Pearl Jam tribute band gives members of Graces Downfall a new Leash on life
New group plays Make-A-Wish fundraiser in Olyphant tonight
Holding their first show on Dec. 5 at Bar Louie at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Leash has been packing every place they play, and for good reason – they’re a tribute act that truly loves the music they’re recreating, especially vocalist Kenneth Norton.
The band is playing a benefit for the Make-A-Wish Foundation with several other local acts at Thirst T’s Bar & Grill in Olyphant tonight, so we asked Norton about the show and his affinity for Pearl Jam, what it takes to emulate Eddie, how this group compares to and coexists with Graces Downfall, and where they plan to take both bands next.
KENNETH NORTON: I absolutely remember the first time I heard Pearl Jam. I was 6 years old sitting on the floor in my living room and the video for “Jeremy” came on. I was pretty much glued to the television. Eddie Vedder’s demeanor in the video just grabbed you. He looked intense.
NS: What kind of influence has Pearl Jam had on you personally and musically?
KN: As a musician, Pearl Jam has influenced me to not want to write bullshit lyrics. All of their songs have some sort of meaning. That to me is what music is about – taking an emotional/personal pain or happiness and turning it into something creative. Everyone has emotion. Music has the best way of tapping into someone to make them feel, so your song about struggle, pain, happiness, or love could be someone else’s emotion of something they’re experiencing in their life. It’s pretty incredible.
NS: What is your favorite Pearl Jam album?
KN: My favorite Pearl Jam album is “Vs.” It was the very first cassette tape I ever owned. My parents or the “Easter Bunny” put it in my Easter basket when I was 7 years old. I remember I didn’t put my Walkman down with that album playing in it.
NS: How has Pearl Jam influenced Graces Downfall?
KN: The only real big Pearl Jam fan in Graces Downfall is myself. [Guitarist] Mark [Yanish] has gotten into them as of late since I started Leash. Everyone else in Graces is more of an Incubus/Periphery/Deftones/Tool fan. And that vibe, in my opinion, shows in our music. But like I said, I try to write about life things, not just some bullshit I made up to sell records. Music is my way of coping and releasing emotion.
NS: Why did you decide to create Leash?
KN: I created Leash because we’ve been hammering Graces Downfall for a while with cover music and original music. I don’t want to turn my back on that because it helped us establish our name to what it is today, but I really want to make Graces Downfall more about the original music instead of a cover band that throws a few original songs out during a night. But original bands don’t make money. It’s a fact. Unless you’re bringing 100 people a night, you won’t make a nickel. With Graces Downfall, we’re really trying to tour and hit other states to expand our horizons. We’re putting together different things for the year 2015 to really make it happen.
Leash is going to be more towards booking beach and casino gigs, much like other tribute acts. The bar gigs we’re gigging at first are to establish our name locally, get people to our shows, and have them filmed and recorded to put together a press kit to shop to casinos, beach bars, and other talent buyers to take us on to play other areas.
NS: How did you choose the band members for this group?
KN: Honestly, everyone was friends. Leash has three of the four members of Graces Downfall, and the other two members are very good friends. [Guitarist] Jon Sembrat was a friend of mine since he came into the scene with LIVID back in 2009. I believe he was 17 or 18 years old at the time, but he was incredibly talented. He shipped off to Boston to go to Berkeley for music college. He ended up coming back after some time, and I really wanted to get him involved. He wasn’t playing in a band, and I felt he was too talented to not be playing. [Bassist] Kyle Ferguson filled in for Natalie Jurosky, Graces Downfall’s original bassist, when she was too young and LCB kept busting us at shows for her being underage. That was back in 2007 or so. Kyle is a huge Pearl Jam fan, so I figured that would work out well.
I asked Mark Yanish last knowing he wasn’t the biggest Pearl Jam fan, but Mark is my best friend and I wanted him to be a part of it. His work ethic with music is second to none. He works hard at his craft, practicing probably three to five hours a day. You need that drive. He learns the songs verbatim. He’s an incredibly talented, high-energy musician, and I felt like if you’re going to put the stage show on that Pearl Jam does, you’re going to need that. [Drummer] Jamey Fisk was simple – the kid can play. He plays with Graces, which is heavy and ripping, but he also played with Lemongelli for 10 years, so he knows how to jam. Pearl Jam does a lot of going off in the midst of songs to jam certain parts longer, so it works out that Jamey can round up parts after and bring them back in the direction they need to go to continue.
NS: How did you end up choosing the name Leash out of all the Pearl Jam-related names you could have chosen?
KN: I was actually going to call us “Corduroy Leash” because those might be my two favorite Pearl Jam songs. I ran the name by Jimmy McGrath of McGrath’s Pub & Eatery and he laughed at me. Jimmy is a gigantic Pearl Jam fan. He’s a guy that’s probably seen them 50 times or so. I know he recently traveled to Ohio to see them in October. Jimmy told me to just go with Leash, so I did. Kyle wanted to go with Lost Dogs, and I said no. Luckily I did, because another Pearl Jam tribute band from Scranton popped up with that name later that same day.
NS: Your voice is a great match for Vedder’s. Is there anything you have to do to prepare to sing those songs or is there anything you have to do differently performance-wise?
KN: Honestly, it’s the same routine for Graces Downfall and Leash. Only thing for Graces is we don’t have any songs where I just scream the entire song like Pearl Jam does. Eddie Vedder never really climbs out of his range. though, as to where some Graces Downfall songs I’m at the apex of my range, which on some nights I’ve got, and others I don’t. Luckily, I am a Pearl Jam fan, but I’ve been getting, “You sound like Eddie Vedder or Aaron Lewis,” since the beginning of Graces Downfall.
NS: How is performing in Leash different from a Graces Downfall show?
KN: Leash is a lot more mimicking than Graces Downfall. Pearl Jam fans want to see you emulate a Pearl Jam show, so I’ve had to watch YouTube videos of Eddie Vedder’s mannerisms on stage and basically copy them. With Graces, we just go rock our original music and hope you feel it how we bring it. So, in turn, with Leash, it’s very much play the role of Pearl Jam, and with Graces, play your own show and be yourself while doing it.
NS: Is there a particular Pearl Jam song you enjoy singing the most?
KN: My favorite Pearl Jam song to play is “Animal” because of the high energy of the song, but, I mean, songs like “Better Man” and “Daughter,” where you don’t have to sing a single word because the crowd is singing back louder than you are, are incredible, too.
NS: The set list you posted a few weeks back on your Facebook page is enormous! How do you choose what songs to do, and has it been a challenge to learn so many songs from such a large catalog?
KN: The set was picked by what was most popular by Pearl Jam. I did a lot of listening to Pearl Jam Radio on SiriusXM too to see what songs they played a lot, also following them on Instagram, seeing the set lists they posted to see what they were playing a lot of. Basically that’s how I chose the songs to play.
NS: There are tribute acts to many different bands out there. How do you feel yours stands out from the rest?
KN: I mean, as far as tribute acts go, I think we can hold our own. It’s not a competition, but I feel like as a Pearl Jam tribute band, we do Pearl Jam justice. The 10 Band is still top dog as far as Pearl Jam tributes, though. They have the longevity and stage presence down to a T. Hopefully we can compare to them if we keep this going over the years.
NS: You’ve had two shows so far. How did they go?
KN: The reaction has been incredible! The energy at Bar Louie was great. There is a lot of room between you and the crowd, so it’s not a very personal experience, but EVERYONE was attentively watching the show. It was at capacity, and it was awesome. Everyone was singing along and responding after every song – made for a great night.
The Jam for Jason at The Wildcat was outstanding, too. The Wildcat was at capacity, which is always incredible. You could feel the energy of the anticipation for us to hit the stage. It was prolonged by the show running wildly late, but once we hit the stage, it was electric. Everyone was into it, singing along, rocking, doing the chants, and such that Pearl Jam throws in at their live shows. The response has just been great.
NS: You have a show that benefits Make-A-Wish today. How did you end up getting involved with that?
KN: We got involved with the Make-A-Wish benefit when Tom “T” Tell asked me. When T explained what it was for and all, I wanted to do it. I have two beautiful daughters, and I couldn’t imagine them not having a Christmas, so to help out five kids from the area so they can receive gifts this Christmas, I had to be a part of it. The show actually falls on my three-year anniversary with my incredible girlfriend, but she understood completely. She knows we love each other every day, so playing this benefit was important to her also. She has a great heart and would hate to see some children not have the privilege of having a Christmas.
It means a lot because it helps children. I’ve always had a spot in my heart for benefits which involve children, cancer, and the heart, all for selfish reasons that have involved my family life. But it all goes back to the fact that I don’t believe any kid should not have the joys of Christmas. It’s an amazing time of year, and they should feel love and joy just like every kid in the world should this time of year.
NS: What are you most looking forward to about that show?
KN: I mean, it’s always fun play and see all the bands play, but I’m more excited to see people going out of their way to give. It tends to get lost in the Christmas “spirit” of I need need need. At this, people are going out of their way to donate baskets, donate money, and spend their time to help the cause. That’s what Christmas is all about.
NS: What’s next for you? What are your plans going forward?
KN: With Graces Downfall, we’re truly hoping to land management, get touring, get a label – you know, all the rock ‘n’ roll things that have to go into being a successful band. With Leash, the most important thing is getting our feet on the ground and hopefully taking on the beach bars, casinos, and other places that have tribute bands play.
NS: How regularly is Leash going to perform?
KN: Leash is going to do maybe eight or nine shows locally a year If it’s something out of the area, we’re going to go play. But as for locally, we’re going to try to keep it fresh and only play a few times around NEPA.
NS: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
KN: I hope to see everyone at the Make-A-Wish show at Thirst T’s Bar and Grill. We have the opportunity to make a huge difference in some children’s lives.
Lead photo by Jesse Faatz
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.