New swing band energizes State College dancing scene

State College swing band Rodeo Serenade will perform Saturday at Happy Valley Brewing Company..
State College swing band Rodeo Serenade will perform Saturday at Happy Valley Brewing Company.. Photo provided

For all the rock, indie, acoustic, heavy, rootsy, bluegrasstic music we have here in Centre County, we haven’t had much swing. Oh, we have jazz and we have dance music, but there are lots of sub forms of jazz. Swing is one of those.

The good news is that Centre County recently got some swing, compliments of the high energy new dance band Rodeo Serenade. And it’s not just swing, it’s honky-tonk swing, it’s rockabilly swing ... it’s Texas swing.

“We do the music that created country music,” said Rodeo Serenade founding member, bass player and sometime vocalist Phil Burlingame. “We’re really a dance band. It’s basically western jazz. It’s phenomenal music.”

The band has a gig Saturday at Happy Valley Brewing Company, a hot bed for new types of music in State College. It’s a place where new and different acts can often get an audience with co-owner Greg Sommers, a venue known for a unique and evolving approach to music, food , and, of course, beer.

“Rodeo Serenade is an authentically cool band,” Sommers said. “They sincerely respect the proud traditions of western swing and honky-tonk music, and they clearly have a blast playing it. They are inspiring a renaissance in the State College dancing scene for the 25 and older crowd. It’s just an extra bonus that they are all such nice people.”

Rodeo Serenade consists of five members, the husband and wife team of Phil and Susan Burlingame, Kristi and Steve Branstetter and Kyle Haust. Susan Burlingame plays rhythm guitar and sings, Kristi Branstetter sings, Steve Branstetter plays lead guitar and Haust is on drums. Each of the members is thoroughly schooled in their role, and the way the group got together was natural and easy.

“We thought it would be fun to get together,” Phil Burlingame said. “We got together, enjoyed playing together, got together to jam a little and it felt good.”

If you’re not familiar with western swing, it’s some serious music, upbeat and entertaining, full of excitement and positive energy and from a musician’s perspective is quite difficult to play. Bob Willis mastered it and charted out the style in the early to mid-20th century and it made what we now know as much more simplified and commercialized country music possible. Still, western swing features intricate instrumentation, first and foremost, which Willis was able to showcase.

“They were as good as any string players since,” Phil Burlingame said.

As Phil Burlingame explains, playing western swing in Centre County is a lot of fun, because we’re not living in the west, and it’s some old, old music. The band weaves in covers and originals, but to do a cover song in western swing is to reinterpret the song, so there is no premium on playing what local guitar ace and Alley Cat Music owner Mark Ross would call “every scratch on the record.” It’s an artistic approach to a genre of music, and in genre music the artistic interpretation of a form is what ultimately matters.

“We represent a unique niche in the local music scene,” Phil Burlingame said. “We love the local scene and the musicians and bands we intersect with. But, what we’re doing has a unique twist to it. I think it enriches the whole Center Region music scene.”

Uniqueness aside, the universal pocket is accessible in western swing, as it is in all forms of art, and likely all acts of creation, as Phil Burlingame explains.

“There’s a concept of flow,” he said. “If you reach that state of flow, it just doesn’t get any better.”

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.