If, like me, you love music but reside in a somewhat isolated area, catching cool concerts can be a commitment.
Yet in 2023, I somehow managed 12 shows in a mere 10 months.
As noted elsewhere on this site, the city of Williamsport, nestling in bucolic Northcentral PA, is roughly three hours from most major cities in the Northeast. Since I’m often willing to pull back into the driveway at 2 a.m. or later, most of these far-flung shows were essentially day-trips.
Here’s my lineup from the year:
Mar. 25: Al Stewart in Phoenixville, PA
Located 50 minutes northwest of Philadelphia, Phoenixville has grown into quite a cultural hotspot in recent years.
Originally famous because it was featured in the 1958 monster-movie The Blob, it is now a bustling bedroom community: shops, galleries, restaurants—and the impressive Colonial Theatre, where the “blob” burst out through the screen and sent everybody screaming for the exit. (The town’s annual three-day Blobfest includes a “run-out” that reenacts this scene.)
Stewart, who catapulted to fame with the late-seventies singles “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages,” maintains a vigorous performing schedule. He’s a personal fave, and I had to catch this tour—his first in years with a backup band. (Al usually performs with just a single fellow-guitarist.)
The setlist was typically eclectic, including hits and sleepers, plus two perfect picks from the peerless Year of the Cat album. Best of all, Stewart was at the top of his game with his usual between-tunes banter.
Phoenixville, however, was not designed for the massive auto-influx on busy weekends like this; parking is a headache—but relief may be in sight: Amtrak recently announced plans to restore trains from Philly through Phoenixville to Reading.
Currently slated for 2027, rail service has not operated on that route since 1983.
Mar. 30: Rick Wakeman in Bethlehem, PA
Rick Wakeman on the keys in Bethlehem, PA.
The legendary Wakeman made a name for himself with the equally legendary prog-rockers Yes—followed by a successful solo career spanning dozens of albums. Like Stewart, he no longer draws huge crowds and tours with a modest set-up—in this case, two keyboards, on which the aging virtuoso soloed some of his best- and least-known material.
Happily, this included Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—since Wakeman played on both of those radio hits. He too is a great raconteur, unleashing a string of hilarious tales and jokes; his joyous, ivory-tinkling set concluded with covers of “Help!” and “Eleanor Rigby”—played in a facetious classical style.
This show took place at the Wind Creek Event Center, a handsome casino complex in the sprawling, spooky and now-defunct ironworks where Bethlehem Steel once had its headquarters.
Apr. 15: Morgan Myles in Williamsport, PA
No travel needed here: Rising country star Myles returned to her hometown, where I taught her as an English student 18 years ago. In fact, my wife and I, attending a long-ago school-band concert, were privileged to see the very young singer, who then bore a different last name; a mere fifth-grader, she stunned the crowd with a soaring cover of “My Heart Will Go On.” Many years later, Myles landed in the top three after an exciting 2022 season on “The Voice.”
She’s an impressive blend of bracing guitar-work, bravura composition and show-stopping vocals; but at this concert, I was especially impressed by the musicianship in her band. And by her humility: radiant gratitude to family and hometown were on display when she invited both her one-time music teacher and a teen from her alma mater to perform with her onstage that night.
Myles was playing this hometown solo-debut at the Community Arts Center, where she had done many shows as a teen with Williamsport’s Uptown Music Collective (essentially our local “school of rock”). Once a golden-age movie palace, the gorgeous CAC was restored in the nineties at a cost of roughly $11 million.
May 2: Airmen of Note in Williamsport
The Airmen of Note is an offshoot of the U.S. Air Force Band specializing in jazz—and boy do they sizzle. Having grabbed their crackling Christmas CD some years ago—with mashups of big-band and holiday standards like “Jing Jing Jing” and “Santanooga Choo Choo”—I snapped up tickets to this show, which were absolutely free. And the concert was fantastic: a wide range of jazz styles played with precision and boundless energy.
June 14: John Mellencamp in Syracuse, NY
John Mellencamp cranks out “What If I Came Knockin’” in Syracuse.
I likewise didn’t wish to miss the latest tour by a songwriter I have long admired—one who is now 72 and not famous for taking care of his health.
Like the CAC in Williamsport, Syracuse’s lovely Landmark Theatre is another of those downtown movie mansions meticulously converted to a concert venue—a wonderful place to see any show.
Mellencamp’s rollicking two-hour set featured such barn-burners as “Paper in Fire,” “Small Town” and “What If I Came Knockin’”—along with my personal fave: “Minutes to Memories,” a song whose sad-but-wise lyrics still give me goosebumps after all these years.
Two unusual aspects of this fine fiesta: the pre-concert screening of six or seven scenes from such classic movies as Giant, Hud and On the Waterfront; this really set the mood for Mellencamp’s distinctive brand of rural working-class Americana. And then, mid-concert, he aired a reading of lyrics to his song “The Real Life,” pre-recorded by his friend, actress Joanne Woodward.
Aug. 19: Jethro Tull in Indianapolis
Amtrak’s Cardinal arrives in Baltimore, ready to carry the writer and his friend to Indianapolis for Jethro Tull the next day.
This veteran prog-rock band is my all-time favorite group; but they were playing only 16 U.S. dates, and I could not make any of them work—except this gig in Indianapolis, nearly 600 miles away.
So a friend and I used this as an excuse to take Amtrak’s scenic overnight Cardinal from Baltimore. Arriving at the Indiana state capital on the morning of the show, we then reboarded eastbound shortly after the encore—returning with the exact same crew on the exact same train, which had laid over at its Chicago terminus all day.
Though the second leg of our rail journey was less than ideal, the show was fantastic, the scenery sensational, the whole trip well worth all that time and money.
Read the full story here.
Aug. 24: Pentatonix in Syracuse
Just days later, I made good on a promise to my wife, taking her to see this personal favorite of hers. The popular quintet, famous for recording with nothing but voices, was appearing at the St. Joseph’s Amphitheater just north of Syracuse—adjacent to grounds for the New York State Fair, which was in full swing at the time.
Traffic was nonetheless very well managed, despite the fact that this impressive venue—which overlooks nearby Lake Onondaga—holds up to 17,500 people.
I’m virtually certain the group had some sort of pre-recorded material piped in to support their live vocal work onstage, but the loyal and eager crowd didn’t seem to mind. Highlights included founding member Kevin Olusola with his patented “celloboxing” (playing the cello and beatboxing at the same time), plus a gorgeous encore of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Sept. 22: Peter Gabriel in Buffalo
Peter Gabriel (lower right) belts it out in Buffalo, accompanied by some of this tour’s signature visuals.
Gabriel was a founding member of the supergroup Genesis; but by the time they broke big in the eighties, he had already gone on to a chart-topping solo career with such smash hits as “Big Time,” “In Your Eyes,” “Solsbury Hill” and of course, “Sledgehammer.”
By 2023, the artist had not released a solo record since the dismal album Up fully 20 years ago; I’m a big fan, but I wasn’t too hopeful about this tour.
When I got tickets way back in early spring, little did I know that Gabriel’s forthcoming record, I/O, would prove as fresh and brilliant as the critical and popular hit So from 1986.
Indeed, while the singer-songwriter played dazzling versions of his major hits, nearly half the set came from that new record—and the crowd was perfectly cool with that.
With an awe-inspiring, nine-member band including violin, cello, trumpet and French horn, the show offered sumptuous visuals for nearly every song. The most memorable: tall, clear rectangular panels standing across the front of the stage; when touched, they radiated bright splashes of color which Gabriel synchronized to the music.
Of the 12 shows on this travelog, his was by far the most impressive.
Oct. 15: Steve Hackett in Harrisburg, PA
Guitarist Steve Hackett solos in Harrisburg.
Speaking of Genesis:
Hackett was their guitarist for albums 2—8, which included some of the finest progressive rock ever made. Obsessed with every note and nuance, I just about wore those records bald in my teen years.
But while Hackett too has enjoyed a prolific solo career since leaving the band in 1977, for the past couple decades he has mostly been upholding the early Genesis legacy.
This latest tour, “Foxtrot at Fifty,” would feature the entire 1973 album Foxtrot, including not only the legendary 23-minute suite “Supper’s Ready,” but also my single favorite Genesis song, a lesser-known chestnut called “Can-Utility and the Coastliners.”
I caught him at the state capital—from Williamsport, a lovely 90-minute drive along the broad and scenic Susquehanna River. Harrisburg’s busy Whitaker Center is a charming little 700-seat venue—not a bad seat in the house, as the saying goes. Hackett and his long-time band sound about as good as Genesis did in their heyday; this show, including a dazzling first set of solo work, simply held spellbound the crowd of aging fans like me.
Nov. 18: Zach Williams, MercyMe & TobyMac in Buffalo
MercyMe finishes their set in Buffalo with a good deal of cannon-fired confetti.
This Christian-music power trio spent much of 2023 touring together; my wife and I caught them on a cold winter evening in Buffalo—mostly because we love Zach Williams. But he’s the least famous of the three, and his woefully short opening set offered only nine songs—highlighted by “There Was Jesus” (you might’ve heard the hit single with Dolly Parton) and “Heart of God,” best song we heard that night.
MercyMe, with their smash-hit “I Can Only Imagine,” labored too hard at working the crowd; but they did score with the concluding “Happy Dance,” complete with colorful, cannon-shot confetti.
A charitable ministry spent nearly 40 minutes plugging their work between those two acts; otherwise, we might’ve caught more of TobyMac, who had already set the place on fire when he had to head out for our 200-minute drive home.
Both this show and Gabriel’s took place at Buffalo’s Keybank Center, downtown home of the NHL Sabres. I grew up nearby and always enjoy a nostalgic trip back. Recently voted by Reader’s Digest “America’s nicest place,” Buffalo really is an ideal city: big enough for ample dining, museums, concerts, theater and sports (ahem, Bills Mafia)—but not overwhelming in size or traffic.
And Niagara Falls is only 20 miles away.
Nov. 21: Dark Star Orchestra in Williamsport
The Dark Star Orchestra launches into a Grateful Dead song in Williamsport, PA.
Here’s a tribute band with a twist: Named for a beloved Grateful Dead tune, the DSO not only plays Dead music—they fully re-create actual Dead performances, each night playing a complete show from the 2300-plus concerts on the band’s resume.
Packed with aged but devoted Deadheads doing their typical hippie-ditzy dance, these events tend to be more party than concert—though the band, which has now played more shows than the Dead itself, is phenomenally hot and sharp. (I once saw them roll out a version of “Terrapin Station” more fiery and thunderous than any I’ve heard from Garcia and co.)
This was a strong show from July 14, 1985, transporting fans to the glory days of the Dead’s Brent Mydland era, when their vocals really clicked. Highlights included “Truckin’,” “Cassidy” and in the encore, “Keep Your Day Job”—a jovial tune the Boys rarely played and never recorded in the studio.
Dec. 9: Gerald Charles Dickens in Chalfont, PA
Gerald Charles Dickens acts out a spooky scene from “A Christmas Carol” in his one-man touring show of the book written by his great-great-grandfather.
Not exactly a “concert”—but certainly a performance!
Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson has been acting out a one-man show of his ancestor’s “A Christmas Carol” for three decades; with a fellow-fan, I gladly drove the requisite 2.5 hours to the Quakertown area just north of Philly, where the craft shop Byers Choice—best known for their handmade figurines—was hosting the final stop on Gerald’s 2023 tour.
As the beloved author often did himself, Gerald Charles Dickens offers a two-hour version of the famous tale about Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to redemption; with a few simple props, he performs more than 20 different roles, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to joke with the audience. (Fave moment here: his lament about how Black Friday has migrated to England, even though they don’t have Thanksgiving!)
The actor stuck around for Q&A afterwards, while I couldn’t help feeling that this final performance of 2023 was a fine way to wrap the year and gear up for Christmas. Among other things, Byers’ re-creation of a Victorian-era street, complete with shops and lamps, is a fitting reminder of just how much influence Dickens still has on the way we celebrate this season.
About the Author
Joseph W. Smith III is a teacher, writer and speaker in Central Pennsylvania. With degrees from Syracuse and NYU, Joe taught high school English for 30 years before retiring to focus on writing. He has compiled seven books, including studies of Hitchcock, the Bible, church life and under-the-radar movies; he also writes for several periodicals and websites. Joe is a church officer, community band member, beer snob, Buffalo Bills fan, book-group leader and lifelong reader who listens to music whenever not sleeping. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of the author.