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Arts and Entertainment

Akron open mic hosts The Help tune up for The Tangier
It's the duo's first big show in their hometown

Vivian Goodman
Brian Feltner and Steve Bennett perform and host the open mic Sunday nights at The Highland Tavern in Akron's Highland Square.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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In The Region:

A couple of area musicians who provide others a chance to play are seeing doors start to open for themselves.

The Akron duo known as The Help has been hosting open mics while fine-tuning its own sound.

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports the band’s about to play its biggest gig yet at Akron’s Tangier.

LISTEN: klezmer, gypsy, Balkan, pirate blues

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Guitarist, singer-songwriter and Firestone High School grad Brian Feltner grew up nearby while greats like Fats Domino, James Brown and Tina Turner were playing the Tangier in his native Akron.

“Legendary venue. I’m so humbled that we get to be a part of that tradition.” 

Next week, he’ll take the stage with the other half of The Help, trumpeter, accordionist and Canton native Steve Bennett.   

Hard to categorize
The Help’s tunes are original; their style hard to define.

 “We take several folk traditions,” says Feltner, “and then mush them all together.”

"And when you mix them up,” says Bennett, “you get some cool stuff.”

Included in the mix are klezmer, gypsy, Balkan and blues.  

Feltner, 31,  gave up a career as a linguist for the love of music. Bennett, 29, is studying architecture at Kent State. He’s also fluent in French and Italian and like Feltner has been to Europe.

Their music ties into their shared interest in travel and art. 

“It’s a style I’ve always been drawn towards in movie sound tracks from older French cinema,” says Feltner.

“It’s like a passport,” says Bennett. "What got me into the sort of Eastern European style is that it just sounds way different. Scales are kind of slanted and then you have these rhythms that are slanted and everything starts to get more exciting.”  

Much in common
Feltner says he and Bennett met a couple years back at Akron’s Uncorked Wine Bar where Feltner was playing a solo set. 

“He said, ‘I play trumpet,’ I said ‘No way.'"

“We had so much in common", says Bennett. “We just started getting together, and Brian gets gigs like crazy. So we just started playing to nobody at first and then things started getting better and better, and they still are.”  

Doing it for themselves
But The Help has to help itself. They have no agent. No label. Bennett’s graphic design skills come in handy for posters and CD covers.

They also built their own set backdrop for a September show at the Akron Civic Theater.  

Just across Main Street from The Civic, Feltner works as a waiter at Baxter’s Bar. He got lucky when the theater’s director stopped in for a sandwich.

“We got to talking and I just said, ‘Do you happen to have any place where a band might do an album release show?’”

Bennett notes, “We’d been looking for like two months.”  

Feltner is still waiting tables. Bennett works as a security guard at the Akron Art Museum. And they keep hosting open mics, as many as three a week.

You might have heard them at the Highland Tavern in Akron’s Highland Square, at Michel’s in Kent, and The Blue Rock in Hudson hosting other players.

On the road
But sometimes they leave town to play their own music.

Last summer a friend let them stay in her Manhattan loft while they scouted for gigs.

“We played a number of really fun shows," says Feltner. “Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem; we played the Shrunken Head in Manhattan.”

“My favorite was the Hometown Barbecue,” says Bennett.

“Yeah, that’s in the Red Hook part of Brooklyn,” Feltner adds. “They really embraced us there which was great. We’ll be back at the Hometown Barbecue for sure.”

While in New York they met the organizers of Centropolis. That’s Chihuahua, Mexico’s annual art and music festival. 

“They said, ‘Come on down!’ We said ‘Oh, sure. You’re going to fly us to Mexico.’”

They did.

And The Help hopes to return for next year’s festival along with some friends.

New collaboration
The Help is now The Help and The Hands, with the addition of three players.

“Caty Petersilge plays the fiddle and her sister Christine Petersilge plays the cello,” says Feltner. “We’re also joined for the Tangiers show, for the first big show that we’ve done together, by Lizz Hough.” 

Hough plays the upright bass.

Christine Petersilge met The Help at an open mic in her native Hudson.

"I was pretty enthralled with their sound. It sounds like Gogol Bordello is like a practicing pirate in Eastern Europe, and nice gritty, gypsy blues. It was like nothing I’d ever heard and I wanted to be a part of it.” 

The Help likes making music that defies categorization.

When people ask, "I tell them ‘You kind of really just have to hear it,’ even though we’ve been called gypsy blues and a number of other things,” says Feltner.

“Pirate Tom Waits from Eastern Europe is another one,” says Bennett.

That voice
Brian Feltner admits he’s a big Tom Waits fan, but says he didn’t set out to sound like him.

 “I kind of accidentally discovered that that voice was inside of me. I had a bad cough and just went and played a show like normal, and it came out that way and it kind of stuck. And now it’s become kind of the trademark of the group.”

Feltner and Bennett hope by re-branding with their new members as The Help and The Hands, they’ll get more attention.

“With every web page on the internet having a help page it has not been easy to find our way to the top of the pile of search results.”

The group’s self-published first CD, "Rubber City Rhapsody," and the new one, "Prime," are getting some sales.

“We took 30 to New York,” says Bennett. “We came back with, like five. We took 60 to Mexico and came back with, like 10.”

Future plans
The Help plans a new release this year, but they’re not sure where their music will ultimately take them.

“I’ll be done with school in the summer time,” says Bennett. “So I’ll have a nice spot before I have to plug into the 9-to-5 world.” 

“I look forward to quitting my day job,” says Feltner. “I’m sorry guys, but you know I’m not going to quit my night job. That’s a fact.”

And that’s The Help.

With The Hands, on the night of Jan. 23rd, they’ll be headlining Akron’s Tangier.

(Click image for larger view.)

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