Monday, April 28, 2014

New group “The Skeleton Keys” knows the secrets to success as a team

The Skeleton Keys

By Matt Marn

Published in YabYum Music and Arts, 4-27-14

For Shane Hunt, music was always a conduit not simply for self-expression, but a way to relate to others.

"Music is the best catalyst for conversation I have ever discovered," Hunt said. "You instantly have something to relate to anybody with. I can channel all that energy, enthusiasm or anguish and create something that not only helps me, but will touch or affect others also. Music transcends language barriers, religious beliefs or ethnicities - it's a universal dialect. It's not difficult to be enthusiastic about that."

Shane Hunt, Sydney Sprague, and Sam Mitchell make up The Skeleton Keys, a new group in Phoenix ready to leave their unique mark on the Valley. Hunt plays guitar/mandolin, Sprague plays guitar/ukulele, while Mitchell plays violin/mandolin, and all three contribute on vocals. What's more, Hunt's comments show performing is something more to the trio than just playing music - they want to connect with their fans and make them feel something new.

Shane Hunt
"I tend to describe my songwriting as an attempt to encapsulate a particular moment or emotion," Hunt said. "It's like exorcism - you try to take an energy that is pervading your spirit and drive it out. Songs are a binding agent for that spirit. I look at where I am mentally and emotionally, feel what the tone of the song is, and imbue the melody and lyrics with the feeling I have currently, or with a past feeling that stands out to me."

Another sign of great performers is how easily they adapt to change. The Skeleton Keys have changed since they first began, and have risen to many challenges. When Hunt was first performing, he played solo, but once he saw Sydney Sprague perform at a local "Chicks with Picks" showcase, he just had to introduce himself.

"We had very similar interests and songwriting styles," Hunt said. "We blended very easily."

When Hunt and Sprague began playing together, it quickly became a natural fit. Later, while Sprague was working as an intern at a recording studio in Austin, Hunt began writing for a music journal,, covering groups in the Valley and national acts.

Sam Mitchell was playing violin for one such group when she crossed paths with Hunt. But while Hunt was present to watch the group perform, Mitchell's skills kept his attention through their whole set.

"I mentioned to her I was recording songs, and I would love to hear what it sounded like with her violin on them," Hunt said.

And later, when Mitchell parted ways with her former band, Hunt asked her if she would still be interested in working on the material together.

Eventually the three met and clicked instantly. The Skeleton Keys were born.

Sydney Sprague
"When we met, Sydney and I were instant friends," Mitchell said. "It's not fake, everybody is really into it - everybody loves playing music. It's music for music's sake. I wrote stuff that fit in with their music, and went from there. We did a lot of covers, along with their owns songs, to set the tone and develop our own rhythm and dynamic."

Hunt agreed, saying when groups sit down to write a set, there is often conflict regarding band direction.

"But with us, it was instant chemistry," he said. "Everyone got along great. When we first walked in, we played a blend of my songs and Sydney's songs... but we started to see the dynamic change. As a singer/songwriter, you write simply and for yourself, but I started to change in the way I approach songwriting. I write with the group in mind now, leaving space for Sam's violin or for Sydney's vocals."

Mitchell adds she truly believes strings elevate and provide depth to rock music.

"I was determined to show everyone violin will fit into rock music," she said. It does fit into rock music. It was hard getting into a band - first, because I'm a girl; second, because I play violin."

With the Skeleton Keys, Mitchell is thrilled to have found a group who appreciates her skills on violin, as well as builds their set around giving her a chance to shine.

Sam Mitchell
Before, in other groups, the fit just wasn't right," Mitchell said. "I came into this group now with bad experiences based on prior situations, but I was really blown away. I came home saying, 'I really like doing this! I really like music again.'"

Hunt said there is a tangible difference between Sprague and himself playing as solo songwriters compared to the dynamic of when they play together.

"I tend to write songs so I can still squeeze all the emotion, impact and intensity out of an audience I can when I play them by myself with an acoustic guitar," he said. "So when I started to write for the band, my process started to change a bit to incorporate Sam and Syd's strenghts and sensibilities into my own style. There is a definite contrast to things I've written on my own to what we are writing together now. There is space created for solos, and there is a lot of room for harmonies, for example."

The Skeleton Keys are ready to spread the word they are performing around town, and will soon head into the studio to record an album.

"Living off something we love so much would be amazing," Mitchell said. "We've played consistently for a few months. We plan to get photos, merchandise and our album going very soon. I don't care if we don't get crazy big; I just want to get where we can do this for a living."

Being an artist professionally is a major hurdle for most musicians, and Hunt knows there are many who are quick to condemn and sometimes dismiss performers. To every musical hopeful out there, he is just as quick to remind them for every criticism, there is a hand reaching out to offer help and support.

"You can't allow your expectations to dictate your action in the music business," he said. "You have to just exist in the moment and allow things to happen to you... it's an incredibly scarring and simultaneously intensely fulfilling experience. It's like being in love with someone - it has the capacity to make you rapturous or completely devastated... so much of it is contingent on the type of energy you take to the situation. So if you're open to good things, they will find you eventually."

The Skeleton Keys aim to open many doors in the music industry and in the minds of their fans for the foreseeable future.

For more information on The Skeleton Keys, visit them on Facebook and YouTube.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Art of Busking with Jon Renner of "Tiger Heist"

By Matt Marn

As posted by Yab Yum Music and Arts

Jon Renner of Tiger Heist tries to play his guitar live every day. He practices, plans out his set list, dresses up, and heads out to play and spread the word about his performances. But the difference between Renner and many other acts is he plays wherever he wants, whenever he wants.

Renner is a member of the Phoenix "busking" community, a term for street performers. He brings his guitar out onto a street corner or near a busy concert or sports venue, and performs for passersby with an open guitar case for welcome tips.

"A lot of what I do is street performing," Renner said. "When there is a show at US Airways Center or Comerica, I go camp out and play. Fifty people have their eyes on me, and I'm a little nervous, but as soon as I start playing, it's all great."

Renner has been playing since September 2013, and January was his first solo gig. He plays as much as he can, sometimes more than one place or gig each day.

"I played 60 times in the summer - sometimes two or three a day," he said. "It really helped. Performing is only one part; the networking is great, too. I try to meet and talk to people whenever I play."

Learning the Ropes

Renner pointed out that now that music is his full-time job, a lot more goes into the craft once the food on your table depends on how well you can perform.

"You have to warm up and prepare for every time you go out and play," he said. "When you play and sing as well, it's a different muscle group. I can't just bail on the gig... it's my life. Also, when you get sick, it affects a lot - you have to cancel gigs, take time to recuperate. I also make an effort to dress up when I head out to play - to set myself apart."

Renner explained looking the part truly makes a difference. The first time he went out to perform on the street, he dressed casually for the heat, wearing jeans and a T-shirt... and didn't make much in tips.

"Later on, I went with a Johnny Cash look," he said. "I put on a black button-down shirt, nice looking shoes - and did a lot better. If you dress with confidence, the crowd picks up on that."

There are a lot of things he learned from experience from street performing. There is a proper etiquette among the busking community as a whole - a mutual respect which must be show to one another. He also had to learn on the fly about technique, amplifiers, what songs to play and when to play them, and so on. Most of all, he learned about how much you can make in tips, compared against the amount of foot traffic and people that stop to hear your performances.

"The secret is covers," Renner said. "At first, covers weren't what I wanted, but I got a lot of insight on great composers and artists. Learn a lot of songs, how chord progressions work. Then you can take that and adapt it, make it your own."

Renner has a number of original songs under his belt, as well. As for the inspiration behind his songs, he said it always varies based on the song, and what is happening in his life at the time.

"Some of my original songs I've been writing for years, while others I finish on the spot, before the hour is up," Renner said. "I usually start with a good chord progression - I've always been better starting with chords and melodies, then matching words to them, rather than the other way around."

An Early Start In Music

Renner said music had always been around his household. His father played guitar fairly well - he wanted to learn, too, but was afraid to ask. When he was in fifth grade, Renner's mother forced him to play the piano.

"I played nursery rhymes... I hated it," he said. "But I guess looking back, even that helped me learn the importance of practice, and it grew my ear for music."

He began to play guitar early, but it just wouldn't stick. Renner's true passion was revealed when his classmate took up the drums, and he followed soon after.

"My friend introduced me to Travis Barker, the drummer from Blink-182, and I tried the drums - and it just clicked," he said. "I loved it. I spent a lot of time practicing to get better. My friend taught me beats during the day at school, and I went to Guitar Center every day in the afternoon to practice them in the drum room."

Renner loves playing the drums, but in addition to drums, guitar, and a bit of piano, he also knows keyboard, ukulele, bass, and is trying to learn the violin. He used his talents to form a group during his school years first, where he played the drums, and brought in a guitarist and some other players. They played hip-hop/indie rock fusion, and called themselves "Tiger Heist."

"Honestly, we just picked the name because it sounded cool," Renner said. "We looked up the name to make sure it wasn't taken by another group. As it turned out, it was a slang term for an inside-job bank robbery back in the 40's and 50's. That locked it for us."

Unfortunately, the group as it was then did not last, but Renner kept the name as he went out on his own as a solo performer. He has since quit his job and devoted everything to music.

"I didn't have a set list or a plan... my first seven months, I lived on friends' couches, truly living the 'starving artist' lifestyle," Renner said. "I knew about street performing, I knew I could do that. But it wasn't until I heard about the performer Passenger - and saw his successful performances and videos on YouTube, and all his CD sales just from street performing - then I knew it was possible. I knew I could do it. I got the gear I needed, and started marketing myself as a street performer."

A Tough Gig, Indeed

Street Performing has come with its own set of challenges for Renner, including a territorial street performer from another corner, drunken pedestrians yelling into his microphone, and rough crowds.

"With street performing, you never know what will happen," he said. "Once, I had people not digging my music, and a really mean-looking guy walked right up to me and turned off my amp, right in the middle of my song. I guess you never know what might happen - but I still love doing it."

Another obstacle buskers have to work with can be legal barriers to performing. While Renner is fairly certain Phoenix accepts and welcomes street performing, other cities have more strict policies, particularly when it comes to performing plugged into an amplifier.

For example, Renner found out the hard way that in Arizona, some cities require a permit to play with an amp. He was stopped in Tempe by the police after 25 minutes of performing and told he needed a permit. When he tried to ask about getting a permit, he was told playing in Tempe with an amp requires $130 each time you play, and to get the permit, you have to state in advance where you want to play, and for how long.

"I would love to see the laws on street performing relaxed," he said. "I know the laws are there for a reason - if you take them away, a lot of people (who may need more practice first) might turn their amps way up, and hurt the reputation of street performing overall. And we don't want people with not enough experience or skill giving street performers a bad name, but on the other hand, they have the right to play, too... It's definitely a tough call."

A New Start for Tiger Heist

Renner has recently finished writing the songs for his upcoming album, and is now playing a number of pre-arranged performances at local restaurants, like Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Phoenix. While he continues to perform on street corners, he know performing in set venues is another great way to network and spread the word about his performances.

"You lose a lot of freedom playing in venues, but it's more professional," he said.

A lot of his attention is also moving toward getting his album recorded, as well as his CD release party, with a tentative date set for May 16.

"For me, it's a set date, but we've got a lot of work to do to get there in time, he said.

Renner also hopes to get a blog started, full of tips and advice on busking for street performer hopefuls. His dream for later on is to start a non-profit dedicated to sending used guitars to other areas, such as Africa, where they can find new life teaching new people to play and love music.

But for now, his advice to people hoping to learn to play guitar, or work their way up to street performing: Just do it.

"Ask someone - someone who won't just tell you what you want to hear," Renner said. "Ask them if you're ready to play in front of others. Memorize 10 to 15 songs, minimum. When you master those and get bored wiht them, then you're ready. Being on the streets is awesome, you get so much free exposure... I wish I'd known about street performing earlier."

Find "Tiger Heist" on ReverbNation, or catch him every First Friday in downtown Phoenix.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rockabilly band '56 releases new album, Steppin'

By Matt Marn

The upbeat swinging tunes of local rockabilly band ’56 has had the crowd cheering for years now, but now they can bring them home with their debut album, Steppin'.

 is a superb example of capturing the rockabilly spirit with classic style. From their nine original songs to the rockabilly staples they cover in the album, their fast-paced beats have something for everyone. Bret Kaiser leads the group on vocals, Tom Mein shreds on guitar, Austin Case lays down the rhythm on the upright bass, and Jeff Garten sets the pace on drums. Together, they make a blazing, sharp-dressed rockabilly team, headlining music venues and events all over the Valley.

Mein remembered when lead singer Bret Kaiser came by Mein’s solo performance and proposed he join Kaiser in a new musical group.

“He told me he liked my playing, and wanted to know if I would be interested in joining a group,” Mein said. “He already had some really great, pro players I knew about, and I love rockabilly so I was excited to join.”

Mein has been playing professionally for the better part of his 40 years guitar experience. He was in a rockabilly band of his own called The Level in Detroit in 1980 or ‘81, just before the Stray Cats got their big break.

“We played all around town, mostly crappy little places, and then the Stray Cats hit MTV, and we started getting better gigs. That band didn’t last too long, but it happened during a formative time in my musical career, and I developed a deep affinity and respect for rockabilly and roots music. I really like a lot of different styles of music – I play a lot of jazz, and especially enjoy vintage, swing-era jazz. I also dig traditional country, bluegrass, rock, punk, and blues. Rockabilly kind of has elements of all those styles – at least the way we play it – so it is perfect for me.”

Mein’s favorite part of being in ’56 is that everyone in the band works so well together.

“The rhythm section – Jeff, Austin and I – really listen and play off of each other,” he said. “And I’m an improviser, so these songs evolve over time because I never play them the same way twice, and Jeff hears me and plays off of what I play. Not all musicians are great at listening like that. It makes for a tight, fun band.”

Mein is always impressed by Bret and his great showmanship and his stage presence, not to mention how the rest of the band wows the crowd on a regular basis.

“We have a lot of little things we do onstage together that are fun and look cool,” Mein said. “We never rehearse that stuff; it just comes up at shows and develops over time.”

Mein loves everything about music and performing live.

“Interaction – with the audience, with other musicians… creating, improvising, working really hard on a difficult passage and nailing it in performance,” he said. “Jumping off the drum riser, OVER Austin’s bass, and landing in a power slide on my knees into a guitar solo. Hopping off the stage during a solo and dancing in the crowd. Making good music and spreading it around to as many people as possible. I love it all – everything but hauling the gear after the show.”

’56 finishes the album strong with a cover medley, starting with “Harlem Nocturne,” an instrumental cover. They slow it down a bit with this haunting melody. Mein’s powerful soloing keeps it in great balance.

Halfway through the track, Kaiser’s voice reclaims center stage, and jumps right into “I Put a Spell on You.” His howling “Because you’re mine” is a tremendous finish to an album everyone can enjoy.

Whether you are a die-hard fan of rockabilly music from back in the day, or if you just love moving along with great tunes from fantastic performers, ’56 and their debut album,
 Steppin' will leave you cheering for more. Like they say in the song: “If you don’t like high-speed chases, you’d better not come along for the ride!”

If you want to see ’56 in action, visit them on their
 Facebook page, or head to their website (WARNING: music automatically plays. -Eds) to check for local performance dates. You should also check out the Steppin' promotional video on YouTube.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Community Spotlight: Benevilla's Friendly Visitors program brings comfort, friendship to the community

By Matt Marn

Beverly first walked in the door to meet Frances in 2007 expecting to help Frances with some of her paperwork. Neither expected they would grow to be close friends, let alone become like a member of the family.

Frances has lived in the area for 17 years now. She called Benevilla for help because she was familiar with the name, and called them to ask for someone from the organization to come and help her organize her paperwork.

“They said there was no fee, and I even argued with them,” she said. “I don’t want them doing anything free for me. Then came Beverly.”

Beverly came in expecting to help Frances fill out her medical and tax forms, but her role has expanded to a friendly visitor, another Benevilla service, where a volunteer can come into a participant’s home and talk – just be a friendly face to help light up the participant’s day.

“We started laughing – we clicked right that instant,” said volunteer Beverly on her first meeting with Frances back in 2007.

Frances and her husband Hal moved into the Valley of the Sun in 1971, when Hal was moving much of his factory’s operations to the Phoenix area. Since Hal passed away in 1997, it has grown difficult to keep up with her maintenance of the property and other housekeeping. Beverly is a welcome help getting to her doctors’ appointments, and a good friend to sit across the table and share coffee with.

“We share everything. We go to shows together, shopping… we have just been great friends,” said Beverly. “It works out perfect. Sometimes we don’t even do anything, we just sit there and talk.”

Beverly loves volunteering for the programs Benevilla offers because it gets her out of the house, as well, and she is contributing to the community.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “I just love it.”

Frances said she would recommend using the various Benevilla programs to anyone.

“A friendly visitor is a marvelous thing to take advantage of. These volunteers, they are knowledgeable, and want to help people who are home-bound or can’t get around on their own. We’re not strangers anymore – not even volunteer and client. We’re family. This is the best thing that has happened to me since I got here.”
Frances wanted to speak for this article because she wanted to help get the word out about Benevilla and the services they offer the community.

“I want to let people know, people who need to volunteer and people who need these volunteer services,” she said. “It’s sad people don’t take advantage of it. You hear these stories of people sad and alone… What are you doing? Call Benevilla! It’s up to you; you have to make a bit of an effort, too. I’m sorry I didn't find out about it earlier, when I was working in nursing. I would have recommended this to them, too!”
For more information on Benevilla and their wide variety of non-profit services, visit

Community Spotlight: Benevilla volunteer brings hugs, help to everyone around her

By Matt Marn

When Shirley B. moved into Sun City with her husband in 1991, she knew the pair wanted to find somewhere in the area to volunteer their time. What she did not know was they both would have a tremendous impact on the Benevilla community, and lives all across the area.

“We went in for training when we heard that Benevilla was welcoming new volunteers and that instilled in us the sense of commitment,” she said. “If you’re going to do something, do it. Volunteering should be something you really love.”

Shirley has volunteered with Benevilla ever since, along with her husband. She holds games and events at the St. Clements day center, such as her “Baloney Bingo Parlor,” where she calls bingo games for anyone interested in playing, and provides prizes for the winners.

“I try to make everything fun,” she said.

She got another idea from another staff member who picked up and read a newspaper to the participants during some down time one day. She now reads the newspaper often to the day center participants, calling that activity “Good News.”

“Not all of the participants read the newspaper or are up late enough for the ten o’clock news on television, but they still want to keep up with the news,” Shirley said. “I read them any article I can find: heartwarming stories, a little humor, and even some controversy, like what’s happening in the courts. It also gives the staff some time to catch up with other tasks they have.”

Her husband was very involved in Benevilla, as well. He even created a garden for the St. Clements’s day center. She said it started as a vegetable garden, so the participants could plant and stay involved in keeping the garden growing.

“Everyone loved it so much, they were always out there,” Shirley said. “I came in one day, and the place was empty. I called out, ‘where is everyone?’ I heard, ‘we are all out here!’ They had dedicated a plaque for the garden. It was wonderful.

Before Shirley’s husband passed in 2002, she took some time off to be with him, but after his passing, she didn’t go to counseling – she went straight back to volunteer for Benevilla. Bringing a smile to other people was therapy enough.

“Not long after, at the annual volunteer recognition dinner, Michelle Dionisio – Benevilla’s president and CEO – revealed the surprise recipient of the Volunteer of the Year Award. During the presentation, she said ‘this person greets everyone with smiles and hugs when they come in the morning.’ And I thought, I am so glad I’m not the only one that does that. But when Michelle said, ‘And this person came right back to volunteer after her husband passed away...’ I knew it was me. It was a huge honor. I don’t do this to be recognized, but being recognized really is a very big honor.”

Shirley encourages anyone able to volunteer who is considering contacting Benevilla to do so, and see what an impact it makes on the lives of others – not to mention your own.

“It’s such a little time out of your life,” she said. “Mother Theresa said this about the poorest of the poor, but I feel it applies to everything we do: ‘What you can do, I can’t do. What I can do, you can’t do. But together, we can do wonderful things for the Lord.’ Together, we can be truly great. That’s what Benevilla is all about.”

Shirley said she has been very blessed with good health, and feels the reason is so she can keep volunteering.
“I think that’s the Lord’s purpose for me,” she said.

Shirley has truly brought light to many lives along the way. She always loves to give hugs and a smile to everyone in the building. And sometimes, the result can surprise even herself.

“What do I think volunteering is all about? Well, once there was one participant who was in a wheelchair; I could never understand what he said. Whenever he needed something, I had to ask one of the aides or staff to tell me what he needed. Well, when I put the cloths around the necks of the participants at lunchtime, I give them all a little hug along with it. One day, with this man, I came in for my hug at lunchti
me after putting on his cloth and he turned to me and said – as clearly as I am talking to you now – he said ‘you are an angel.’ I was so moved; I had to step aside for a moment. That’s why I do what I do."

For more on Benevilla and their variety of non-profit services, visit