The musical chemistry and friendship between Akronites Ryan Humbert and Tracey Thomas doesn't seem intuitive.
Thomas, 52, was Akron's hot New Wave chick when she fronted Unit 5 in the mid-'80s. She put music aside to raise her family after her attempts to scale the music biz mountain fizzled in the '90s.
Humbert, 31, is a tireless go-getter, playing up to 150 dates a year, putting together special charity events, and writing, producing and financing his own music. He signed with New Jersey-based indie label Rock Ridge late last year, which just released his new album, Sometimes the Game Plays You.
He's also the driving force behind Thomas' career revival, co-writing and producing her latest album, Queen of Nothing, and assembling Ghost in the Works: The Best of Tracey Thomas, a compilation that looks back at Thomas' 30-year career.
Humbert is Thomas' biggest cheerleader; his encouragement brought her out of retirement for 2007's Ghost Town. The two will celebrate this trifecta of albums with a free show at Lock 3 Live in downtown Akron, Saturday at 7 p.m. Canton's Yankee Bravo opens.
Humbert is bubbling with enthusiasm for Thomas' new release.
"It's the best thing she's ever done," he raves. "I say that as a Tracey fan, not someone who was part of it."
When he signed with Rock Ridge, the release of his album was delayed, giving him and Thomas time to get together and write. They ended up co-writing nine songs for Queen of Nothing. (Two of the songs on Humbert's new album were also co-writen with Thomas). The compilation was Humbert's tribute to one of Akron's legendary voices whom, he says, reminds him somewhat of his favorite singer Lucinda Williams.
"I didn't even know what songs were on that until it came out," says Thomas. "I didn't care. I just thought it was cool. If I picked the songs I'd pick them to make myself look deep and interesting. If someone else picks songs, it'll be from the viewpoint of songs people want to hear."
Humbert's own album features 14 tracks of folk-flavored Americana rock, with darker themes influenced by the breakup of relationships between people close to him. He and his band recorded 24 tunes during last year's sessions in Nashville, and he's planning to release another batch as an EP called Tender Loving Country Gold later this year.
Both artists financed their albums via Kickstarter, with Humbert raising $10,000 and Thomas raising $3,500. Humbert also held a pair of fundraisers in Chrissie Hynde's Akron apartment.
"We set up in her living room and played two sold-out shows to 50 people," he says. "We made another $4,500. We have one hardcore fan who stepped up to be executive producer, and she covered everything above and beyond. We have an awesome fan base."
Catch 'Em While You Can
Like most of the area's top jazz musicians, saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio is a multi-tasker. The 11-member Bobby Selvaggio Hendectet, which plays Saturday at 8 p.m. at Kennedy's at PlayhouseSquare, is one of his three main musical projects. He also teaches at Kent State and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
"I call it a jazz collective because I wanted other guys to use the ensemble to write — to have it be a collaborative effort," he says. "We have almost 20 pieces of new music at this point. I think we're the only band in the area that just focuses on new music as a large ensemble."
The Hendectet has only played out about a dozen times in its two-and-a-half years, thanks to the players' complicated schedules. Selvaggio, for instance, is going into the studio this summer with his two other groups, Grass Roots Movement, and acoustic trio Shake, and doing a July tour with Shake.
"I wouldn't say it's a side project, but it's one of those ones that when we have a chance to play, we do," he says. "It's no one's main project but it's a fun ensemble. We check our egos at the door."
Tickets for Saturday's show are $10.
Their Gypsy Hearts
Much of Cleveland's distinctive character came from the Eastern European immigrants who settled here. Harmonia, an ensemble led by accordionist Walt Mahovlich, has been honoring that tradition for nearly 20 years. The group is releasing its third CD Hidden Legacy, with a show at Nighttown (12387 Cedar Rd.) at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $20.
Early on, the ensemble focused on Hungarian music, but it spreads a wider net these days, encompassing folk music from a swath of countries.
"We're not all one nationality," says Mahovlich, a native Clevelander whose grandparents came from Hungary and Croatia. "I grew up hearing gypsy music, Hungarian music, Croatian music, and other related musics. In college, I was mostly playing with Croatians, Macedonians, and Serbians."
The seven-piece ensemble features several recent immigrants. Cimbalon player Alexander Fedoriouk and flute player Andrei Pidkivka come from the Ukraine. Singer Beata Begeniova and basisst/vocalist Branislav Brinarsky are from Slovakia.
But Mahovlich says they aren't playing strictly for an ethnic folk crowd.
"We're really aiming at a general world music audience," he says. "We want to aim this at people who maybe don't even know about the existence of this music in the United States. It's like there's a secret party going on in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Chicago, and the average person wouldn't know it was happening. We want them to get a chance to see what this culture is and what it does."
At Happy Dog
Yet another new local CD hits this week. This one comes from indie rockers Tadpoles. It features Happy Dog co-owner Sean Kilbane on vocals and guitar. Former HotChaCha guitarist Mandy Aramouni, bassist Dave Molnar of Dreadful Yawns, and drummer Jason Look (who also plays with Prisoners and Little Bighorn) complete the band.
Let's Dance was recorded this past February with engineer Mike McDonald, whose band Tinko is one of the opening acts at Tadpoles' release show at 9 p.m. Friday. Naturally, it's at the Happy Dog. Also opening is Mild Mannered, the latest project of Starberry's Jennifer & Pat Casa and Pat's former Sons of Elvis bandmate Tim Parnin.
He's Earned His Stripes
Pittsburgh's Norman Nardini was a Cleveland favorite in the '80s with his band the Tigers, playing the sort of gritty workingman's rock that always did well in this Springsteen-worshipping town. Nardini even recorded his 1981 live album, Eat'N Alive, at the long-gone old Agora on East 24th Street.
His fans here will be happy to know he's still plugging away, sans Tigers. He released his latest CD Bone A Fide last year. He'll be back in Cleveland for two shows this Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. at Wilbert's (812 Huron Rd.).