Back in 2016, John Vento and the Nied’s Hotel Band were playing a gig at the locally legendary Moondog’s club in Blawnox. Friends had brought their teenage kids, and the band invited them up to play a couple of songs — “guitarist, drummer and keyboard player,” Vento recalls.
Later that evening, Ron Esser, aka Moondog, asked Vento about the kids who performed.
“I told him they were all on the autism spectrum,” says Vento. “His exact words were, ‘We need to find a way to do this more often.’”
Within months, Vento and Esser did just that, founding Band Together Pittsburgh, which uses music “to inspire the lives of those on the autism spectrum, enabling integration with family, friends and society as a whole.”
Over its seven-year history, Band Together Pittsburgh has offered members a chance to gather, experiment with music, perform and socialize. Parents and family members find kinship and support.
Members can also take advantage of professional disc jockey training; Band Together books the gigs and provides the equipment. Participants can also learn about sound engineering, lighting setup and other production skills. There’s no charge for membership, training, or anything else via Band Together. There’s no age restriction either; members range from grade schoolers to Gen X musicians.
Esser’s son, James, is on the spectrum, and at 21, he is starting to age out of available programs. Through Band Together, James has learned how to assist his dad with show setup and production. He’ll also perform occasionally, but “He’s like me. He likes being behind the scenes better,” says Esser, who played bass in several local bands in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The monthly Open Mics, held at Moondog’s on the second Sunday afternoon of the month, are Band Together’s signature event. Drop-ins are welcome, and any member can sign up to perform, whether it’s singing a pop tune with a karaoke track, playing drums or accompanying themselves on an acoustic version of a Brad Paisley song.
“There are kids that come in who are so timid. Then, after an hour, they’re pulling on my shirt, saying ‘Can I go up and sing?’” says Vento. “We see the magic of it within a couple of visits.”
On Open Mic days, members and families can also hang out in the Band Together Clubhouse, Moondog’s greenroom redesigned to include couches, tables, games and musical instruments, including a drum set. Pizza, snacks and soft drinks are provided.
A recent Open Mic event was moved from a Sunday afternoon to a Friday evening, and from Moondog’s to the lobby of The Andy Warhol Museum. (“They are the salt of the earth,” Esser says of The Warhol staff. “They could not be nicer.”)
Cameron, a younger member, opened the show with a spirited rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” More than a dozen performers followed: Jack played keyboard and sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” DJ Kutch performed “Let There Be Light.” Claire and Andrew specified that they’d be singing “‘Needles and Pins’ — the Ramones version.” Cory brought the house down with “Chicken Fried.”
Justin Capozzoli, a Band Together Pittsburgh board member, performed “Somebody,” by local singer/songwriter Lorelai Paige. He also ran the soundboard for the Open Mic performers. Capozzoli, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music from York College of Pennsylvania in 2016, has been a member of Band Together almost since its start, and has trained as a disc jockey and production assistant.
“I’m on the spectrum,” he says. “I think music is one of the best things that unite us.”
Though they receive support from donations and foundation grants, Band Together’s primary fundraiser is the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival, happening on Saturday, July 29, and Sunday, July 30, at the Pittsburgh Shrine Center in Cheswick. Esser, who has produced the festival for years, says a number of younger acts are on the bill.
“I’m more excited about this year’s show than I’ve been in a while,” he says.
Gabe Stillman, a blues singer/songwriter/guitarist whose latest album, “Just Say the Word,” debuted at number 10 on Billboard’s blues chart, headlines on Saturday. Local blues artist Billy the Kid leads a “Tribute to the Three Kings (B.B., Freddie and Albert),” along with Pierce Dipner, Donnie Bell, Guitar Zack, Dan Bubien and Jon Vallecorsa. The Nied’s Hotel Band with Mia Z, The Bail Jumpers, Xavier Allen Band and The Polkamaniacs are also on the bill.
Performers from Band Together Pittsburgh, including Capozzoli and James Esser, will be playing both days.
On Aug. 27, Band Together performers will join the Derek Woods Band at St. Clair Park in Greensburg.
Vento says they’ll soon be announcing a South Hills space for a clubhouse and Open Mics as well.
“Boom; it took off. We’re just hanging on for dear life,” says Esser jokingly. “We have created a really cool social network.”
“It’s about creating love and joy,” Vento adds. “Music is the conduit to bring people together.”