Local scene in music: Eric Himan returns, Masters of The Universe keep ska alive

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Eric Himan: Soulful on 'Gracefully'

Bringing "Gracefully" to life turned out to be more of an adventure than Eric Himan expected.

The neo-soul singer -- who was based in Pittsburgh between 2004-07 before moving to Tulsa, Okla. -- raised $16,000 through a PledgeMusic fan-sponsored campaign and set off to make an eighth record to be called "Formal." He was thinking of it as a Motown-meets-Amy Winehouse sort of project.

After recording half the album, he says, "It just wasn't working. Everything sounded like demos. It just didn't sound like the real thing."

So he scrapped that idea, he says, even though, "I'm not that kind of person. I'm like, 'patch it up, put it out.' But then the pressure of crowdsourcing really made me step up my game. All these people basically pre-ordered something that they'd never heard, and I can't put something out, just patch it up."

Unhappy with those songs, he jumped on an opportunity through a friend producer to record at Jim Henson Studios in LA, where he says there were four different studios: "It was the Jonas Brothers, the Goo Goo Dolls, Justin Bieber and me." His one brush with Bieber was an awkward encounter with a double bathroom door.

That session produced a single called "Running" with members of Alanis Morrissette's band and the bassist from Fitz and the Tantrums.

"It turned out great and everybody was proud of it," Mr. Himan says, "but it was so sugary and over the top. It had a very big sound, but that didn't feel right. It was almost like I was Goldilocks. You know, 'This bed is not good at all, and this bed is too stiff.' "

The guitarist-pianist-singer found the right bed back in Tulsa with drummer Brandon Holder (who plays for Leon Russell), bassist Matt Hayes (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Wayne Newton), backing vocalists Tylisha Oliver and Tina Phillips and horns.

The result is "Gracefully," a pop-soul-folk record that allows his vocals -- which have been compared, oddly enough, to Adam Levine and Tracy Chapman -- to shine.

"This the first time I wrote a lot of the album on piano and felt comfortable enough learning it, because I've only been playing it since like 2010," he says. "That made it different to begin with, just in the style of the music. And then I wanted my backup girls to sing on it, and I also wanted horns. I was going for a more '70s Bill Withers/Earth, Wind & Fire-kind of sound. I always loved that kind of music, and Richie Havens. I was listening to a lot of that, and I think it kind of leaked in."

He points to three songs that are particularly special to him, starting with the lead track "Red Hot Tears," on which he first hit upon a fresh retro-soul sound. "Waiting for Thunder (Malala)," another soul groove, is a tribute to Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for her protests about the lack of education for girls. "She's just so fearless and well poised for being 14 years old at the time. I don't know her, and I'm so far removed from where she is and what she's going through, but she touched me and I thought it would be awesome to write a song for her."

The title track, a piano ballad, was written about an awesome woman much closer to him: his grandmother Grace, who raised him with his father after his mom died when he was 4. She illustrated for DC Comics in the '30s and worked as a photographer in the '60s.

"She was an artist and an amazing woman," Mr. Himan says. "She passed away last August at 97. She was the person you would always turn to. Not having her around was hard." On the cover of the album is a picture of her and the lettering is from a tattoo he got right after she died.

The reaction to the album has been positive so far, with the song "Everything to You" being featured on SiriusXM and in Hollister stores. He's on the road now in a trio format with the Soultre Sisters. He's long had the support of the gay-lesbian community, and now that audience is branching out.

"I look out in the crowd when I do these ticketed shows and there's gay guys, there's lesbians, there's straight guys, straight women. I see more of a melting pot and I like that."

Eric Himan and the Soultre Sisters perform at Club Cafe, South Side, at 10:30 p.m. Friday with Southside American. Tickets are $12. www.clubcafelive.com.

Galaxie of ska

By the time Masters of The Universe formed in 2005, the '90s wave of ska-punk had already ebbed and there was a national tour humorously titled Ska Is Dead.

It didn't stop the Pittsburgh band from pursuing the genre that took off in the late '70s with bands like The Specials and The Beat adding punk energy to the Jamaican style.

"We started a ska band in 2005 because ska is the best music ever," says Masters of The Universe trumpeter AJ Veri. "It's fun, fast, upbeat, and we get to blend in a lot of different musical styles."

The eight-piece band brings a variety of backgrounds to the table. Singer Chuck Veri, AJ's brother, was in the punk band Resent; bassist Adam Bertram played in metal band Despondency; tenor sax player Hannah Loch toured Europe in The Gettysburg College Jazz Ensemble; and baritone sax player Kyle Thomas played funk with Big Jim and The Cowboys. They join trombonist Steve Szumetz (from ska band Barker's Beauties), drummer Drew Philp (ska band Skankin' Homer) and guitarist Keith Huseman.

The band, which has shared the stage with the likes of The Toasters, The Slackers and Mustard Plug, debuted in 2007 with "At Least We Tried." It now issues a second full-length called "In a Galaxie Far Far Away."

"What sets us apart from other ska bands is our willingness to cross styles," says Chuck Veri. "We're not all guitar upstrokes and lightning fast horns, or strictly a punk/ska mix. For example the song 'Long Distance Girl' is our twist on the oldies R&B sound and 'Voodoo Doll Vending Machine' is a jazz/rock crossover. Every song on this album has a different feel to it, and our live performance is like a party on a stage, we don't like to be predictable."

The release show is at Altar Bar at 8 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $10; www.thealtarbar.com.



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