Music Spotlight: herbie

Photographer: Angela Davis

Harrisburg-based jam quartet will make you dance


With a policy to defy convention and leave audiences at a loss for definition, there are few rules or boundaries for the band herbie. The Harrisburg-based quartet thrives on experimentation, innovation and a shared philosophy that there’s nothing they can’t try – at least once. It’s a democracy, but one without laws.

After a brief hiatus from live performances, herbie is back in the local music scene, sporting a new album. The band’s recently released album is simply titled herbie, carrying the trademark lowercase “h” that’s akin to legendary jam band moe.

Drummer and vocalist Ffej Herb tells me herbie is the album the band always wanted to make but never had the time or money to do so.

“The initial goal was to make an album for ourselves – for the sake of posterity,” Herb says. “But when we heard the final mixes, we all agreed we had to share it with people.”

herbie’s previous releases have been what band members called “weekend warrior” jobs, where the band was in and out of the studio in two days with little time to overdub vocals. No longer daunted by rehearsals and an exhaustive tour schedule, herbie went to work creating something they long strived to make.

They successfully raised more than $3,000 through a Kickstarter campaign last year, giving them the time and the money to make the album. With the help of producer Mike Washkevich at MDW Productions in Harrisburg, the band spent five months recording, mixing and mastering their new tunes.

The new album is truly representative of herbie’s diverse style, which is difficult to pin down since the band’s musical influences are many. The song “White River Junction” is part reggae, a dash of heavy metal with screaming double guitar harmonies and a section in 7/4 time signature.

Imagine the polyphonic acrobatics of bands like The Police, Emerson Lake & Palmer or Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, and you can get an idea of the band’s musicality. They play tight with a penchant for complex arrangements and stylistic hybrids. Other influences range from Jim Croce and Zac Brown Band to Umphrey’s McGee and Judas Priest (in fact, Herb saw Judas Priest in concert when he was 10 years old).

“We’re four people who have no earthly right being in the same band,” says Herb. “1990 is current to me, but we all love Minus the Bear. That’s one band we all agree on.”

herbie’s bassist and vocalist Ben Eberts got his start as a trombone player before switching to electric bass. Andy Mowatt is steady on guitar and keyboards. And guitarist and vocalist Jay Baab has been playing guitar since he was 9 years old.

herbie was formed more than a decade ago by Lebanon Valley College alumni Eberts, Baab and George Griffo (who left the group to pursue other interests). Mowatt (although not a founding member) is also an LVC graduate. Herb joined the band in 2002.

The band played shows locally and at venues in the surrounding Tri-State area for many years. Baab reminisces about a show they played at the former Harry’s Grille & Bar in Bloomsburg in their early days.

“It was such a tiny, little place, and you could only fit about 50 people in the club,” Baab says. “But I loved playing those shows the best – there’s so much more interaction and energy in a room like that. When things were in full swing, you could feel the floor boards bending and heaving under your feet.”

Eventually, herbie found its home in Harrisburg. The band is still well known at The Abbey Bar with the annual “It’s a Very herbie Xmas” show taking place around Christmas every year.

Mike Van Jura – a.k.a. “Jersey Mike” – was the person in charge of booking shows at The Abbey Bar when he first met the band. Van Jura took an interest in herbie after seeing them perform at The Hardware Bar’s “Twisted Tuesdays” original music showcase in Harrisburg. Van Jura and the band hit if off immediately, and he went on to manage the band for several years.

When Van Jura passed away suddenly in November of 2012 at the age 36, he left behind two children. On Saturday April 19, herbie is helping raise money for his children, taking part in the “Jersey Mike Rock + Run 5K,” which benefits a foundation for Van Jura’s children and other children who have lost a parent and in need of financial help.

As far as the band’s current status, herbie has – with some hesitation – embraced the “jam band” label. For the sake of categorizing, it has helped them to book shows and get on the bill at bigger festivals and venues. The way the members see it, the “jam band” label guarantees them an open-minded audience who will appreciate what they do.

But Baab says he still hates answering the question, “What kind of music do you play?”

“We’re just a band that plays good music,” Baab says. “But we don’t go out and play our songs exactly like they sound on the album. We never play a song the same way twice. That’s not what we’re about.”

When herbie performs live, they foster a symbiotic relationship with the crowd. If something isn’t working, they sense it and use their intuition to guide them. Their goal is to achieve oneness with their audience and communicate in ways that only music can allow. herbie isn’t there to impress so much as to get inside your body and mind and make you dance.

“It’s all about getting to that place where we are all in sync with one another – feeding of the energy of the crowd and giving back to them a shared experience,” Baab says. “If that makes us a jam band, then we’re a jam band. I’m ok with that.”


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