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Limelight is all right for New Year's Eve performers

| Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009

When everyone raises a glass of champagne tonight to celebrate the arrival of 2010, Jack Hunt will have a microphone in hand. As everyone embraces a loved one, Hunt -- who performs as Johnny Angel with his vocal group, the Halos -- will look at his bandmates and shrug.

He certainly doesn't want to kiss them .

"It's very tough at 12 o'clock when everybody is kissing and your significant other is at the edge of the stage and you can only blow her a kiss," says Hunt, who will perform tonight with the Halos at Pittsburgh's First Night celebration.

New Year's Eve is a busy night for musicians providing entertainment for the evening's festivities. While any opportunity for a paying gig is appreciated, they are working while family and friends are either celebrating or at home. Hunt admits he's lucky -- his son and son-in-law both work with the stage crew for the vocal group, and his wife attends most shows.

Others have to rely on the faith of loved ones while they are out amidst the revelers.

"I'm blessed with a marvelous wife," says drummer Poogie Bell, who will be with his band at the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville to bring in the New Year. "She's able to deal with the fact that I'm away so much to begin with, and she keeps the family together."

Sometimes, New Year's Eve gigs double as homecomings. Glen Strother of Jazzam, performing tonight at the Rex Theater, South Side, says the band's holiday shows tend to bring out friends and fans who have moved away from Pittsburgh.

"It's almost like a family reunion," says Strother, who plays guitar. "We've been doing this for so long, we know a lot of our fans on a first-name basis. It's a great opportunity for people who don't have the opportunity to see us through the year and only get home around the holidays."

Many musicians embrace performing on New Year's Eve. Lotus, a nationally touring band that welcomed in 2008 at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale, this year will be onstage at home in Philadelphia when midnight strikes.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," says Jesse Miller, the band's bassist. "It's the party of the year, and I want to be onstage."

"I absolutely love it," Strother says of performing on New Year's Eve. "Everybody's spirits are uplifted. It's a big get-together instead of it being just you and 20 of your buddies and some people who you may know."

Bell agrees, noting that he tends to feed off the audience's energy on Dec. 31. Besides, the other option is having no gig and "being at home, watching Dick Clark," he says. "I try to do it every year. It sets the tone and, hopefully, gives you a jump-start for the new year."

Of course, performing on New Year's Eve comes with certain conditions. Performers have to remain sober enough to finish their sets, and the music has to be tailored to match the audience's mood.

"I try to fine-tune it to the audience I have that night," Hunt says. "In the past, it was always clubs or halls where people are drinking. The past couple of years, we've done First Night. ... It's a mixed audience with families, and if I had my preference, we'd always play for that crowd."

Hunt plans to give this year's audience a short history of rock 'n' roll, starting with doo wop and late '50s standards through the Beatles. Of course, any band playing New Year's Eve also has to play "Auld Lang Syne."

"I like that song," Bell says with a laugh, "even though it's a really long song and I don't know all the words. It has 12 verses or something like that, and I just try to make it through the first couple. But it gives you a really good feeling about the new year. It's sort of like the feeling I get when I hear 'Jingle Bells'; I know Christmas is coming. You always play it. I wouldn't want to cheat myself, or anyone else, by not playing it."

Rege Behe can be reached at or 412-320-7990.

Singing Auld Lang Syne ... and saying goodbye

Don't be surprised if the members of Jazzam get a little choked up after their New Year's Eve gig tonight at the Rex Theater, South Side. Not only are they bidding adieu to 2009, they're saying goodbye to the band itself.

"It's definitely going to be a sad moment for all of us," guitarist Glen Strother says. "We put a lot of hard work and effort into this for several years. But it's time to start something else. It will be good for us to get out and do some other things."

For seven years, the group has played a unique mix that incorporates the styles of Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Parliament Funkadelic. They made some strides nationally, performing the All Good Festival in West Virginia in 2008 and 2009.

One of the band's most memorable shows came two years ago at a sold-out New Year's Eve performance at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale, opening for the Philadelphia-based Lotus.

"At that point, we felt like we were doing something that was really positive," Strother says.

But Strother admits the group has run its course. Band members already are launching new projects, including the soul-and-funk ensemble Backstabbing Good People.

"It's been a great time," Strother says. "We were really young when we started, and sort of grew up and became young adults. It's a huge part of our adulthood."

-- Rege Behe

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