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What does the evolving State College music scene offer artists, listeners?

Local musician Erin Condo McCracken performs at Happy Valley Brewing Company, one of several venues in State College to hear live music.
Local musician Erin Condo McCracken performs at Happy Valley Brewing Company, one of several venues in State College to hear live music. Photo provided, file

For both audience and artist, there is something special, sometimes magical, in a live performance. That charged environment also brings with it challenges and opportunities that can define the day-to-day experience of an emerging band.

For musicians, more than practice is involved in chasing a dream. While the vibrant State College music scene can serve as the incubator, the environment in which they can hone their skills and make their way up the ladder, their view of success is as diverse as their music.

Molly Countermine has been an associate teaching professor at Penn State in human development and family studies and local rock star for 21 years. She sang with Maxwell Strait, then Pure Cane Sugar and now Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s.

During a recent Friday night show at the Phyrst, Countermine’s shirt commanded the largely-undergraduate crowd to “read the syllabus.” The band was approachable, and McCloskey’s guitar chops drew the listener toward the stage. The enthusiastic Countermine doesn’t sing on every song, but controls a leading, genuine presence throughout.

The music industry has adopted a sophisticated, internet-based model for taste-making in various genres, but local rock artists bear the burden of approval at the street level. Barring the use of any wild aesthetic, fans tend to best remember the groups that can flat-out play. The drawback, especially for original bands, is that the music itself has to be just as memorable.

“We’re here because we want to be here,” Countermine said. “I’m the vocalist, but sometimes I can be the dancer giving the energy as a conduit between the crowd. And it works.”

The band Velveeta holds a Friday residency at the Saloon, but travel on the weekends for financial and promotional purposes. Brent Martin, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, cherishes the chance to perform.

“We have always presented ourselves as entertainers, not artists,” Martin said.

With more than 200 hits in its repertoire, Velveeta offers the casual listener many chances to hear a personal favorite. The college town bar/club business model is tactical — booking ‘80s-centric Velveeta is a no-brainer for alumni-heavy football weekends.

As local taste commands, many bands play purely covers. Others elect to mix in a few originals. Reaction to fresh material can be invaluable for those hoping for national fame.

Lowjack released an album, “Homegrown,” in 2010, and the single, “When You Were Mine,” in 2018, but the band’s set list contains impeccable renditions ranging in era from Van Morrison to the Dave Matthews Band. While they always get a strong reaction to their song “One Last Kiss,” the band refrains from playing too many originals.

Jason Davolis, vocalist and guitarist, does not obsess about paths to national exposure.

“You know, cream always rises to the top,” Davolis said. “We’re a rock band and we play what we play.”

Chris Rattie & the New Rebels aren’t as keen on the cover-heavy performance model. Rattie, who performs original music almost exclusively, cites complacency toward local artists as lamentable characteristics of the area.

“Booking the band becomes the last thought, and it’s much easier for them to say ‘let’s just get this band in here every Friday for the next semester, or the next 10 years,’ ” Rattie said. “What happens is (the venue) does not allow anybody else to come in and play.”

In his opinion, the addition of a few medium-sized venues would allow artists greater access to live audiences. But this is wishful, and Rattie makes sure to note that State College is largely fair to the artists who call it home.

Due to the closing of musician-friendly locations like the Dark Horse and the Pearl Club, gigs are infrequent and with set stipulations.

“There used to be a time where you could see music almost every day,” Martin said.

Exceptions exist, but live music is only a surefire discovery on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Eric Faust, vocalist and lead guitar for Lenina Crowne, appreciates the opportunity for artistic and financial growth in the area.

“At times, I feel like the bands who strictly play original music look down upon those of us who play covers. But we’re extremely fortunate to be able to play live music in front of lively crowds for a paycheck on a weekly basis, so that doesn’t really bother us,” Faust said.

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