Neon Swing X-perience show will definitely be fun
They've opened for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the B-52s, have led a costumed dog parade in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and were nearly run out of a small town in West Virginia. They are an elastic ensemble, in both numbers — five to eight musicians, depending on the venue — and in the range of music performed.
But Neon Swing X-perience's greatest feat just might be thriving as a swing band for two decades.
“Even though we're primarily a swing band, we have that party atmosphere,” says Mike Urick, a Greensburg-based singer and trumpet player who is the lone remaining member from the band's inception in 1998. “Sometimes you hear swing band, and you get the sense it's going to be uptight. Is it going to be fun? We're definitely fun.”
Neon Swing X-perience celebrates its 20th anniversary with the release of a new album, “We've Only Just Begun,” April 13 at the Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square.
“We've Only Just Begun” features bookend covers of two swing standards, “Tiger Rag” and “Alexander's Ragtime Band.” They are considerably rawer than the rest of the songs, with a sound that's reminiscent of a vintage soundtrack.
“I was a little bit concerned because people are used to hearing us loud and in your face, having a tight rhythm section, hearing a bass, hearing a guitar,” Urick says. “Just hearing a march, it was kind of a risk to open and close the album like that, but we wanted to simulate what we do at the dog parade, leading it marching style. … When we were rehearsing, we thought, ‘why don't we record this, too?' ”
The other song that's culled from the band's live shows is “Thomas, W.Va.,” which is equal parts “Goodnight, Irene” and a booze-fueled drinking song. The town in eastern West Virginia, about 60 miles southeast of Morgantown, has become a hipster haven in recent years. But when Neon Swing played there in 2006 — the band's first out-of-state appearance — an audience of about half a dozen showed up at the venue expecting bluegrass music.
“The characters in that song are people we actually met,” Urick says, admitting the band got a little rowdy at its bed-and-breakfast after the show. “The person who asked to move our truck, that actually happened. It was garbage day the next day, and we were thinking why do we have to move it now? And we were really low on gas, and there's not much around. We were really concerned we weren't going to make it out of town.”
While Urick is the lone original member, three musicians — Walter Hunter (sax, clarinet, and trumpet), drummer Joe Palacki and Steve Tomkovitz (sax and vocals) — have been full-time members for at least 15 years. Keyboardist and vocalist Carmen Marotta was a Neon Swinger from 2001-06 before rejoining two years ago. Guitarist Dave Frye started playing part-time in 2002, and has been a full-time member since 2014. Chris Dufalla (trombone, vocals) joined in 2014, and bassists Ken Reeser and Randy Miller joined in 2017.
Urick points to the musicians' diverse backgrounds in jazz, country, rock, classical, and even metal, as the reason Neon Swing X-perience is unlike any other band in the region, if not the country.
“We take all those elements and blend them together to make something that's uniquely us,” he says. “But everything we're doing is rooted in some way to the big bands of the '30s and '40s.”
The show on April 13 has been proclaimed Neon Swing X-perience Day in Pittsburgh by Mayor Bill Peduto, and will feature the full eight-man version of the band.
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.