Band Of Brothers: Lowjack Brings Rock With A Twang To State College Bars
The bars of any college town are bound to be full of explosive musical acts that aim to keep people grooving and the taps flowing all night long. State College is no different, and Lowjack is a band that’s certainly keeping those beer pitchers full.
While its members sometimes take on different lineups, the core group that makes up most of Lowjack’s recordings and live performances includes guitarist Jason Davoli, guitarist and fiddle player Daniel Collins, keyboardist Joseph Tombasco, and drummer Steve Archer.
Davoli and Collins have been in the band the longest, both since 2009. But Lowjack as a band has been around far longer. It was founded by local musician Dennis Fallon in 2003. When Fallon left shortly after Davoli and Collins joined, the two took the reins and made the band what it is today.
Both Davoli and Collins were accomplished musicians before joining Lowjack. Davoli started playing guitar around the age of 15, along with the saxophone. But it was the strings that called Davoli’s name and he fell for them hard. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were early influences, with Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix being his first guitar idols.
Growing up in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area, Davoli soon fell in with the local music scene. He was involved in the early days of what would become Breaking Benjamin, playing bass on some of the future multi-platinum certified group’s earliest recordings. This gave Davoli some of his first and most formative musical experiences, and also kept him out of trouble.
“We would just play,” Davoli said. “We didn’t care about running around and being idiots. I learned a lot, and that’s where my passion came from.”
Davoli met Fallon during those early days after leaving Breaking Benjamin, falling in with Lowjack and then moving to State College to join up with them.
Growing up with musical parents, Collins first picked up a violin at age four and started with classical music right away. He branched into Irish folk music at an early age and quickly became proficient in fiddle-playing, touring pubs across the country in various Irish style bands.
This music filled upbringing gave Collins what he calls his “three musical lives,” Irish music, classical, and rock. It’s a method that profoundly influences his fiddle playing in Lowjack today. It’s got a refinement to it, a skillful technique that could’ve only come from someone with their roots in classical methods.
The Irish works its way in there to, with a rhythmic dynamism and bounciness that makes you want to leap right out of your shoes and do some sort of jig with a pint in your hand. But Lowjack is a rock band first and foremost, and the rock n’ roll swagger ends up in there as a sort of electric cherry on top. Free-flowing and relentlessly energetic, Collins’ fiddle quickly became his greatest musical love.
Being from State College and having that extensive background in Irish music, it wasn’t long before Collins found himself playing at the Phyrst with Fallon and Lowjack in attendance. The fact that Collins was still in middle school stopped the band from trying to rope him in at the time, but the young fiddler made an impression that would last.
While attending Penn State years later, Collins would have a chance encounter that would change the rest of his life.
“I was checking out a video at Blockbuster and the guy checking me out just asked me out of the blue, ‘Did you play fiddle at the Phyrst?'” he said.
That video store clerk happened to be Adam Carper, a member of Lowjack at the time. Recalling Collins’ electrifying fiddle playing years prior, he invited the young musician to hang out with the band at Bar Bleu where they had a residency at the time. More importantly, they asked him to bring his fiddle.
Darius Rucker’s song “Wagon Wheel” was as big a hit then as it is now and Lowjack asked Collins if he knew how to play it. He said yes, and Collins has been with the band ever since.
Being together longer than the other members has given Davoli and Collins a strong chemistry, something the two would compare to a musical marriage.
“I always know what he’s thinking,” Collins said. “It’s kind of scary, you’re not supposed to know another human that well.”
The duo kept Lowjack alive after Fallon’s departure soon after they joined. Needing to keep the band going after some other members left, Davoli and Collins brought in Tombasco, a mutual friend, to play the keyboard in 2013. A need for a consistent drummer soon become apparent and the band searched high and low for that perfect fit.
Archer first started playing percussion at 10, earning his chops as part of the school band. He got a drum set midway through high school and became obsessed, idolizing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their drummer Chad Smith.
He first saw Lowjack play at the Phyrst in 2015 while he was still a student at Penn State. After the show, he found himself in conversation with Collins. The two hit it off right away, but Collins remembers their connection as something more special than just a good talk.
“It was more romantic than that,” Collins joked. “We were just having a conversation about music and in my head I was thinking, ‘I wish this guy played drums.’ At the end of the conversation I just asked, ‘Do you play music?” hoping that he’d say ‘Yeah, I play drums.’ And that’s exactly what he said!”
Taking the good luck as a sign, the two exchanged numbers and Collins invited Archer to practice with the band, something Archer wasn’t expecting.
Doubts plagued Archer’s mind, unsure if that offer was something serious or if that conversation at the Phyrst was a genuine connection or some drunken rambling. He wasn’t expecting Collins to call in the first place, but he did. And he didn’t expect Collins to call back after the practice, but he did.
Davoli didn’t take the situation seriously either, skipping that practice leaving just Collins and Archer to jam. But the drummer ended up being exactly what the band needed, with Davoli’s absence during that practice being something he’s since apologized for, and a running joke in the band.
With Davoli, Collins, Tombasco, and Archer making up the core of Lowjack today, the band won’t hesitate to switch things up every once in a while. Sometimes it might just be Davoli and Collins on stage, putting together quieter acoustic sets as “Lowjack Lite.” During other sets, they can get up to seven different members on stage at a time.
One figure who’s become more common in Lowjacks’s lineups, mostly during their Saturday night sets at the Phyrst, is bassist and sound engineer Alex Sterbenz. He first linked up with the band in 2014. Working at Saloon as a sound guy for bands, he’d often find himself with Lowjack as they had a residency their at the time.
His growing chemistry with the band over time was something Davoli noticed.
“Once something’s requested, he just knows how to get in and make (the equipment) do that,” Davoli said.
Sterbenz continued to get more and more used to Lowjack, figuring out exactly how to handle working with the band.
“I just try and keep everyone happy,” Sternbenz said. “Sometimes it happens were nobody’s really communicating and things get missed and people get frustrated. You just gotta talk to everyone and have that personality. Asking ‘What can I do to help?’ and stuff like that.”
Eventually, Sternbenz got a gig at the Phyrst and Lowjack picked up a residency there. They started working together once again and after getting to know the band over a summer, they started playing bass for them during their sets there. It’s since become a regular thing, with Sternbenz even performing with the band during their set at THON 2020.
Sternbenz is a perfect example of the member fluidity that Lowjack often shows, representative of its style overall. While that four-person core remains the heart and soul of Lowjack, depending on the location, there could be anyone joining the band on stage, drawn from the band’s extensive list of musical friends.
This ability to bring in all sorts of different musicians is emblematic of the band’s style of performance. Lowjack is known for its freewheeling style of performance, very rarely having a defined plan of attack for shows.
“We don’t really write setlists, we just try and vibe off the crowd. We have the songs that we normally play, but it’s more about the moment,” Davoli said.
Another thing that sets the band apart from other bar bands in State College is, of course, the fiddle. Collins’ fiddle playing is often the first thing listeners noticed when watching the band for the first time, something that Davoli sees as a massive draw for the band.
“That’s probably our wow factor,” he said. “Dan in my eyes is such a prodigy and he makes it look so easy. It’s such a difficult thing to do.”
This free-form approach to song choice and Collins’ fiddle skills have helped Lowjack become one of the biggest draws among State College bands. Alumni often come back to see the band play, always citing Lowjack as a key part of their college experience. Those visits are a part of the college town experience that Davoli considers really special.
“It’s great when people come back and you can just reminisce,” he said. “You feel lucky that you were a part of their (college) experience and it’s such a good, mutual thing.”
The cross-generational element that one finds in college bars, with alumni of all generations packed in to see bands like Lowjack play, is something the group uses to their advantage. The band has no problem playing popular songs most bands would consider overplayed.
“A lot of bands would be like, ‘I don’t want to play Brown Eyed Girl.’ But when we play it, almost every person in that room sings along and dances,” Davoli said. “The 21-year-old, the mother, the grandmother. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Covers will always be the most popular fodder for bar bands to play. While some bands might feel perturbed by this part of the business and yearn to just play their own songs, it’s a part that Lowjack actually enjoys and it allows them to showcase the musical diversity found in their unique sound, blending country, folk, rock, and heavy metal influences together.
Being unafraid to “sell out” by playing covers, Lowjack keeps things interesting by always being on the lookout for songs that they think “will translate and transcend.” A bandmate will find a one they like and think will make a good cover, and then presents it to the rest of the group to see if it fits. They’ll test it out, fine-tune it, and figure out what works best.
A perk of being a live act is being able to put songs their working on out into a public space, seeing how a crowd reacts to an original or a cover they’ve been working on. And when they find those sweet spots and get moments where the whole bar is vibing along, Collins feels at peace.
“It’s the best when everyone sings along. That’s when you feel like you’re doing a great job.” Collins said.
The organic nature of the band’s setup is another Collins finds pride in. There are no DJs or prerecorded elements during the group’s gigs. For Lowjack, it’s always au natural.
“We definitely keep it simple,” Collins said. “We’re just plugging instruments into amps, we don’t try any computerized stuff like MIDI or drum tracks. It’s all completely live.”
Playing in a college town gives Lowjack attention they might not receive elsewhere, especially playing events like THON, something they do almost every year. THON 2020 was no different, as the band tore up the stage at three in the morning and energized a tiring BJC crowd with classic covers like “Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “Wagon Wheel.” Playing at THON is a feeling like no other for the band.
“It’s a different animal, but it’s the same kind of thrill,” Davoli said. “At the Bryce Jordan, when it all clicks and the whole stadium is singing along, it’s just so magnified and gets pretty intense. We’ve had some moments like that, it’s just a huge thrill. We look forward to it.”
While Lowjack enjoys staying local, it can be “a gift and a curse.” The band almost never tours, and it has exclusive residencies at bars like the Phyrst and the Brewery that keep it very busy during the weekends. While the band would like to get out of Happy Valley more to play, it’s still a position that they enjoy immensely and are extremely grateful to have.
Collins points out the familiarity you get playing in a small town. That connection is something the band appreciates.
“You get to know everyone,” said Collins. “The bartender, the staff, the fans who come back every week. You start to put faces to names and you get a much more intimate experience than you’d get going on the road and playing those bigger shows,”
While the group might originally have been known for its covers and success as a staple in the State College bar scene, Lowjack has become known for its original material as well.
The group recorded its first album Homegrown in 2010 with producer Dave Goodermuth. The album was able to gain some serious traction outside of State College, even earning a first-ballot nomination from the Grammys for the record.
Homegrown was headlined by the single “One Last Kiss,” one of the band’s more popular originals that’s racked up more than 12,000 views on YouTube, not a bad range for a small-town band.
Lowjack has continued to go in and out of the studio over the years. That first ballot Grammy nod helped get their name out there. Despite it not being a full nomination that’d someone would see among the official list of nominees, it still gave the band some huge momentum.
They began working with producer Tom Edmonds, known for working with musicians like Patti Smith and Keith Richards and for being Lenny Kravitz’s recording engineer for almost thirty years. The band will be releasing some singles produced by Edmonds over the next few months, with the song “In My Head” to be on streaming services by the end of February. It was also premiered during the band’s THON 2020 set to rave reviews from the crowd.
This is all in preparation for a new album, with a five-song EP coming in two months and an eight-song CD following after that will both bang the drum ahead. After Edmonds passed away in 2018, the band sees this big output of new material as a tribute to him.
While Davoli has always been the primary songwriter, everyone else pitches in with original ideas and songs throughout recording sessions and practices. Davoli sees the band approaching his dream, a replication of the Fab Four themselves.
“What I’ve always wanted is a Beatles-esque type band where everyone sings and everybody plays and it’s just a celebration of life,” Davoli said. “That’s what I think we all want to do, celebrate life.”
While Davoli takes over as lead vocalist for most of Lowjacks sets, the entire band has now gotten to that Beatles level of vocal harmony that he dreams about. Archer has been one of the most recent additions to the choir, having never sung in a band before starting to with Lowjack two years ago.
“I just went, ‘Hey guys, what if I get a mic? What if I sing?’ and they just went ‘Sure!” said Archer.
Davoli credits Archer’s newfound voice as a big driver of the band’s energy, with his strong vocals and powerful drumming pushing the band forward during gigs. It’s this democratic approach that helps empower and inspire everyone involved, getting members like Archer to push themselves further than they might have gone themselves.
Despite all the recent momentum with their songwriting and growing popularity in the State College bar scene, Davoli is hoping to keep the band’s goals definitive and short-term.
“We’re just trying to keep it all together, keep it moving forward. Keep everybody happy doing what were doing,” Davoli said. “To always find the love and the passion for it, to try not to let it get stale for anybody, friends family, fans. Everyone.”
But at the end of the day, it’s the brotherhood and friendship that keeps the band together. It’s a unity that both Archer and Davoli consider not only crucial to the band’s success but central to their lives.
“I consider all these guys my brothers,” Archer said. “They’re probably the closest friends I have in town. I’ve definitely found a level of confidence in my playing through the years that I didn’t think I had. I’ve just grown so comfortable with these guys and with my craft.”
It’s a way of life Davoli finds fulfilling and life-affirming.
“That’s the band to me. Friendship, unity. That’s the beauty in it. And when you sprinkle in fun, great music, that forms an even greater relationship,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like work at the end of the day.”
And isn’t that what everyone wants? Lowjack certainly seems to think so, and they seem to be right at home. Take notes, nervous soon-to-be graduates.
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