Hempfield musicians hit right note at Jeannette cafe
Musicians of all ages and genres are welcome at Keynote Café in Jeannette, which has been a springboard for young performers.
“There is so much talent in Westmoreland County,” owner Jill Urbani Sorrels said. “These kids have a gift and they deserve recognition because they are going places, I just give them a place to play and grow.
“All I can tell you is that this music is making magic,” she said.
Some Hempfield Area High School students and graduates are capitalizing on their success at the Clay Avenue venue.
Cameron Miller, a 2008 graduate and a 2012 honors graduate in psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has been in the band Chances Are High for more than five years. The group just signed a recording contract and moved to Los Angeles.
“The Keynote played a very important role in our development as a band,” said Miller, 22. “The venue gave us a chance to play. ... We most likely would not have gone on to perform around Pittsburgh as we did without the establishment of this venue. We signed a contract with Gold Buckle Records ... and this all started after we recorded some demo tracks at Studio 344 with Brette Ciamarra” in Pittsburgh.
Miller, Brian Waltos, 21, and Chad Kulaga, 25, are auditioning for a new drummer, with their album to be released this year. They are writing new pop/rock music, recording and preparing to shoot a video for the single “Romeo.”
“Jill is an amazing woman and friend,” said Miller, who can be followed on Facebook and Twitter. “She believes in the young people of our hometown, and is one of the very few that have gone so far to show what these kids are capable of.”
Hempfield Band Director Brian Tychinski remembers Miller well.
“I had Cameron in my guitar class and he was a big help because he knew so much that he helped with the other students,” Tychinski said.
Tychinski said Hempfield High has a rich tradition of musicians. “I'm very lucky to have so much talent,” he said.
Megan Fair, a leader in the high school percussion section, is “a terrific performer,” Tychinski said. She and Hempfield student Victoria Draovitch are in the band Shirt vs. Skins.
“Victoria is a singer in the jazz band who came to me asking to be in the marching band,” Tychinski said. “She picked up the mellophone (a horn played in marching bands) quickly. You have to have a really good ear. She has terrific stage presence and pulls the audience right in.”
Draovitch, a junior, credited other band members for helping her to learn the mellophone in six months. She credited the Keynote Café for her stage presence.
“I was so nervous that first night with Shirts vs. Skins that I don't remember it at all,” Draovitch said about her debut in eighth grade.
“I call the Keynote my second home. That's where I gained my confidence performing, where I made new friends and where I brought my family and friends to show them what I can do.”
Nicole Pompei, a 2012 Hempfield graduate, is a freshman at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. The percussionist has performed at the Keynote for the last five years, most recently with Fridays For Fighting.
“Now I'm looking into the management track of the music business and to be touring full time,” Pompei said. “I had always loved all types of music and being at the Keynote exposed me to all the different bands. It was a breeding ground for growth.”
Hempfield student Meghan Feliciani sings rhythm and blues and pop songs in venues throughout the county after debuting at the Keynote.
“I think the Keynote was great for me because I was always really nervous singing in front of an audience,” said Feliciani, 16, who debuted two years ago singing “Hurt So Bad” by Susan Tedeschi.
“Jill did everything she could to make me feel comfortable. The Keynote is a great place to start. The people are so kind and make you feel comfortable,” Meghan said.
She is the daughter of Westmoreland Judge Christopher Feliciani, who plays in his own band, Blues Peddlers. “Meghan blew everyone away,” he said. “She sings constantly.”
Kristin Markitell, 17, a Unity resident who attends Shady Side Academy, said the Keynote helped her to conquer stage fright.
“I know I have really bad stage fright that started after middle school,” Markitell said. “Once I hit high school, it was a rough time and I stopped singing. I lost the confidence of my youth and the Keynote brought it back over this summer.”
Markitell, whose parents own Antiques Oddities in Jeannette, opened in August for a 1960s revival show and last Saturday opened for Bo Wagner, a Frank Sinatra tribute singer.
“I feel like Jill has opened so many doors for me already,” said Markitell, who specializes in '50s and '60s songs by Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. “July 20th was a big day for me — my own show. Without Jill, and my parents, I still wouldn't have been out of my shell.”
Jessica Saenz, a 2011 Latrobe graduate, went to Eastern University in Philadelphia to study music.
“I don't know where I'd be without the Keynote,” Saenz said between classes at Westmoreland County Community College, where she transferred this year. “I've really been able to take singing seriously since I've moved back, and I'm doing as many gigs as I can.”
That includes the Rocket to the Stars contest in New Castle, where the semi-finalist garnered a producer's attention. She sings in a style reminiscent of Alicia Keys, Adele and Michael Buble.
In 2009, she was second runner-up behind Jackie Evancho in the Kean Idol contest. Two years later, she won Greensburg's Idol contest.
Saenz said her teachers were musicians who played the Keynote. She had no formal training until she went to college.
“I learned so much from that bunch of regulars,” Saenz said. Urbani Sorrels “has such a passion for beautiful music and has built a nest of support.”
“This is where you start, not where you finish,” Urbani Sorrels said.
Rose Domenick is a freelance writer.