ARCHIVE: Giving Back at the MAC

SteveDeVitoNot-so-secret sideman: Guitarist and event organizer Steve DeVito, pictured backing Beth Arentsen at the Holmdel Barnes & Noble during an in-store showcase for her new release, NICER.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 21, 2009)

Holiday Express founder Tim McLoone called them “the adult orphans” among us — the residents of local group homes and assisted care facilities, those set-back-from-the-road places that most of us barely notice as we text, bitch and roll on past.

If you’re a member of the local 4H organization and its Kids for Kids program, on the other hand, places like The ARC of Monmouth are regular stops along your rounds. Far from being merely the folks who award blue ribbons to bunnies at the county fair, it’s the 4H that stops to takes notice of our developmentally disabled population — teaming up with the ARC to present a Formal Prom every year; a high-profile event that puts the spotlight on hundreds of our neighbors from the group home.

Then there are those local people who are among the most visible faces in the crowd. People like Josh Zuckerman and Beth Arentsen, who can’t help being photogenic and certainly aren’t bashful about sharing their prodigious performing gifts with a fervent fanbase across the region. Zuckerman’s brand of alt-country inflected pop/rock and Arentsen’s ethereal chamber-pop (purveyed in both acoustic and electronic settings) have  been heard both indoors and out, in venues that range from “Jersey rox” to unorthodox — and whether separately or occasionally together on the same bill, the two stars have lent their voices to a gamut of causes that range from AIDS research and LGBT rights to post-Katrina disaster relief and animal rescue operations.

This Sunday, Rocktober the 25th, Beth and Josh give their time and talents to a great cause once more — performing not just one but two shows apiece, to help the 4H raise funds for the ARC’s Spring Formal and other ongoing special projects. Scheduled for noon and 4:30pm, the benefit concerts will take place in the very nice, very new (and somewhat under-appreciated) 250-seat auditorium at the Middletown Arts Center (MAC), located just paces from the platform of the NJ Transit train station.

The two singer-songwriters share more than what Eric Clapton called the “soft touch” charitable tendencies of the career musician. They also share Steve DeVito — versatile virtuoso guitarist, all-around go-to guy, local postmaster by day, and the man who’s put together this 2009 entry in what’s planned as a much-anticipated annual event.

You’ve met DeVito here previously in oRBit, as lead guitar player and spokesman for the briefly reunited Secret Syde. The feedback-washed punk psychedelia of that legendary 1980s band is worlds removed from the confidently melodic music that DeVito deals out with Mr. Zuckerman and Ms. Arentsen — and he’ll have plenty of time to hone those skills, as he’s called upon to play four separate sets on Sunday.

We’ll get to the show’s headliners some day soon, we promise — but for right now the Red Bank oRBit spot is rightly trained upon Stevie DeV. Continue Reading for more on this weekend’s event.

SteveJoshBethSteve pictured with Josh Zuckerman, and with Beth Arentsen (drumer Chris Russo is at far right).

RED BANK ORBIT: So, correct me if I’m wrong, Steve-O, but you’re appearing onstage with both the Zuckerman and Arentsen bands on Sunday — and two shows each?

STEVE DE VITO: Right. But Chris Russo is in both bands too, so I’m not the only one who’ll be keeping busy.

Yeah, but you’re producing the show! You’re the point man on this thing; the one who has to make sure they don’t run out of paper towels in the restroom!

Well, I’m pretty sure someone else will be taking that job on. I’m having a lot of fun doing everything that I’m doing. I’ll coordinate everything backstage; make sure the bands get onstage on time. And I’ll be doing the sound — a buddy of mine is going to help me set it up.

So, you know I’m not doing it all by myself. We’ve got this great new facility for two shows — if you remember last year, we did one show at the VFW in Middletown — and we were able to rent this theatre thanks to a benefactor. A benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous. And of course I’m fortunate to be able to work with these great musicians, all of whom are willing to give up their Sunday for this good cause.

I know that playing with Josh and Beth has placed you in the loop for doing benefit concerts on a regular basis, but what’s the backstory to your involvement with the 4H Kids and this particular cause?

I have a family connection, in that my younger brother Chris is developmentally handicapped — he’s a resident of the ARC of Monmouth group home in Shrewsbury, so I knew all about the Spring Prom and all that they do. I should also mention that I get some of the benefit, organizational thing from my dad, who set up a basketball program called ‘Augie’s Kids’ — Augie being my dad’s name. Augie Doggie!

So it sounds like you’ve got a better idea than most people about the ARC and the 4H and the things they do. What can you tell us about your brother? Is he into music as much as you are?

My brother is like the Number One fan of Johnny Cash on the Jersey Shore! He’s an expert!

More than Henry Vaccaro?

My brother actually went that Cash concert that Vaccaro put on, at the Paramount in Asbury Park. He got to meet Johnny Cash — he was even able to make a request. Check this out — you know that song “The Gambler,” from Kenny Rogers, right? Well, Chris comes backstage and everybody asks him if he’d like to request a special song, and he asked for “The Gambler.”

Well, other people are saying no, Chris, that’s Kenny Rogers, but Johnny Cash remembers that he covered the song on one of his more obscure albums. And Chris knows everything about it — you know, side two, third song, four minutes fifty-eight seconds — so he got his onstage dedication straight from Johnny Cash!

Like a lot of people, I’m not totally familiar with the Prom event, which is the main focus of the fundraiser you’re doing. What can you tell us about it?

Oh man, it’s just the greatest event. Dorothy Eberhardt, who’s from Red Bank, is the person who runs that branch of the Monmouth County 4H. They hold the dance at the Shore Casino in Atlantic Highlands in mid-April usually, and they literally roll out the red carpet for the people at the group homes.

It’s like a big awards show; they have paparazzi take everyone’s picture as they exit the group home vans. Everyone’s wearing evening gowns and tuxes, and all the guests are escorted into the building by 4H Kids for Kids members; a lot of local high school students from places like Middletown North and South.

Everybody gets the star treatment. The smiles start immediately and they don’t let up all night — and when you see kids with disabilities moving to the music, it’s just unbelievable. You know how people say that ‘music heals?’ Well, I swear I’ve seen people who can barely walk, get up and dance.

Since you took on the task of organizing these concerts, I wanted to ask you how weird is it being the “organized” one, in a profession not exactly known for its keeping the chaos in check? Have you ever yearned to break out of the “sane one” role, the designated driver in life?

I guess I just kind of fell into the ’sane’ role by default! Plus I know how to tell time, unlike other people in the business!

But it really does look like you’re having a blast playing music, I must say.

I’ve been with Josh about five years now, and with Beth for about two years — in fact it was Josh’s PR guy Stephen Schulman who referred me to Beth — and I still get energized whenever I play with these guys. I have an allegiance to both, and I’d love to see them succeed beyond everybody’s wildest dreams. I don’t know, I like doing what I do — it’s such a great area for learning; every time I watch another musician at work, I learn something.

I’m aware that you’ve been performing gigs in the city with both of them, putting this event together, keeping your day job and your family life going around here — but why do I get the feeling that it’s still not all that you’ve been up to?

You know me too well. I’m also working occasionally with a musician from Ireland,Steve Reilly — he plays every other Wednesday at The Lake House in Loch Arbour, doing traditional Irish stuff, plus Springsteen, Johnny Cash — oh, and we’re working on trying to put together another Secret Syde reunion gig!

Well, first things first, Steverino. Have a fine and successful event on Sunday.

Thanks; we’re looking to do this thing every year. Everyone really looks forward to it now, and who knows, someday it could take its place alongside all the other big benefit shows that happen around here.

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