Flip Side: City Embraces Music Big or Small
WHEELING — Wheeling’s appetite for live music is such that, sometimes, only a full-on symphony on the city’s biggest of stages will do. Or a biggish name act that buses in fresh flavors from afar. But, other times, a neighborhood guy with a guitar can hit the spot.
One of those local guitar guys — a public defense attorney by day — and another Wheeling man whose literal side gig is helping homegrown musicians get, well, gigs shared an inside look on that flip side of the Friendly City’s music scene.
Attorney Bob Gaudio said his introduction to the hometown circuit began in 2011. A blues musician friend performing at the Italian Festival knew Gaudio once sang and played guitar in a band back in the day. He pestered until Gaudio joined a rehearsal of sorts in a hotel room and the chef-turned-lawyer suddenly found himself strumming along on a riverfront stage in front of his friends, neighbors and professional colleagues.
“It just bit me, the bug,” Gaudio said of the sheer exhilaration of the performance. “I was like, ‘Why am I not doing this?'”
That couple of songs quickly led to a brunch booking at the Vagabond Kitchen, which was then in the basement of the McClure Hotel, Gaudio said. And that, by an odd twist of fate, put him in touch with Jon Banco.
Banco, himself a saxophonist and backup singer, both performs with regional band Eli and the Mojo Kings and books acts for 30 some venues in the Wheeling area. He listened to Gaudio’s laid-back vocals and acoustic guitar and recognized a potential addition to a talent stable that now includes about 60 artists ranging from jazz to polka, Banco said.
Gaudio was hesitant at first. He had a big career. He had a family. Life was busy enough already. But, he leaped and said he’s been thrilled with the results. He now plays venues such as Undo’s, Wheeling Brewing, Later Alligator, Public Market, Wilson Lodge and Quaker Steak & Lube pretty much every weekend.
One weekend in late September, he had four gigs, which barely left time for mundane chores such as cutting the grass, he noted. But a musician’s got to do what a musician’s got to do, he added.
“All performers have an ego or we wouldn’t be sitting in front of people we don’t know creating art,” Gaudio joked, noting he has business cards but draws the line at merch. “It also brings me peace and joy. I tell audiences, ‘Welcome to my therapy session.'”
He figures they think he’s kidding, but that’s probably about the truth, he said. Gaudio explained that his day job brings him into contact with humanity at its lowest point — including killings and crimes against children. Music, which he considers humanity’s greatest achievement, gives him some necessary distance from that.
It’s become a multi-faceted distance. While Gaudio performs covers of musicians ranging from John Lennon to Linda Ronstadt, he also writes some of his own music, which he has professionally recorded on simple guy-with-guitar tracks for his family.
He also plays every day, whether he’s performing or not, he said. When a performance includes friends in the audience, people singing along or a great view of a sunset, he said there’s nothing finer.
Booking agent Jon Banco gets that.
While Banco also books bigger-name artists into Oglebay Park and other city venues as his primary employment, he is a decade into a side career that rotates dozens of area musicians through restaurants, bars and the occasional wedding.
The booking sideline came about as a result of his own performances.
He got to know venue owners and managers and realized he could schedule other artists, as well. “It was putting the ‘B’ between the ‘A’ and the ‘C’, ” he said.
Banco said it isn’t a struggle to find talent in a city with a long history of live music and an educational system that has committed to offering extensive opportunities for students interested in the performing arts. The Wheeling Park graduate said he even experimented with playing steel pans when he was in high school.
“It’s always different, but it’s always quality,” he said of the variety of acts that are performing locally. “It’s pretty amazing the quality of musicians that we have here.”
He noted some performers that can still be heard locally have the talent and desire to work full time in the industry. A country-singing teen from Ohio, Gage Joseph, is one of those, he said. He also mentioned Crandall Creek, a bluegrass band based out of Moundsville. These artists perform a lot of original stuff, which he said is needed to go big.
Ironically, it’s sometimes difficult to convince local audiences that original music is good music, he added.
“It may be great. But, if people don’t know it, they can’t sing along and that kind of thing.” For that reason, he said most local-circuit musicians play either all covers or mix only a few of their original songs into a gig.
Big may be great if it happens, but Banco has a soft spot for the teachers who are making a little extra money playing backup instrumentals on the weekend, someone like Gaudio or the mid-life guys who are doing a well-polished version of a garage band.
“They know they’re never going to get signed or picked up and they’re literally just doing it for fun.” He suspects the audience can feel that and has fun along with the musicians.
That mutual joy is also what drives the venue side of things, he added.
He said restaurants, bars and other sites all over the Ohio Valley actively seek out performers.
Even during the height of COVID-19 restrictions, he said venues were finding a way. He knew of one Moundsville restaurant owner who installed video and audio feed into his eatery and constructed a sound booth of sorts so musicians could belt out tunes without fear of virus spread.