Joe Grushecky to Rock Folk Festival’s ‘Round Town Event on Friday
Pittsburgh rocker and Springsteen collaborator brings band to Water Street Tavern
The 45th Kent State Folk Festival showcases a wide variety of musical offerings – everything from acoustic folk to blues, world music, alternative indie sounds and New Orleans brass bands. No event showcases the festival’s diversity more than Folk Alley ‘Round Town – the event’s annual free night of music all over the city.
Grushecky has been playing rock 'n' roll since the mid-1970s and, despite being from Steel Town, he has some strong Cleveland connections.
His first band the Iron City Houserockers was signed to Cleveland International Records by the late beloved record executive Steve Popovich. (Here’s a scoop: Grushecky and company will play a Popovich tribute show with former Mott the Hoople singer Ian Hunter at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom on Oct. 28.) Their first album Love So Tough was a moderate success, and it displayed the type of straightforward classic R&B-influenced rock that would be a hallmark of Grushecky’s career for more than 30 years.
After releasing a few more records, the Iron City Houserockers broke up in the mid-1980s, as sales had started to dwindle. But Grushecky, who still works a day job as a special education teacher, continued to write songs and play music. He got back in the game in 1989, working as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers – and he hasn’t looked back since then.
I joked with Grushecky that rocking and rolling doesn’t get any easier as you get older, but he has a different view.
“Actually in some ways it does, because I feel like I’m playing better and singing better now than I ever have,” Grushecky said. “Music is a wonderful thing. If you keep at it and you keep playing and you keep pursing your craft and your art, the sky’s the limit.”
Grushecky and the Houserockers' latest studio recording is 2009’s East Carson Street, a very strong set of classic rock infused with elements of R&B and soul. “The last record was a lot of fun to make,” Grushecky said. “The key is the songwriting. I thought I wrote a good batch of songs, and the band just played them great.”
Grushecky is a real music lover, and he fondly remembers when you could hear all types of music back-to-back on one radio station.
“We grew up in that real fertile area of the Sixties where you could hear everybody play all different types of music,” Grushecky said. “So we knew Wilson Pickett, the Beatles, the Animals, and Herman’s Hermits along with Smokey and the Miracles and the Stax artists. Plus blues like Muddy Waters and folks such as Hank Williams. We grew up playing all that music, so we try to incorporate a lot of different styles in what we do. It comes naturally because we grew up listening to it.”
Grushecky likes the independence that comes with putting out his music without a record label. “We took our time making it, and I thought it sounded good,” Grushecky said. “One of the advantages of being completely independent is that we work at our own pace.”
East Carson Street features a killer duet with Grushecky’s longtime pal Bruce Springsteen on the tune Another Thin Line. Grushecky has had a unique relationship with “The Boss” since the early 1990s.
“Bruce and I did the initial recording for American Babylon in 1993,” Grushecky explained. “It took us a while to get it out, as it came out in 1995. We’ve been songwriting partners since then.”
Springsteen won a Grammy Award for his vocals on one of their collaborations, Code of Silence, which was included on The Essential Bruce Springsteen collection.
“We have about 10-15 songs we’ve written together,” Grushecky said. “It’s been fun. Bruce and I became very good friends working together. He’s been gracious enough to join my band on many occasions. And when he comes near the area with the E Street Band he usually invites me to play. It’s been a real cool experience.”
Springsteen has worked with lots of great artists over the years, but the songwriting collaborations with Grushecky are special.
“It started off with me giving him some lyrics to use,” Grushecky said. “I thought that I had written a really strong lyric and I just could not nail the music. I took a chance and gave Bruce the lyrics and told him to feel free to use them for a song. He called a short time later and had a completely different take on it than I would’ve done. That was the beginning of the relationship.”
Grushecky is excited about his next release, a live set recorded earlier this month at a two-night stint at a small Pittsburgh theater. “I’ve heard some preliminary stuff and it sounds real good. The band was real tight. So we’re excited about the prospects of a new live CD.”
Water Street Tavern owner Mike Beder says Gruschecky may do a few acoustic tunes since the show is part of the folk festival, but overall the veteran rocker was clear when he told me what to expect Friday night.
“Rock and roll,” he said with a laugh. “Lots of guitar playing.”
Despite the ups and downs that come with a career in rock music, Grushecky is grateful for the opportunities he has been given.
“We started out a long time ago with the dream of just making one record,” Grushecky said. “So to still be able to play our own stuff and play on our own terms this far down the line is a great thing for us. We are really enjoying ourselves.”
Joe Gruschecky and the Houserockers perform Friday night at 9:30 p.m. at the Water Street Tavern. Admission is free. A complete list of all of the performers of the festival’s Folk Alley ‘Round Town day is available on the festival website.