Celebrate Erie: And now for something completely different
With Celebrate Erie taking over downtown from August 18 to August 21, Is What It Is is a band not to miss. Michael Bennett tells you exactly why.
Taking the chance to be different and create excitement by stepping outside the norm can yield untold rewards and inspire people to delight in the unexpected.
But it is also a risk. Especially when the celebration of a city is at stake.
For the music committee of Celebrate Erie, the past few years have focused on the conversation: How can we try something new without seeming to fall on our faces?
"We've really tried the last two or three years to bring a kind of artistic crossroads to Celebrate Erie," said Laura Schaaf, City of Erie Assistant to the Mayor. "We've tried to have the goal of combining different genres and forms of art."
In the past, Schaaf, and others, have tried unsuccessfully to find acts for the event who could at least attempt to challenge the artistic perceptions of the audience.
"We struggled finding diverse groups that could work together," Schaaf confirmed. "This year, I think we did."
This year, she is right.
On the main stage, Friday, Aug. 19, before the Monsters of Motown rehash the golden age of Detroit's musical soul, will be a group of dancers and musicians dedicated to providing a new experience to enlighten and enhance the otherwise celibate undertakings.
The music will be anchored by the fantastic trio Is What It is, featuring Steve Trohoske on bass, Kenny "Stix" Thompson on drums, and Ian Smith on guitar. Is What It Is has been making bodies move all over Erie since their inception in February.
Their tight musical manipulations will be enhanced by the addition of percussionist Joel Polacci, of the Bill Burke Trio, as well as the talents of Brian Hannah on flugelhorn and trumpet, who has played with Dave Stevens Big Band, The Chautauqua Philharmonic, and The Erie Philharmonic.
The movements may be dictated by the music, but they will be captured and delivered by a trio of local dancers. Carla Fleming, of Lake Erie Belly Dance, will be joined by hula hoopers Jennifer Dennehy of Dennehy's Hoops, and Anna Haller of Satori Hoops, to move in time with the music and the moods.
"[Playing the main stage] is a really cool opportunity because they never really had anything original or modern," Trohoske said. "They've always played it real safe with the acts they choose. It just makes me realize the band and the musicians in the band have made enough noise and waves to get noticed."
Trohoske knows of what he speaks. He has been a staple of the Erie music scene for decades playing in every form or genre imaginable. This current project is his best work yet.
"Is What It Is alone, as a group, is wonderful. But to bring in other artists just makes the whole show that much better," Schaaf said. "[Trohoske] has done a lot for the Erie community. And when the music committee met, we felt it was the right time. If you know [Trohoske], you know the quality of his work. And with the band and the dancers… the city will take notice of the quality and uniqueness of this event."
The group is as diverse an arrangement of talent as has ever been assembled on an Erie stage. This is not some staid, over-choreographed, strings and ballet offshoot akin to a PBS fund drive.
Is What It Is are one of, if not the, hardest working bands in Erie.
"Right now, we are on tour in Erie," Trohoske said. "We're not weekend warriors. This band plays everywhere every night of the week. Private functions, you name it. Lake Erie Arboretum, Romolo's, The Maennerchor, The Erie Club, we'll play everywhere we can."
"They called me to do a gig on Tuwedsday," Stix interjected. "You know what day that is? It's the day between Tuesday and Wednesday," he finished before falling into his contagious laughing chuckle.
Trying to describe the sound of Is What It Is is like trying to describe the taste of milk. No matter how you try to define it, it just isn't right.
They engage in jazz and blues, beats and breaks, dissonance and harmony, all for the goal of achieving a joyous musical moment, for the band and the audience.
The group is well aware of the prestige of the moment. And with the additional musicians and dancers, they look at the event as separate from a regular Is What It Is gig.
The group has composed a number of new songs, while Fleming added one of her own songs, "Heart of a Woman," and they will be doing a cover of John Coltrane's "Ole."
"I've been kind of working on carving out the specifics of each piece," Smith stated. "Meanwhile I've been thinking about the general narrative across the board and the interplay between the dancers.
"I've constructed the theme as the interplay of masculine and feminine forces as a set of two polar opposites and they're meeting in the middle," Smith continued. "The music will also focus on the dichotomy of introversion verses extroversion and aggression versus submission. The third dancer in the middle of that combines those qualities into a balance."
It may sound haughty to describe the music in such terms, but in the end it is just a highfalutin way of saying the show will make you shake your ass with meaning. And if the idea of thought provoking music somehow does not pique the attention of the crowd it can be accomplished in two words: Body Paint.
In order to portray the narrative vision of the piece, the music and choreography will be enhanced by women hooping in painted-on costumes, - so as to make it a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
"It has been an amazing experience to perform with live musicians and friends," said Haller, who teaches and makes custom hoops. "I don't think Erie has ever seen anything like this before. It truly is performance art. The whole piece encompasses so much positive energy. I think the audience will be blown away."
The group is not lost on itself. The mission is to entertain, but in the most artistic of fashions.
"I see it as an honor to play on the main stage," Trohoske said. "There's been a lot of blood sweat and tears. I'm a 40-year-old man. We make our living doing this. We've spent years kicking against the bricks just trying to make a living, but still do our art form. We're not a bunch of art kids sitting in a coffee house talking about doing art. We're out there. We're workhorses. We're working musicians.
"I don't have any huge expectations," he continued. "I expect that the band is going to do what they do for every gig. And that's go in prepared. Go in with a sense of brotherhood like we always do. This is a family. I can never live up to my expectations until I get there and the music starts playing because often times it exceeds any expectations I might have had. Every new gig is the best gig because it just gets better. "
The artist collective of musicians and dancers will be performing on the main stage Friday, Aug. 19, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. A Celebrate Erie pre-party and sneak peek of the group will be held Thursday, Aug. 11 at 1201 Kitchen, 1201 State St.
You can reach Michael Bennett at email@example.com