Veteran Central PA bar band plays Chameleon Club on Wednesday (11/12), McCleary’s on Friday (11/14), Appalachian Brewing Co. on 11/22, First Capital Dispensing Co. on 11/24 AND The Cove on 11/28. Seriously.
When my cousin went to college, I would go upstairs to his old room and look through the piles of cassettes he left behind.
I’d take some Phish or Jerry Garcia Band cassettes home. After a “walk in the woods,” I’d go up to my room, put a tape in my stereo and look at the titles of the songs on the cassette sleeve written in my cousin’s sloppy handwriting while I listened to the music. Whenever I would see him, he would school me on new music.
My cousin told me to check out Hexbelt – a grungy hippie rock band that played the bars around the county. It was my cousin’s face on the ID I showed the bouncer at the Blue Star Tavern in Lancaster when I was only 19 that got me into the bar to see them.
Hexbelt was my first “bar” show. I’d seen concerts. I’d even seen shows in bars – but always from that lame underage section where you had to wear an embarrassing pink bracelet.
The Blue Star smelled like cigarettes and stale beer, and it was dark. The drunks shouted to each other, people danced wildly. The band sounded great. I loved it.
The guys on the stage seemed to love it, too. They must love it, because Hexbelt, with more than a few lineup changes, has been playing in one form or another for more than two decades.
The evolution of Hexbelt began with a band called Once Fish – a Grateful Dead and classic rock cover band with a few originals mostly penned by guitarist and singer Dann Ottemiller. The only album released under the name Once Fish was 1995’s From the Breathing Room, which features 11 originals –including the band’s signature song, “Rhythm of the Rain.” The sounds span from rock to reggae and the music has been described as “Pearl Jam meets the Grateful Dead” by some fans.
“We get pigeonholed as a jam band,” says Ottemiller, “but I think we’re closer to the Stones than Phish.”
Ottemiller’s lyrics on From the Breathing Room show a generation at odds with the corporatization of its country and sickened by the plight of the environment, written with a mix of abrasive punk-rock-style humor, silly hippie cliches and tongue-in-cheek wordplay. Other songs are just about wanting to party. It’s all very ’90s.
Once Fish drew regular crowds at the Chameleon Club and other bars in Central PA. They played heavily around the region and did a small tour out West in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, opening a few gigs for Jerry Joseph & Jackmormons.
Ottemiller and a few members of Once Fish (under the name Protein Gas –named after a strain of high-grade pot going around at the time) opened up for Phish at a gig at the Chameleon Club in 1990. It was before Phish became established and gained a national following.
“Around ’95-96 I can remember sitting in a bar one night and a guy says, ‘Oh, Once Fish. What do you guys do, Phish covers?” says Ottemiller.
For a band that had accumulated an impressive catalogue of originals and a strong regional following, it seemed like the right time to change the name.
“People never really got the name Once Fish anyhow,” says Ottemiller. “Once Fish was just like evolution – we were once fish, now we’re humans.”
The band changed its name to Hexbelt – a term that came from a tagline from the original Once Fish album – “Susquehanna funky hexbelt swing” – and a nod to the Pennsylvania Dutch influence on the area.
Tapers would record and trade live shows – some fans amassed collections of more than 400 shows, many of which are now available on archive.org. Hexbelt released its only proper studio album, Wonderland?, in 1997.
Since then, the lineup has changed a few times with Ottemiller and lead guitarist Mike Couch as the only original Hexbelt members.
“Couch gravitates more toward distortion. He rocks, but yet, he still fits a jammy, groovy dance thing,” says Ottmiller. “We’ve grown together to create the thing that is Hexbelt. Without Couch, it isn’t quite Hexbelt.”
Bassist Neal Kreider, having been with Hexbelt for about a decade, has seemingly put an end to the Spinal Tap-esque trend of bass players coming in and out (Ottemiller surmises there have been seven or eight different bassists over the years). Drummer Tony Aguirre, whom Ottemiller has known since Aguirre was a teenager, has been in the band for the past two years.
Ottemiller’s songwriting has mellowed a bit over the years. He’s put aside the heartbreak and some of the more politically charged lyrics and is writing more lighthearted, irreverent songs with titles like “Muffin Huggers” and “Ass in the Wind.”
“At some point, you realize that an abundant, boundless sense of humor is what makes life livable,” says Ottemiller.
There was a moment during the Once Fish years when a record company showed interest in From the Breathing Room, and the band might’ve gained some national recognition.
“It felt like they wanted to assume some sort of power,” says Ottemiller. “They thought it was too dark. They wanted to fit us into the Spin Doctors scene – more of a trippy-happy thing. I was like, ‘Did you listen to the songs?’”
Another moment came when Ottemiller and some members of the extended Hexbelt family released an album called Poorhouse Gorgeous, and it caught the attention of the jam scene magazine Relix. But Ottemiller once again eschewed further promotion, preferring word to grow by more of a grassroots movement. There’s an authenticity there.
For Ottemiller, playing is like an addiction, and the high can come from any gig – no matter the size of the crowd. “Whenever you play and it’s just one of those magic nights,” says Ottemiller. “The band is on and people are feeling it – it seems like everyone’s in it together.”
The other month Hexbelt played a small show in Chambersburg with a crowd of around a hundred people and Ottemiller recalls coming off the stage feeling high from the show. “That was our best gig ever,” he told his bandmates.
Maybe that’s the only achievement a band really needs – the ability to create magic for a small crowd in a local bar.