West Deer’s John Vento uses music as force for good
For a guy who admits that he had a late start in taking original music seriously, John Vento certainly is making up for lost time. In the past 20 years, the West Deer singer-songwriter, who grew up in Penn Hills, has recorded three albums with his John Vento Band, five as lead singer with the Nied’s Hotel Band — voted Best Bar Band in Pittsburgh — and three with the Plum-based Businessmen, a group primarily organized for fundraisers.
He still performs in all three.
“Since I was such a late starter, and most of my peers have been involved with music since their early teens, I feel like I’m in my mid-30s in dog years, I mean music years,” he says, laughing. “I really didn’t get serious about original music or dedicating myself to the craft until I was in my mid-40s. So as far as I’m concerned I haven’t even approached my peak yet.”
“I’m 57 and getting younger every day,” he adds through more laughter.
Success in business
A father of three, Vento is a successful Pittsburgh businessman, opening CIS Office Installers in 1983, and helping to create many small businesses by supporting and mentoring young entrepreneurs, in addition to offering encouragement to new and veteran musicians.
He considers it an honor to have been invited to many live shows as a guest performer. Most recently he opened at The Palace Theatre, Greensburg, for international hit maker, singer-songwriter Gino Vannelli, who has sold 10 million albums; developed a friendship with some of Vannelli’s musicians (“Man, are those guys good,” he says); and, with the Businessmen, opened for Bad Company and Three Dog Night.
A room of their own
Vento’s brainchild, Steamworks Creative, a listening room off Route 8 in Hampton, not far from his home, has just celebrated its first anniversary in allowing musicians to perform acoustically without the noise and general din of many club venues.
“We are very pleased. We’ve earned some great respect from artists and audiences alike,” he says. “Our main goal is to continue building the listening room concept, where the music is the focus.” He has founded, with Ron “Moondog” Esser, Band Together, designed to create and support music programs for those on the Autism Spectrum and annually showcased at the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival at the Syria Mosque grounds, among other venues.
His passion for autism awareness is quite personal.
“My godson is on the spectrum, plus others in our family. Through Band Together Pittsburgh we want folks to see how beautiful and talented those on the spectrum really are,” he says. “You would have to come to one of our Autism Friendly Open Mic events to see first-hand what I’m trying to say, it’s amazing on every level.”
He is also on the Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania Board of Directors. His late mother, Maryann Vento of Penn Hills, died at 38 from complications of lupus. Local charities have benefited from his and his fellow artists’ musical talents over the past two decades, helping to raise more than $250,000 for Pittsburgh causes.
Inspired by Harry Chapin
“Please don’t give me too much credit. We just create an opportunity where charitable causes can use our performances as a platform for support,” Vento explains. “My inspiration was and is the late great Harry Chapin. He dedicated his life to charitable efforts through his music. He really is my hero.”
He has been very blessed, he adds, and has a sense of obligation to give back as much as possible. When it is suggested to him that musicians in general seem to be among the first to want to aid causes when help is needed, he offers, “Yes, creative people with beautiful hearts.”
“John’s heart is true and his intentions well meant,” says veteran Buffalo township musician James Buckley, whose new band is Jimmy and the Frogmen. “He is someone you want on your side. He motivates others. Many flock to what he is doing. So when he takes on a new project, people’s heads turn to see.”
It was Vento who convinced Buckley to believe in his own abilities and return to music after 22 years. Buckley has always told Vento his strength is his presence on stage and how he connects with audiences.
“He shows every emotion that is reflected in his material. That talent is so important as music has now become so contingent on visual and audio.”
Vento views collaboration as one of his strengths.
“I have been blessed to garner wonderful support and great contributions from so many accomplished musicians,” he explains. “These guys and gals are way ahead of me in talent and experience, yet they’ve been so loving in helping me create music. I truly am humbled by the many gifted musicians that I call friends.”
Best of his career
Never was that truer, he suggests, than the two-year journey that has finally produced what he considers the most time consuming and best album of his career, his new autobiographical “Love, Lust Other Wreckage.”
“I’m so very, very proud of our albums with The Nied’s Hotel Band and The Businessmen. This one is just way more personal,” he explains. It’s a softer more contemplative side that he had never previously explored.
“It is all about one person’s struggle with real intimacy in relationships. Our hero has great friends, fun, music, but something much deeper is missing,” he explains. “And that something is tough to find and keep. The record is full of regret and heartache but in the end love finds a way.”
Feeling the power
Creating an intimate connection and entertaining others is very powerful, says Vento. To him, “music is oxygen.”
Rick Witkowski of Weirton, former nationaIly touring musician (in Crack the Sky) and a member of the late B.E. Taylor Group, loves “the great songs and production” on the album.
He first met and worked with Vento at a Bob Dylan Tribute benefit for Art Nardini. ”His performance of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ really blew me away,” he recalls. “He is a very dynamic performer with a strong voice and great stage presence. He is also a very generous, kind and caring person and is very supportive of the Pittsburgh music community.”
Vento is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reaction to the record. “We had hoped that we created something special but when you are so close to it for two full years you really don’t know,” he acknowledges.
Heart of gold
David Granati of the Granati Brothers praises Vento as “a passionate and determined man with a heart of gold.”
They were open to try any style and approach in the studio, he adds. “He has a storyteller’s voice,” he says. “I appreciate the diversity and honesty of the album.”
Vento has lived “an amazing life,” and has a true gift for storytelling says former musician and 30-year music industry veteran Michael Stover, president and owner of Vento’s Pittsburgh-based record company, MTS, and MTS Management Group, serving clients worldwide.
“There is a sincerity and honesty about John’s lyrics and his voice, when he pours his emotions into them,” he says.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.