Autistic musicians rock at Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival |
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Mary Ann Thomas

There was nothing not funky about the Spectrum’s version of “Play that Funky Music White Boy” at the Syria Shrine Center in Harmar on Sunday for the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival.

But there was an aura — something almost supernatural and powerful — that wowed the crowd.

Maybe it had something to do with all of the musicians in the band being on the autism spectrum, hence the name, and the lead singer. 8-years-old, with ADHD.

“Kids who aren’t on the spectrum can’t always perform like this,” said Ellen Allen, of McCandless, whose son Xavier, also autistic, sang during the festival Saturday.

For the last several years, proceeds from the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival have benefitted the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Band Together Pittsburgh.

Band Together is a community-based nonprofit that uses the power of music to enrich the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.

But the festival takes it another step forward: The autistic musicians who have been showing up at Band Together Pittsburgh’s monthly open mic nights at Steamworks Creative in Hampton played during the two-day festival.

Their performances were sprinkled in a lineup that included also national acts such as Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, Dana Fuchs, CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band and Vanessa Collier.

Not to mention as a bevy of local and regional favorites such as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, Bill Toms & Hard Rain, Jill West & Blues Attack and a Tribute to the Legendary Women of the Blues.

Xavier Allen, 17, of McCandless, vocalist, wooed the crowd on Saturday with his version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t she Lovely.”

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“It was amazing,” said Xavier, who started playing keyboards at the age of 2, then went on to sing in the school choir.

“I like ‘riffin,” he said.

Xavier does get a little help these days with voice lessons at Brighton Music Center in Ross Township.

“His character changes when he gets a hold of that microphone,” said Xavier’s mother, Ellen Allen. “It’s almost as if his autism fades, and all the nervousness and fear goes away.”

Seeing her son and others on the autism spectrum perform is a uniquely positive experience, noted Allen.

“A lot of people see kids with autism and feel sorry for them,” she said.

“But when you see them perform, you feel nothing but pride.”

The best part of singing at the festival, Xavier said, was “Seeing my mom recording me on stage. It was the greatest.”

Vocalist Justin Capozzoli, 25, of Shaler, belted out an original song he wrote, “Our Last Night” and a cover of Lizzo’s “Better in Color.”

He started singing at open mic night at Steamworks Creative last year.

“The bigger audience at the festival feels like there is less pressure than something more intimate with two or three people,” he said.

About 17 autistic musicians and a comedian performed throughout the two-day festival over the weekend, according to West Deer musician John Vento of the Nied’s Hotel Band, and co-founder of Band Together Pittsburgh.

The other co-founder is Ron “Moondog” Esser of Frazer, promoter of the blues festival and other concerts and owner of the iconic Moondog’s blues club and Starlite Lounge in Blawnox.

Music is just one of the aims of Band Together.

“We’re creating a family around the music,” Vento said. “These kids wouldn’t know each other if they weren’t playing together.”

“They are isolated with few friends,” Vento said. “Here they are superstars.”

And talent?

That’s easy, Vento said: “They’re gifted.”

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