First Night State College: Deb Callahan’s bluesy soul, Rick Hirsch’s Smoove Jazz to highlight New Year’s Eve

Mike Axtell and his daughter Meredith Axtell, 3, of State College, slide down the ice slide sculpture in Sidney Friedman Park at last year’s First Night State College celebration.
Mike Axtell and his daughter Meredith Axtell, 3, of State College, slide down the ice slide sculpture in Sidney Friedman Park at last year’s First Night State College celebration. CDT file photo

For those who want to say farewell to the old year and welcome the new, as First Night State College will once again provide central Pennsylvania with a family and arts-oriented New Year’s Eve celebration. The community winter arts festival showcasing the visual and performing arts will take place throughout downtown State College and University Park on Dec. 31.

A production of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, First Night State College is a creative and alcohol-free alternative to ring in the New Year, a night typically reserved for partying and alcohol consumption. First Night is an old-fashioned community celebration where all are welcome; young and old, singles and families, townsfolk and visitors.

First Night will feature live music, including internationally known cellist Kim Cook, singer-storyteller Joel Blunk, the Arietta Women’s Ensemble and local folk rockers Biscuit Jam. Singing Onstage will treat theater fans to a presentation of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and the State High Thespians will stage “An Afternoon in Fairy Tale Land.” Other performers will include comedy and juggling sensation Michael Rosman, and comedy hypnotist Alan Sands. Carriage rides also will be offered, and folks can watch ice carvers sculpt images and fitures into ice along South Allen Street and throughout downtown.

Rick Hirsch and Smoove

Saxophonist Rick Hirsch is a First Night regular, but this year he will bring his new project to the stage. Rick Hirsch and Smoove features drummer extraordinaire Kevin Lowe and Delaware-based jazz organist James Witherite. The trio will perform at the State College Presbyterian Church at 4 p.m.

Over the summer, the three musicians were in a big band together when Witherite suggested they put together an organ trio.

“A few days later, James’ comment popped into my mind and wouldn’t go away,” Hirsch said. “So I discussed it with Kevin and then James and we all decided that it would be a fun and worthwhile project to launch.”

Smoove’s concert program is influenced by straight-ahead jazz, soul, R&B, samba, tango, and rock ’n’ roll. Some of the music is reminiscent of Grover Washington Jr., while other selections bring to mind Tito Puente, the Crusaders or Ornette Coleman.

Musical communication with their listeners is a high priority for Smoove, and the musicians constantly refer to the band’s mission statement, a set of principles that they’re hoping will take their music to greater heights.

“To achieve the high level of communication, we place a premium on melody, groove and song structure,” Hirsch said. “Jazz improvisation is certainly in our toolbox, but it’s not our only tool for musical development.”

Hirsch said his First Night State College performances have always been a highlight, as they give him a chance to present his varied jazz projects, including an avant garde duo with Arthur Goldstein to the 16-piece Valley Jazz Orchestra.

“It’s a real treat to perform in a concert setting for a true listening audience,” Hirsch said. “I also love that First Night is an unpretentious, festive scene. Everyone seems to be in really great spirits as they hop from concert to concert. There are few things more fun than playing for the hometown crowd.”

Deb Callahan

A mainstay on the mid-Atlantic music scene since the late 1990s, blues singer-songwriter Deb Callahan also will return to this year’s festival with a performance at 8 p.m. at the State College Presbyterian Church.

The native Philadelphian’s bluesy and soulful vocals have caught the attention of listeners who resonate with her honest and soulful tunes. Callahan’s blues-based style ranges from gospel, soul, jazz and rock, and her songs deal with love and joy, spirituality and making life changes.

Callahan will perform her usual mix of blues, rock, gospel and soul which may include standards by artists such as Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Ike and Tina Turner, and Dr. John. Also included will be a fair amount of Callahan’s original music plus material she hasn’t recorded yet for an upcoming CD. Joining Callahan in her band will be musicians Allen James, Garry Lee and Tom Walling.

Callahan said performing during First Night has always been fun for her to share this special night with the community.

“My sense is people want to celebrate, relax and have fun,” she said. “I’ve played in churches each time, and it’s a concert setting where people are listening and focused on the music. Some people dance, but the church vibe contributes to it being a more relaxed experience. We’ll see this time if we can get them dancing in the aisles.”


10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Ice sculptors in action, South Allen Street

11 a.m.-9 p.m.: Resolution Mug activity, 2000 Degrees

noon and 3 p.m.: State High Thespians’ “An Afternoon in Fairy Tale Land,” State College Municipal Building, 243 S. Allen St.

1 p.m.: The Second Winds, Faith United Church of Christ, 300 E. College Ave.

1, 3 and 5 p.m.: Puppeteer Carolyn Koerber’s “The Knee-High Man,” Days Inn Penn State, 240 S. Pugh St.

1 and 4 p.m.: Magician Dennie Huber, Schlow Centre Region Library, 211 S. Allen St.

2 and 4 p.m.: Middle-earth Studios’ “The Legend of the Unicorn,” Westminster Hall, State College Presbyterian Church, 132 W. Beaver Ave.

2 p.m.: Jay Vonada Quartet, State College Presbyterian Church

3 p.m.: Below Centre, Faitth United Church of Christ

3 p.m.: Fortune-teller Madame Babushka, Schlow Centre Region Library

3:30 p.m.: Easterly Chamber Players, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 208 W. Foster Ave.

3:30 p.m.: Toot-in-Common, University Brethren and Baptist Church, 411 S. Burrowes St.

3:30, 7:30 and 10:15 p.m.: The Comedy Rosmans, State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave.

4 p.m.: Rick Hirsch and Smoove, State College Presbyterian Church

4 and 7:30 p.m.: Singing Onstage’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Fairmount Avenue Elementary School, 411 S. Fraser St.

4:30 p.m.: Arietta Women’s Ensemble, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 250 E. College Ave.

4:30 p.m.: Deacons of Dixieland, Grace Lutheran Church, 205 S. Garner St.

4:30, 7 and 9 p.m.: Mentalist Alain Nu, Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St.

5 p.m.: Pepper Lotus Belly Dance Troupe, University Baptist and Brethren Church

5, 6:45 and 9:30 p.m.: Comedy hypnotist Alan Sands, Comedy Hypnotist, State College Municipal Building

5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 p.m.: Ice skating sessions, Pegula Ice Arena, University Park

5:30 p.m.: Nittany Knights, Faith United Church of Christ

6 p.m.: Callanish, State College Presbyterian Church

6 p.m.: Live mannequins, Appalachian Outdoors, 123 S. Allen St.

6:30 p.m.: Musicians Naomi Seidman and Jonathan Dexter, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

6:30 p.m.: State College Area High School Jazz Band, Grace Lutheran Church

6:30 p.m.: Resolution Run, Corner of College Avenue and Allen Street

6:30 p.m.: Grand Procession, leaves St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

7 p.m.: Archie Blue, University Baptist and Brethren Church

7-10 p.m.: Carriage rides, Mayor Welch Plaza

7 p.m.: Organ grinder Ron Ray, State College Municipal Building plaza

7:30 p.m.: Big Coronas Band, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church

7:30 p.m.: Tussey Mountain Moonshiners, Faith United Church of Christ

8 p.m.: Deb Callahan Band, State College Presbyterian Church

8:30 p.m.: Biscuit Jam, Grace Lutheran Church

9 p.m.: Natascha and the Spy Boys, University Baptist and Brethren Church

9:30 p.m.: Urban Fusion, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church

10 p.m.: Musician Joel Blunk, State College Presbyterian Church

10:15 p.m.: The Ultra Kings, Grace Lutheran Church

10:15 p.m.: Cellist Kim Cook, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church


all day: Bucket List, Schlow Centre Region Library arcade

all day: Edison’s Clothesline, South Allen Street

all day: First Bells, Sidney Friedman Park

all day: Wheels of Fate, Mayor Welch Plaza

all day: First Night Phoenix and Gravity-powered Fortune Matrix, State College Municipal Building lobby

10 a.m.-midnight: One-block ice sculpture exhibit, downtown and Sidney Friedman Park

noon-11 p.m.: Burning Man, State College Municipal Building

5 p.m.-midnight: Fire sculptures, Sidney Friedman Park


noon: Zumba with Teresa Soler, Westminster Hall, State College Presbyterian Church

1:30 p.m.: Pepper Lotus Belly Dance, The Attic at the State Theatre

2-4 p.m.: Glimmer Jars and Glow Bugs children’s workshop, State College Presbyterian Church

3 p.m.: Songwriting workshop with Jim Colbert and Hannah Bingman, The Attic