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Pittsburgh's Blues Orphans passionate about singing the Yinzer blues

| Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Amie Santavicca
Working out at a rehearsal are Blues Orphans, from left, Nelson Harrison, Andy Gabig, Bob Gabig and Dave Erny.

Bob and Andy Gabig have been drifting around from club to club for decades like a pair of rootless orphans.

Blues Orphans, to be exact.

“That's what this guy called us once,” Bob Gabig says with a laugh. “Sort of denigrating us. But it was the truth.”

The family size of the orphans varies, and a nine-person group will perform in a CD-release gig Nov. 22 at the James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy in the North Side. They are celebrating the current album, “Hystericana.”

The Blues Orphans are a bit of Yinzer culture that turns hip-hop songs into polkas and “King of the Road” into heavy metal. They also examine the risks of visits to Rivers Casino “ 'cause that's where all the money goes.”

The band always features guitarist Bob and his brother, harmonica player Andy, both from Bellevue. But it sometimes has a horn section of cornetist Mark Custer, trumpeter Ian Gordon, Hill Jordan on trombone and Nelson Harrison, inventor of the trombetto, a trombone-cornet hybrid.

“This is one of the most-fun bands I've ever played in,” Harrison says.

The group at James Street also will feature Dave Yoho on drums, Dave Erny on string bass and Roger Day on tuba.

Bob and Andy agree their music is rooted in the Irish-country-bluegrass fascination of family members. But, they say, they have a deep love of the blues, which they have added to the other sounds.

They say they often go to blues-based clubs and hang around with performers to get ideas and guidance.

“You can learn a lot from those guys just by sitting around and talking,” Bob says

Andy, though, says there is a more-important element to the band.

“Bob's pen is the benchmark of the band,” he says.

Bob says he simply tries to write songs that are fun and have some sort of meaning beyond contemporary compositions.

“People today are writing songs about having an omelet,” he says.

Compositions with a message sometimes have a drawback, Andy says.

“Those songs pass right over the head of some audience members,” he says. “But that's OK.”

Bob says he and Andy started drifting club to club around 1974, providing music whenever they got the chance. It was during one of those sessions that they got the orphans moniker and, about 1983, he says, they decided to form a band instead of being an impromptu duo.

In the early days, the band featured local bluesman Wil E. Tri, who also plays harmonica.

“He and Andy were both learning harmonica then, so they were giving each other lessons and coming at it from different angles,” Bob says. “But then he left. Who needs two harmonica players? But he is like a member of the family.”

Since then, the band has taken on many sizes and shapes. It can be a quartet. Or it can have its horn section.

One thing is always true, Harrison says.

“We love to entertain,” he says. “We are always cracking ourselves up, because we don't know what is going to happen next.”

Bob and Andy work hard to keep the band rooted in Pittsburgh. They don't want to spend time on the road or make the band something marketable by music promoters.

“I love music, but I just hate the music industry,” Bob says.

He has a rather practical reason, too.

“We just like being so down-to-earth, there is little room for us to fall,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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