Johnny's Dance Band goes back to roots and then some
Since packing the house at the World Café Live, the irreverent Johnny's Dance Band encountered its own fork in the road, and the satirical minds who nurture this 44-year-old, Philly-originated rock band are guiding the group straight ahead.
Refreshing its repertoire demanded a dramatic recommitment to the band's iconic identity, specifically recruiting a cast of veteran entertainers that routinely can deliver standout performances with panache. New to the group are Arlyn Wolters, Ray Cardona and Ron Ward, who were thrown into the onstage fray at Jamey's House of Music in September and added their own slant to the group's existing library of audience-appealing material. Original 1970s members Tony Juliano and Courtney Colletti remain.
Vocalist and keyboardist-guitarist Arlyn Wolters developed her musical chops in Rochester, N.Y., and matriculated to New York City, where she joined a tribute ensemble that regularly played Arlene Grocery and the Bitter End. After moving to Philadelphia in 2002, she became part of the Dukes of Destiny with whom she still performs and records. Patty LaBelle even recruited her as a Boom Boom Choir member in 2007.
Drummer-vocalist Ray Cardona is a Philly product who performed professionally since high-school days. Onstage performances have run the gamut from New Jersey casinos to South Street clubs, as well as edgy gigs in New Hope. Cardona’s R&B vocal styling claims the group's "Middle of the Night" as his own.
Bassist and vocalist Ron Ward also hails from the City of Brotherly Love but refined his lower-clef skills at Boston's Berklee School of Music, where he helped originate the band Equinox while playing the college scene for over 20 years.
Eventually, he found his way back to Philly and became a sought-after player for numerous bands, including Rick Allen and the Upsetters, Hippies & Hillbillies, Juliano's band Reckless Abandon and Lenny G and the Soulsenders.
Wolters’, Cardona’s and Ward's skills reflect an emphasis on original compositions to keep Johnny's Dance Band's loyal followers fully involved at future concerts. Half of the current repertoire goes beyond what the band played during its heyday, and the variety of engaging songs use the band's trademark comedy to unexpectedly change the pace, keeping each show fresh and unpredictable.
At a recent rehearsal, principal songwriter Juliano unwrapped a "Tropicali Jewel" whose stateside funky groove is so persistently laid-back that listeners can close their eyes and imagine themselves on a Caribbean island beach. One of Colletti's compositions, "Let Me Take Your Picture," expresses a pre-Internet naiveté when photos were never feared to be posted online.
Wild-haired Colletti sets aside his mischievous nature for only a few minutes, though, because he constantly adds novelty – a trademark element – to Johnny's Dance Band. When he's not playing flute, bass or banjo, the affable musician's vocal characterizations and lead guitar work highlight a portrayal of Blind Jelly Lead Dick, the tour de force that remains a staple of the show. "We all love comedy and the silliness that goes along with it," he says.
Juliano sings, plays guitar, harmonica, keyboards and congas, but as songwriter and ringmaster he becomes an onstage showman who gracefully coordinates an unassuming cast. At concerts, the chemistry exuded by the band's virtuoso players leads to side-splitting asides.
These days, Juliano reveals a happiness that transcends the usual hype one finds in big-name aggregations. "We find that for the first time in 40 years, everyone is on the same page," he says.
The updated troupe is scheduled to present a full show, cabaret style, at Puck Live!, 1 Printers Alley, Doylestown, on Saturday, Nov. 30. Advance tickets are available at the Puck web site.
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