Can mandolins and banjos become tools to help the homeless and the less fortunate? Certainly, if those instruments are in the capable hands of experienced local musicians who have resolved to work together for a common cause. Such is the impetus behind the annual Bluegrass Benefit Concert, which is celebrating a decade of success thanks to its tireless organizer, Paul Dvorchak.
A mandolinist from the bluegrass band Nine Mile Run, Dvorchak's 9-to-5 gig is the director of the St. Joseph's House of Hospitality -- a program of Catholic Charities on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District -- which provides supportive housing for older homeless men. "They get a private room with a key," he explains. "We have capacity for 59 guys, and last year we served 87, so that gives you an idea of our turnover. They come from a variety of places, many from the VA, but we also get referrals from the jails, Renewal Inc., Western Psych, Mercy Behavioral and the homeless shelters. It's part of the continuum of care for homeless people in the city and county."
The idea of holding a yearly benefit for St. Joseph's was hatched back in 1998 when Dvorchak met up with bluegrass aficionado Lew Scheinman at the monthly open stage nights held at now-defunct legendary Oakland club, The Decade. "My son [Paul Jr.] plays fiddle -- he was just 14 at the time, and we would go out to different places, wherever we could play an open stage," he recalls. "Lew told me there was a doctor in a band called the Allegheny River Boys who used to do a benefit for Children's Hospital -- so there was a tradition of bluegrass benefits, but nobody was doing one at the time. Because I work at a nonprofit myself, I started calling people about it, and it's amazing -- now there are people calling me who want to play at this. There's been a great deal of support from the bluegrass community."
- With: Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers, Allegheny Drifters, Mountain Therapy, Get Out and Push, and Nine Mile Run.
- Where: Synod Hall, Oakland.
- When: 7:30 pm. Friday.
- Tickets: $20, $15 for students & seniors, kids under 12 free. 412-471-0666, ext. 227.
Synod Hall, a 750-capacity auditorium behind St. Paul's Cathedral and a frequent venue for the Renaissance & Baroque Society, seemed to stand out as ideal for such an event, and not just because Dvorchak worked for a Catholic charity. "Calliope [The Folk Music Society] used to hold their series there, and I had heard that Mark O'Connor also played there. The first year we used it, there was a band called Coal Train who said, 'Wow, people are really listening to us.' Because normally, bluegrass bands are either playing in bars or at festivals out in the country. I'm not saying those audiences aren't observant, but if you put this music in a nice setting, with an auditorium and a stage, it's a great way to hear the music, and the bands appreciate it. We actually did an impromptu concert for Hurricane Katrina, so this is technically our 11th concert."
Dvorchak had been jamming in basement blues bands since the '70s yet had always tended toward the folk and acoustic side of music. When his son began to learn Suzuki violin ("he's the one with all the talent -- he picks up stuff by ear and sings some good harmonies, too") and a friend lent him a mandolin, Dvorchak took the initiative to begin busking on the South Side. Then after that, listening to Bruce Mountjoy's long-running traditional bluegrass radio show on WYEP made Dvorchak realize that the instrumentation he had fallen into was perfect for bluegrass. "I just sort of backed into it," he says.
Mountjoy has wound up being the master of ceremonies for every concert, and the effort also receives ample support from a variety of other sources: Slavia Printing donates posters and booklets, and noted traditional music labels Rebel and Rounder Records kick in some compact discs to raffle off. One highlight of the evening will be the auctioning of a work from Appalachian Studio, created by regionally known artist Robert H. Yonke, whose specialty is painting scenes of bluegrass musicians. "He's been picked by the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville as their artist of the year," says Dvorchak.
Nine Mile Run, which also features guitarist Scheinman ("he's our historian -- he can give you a mini-lesson on everybody that recorded a song and in what year") and upright bassist George Krevy (formerly of the Dog Run Boys), is among several regular participants, the most venerated of whom is "scene elder" Mac Martin with his band Dixie Travelers. "Three years ago, we called our concert the Mac Martin 50th year celebration. Bill Peduto is apparently a bluegrass fan, because the City Council recognized Mac, and we went down and played in the council chambers."
"Bernie Cunningham, who's the singer and guitarist for the Allegheny Drifters, has also been in it every year, but in a different band -- he used to be with the Dog Run Boys," adds Dvorchak. "But it's pretty amazing that Mac [Martin] has had a band for so long. He's a very committed fellow -- he even volunteers at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen [in Uptown]. When I'm in my 80s, I hope I can pick and sing as well as he can."
Yet other than a good cause, what else is there to recommend about the experience of hearing the cream of the crop of the local bluegrass scene -- especially for someone who hasn't delved deeply into the music? Well, they can start by looking into some mainstream, contemporary references. Although much of the bluegrass audience is older, youthful energy always plays a part in continually revitalizing the genre. "There's the jam scene that came out of the Grateful Dead," Dvorchak points out, "and there's a real movement with young people who are interested in acoustic music and who come out to festivals. If it isn't the hardcore traditional stuff, then it's Alison Krauss or Nickel Creek or the Punch Brothers. There'll always be younger guys coming up, because some of the best musicians are the newer ones who seem to be grasping the style very quickly.
"I'd come into [the show] with an open mind, because bluegrass does [unfairly] have that hillbilly kind of a stigma," says Dvorchak. "Because it's all acoustic instruments and we just use one microphone, there's just something about live, real, homemade folk music that's appealing -- it's an American style, straight from the roots. Some of the subject matter may not be upbeat, but it's still a real good time, and people who haven't heard it before always seem to leave with a smile on their face."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.