By Michael Lester
Mountain Top native Jay Baab spontaneously jumped on stage recently at Penn’s Peak, grabbed an electric guitar from the hand of Robert Randolph, and jammed — quite capably — with Randolph and his band for about 10 minutes. So capably, in fact, Baab’s strumming had Randolph nodding in approval.
“We were trading back and forth and locking up,” an astonished Baab said.
After the show, Baab was invited backstage to Penn’s Peak’s green room to hang with Randolph and his Family Band. Upon learning it was Baab’s 33rd birthday, Randolph insisted Baab celebrate with a couple shots of Patrón. Baab obliged and got to share tequila with arguably the greatest pedal steel guitarist roaming the planet today.
What unfolded at the concert was so sublime that Baab left the venue in Jim Thorpe comparing the night’s significance to the birth of his son, Jace, now 9 months old, and his February 2011 wedding day with Nicole Alabovitz, who witnessed her husband’s once-in-a-lifetime musical collaboration from the crowd.
“When I got up there, I said, ‘What key?’” said Baab, who graduated from Crestwood High School in 1998. “He said, ‘E. Think Allman Brothers.’ Saying that to me is like saying, ‘Breathe air.’ My playing’s always been influenced by the Allman Brothers Band. You couldn’t have told a better person. Playing the Allman Brothers with Robert Randolph? It was like a wet dream.”
Baab’s jam with Randolph and the Family Band ultimately veered into an instrumental of ABB’s “Midnight Rider.”
Baab, who now makes his home in Palmyra, is no picking-in-his-basement hack guitarist either. He’s played since 2000 for the Harrisburg-area Herbie, a rock band that grew up playing local bars in the region like Harry’s in Bloomsburg and bigger clubs like the Chameleon in Lancaster and Dragonfly in Harrisburg.
“Harry’s was like our second home,” recalled Baab, who coincidentally had friends from the band’s “Bloomsburg crew” at the Randolph concert.
Baab formed Herbie with roommate and fellow guitarist George Griffo while they were attending Lebanon Valley College in Annville. Among the band’s influences are moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Phish, Rush and Steely Dan.
“We’re not playing as heavy as we used to,” said Baab, who works full time as a service department manager for a Harrisburg-area Honda dealership. “But we just got into the studio and cut an album.”
Herbie raised more than $3,000 for its new album through Kickstarter and plans to officially release the 13-track recording at its 10th annual Christmas show Dec. 14 at Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg. Funk fusion band Uzo, based in Southern Pennsylvania, will perform as the opening act.
Baab acknowledged his impromptu evening with Randolph nearly didn’t happen.
After hearing a few days before the show that Randolph was playing at Penn’s Peak, he scored tickets to the show at virtually the last minute. His father-in-law Len Alabovitz, who works for the venue’s owner at the Lehighton Times-News newspaper, suggested the show to Baab as a possible birthday gift Thursday. Len landed tickets for Jay and Nicole the day of the show.
Jay and Nicole took 13-year-old niece Kali Alabovitz and one of Kali’s friends to the show.
“On the video (from the show), you can hear my niece screaming, ‘Go Uncle Jay,’” Baab said.
Baab had seen Randolph’s band two previous times before the Penn’s Peak show and had witnessed Randolph invite women on stage to dance. Likewise, Randolph opened the stage to the ladies midway through his Penn’s Peak show, and about 15 women climbed the barrier below the stage to prance around the band.
A song or two later, it was the guys’ turn to take part. Randolph departed his black wooden chair stationed behind his pedal steel and lifted an electric guitar from its stand, nodding to it and inviting willing guitarists from the crowd to sit in with the band.
Two men preceded Baab. Baab wondered, “Does he have this staged up” for players he knows in the audience? It became clear that was not the case when the first two guitarists’ efforts sort of fizzled and were short-lived.
That’s when friends at the show “pushed me to the front of the stage” and urged Baab. At the time, Nicole was outside on the Penn’s Peak balcony hanging with friends.
“My friend said, ‘Dude, you gotta go. You gotta go,’” Baab said with a laugh. “I pushed my beer over to my buddy [Lloyd ‘Floyd’ Breuerand] said, ‘Please tell my wife to just get back in to see this. She saw me as soon as she got back in and had the foresight to record it.” (You can view the video below.)
“To jam with them for 10 minutes? That’s a life experience,” Baab added. “I’ll never forget it. Was I nervous? My heart was pumping because it was an awesome moment. I wasn’t nervous one bit. I was ready. I would have stayed the rest of the night if he would have let me.”