come on down and say hello to us during the day, and then come out and join the fun at the show. We’ll see you then!

Folks, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview many, many musicians over the years, and it’s always a treat. But this guy is the real deal – he’s down-to-earth and unpretentious, and truly appreciates his fans and friends. So, come on out December 1 and meet LA Guns at Retro Active, and catch the show at The Sound Garden later that night!
The article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine November 22, 2007.


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