There are gems in the State College music scene — people and collections of people who can’t help but shine a bright light on everything around them.
Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats is just that kind of collection of people, a funky, soul-drenched swing band that just gets it.
“Our goal is to just keep getting better,” said Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats guitarist Mark Ross. “If you take care of the music, I think everything takes care of itself.”
The band is taking care of the music by playing every Friday night at Otto’s Pub & Brewery, playing road gigs on Saturdays, gearing up for our regions’ dynamite warm-weather festival season and by recording new music. Its most recent album is “Twelve Thirty One.”
The album kicks off with the upbeat spiritual, “You Ain’t Gonna Steal My Shine,” which gives a well-rounded survey of the band’s core sound, led by Melanie Morrison sauntering her way throughout the vocals, Ross chunking and bending his way through the guitar riffs, the Reverend James Horton ebbing and flowing on the keyboards and relatively new drummer Chris Coyne holding down the beat.
“It’s our strongest lineup to date,” Ross said. “I feel everyone gets it. It’s about the song inside the song.”
As the album progresses, it features a collection of live performances and a collection of studio recordings. The title track is classic Morrison, with her beautiful voice gliding over an accordion, and moving along at a lover’s pace. Just like Morrison is the centerpiece of the band, the title track is, fittingly, the centerpiece of the album, keeping it grounded in the heart that simmers beneath the rest of the songs.
“It’s really a treat to back up Melanie,” Ross said. “She’s a top-shelf singer. It’s also a treat to play with Rev. and Coyne. They’re sympathetic players.”
One unique aspect of the album is the inclusion of two Beatles’ songs, “Help” and “Oh Darling,” which the band prepared for Strawberry Fields Forever, a charity concert The State Theater hosted in January. As with other covers, the band bends the Beatles at will, making the music come alive half a century later. Still, it’s the originals that drive any band with staying power, and Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats keep churning them out.
“Mel and I are the main songwriters,” Ross said, “and Rev. takes it all and makes it better. Now that Chris is in the band, he chimes in as well. It’s a collective effort. Every record is really a snapshot of where the band is at the time. I hope we can accurately portray where we are in that development.”
One thing about this band is the mutual respect the members show for each other. It stems from a legitimate appreciation for what they bring to the band, individually, and, therefore, what becomes the collective whole.
“They all have so much experience and a wealth of knowledge, musically,” Morrison said. “They really elevate me to explore different places I otherwise wouldn’t. I want to push myself more. They inspire me.”
Morrison describes being in the band as personally gratifying.
“It’s pretty amazing because it’s totally unexpected,” she said. “It was a dream. It just kind of blows my mind to be part of the State College scene and what that means in this area. It’s amazing.”
Ross, ever the musical philosopher, revels in the soft spots of the music, the open spots, the magical, unpredictable spots and what is often referred to as the pocket.
“I love when we get in these spots where it’s totally free,” Ross said. “Everybody’s out on a limb. It’s super together and magic, when all of a sudden you look around and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes.’ It’s those magic 30 seconds.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.
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