Intimate setting, talented acts highlight Penn Hills Coffeehouse music series
Howard Davidson just wanted to bring a little musical culture to Penn Hills.
While serving as the municipality's planning director by day, Davidson by night grabs his guitar — or his mandolin, or upright bass — and plucks melodies throughout the Pittsburgh area as one of many local singer-songwriters.
His musical proclivity led him to start up the Penn Hills Coffeehouse music series in 2008.
“The series started over at the (William E. Anderson) Library (of Penn Hills),” Davidson said. “Part of the beginnings were to help bring some vibrant events to the library, so it's not just a place to sit quietly and read.”
Indeed, visitors to the library on the right weeknight might have found it strange to hear live music bouncing off the building's walls, but the series soon built a strong following, filling the performance space on the library's second level on a regular basis.
Davidson said his song-writing connections and his work with the Penn Hills Community Development Corp. made the coffeehouse series seem only natural.
“I'm a singer-songwriter myself; I've attended the Pittsburgh Songwriter's Circle (held monthly at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern) and attend a similar group in Zelienople,” Davidson said. “And it was a natural thing to do through the CDC.”
Davidson said CDC officials felt an obligation to provide events free to the community, and the group's recent stint managing the historic Penn Hebron Garden Club on Jefferson Road provided just such an opportunity.
The series, which will continue on Wednesdays in October, now has a permanent home in the cozy confines of the garden club, built in 1834 and boasting a beautiful, nearly all-wooden interior.
“It's like playing inside a guitar,” Davidson said.
The club's unique trappings appeal to singer-songwriter Jack Erdie, who was among the Oct. 9 performers and used the occasion to play a solo gig for the first time in about a year.
“The intimacy is what I really like,” said Erdie, 47, who grew up in Fairmont, W.Va.
“I have songs where it doesn't matter if people are listening or not — I've played plenty of bars in my time, and I don't make money playing music, I have a day job — but if I'm going to play, I'd prefer to play for people who are going to listen.
Taught to play guitar at age 13 by his uncle, Erdie learned quickly the old songwriter's maxim that everything old is new again at some point.
“I would always bring my new songs to my uncle,” Erdie said.
“As soon as I'd start playing, he'd start singing another song on top of it, because he'd heard the melody somewhere else before. So the first time I brought a melody to him where he couldn't do that, I felt I really knocked it out of the park.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Heather Catley, 18, a 2013 Penn Hills High School graduate and this year a freshman at Chatham University, is just starting out in her songwriting career. She joined Erdie in the coffeehouse's Oct. 9 lineup.
“I took a guitar class at Community College of Allegheny County when I was 12 and really never looked back,” Catley said.
Her musical heroes range from Bob Dylan to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Death Cab for Cutie, and she said her writing process is as eclectic as her iTunes playlist.
“This may sound strange, but lyrics come to me,” she said.
“Sometimes I'll just be singing in the shower and come up with a quirky line that sticks, and I go with it.”
Catley has developed a recurring case of stage fright and said she can be a nervous wreck building up to a performance.
“Nevertheless, as soon as I step onstage to sing, all of the nerves seem to dissolve and I feel cool as a cucumber even with my hands shaking and my heart beating 100 times a minute.”
Catley described her performances in a way that rings true for many singer-songwriters.
“When I sing, it's as though nothing else matters, it's just me and the music and there's no turning back.”
The next Penn Hills Coffeehouse night is Oct. 16. For more information, call 412-798-2127.
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or email@example.com.