When you’re good, you’re good, especially if your name is Brian Cleary.
Cleary has been chopping his way through the Centre County scene with his G&L guitar for the past three or so years. His chops have led him to a lofty, local role: lead guitar for Pure Cane Sugar, the long-time State College band that has been rocking Zeno’s Pub every Saturday night, areas all around central Pennsylvania and various other places on the periphery for years.
“It was basically a text message that was like, ‘Hey, want to get together and jam?’ and I said, ‘yeah. Absolutely,’ and then we jammed a couple times,” Cleary said.
That text message happened last October or November, and the jams started soon thereafter, with the then imminent geographic departure of Jason Tutwiler, who masterfully worked the position prior to Cleary, and before long, Pure Cane Sugar announced Cleary was going to be on lead guitar. Since then, the gigs have begun.
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“It’s been going really great,” Cleary said. “We had our first gig last Saturday. It was really good to get the first one out of the way because I was able to shake off all those butterflies. But the crazy part about it was (bassist) Bob Hart had a gig out of town, so we had a backup bass player, Corey (Drake). So, the first gig didn’t have the crew we had been rehearsing with the past few weeks. It was great, man.”
That’s just his style, to be able to roll with whatever comes up. Cleary’s a cool character, and he’s made his bones with his friend Nate Cutshall as the two emerged on the scene a few years ago with The Tommy Roberts, a super tight duo that at one point was playing four or five nights a week here there and everywhere within driving distance of State College. Linking up with Pure Cane Sugar is a natural progression for him. He’s the obvious choice, and his team mentality is what makes it work.
“My favorite thing about this is the cohesiveness of Pure Cane Sugar and what they’re able to do as a unit, as a crew,” Cleary said. “I’ve always tried to be that kind of musician — selfless — where it’s not about the guitar solos and that part of it, it’s about making the entire band better.”
Even though cohesiveness may be his favorite thing about the band, being in the band strikes another deep cord, because there are two things Pure Cane Sugar can do well: be beautiful and rock a place to its knees. Cleary is down with the rock, what with his grit and the crystal clear tone most audible in his searing and soaring solos.
“I’m super excited,” Cleary said. “It’s just that type of music I love. It’s that hard-hitting rock ’n’ roll, with really great melodies and harmonies and tons of riffs. I love riff music. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and this has got more of a rootsy, Americana-vibe to it which is my favorite type of music nowadays as I’ve matured.”
I’ve played with Cleary a handful of times as part of Bill Strayer’s Dogs, and he is a versatile, tasteful musician with the energy to take over a room and with the sensitivity to melt your heart. As much as he rocks and loves riffs, he is often a modest player, never overdoing it, always understanding his role in the ensemble. His solos start out melodically, with simple musical ideas, and, while they often progress into innovative, progressive departures from the melody of a song, it’s never forced, and it’s because he’s so tasteful.
It also works on a personal level for Cleary. He knows it’s a great fit and, while he’s enjoying the spotlight, he remains in touch with why he loves music, which is deeply personal and has to do with the mystical but measurable unifying quality that can be experienced through music.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Cleary said. “When everyone’s clicking, it’s a really pleasurable feeling, and that for everyone involved. I love music because it brings people together. When you have that connection, it’s a euphoric feeling you can share with someone. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s why we love music.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.