Donnie Iris to celebrate ‘Spirit of 76’ in Greensburg
It seems like it took almost a full year for fans to finally stop wishing Donnie Iris “Happy 75th Birthday” last year.
But that’s OK, suggests Pittsburgh’s beloved, iconic rocker.
“It’s the fans and the need to create new things that keep us motivated,” explains Iris as he prepares to lead his Cruisers back to The Palace Theatre, Greensburg, Feb. 9 (his 76th birthday month!) for the fourth time in the last 12 months. “There is so much more to be done. I have no desire to retire. It’s just too much fun and I feel great!”
He played celebratory birthday concerts at the Palace for enthusiastic audiences last year on Feb. 2, Feb. 10 and March 10, and continued to accept well-wishes in shows throughout the region well into 2018, including musical parties on at least two rivers, the Allegheny in Kittanning in The Arts on the Allegheny series and Ohio on the Rivers Casino amphitheater stage.
The highlights of his landmark birthday year were many, he recalls.
“Kevin Colbert (general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers) came back stage after a show at the Palace and gave me a Steelers’ jersey with my name on it and the number 75. We’ve been friends for many years and his whole family was there,” Iris says. “And there was an unnamed fan (at the Palace) who gave me a brand new Stratocaster guitar! I hope he reads this article, I’d love to reach out to him.”
(If you are or know this person, please email [email protected] and your contact will be forwarded to Iris.)
The warm glow of Donnie
“I was delighted to see how Donnie was embraced for three practical sell-outs at the Greensburg Palace last year. The first two shows were sell-outs, the third one was practically all gone except for a few scattered seats I believe,” says longtime friend Mark Avsec, the co-founder, producer, songwriter and keyboardist of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. “Donnie is so beloved by the people of Pittsburgh and, as I have been observing and saying the last few years, that only grows the older he gets.”
Another observer of the regional music scene suggests Iris is a quintessential Pittsburgher: no ego, no bravado, just someone enjoying what he does. Iris, it’s said, looks like someone you would pass daily on the street, on the bus, or buying groceries and he sings about things that everyone can relate to: yearning for someone, wanting to be with someone but knowing it is not going to work, losing in love, etc.
“Donnie turning 75 made a lot of people take notice. And I was glad that the general response came from a starting point that acknowledged his longevity; none of it started with the theme of, ‘Do you remember this guy?’ ” explains his biographer, California, Pa. native D.X. Ferris. The Ohio resident, a teacher and award-winning writer, is author of the exhaustively researched, “The Story of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers,” which will be available at The Palace Theatre concert and other shows. It also can be ordered online at Amazon and Barnes Noble.
“Ferris did a remarkable job on it,” says Avsec. “He put hours and days and months and years into that project. It’s an outstanding piece of work.”
Emodies Pittsburgh values
Ferris believes Iris has been embraced so enthusiastically because he embodies some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished values.
“He has always remained humble,” he says. “Watching Donnie in action is really something. Watching the Greensburg show was a scene straight out of (the music film) ‘Almost Famous.’ I watched from the side stage. So I had a view of that grand, lush old theater to my left, then the Cruisers playing to my right, all in front of a sold out audience. And by then, the book was done, so I was finally back to experiencing the band as a fan and I wasn’t working.”
Now, Donnie Iris at 76 is impressive by anybody’s standards, Ferris says. “It’s great that Donnie’s shows are still an event. I think the fan base remains energized. The band is still a draw,” Ferris says. “From my observations, Donnie absolutely appreciates his following (Iris assures that he does), and he recognizes all the people who make it possible.”
Ferris expresses this hope: “I wish some philanthropist or cultural trust would cut a check big enough to make it worth everybody’s time to make another album, even a covers album.”
New music may be in future
Avsec, a busy lawyer, hints broadly that there well could be a new album. “It seems like fate is pushing us there,” he acknowledges. “I have to make the time commitment for the new album, but once I do it will be on. I need to get obsessed with the project. I am still contemplating direction and am beginning to write songs,” he says. “The band is still terrific. Kevin (drummer Kevin Valentine), Marty (guitarist Marty Lee Hoenes) and Paul (bassist Paul Goll) are all great players.”
The Emmy-nominated Valentine, based in Los Angeles, mixes the sound for the “Better Call Saul” television series and other shows. “We are all great friends and like hanging together. And investing another 750 hours in a new album means that Donnie and I can spend some quality time together in the studio where it’s as much about connecting personally as it is producing new music,” Avsec adds. “The band and the music will keep us all connected forever.”
Iris is excited about the future, including Feb. 9.
“I’m so looking forward to the Palace show,” he says. “The band is pumped and I’m psyched. It’s ‘The Spirit of 76’ and there’s no chance of slowing down. We shall continue the drive to 100!”
Nobody is betting against it.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.