14 Acre Farm’s from farm-to-table mac and cheese, classic pulled pork and two chili varieties were whipped up to feed the Mauch Chunk Opera House crowd during the fifth annual Harvest Jam Nov 24th.
The pre-Thanksgiving feast featured local Jim Thorpe favorites Free Range Folk, Coal County Express, Jay Smar and William H. Travis.
“Dan (Hugos, opera house manager) pitched us the idea years ago,” said Josh Finsel, one of the Folk’s three founders, of the jam’s creation.
“He was looking for an annual Thanksgiving eve event.”
“The first couple of years before they had a liquor license we brought 10 gallons of homemade wine,” co-founder Kevin Ruch said.
“It’s a great way to get everyone together and get them out of the house.”
“This is one of my favorite places to perform. It’s a home to us,” Shawn McCarty said.
Travis kicked-off the dinner hour. Travis is a soulful singer-song writer mixing sincere lyrics over acoustic guitar. He hails from Bethlehem and has been featured on popular podcast and live-show 40 Story Radio.
Jay Smarwill drew the crowd back with guitar heavy instrumental work and a cover of Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues.”
A 40-year professional multi-instrumentalist from an hour west of the coal region, Smar provides a type of “acoustic buffet” of covers from traditional American and folk to mountain music, bluegrass and gospel. Smar stands in with the Free Range Folk as a fiddler throughout the night.
Coal County Express also took the stage during the evening. The Express has played mountain music throughout the county and served as host at the annual Mauch Chunk Lake Bluegrass Festival.
Band members are Pat McGeehan (banjo and guitar), Dave Lucas (guitar and dobro), and Jillian Lucas (upright bass).
The Free Range Folk line up for the main event included band members: Amber Breiner Finsel (bass, guitar); Brad Konstas (percussion); Brett Andrew (electric guitar, organ, piano, harmonica); Doug Makofka (accordion); Josh Finsel (banjo, guitar, harmonica, vocals); Kevin Ruch (guitar, vocals); Kyle O’Brien (woodwinds, sax); Dan Ruch (trumpet); Sara Ruch (washboard, musical saw, boom-bah, vocals); and Shawn McCarty (mandolin, guitar, vocals).
Along with serving the 380 members of the audience the homemade dinner and original music, the Folk’s newest and third album, “Impending Doom,” was performed live for the crowd.
People familiar with the bluegrass/folk influenced band will hear a fuller sound on the newest recording. Electric guitar riffs, novelty instruments and additional vocals of the 10-member band create a robust backdrop for the 11 coal-region inspired tracks.
“We’ve tried to maintain the same sensibility with song writing. The band has grown and the sound has grown,” Ruch said.
“It’s a local sound. We sing about local places and ideologies. We’re the faces you’ll see around town,” McCarty said.
According to the band the new recording is a bit of a departure from the first two. It’s described as a “hybrid of New Orleans second-line style fun with potent dirt rock jams onto its bluegrass roots.”
“The first album only four of us were playing. We didn’t have drums,” Ruch said. “The latest one is a way bigger production. Hopefully everyone enjoys it,” Ruch said.
Finsel credits up-and-coming Lehigh Valley producer Todd Schied, saying Schied put a lot of time into the album and, “acted as a middle man” between band members and the final product.
“There were a lot of raw tracks he filtered down and put together,” Ruch said.
Title track “Impending Doom” is McCarty’s favorite to perform, saying he enjoys the lyrics and feel of the new recording.
For “Stoney Lonesome,” the band borrowed bells from the Panther Valley High School band, adding a unique dimension to the kitchen-sink instrument heavy track.
“I’d have to say that one’s my favorite,” Ruch said. “It starts slow but in the middle there’s a rocking electric guitar solo and we all end up loud at the end.”
The Free Range Folk founding trio Ruch, Finsel and McCarty met more than 12 years ago at former Jim Thorpe coffee shop Rest Stop on Race Street where they struck up a friendship based on mutual interests and values.
“We’d all played at different places but never together,” Ruch said.
“We started playing around a campfire and realized we had a bunch of songs,” Finsel said.
The group went on to add members and instruments since the band’s inception. The band has released two previous albums, 2011’s “Soul Collector” and 2013’s “444.”
For its album cover the band commissioned local artist Michael Erickson to design the artwork and hired Jim Thorpe’s Somersault Press to print the intricate white and black CD jacket.
Ruch said a coloring contest for kids and adults alike will add an extra incentive to buy the album. The winning colorist will be taking home a grand prize of a Folk house performance.
“It was Shawn’s (McCarty) idea,” he said. “There’ll be extra sleeves for people at the show. They’ll be able to drop them off at the print shop or 14 Acre.
The night’s grand finale featured an electric blend of all the musicians creating a cornucopia of rock and folk music closing out the annual jam. Attendees left with full bellies and enjoyed toe-tapping tunes from 6-10 p.m.
Harvest Jam 2017 is scheduled for Thanksgiving Eve. For more on information on the Opera House visit website: mcohjt.com
Free Range Folk’s new album can be purchased at www.freerangefolk.net.
Article by Kelley Andrade, covering music, entertainment and more in the Poconos.
Photos by Kelley Andrade