by H.B. Koplowitz
“It’s great to be back in Champaign … just kidding,” Jim Bruno quipped at the start of his bittersweet reunion concert Sept. 17 at the Varsity Center in Carbondale.
Billed “Jim Bruno & Friends,” the lineup included surviving members of some of the hottest bands during the heyday of the Carbondale music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, including Devil’s Kitchen, Scuttlebucket, Pontiac Jones, and the Dixie Diesels. Bruno is a singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist who lives in the San Francisco area. But he got his start in Carbondale during the 1970s, performing with another aspiring singer and guitar player named Shawn Colvin.
Carbondale in the ’60s and ’70s had been a special time for a lot of baby boomers like myself — I was born there in 1951 and went to Southern Illinois University. (I’d also written a book, called “Carbondale After Dark,” about the protesting and partying during that era on the town’s notorious strip.) One of the best and most lasting things about the ’60s was its socially conscious rock music. The bands that played that music in Carbondale were a big part of what had made the town special, and the musicians performing at the concert had been in many of those bands. Attention must be paid.
Besides, my generation has reached an age that musician Paul Simon calls “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and spending an evening basking in music and memories from the springtime of my life sounded downright cathartic. Alas, I didn’t think I’d be able to attend. I’d just been to Carbondale to partake in native rituals during a total eclipse of the sun. Then Irmageddon struck, and I, my brother, his girlfriend, and their Yorkie, fled South Florida in my car to Atlanta. We could have continued on to St. Louis, where I could have stayed with friends and family, looked up an old girlfriend, and gone to the concert. Instead, we languished in a hotel in Atlanta for nearly a week before returning Friday. The hurricane had spared our condos.
On Saturday, perhaps suffering from car lag, I got a bad case of the coulda shoulda wouldas. I began to kick myself for not having gone to St. Louis and the concert. That regret triggered an avalanche of other regrets, which are far too numerous, banal and excruciating for me to list here. As I sunk ever deeper into my funk, I actually tried to will myself back in time and make a deal with a God I didn’t believe in.
Earlier that day I’d written to my Facebook friends that I was sorry I wouldn’t be at that night’s concert. When I thought the show was starting, I decided to torture myself some more and got back on Facebook to see if anyone was posting photos or video from the event. Instead, high school classmate and Carbondale guitarist Bill Carter had sent a cryptic reply to my earlier message. He said the concert wasn’t until the next night.
Holy crap. If I hopped a plane, I could still make the show. I knew I’d simply made one of those “wrong day” errors that we all do sometimes. But given my agitated state of mind, it was hard for me not to read something more cosmic into the situation. Even if I hadn’t willed myself back in time, or a God I didn’t believe in hadn’t called my bluff, I had been given one of life’s most precious moments — a second chance. A do-over. I could torture myself for another day about what might have been, or I could take action to erase one small regret in my life.
I checked the airlines, and sure enough, there was a reasonably priced morning flight that would get me to St. Louis in time for the 7:30 p.m. concert. Around 3 a.m. I texted the same “team” I had watched the eclipse with. Mark Kerwath, a high school friend and guitarist who lives on the Merrimac River, provided the transportation. Ruth Ann Levinson, the widow of another high school friend, who plays bass, sings with a group called the Free Range Chicks, and lives south of Makanda, provided the place to stay. It was short notice, but they came through. Mark picked me up at the airport, and around 5 p.m. we met up with Ruth Ann behind the Varsity Center.
There, we ran into Carbondale icon and blues singer “Tawl” Paul Frederick, who was sitting on a gas meter, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette. When someone suggested he might blow himself up, he growled that he’d done a lot riskier things and was still here. True that. The former frontman for Pontiac Jones circa 1972 still performs with Slappin Henry Blue (including townies Bill Carter, guitar; T. Thomas, bass; and Charlie Morrill, drums), which over the past quarter century had become the unofficial house band at venerable PK’s on the strip. When I introduced myself to Tawl Paul, he enveloped my hand in a Trumpian grip, said he’d been following my exploits on Facebook, then something about Santa Claus and sitting on his knee.
“I see you made it,” Robbie Stokes, another relic of the Carbondale music scene, hollered when he rolled up in a vehicle. I think Robbie is the best guitar player in the world, but I’m biased. We both went to University High School (Pulliam Hall) in the 1960s, and I was smitten by his first band, the Viscounts, which played a combination of surf and British Invasion music. His next band was Om, and then Devil’s Kitchen, with Brett Champlin, Bob Laughton and Steve Sweigart. They fused folk and psychedelic rock into a sound that took them to San Francisco in 1968, where they played in legendary venues like the Family Dog, Fillmore, and Whisky A Go Go, opening for and playing with members of the Grateful Dead and other San Fran bands. After returning to Carbondale two years later, Robbie played in a gazillion local groups including Coal Kitchen, Vision, Dr. Bombay, St. Stephen’s Blues, Four on the Floor, and the Venturis. He also became a sound technician and founded Robco Audio, which mixes sound for Hangar 9, Shryock Auditorium and many other places.
Another old school chum, Terry Mueller, let us through a back door of the Varsity to have a look around. Terry is one of the unsung heroes of the Carbondale music scene. For many years, he and Bill Carter ran Golden Frets, the town’s primo music store and repair shop. He’s also played guitar and mandolin in a variety of bands, including the original Dixie Diesels.
The Varsity movie theater is a Carbondale relic in its own right. Built in 1940 as a thousand-seat auditorium with balcony for colored folks, it was later split into upper and lower theaters. The building also housed four storefronts and a corner grill. While installing a third screen that replaced the stores in 1981, a construction fire heavily damaged the entire building, and destroyed the main auditorium. Also, the building’s art deco facade was replaced by an ugly stone wall. The theater closed in 2003 and was vacant until 2008, when the nonprofit Jackson County Stage Company acquired the property and turned it into a performing arts center. The third theater is used to stage plays, and the balcony theater was recently renovated and reopened for movies as well as live performances. Some of the original features do remain, including inlaid glass tiles between the balcony steps, and the striking, V-shaped marquee. The theater’s board is trying to raise $3.5 million to rebuild the main auditorium and restore the exterior to its 1940’s art deco glory.
Terry led us to the balcony theater, where Jim Bruno and Charlie Morrill were doing a sound check. Charlie is a veteran Carbondale drummer with many Carbondale bands, including the Dixie Diesels. Charlie plays drums like a good baseball umpire — he does his job so smoothly that you hardly notice he’s there. He was using the same burgundy drum set he’s had since high school, which was appropriate for the occasion.
We looked inside the ground-floor theaters and saw the three surviving members of Scuttlebucket/Pontiac Jones: Russ Ward, drums and banjo; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; and Mike Potter, guitar, mandolin and bass. Only the late Pete Special was missing. I knew Mike, a quiet, gentle and talented musician, from childhood — he went to Murphysboro High. I’d never met Dean and Russ, who now live and play music in the Chicago area, but in recent years we’d become Facebook friends.
In high school, Dean, Russ and Pete crossed paths playing in bands in the west suburbs of Chicago. Dean and Russ were in a high school band called Grope, while one of Special’s first bands included a drummer named John Belushi. After Dean enrolled at SIU in 1972, and inspired by groups like The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the three moved into a dilapidated house in Carterville, their own Big Pink, where they became Pontiac Jones. They also played bluegrass as Scuttlebucket. After southern Illinois native Terry Ogolini (tenor saxophone), and Chicago Vietnam vet Tawl Paul Frederick (charisma) joined the band, it took off. In addition to playing downtown bars and out-of-town roadhouses, they opened for Paul Butterfield and Leo Kotke at Shryock Auditorium, and Luther Allison at Kilo’s (Carrie’s), a rowdy roadhouse outside Murphysboro.
The band split up in 1975, partly because the bars, including Merlin’s (Golden Gauntlet/TJ McFly’s), went disco and replaced bands with deejays and recorded music. Dean returned to the Chicago area and became a folksinger. Russ and his wife, Diane, also returned to the burbs, where they started a family. Mike helped start the country swing band Dixie Diesels with Brad Davis, a former drummer turned guitarist and singer from the country music trio “Ronnie and the Bossmen.” When the Diesels, including Brad Valentine, Willie Wainright, Ralph “Radar” Hurst, and Shawn Colvin, moved to Austin, Mike went along. He still lives there, where he’s a musician and paints evocative pictures of music legends.
In the early ’70s, Special and Ogolini had discovered “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, playing drums and singing in a three-piece country/R&B band at a rural honky-tonk called Lyin’ Sam’s; he was one of the few blacks playing the roadhouse circuit in southern Illinois. After Twist died in 1990, Special told the Chicago Reader, “When we saw Twist we said, ‘My God, that’s the real thing!’ … He was everything we admired and looked up to; he had that magic.”
Twist, who is believed to have been born in 1937 in Terre Haute, Indiana, had been living for many years in Murphysboro. He began sitting in on some of Pontiac Jones’ gigs, and when the band broke up, Special and Ogolini started a new band with Twist, drummer Denny Best, and a group of black musicians — including singer Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, keyboardist Ronald West, Sr., and bass player Ron “Tango” West, Jr. — who called themselves the Mellow Fellows. In the 1950s, the Mellow Fellows had been the house band at the New Orleans Bourbon Street Night Club, a famed bawdyhouse in Colp owned by “Ma” Hatchett and her son Junior.
Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows became Carbondale’s premier band until they moved to Chicago in 1978, where they played at blues clubs, toured with The Band and released several R&B albums. After Twist died of complications from diabetes in 1990, the band continued for a few years with Big Larry out front. Then Special got to play with The Band and fronted his own band before his untimely death from a heart attack in 2014. Other Mellow Fellows, including Ogolini, now bill themselves as the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings.
The reconstituted Pontiac Jones were doing some last-minute rehearsing, so after a brief conversation, my team headed up to Thai Taste in the historic Brush building at Main and Illinois Avenue, where we had a tasty meal despite the fact that days before a car had crashed through the wall facing Main Street. By now you are probably wondering if I’ll ever get around to reviewing the concert. But before I do, let me say that by this point in my mini odyssey, I had realized the show wasn’t going to be as epic as I had built up in my mind.
First of all, it was being held in the balcony theater, which was too small for there to be a mass gathering of Carbondale blasts from the past like I had imagined. Second, there had been a similar reunion show, organized by Bruno and with many of the same musicians, plus a few more, the year before, at the Old Feed Store in Cobden, so it wasn’t a singular event. (Many of the musicians also performed the day before at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda and Yellow Moon Cafe in Cobden.) And third, the quality and quantity of Carbondale band members from the 1970s who would not be there meant it could never be the ultimate harmonic convergence, so to speak.
The number of Carbondale musicians from that era who have passed on is enough to fill an Academy Awards Show obit reel, starting with Big Larry (1937-2017), who died just days before the concert. As mentioned, Twist (1937-1990) and Special (1952-2014), had been the soul and heart of Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. Others no longer with us include the voice of the Dixie Diesels, Brad Davis (1952-2009); Skid City Blues Band guitarist Jack “Slo-Jack” Soljacich (1953-1999); and Coal Kitchen vocalist Carla Peyton (1947-2005), who would have added some gender as well as color diversity to the lineup.
Those still alive but not at the show included saxophonist Kevin Cox of Springfield, IL, who also performed with Coal Kitchen and just about every other Southern Illinois band since the Egyptian Combo; the aforementioned Bill Carter; T. Thomas, who had played with Katie and the Smokers; Greta Mitchell (Tristram), harmonica and keyboards for Skid City, among others (she still performs in New York City); and Billy Desmond, also of Skid City, who now fronts for Billy D and the Hoodoos out of Portland, Oregon. Also: Russell “Radar” Hearst (Dixie Diesels); Terry Ogolini (Big Twist, Pontiac Jones); Alfredo Jahn, (Vision); keyboardist and high school friend and keyboardist Gus Pappelis (oom pah music at Das Fass); and, of course, Grammy winner Shawn Colvin.
No matter. From the moment Bruno and his band walked on stage, he set a mellow mood with his Champaign quip and laconic patter. The smaller venue had great acoustics and provided a more intimate listening experience for the audience. In addition to Bruno, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his cousin, Mark Soljacich (brother of the late “Slo-Jack” Soljacich) played electric guitar; Brian Sandstrom, who was in the Shawn Colvin Band and Skid City, played bass, and on drums, steady Charlie Morrill.
The first set showcased several songs Bruno wrote for his latest album, “Long Short Story.” With a voice that’s not as hard as early Bob Dylan, nor as soft as Paul Simon, Bruno writes what I would call existential love songs. He started the set with a tune appropriate for the occasion, “We’ll Always Remember Tonight,” and later followed up with a song about regret, called “Don’t Listen.” Especially strong was a lyrical ballad called “Marie,” which was enhanced by Soljacich’s note-bending guitar work. Midway through the set, Bruno announced that the author of “Carbondale After Dark” was in the audience, prompting a smattering of applause as I slouched down in my seat, embarrassed and pleased beyond joy.
The reconstituted Scuttlebucket took the stage for the second set, with Russ Ward on banjo, Dean Milano on bass, Mike Potter on acoustic guitar, Terry Mueller on mandolin, and Charlie Morrill back on drums. They began with an old folk standard, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” but I got chills when they next performed “They Call the Wind Mariah,” with Terry’s nimble mandolin playing and powerful vocals by Dean. The song comes from the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical “Paint your Wagon,” but of course my generation remembers The Smothers Brothers folksong version best. To honor Brad Davis of the Dixie Diesels, they played a couple of Merle Haggard tunes, “White Line Fever” and “The Fugitive.”
For their Pontiac Jones tribute, Russ moved to drums, while Mike, Terry, and Robbie Stokes played electric guitars to compensate for the absence of Special and Ogolini. To excited applause, out strode Tawl Paul, and the band launched into “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Tawl Paul has a unique delivery style, which is part Cab Calloway and part Joe Cocker. Nowadays he sits for some of his performances, but this night he stood. The all-too-short set included two other Pontiac Jones standards, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “The Weight” by The Band. (Later, Russ reminisced that “St. James Infirmary” had been their “show stopper.” “We started it slow, sort of like this impromptu version, but then kicked it up into a fast rocker. Mike, Pete Special and Terry Ogolini used to tear up the solos,” he recalled.)
Bruno returned with his acoustic guitar for the third set, which was a Carbondale all-star jam that included Mueller, Soljacich, and Stokes on electric guitars, Sandstrom on bass and Morrill on drums, plus “Joe “C” Castrejon on harmonica. Castrejon owns the current music store in Carbondale, Sound Core.
They limbered up with “I Ain’t Got You,” the much-covered 1955 R&B classic by Jimmy Reed, and then played the dance song “Hand Jive,” fittingly, because that had been the last song The Band played at their reunion concert in 1983. Some of the women in the audience began to freestyle on the stoop next to the projection booth, and when the band played another feel-good song, “Hey Baby” (I want to know if you’ll be my girl), a few danced to the front of the stage, to the delight of the crowd.
Next came the highlight of the evening for me. “All Along the Watchtower” was not only a Dylan song, but my favorite tune the Shawn Colvin Band played back in the day. It was the one song I had hoped to hear that night, but thought it would be too cheesy to request. When I recognized the opening chords, I grabbed my iPhone, which had about 7 percent battery left, and began to shoot video. Upside down. But I got it.
It had been a Trump-free evening, thankfully. No jokes and no allusions to 45. On the other hand, the times they aren’t a changin’. The country is as polarized now as it was in the 1960s, split over issues such as civil rights, foreign wars, and a president some say is a crook and a liar. Apocalyptic times. And when the band at the Varsity launched into a 7-minute rendition of the apocalyptic “Watchtower,” I was transported, if not in time, then in feeling, in passion.
Jim sang the verses and Charlie and Brian kept the beat, while Terry, Mark and Robbie traded guitar licks, and Joe C riffed on his harp. The players were loose and kept improvising, extending the song beyond its expected end. Soljacich said something to Bruno and they cracked up laughing. Then Dean Milano appeared on stage, whispered to Bruno, and stepped up to a mic. He raised his arms to get the guitarists to let him take a verse. They almost sputtered to a stop, but were immediately lifted as Dean growled, “All along the watchtower, Princes kept the view…” Sounding more like Hendrix than Dylan, he poured himself into the lyrics. And when he got to “the wind began to howl,” he let loose with an Old Testament howl that brought down the house. Reinvigorated by Dean’s singing, the guitarists reached another crescendo that kept going until Charlie finally ended the revelry with a crash of cymbals.
By the end of the concert, the performers had given their all. But I still wanted more. Throughout the evening, I had been inquiring, “where’s the party?” and nobody seemed to know. Then, I think it was Russ, said he heard where there might be a gathering, and I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. Where else could an after party for a reunion of old Carbondale bands possibly be held except at the strip’s ultimate relic, the unsinkable PK’s? So my team toked up, I mean walked up, to PK’s, which was nearly empty on a Sunday night. Then the various band members and entourage trickled in, and we partied like it was 1969, if you can believe that.
At one point I was sitting at the bar next to Bruno, and we got to talking about Shawn Colvin. Back in the 1970s, he’d helped Shawn get her start. He set up her first gigs, played in bands with her and wrote songs for her, in Carbondale and the Bay Area, before she relocated to New York and began writing her own songs. They were also a thing for a while. Anyway, he told me about the first time he met Shawn, which was around 1975, at an annual musician campout at SIU ethnomusicologist and folk museum curator Dale Whiteside’s farm. “Lots of music around campfires,” Jim recalled. It got late and he found himself stranded on the farm without a coat or place to sleep. Shawn and her female roommate had a cozy tent, so he went up to her and asked if he could bunk with them for the night. And she said, “dream on.”
Dream on indeed. I reckon I’ll just have to live with my regrets, just as I’ll never be able to recapture my youth. But for one night I could wallow in some ’70s flashbacks, hear the music, share the memories, and mingle with other ghosts of Carbondale past. Was it worth the trip? Hell yes.
Wonderful article. You really nailed the spirit of the event!
Loved it! Well done H.B.!
Great article! I knew some of the Dixie Diesels when I lived and worked in Austin in the mid-70s. I always wondered what happened to radar, cuz he was such a fantastic player. He once told me, and I quote, “yeah, reading music is fine as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your playing.” Also, Mike Potter once did me a super solid… He knew I loved telecasters – I was playing a 1951 Esquire at the time with John Emory and the Missouri valley boys, and Mike sold me a ’67 sunburst custom telecaster which I still have and play today.
Bill Varecha has been writing a book for the last 20 years. Want to edit it?