Emotional, introspective instrumentation – the return of the Russello Project
A few years ago, I was lucky to have seen what I consider one of the greatest musical nights I’ve ever experienced. It was in the humble former venue of Diane’s Deli in Pittston, and it included a few bands that featured phenomenal guitarists. Two of those bands were the Phyllis Hopkins Trio and the Russello Project. This Friday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m., the combined magic of these two bands happens again at the Border Bar, also in Pittston. The stars have aligned to take you on a fantastic journey of original blues and progressive instrumental rock, so you really shouldn’t miss it.
I recently sat down with Charlie Russello, the Clarks Summit-based lead guitarist and band leader, to talk about this upcoming show and where the group has been over the last few years. From being a one-time member of the tribute act Idol Kings to recently returning to his heavy metal roots with Canedy, as well as his nonstop focus on teaching guitar to anyone with a passion to play, Charlie’s life revolves around his family and music. Though he has spread out in a few different directions musically, the Russello Project has been “in the last decade… my forefront. It’s what I love, it’s my passion… it’s my music.”
Just a few years ago, the Russello Project was playing everywhere. While instrumental prog rock may not be everyone’s cup of tea, anyone who saw them walked away a fan. The experience of seeing this band play live is truly something to behold. I asked Charlie about being absent from the scene lately. Like any musician experiences, there’s always those moments when life gets in the way. From the birth of a second child to his family to a few personnel changes, the Russello Project had to take a hiatus.
“The Russello Project is my baby, and I’m really happy I have some new musicians that are helping me with that project. It’s just coming along fantastic now,” he said.
A while back, I was honored to help the Russello Project with some bookings, social media, and whatever else I could. At that time, it was Charlie on guitar, Mike Bosi on bass, and John Carpenetti on drums. This trio of fantastic musicians took the audience on an emotional experience with every show. Before this new lineup was solidified, Charlie went through a few musicians trying to find the perfect match for his unique instrumental sounds. Finally, he found that combination and became a four-piece, adding Vince Insalaco on rhythm guitar and Bob Kirby on drums. Rounding out the band is longtime member Mike Bosi on bass and keyboards.
“Now I have Mike Bosi. He’s my partner in crime in the Russello Project; he was there pretty much from the beginning, and he has the same mindset as me when it comes to that kind of music. I’ve got Bob Kirby now on drums and electronics and some really cool stuff. It’s cool because Bob comes from THIS school of music; he’s not a strictly rock, pop, country, or blues musician. He plays in a lot of those kind of bands, but his passion lies in this form of music, this instrumental, progressive, new age kind of thing. He’s had ties with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree and some other progressive bands. We’re hoping to possibly hook up with some of those kinds of bands to do some shows in the future,” Russello explained.
“Now the biggest difference, of course, is Vince Insalaco. He’s actually a former guitar student of mine, and I thought I’d try to add another guitar. When I record my music, I layer all these different guitar parts, and I would love to have that out there live instead of just doing the primary part, so I put a little search on and instantly Vince contacted me and said he’d like to audition for me. I told him I don’t think he needed to audition, as he was my student and I knew he was a good player, so if he was into the music he could come down and we’d get started. And here we are. We’ve played a few shows and it’s sounding better than ever. It sounds so complete. We have all the instrumentation, and who knows about the future? I’ve had thoughts of more keyboards and vocals and all kinds of things, but we’ll start with this and see where it goes.”
After years of being a fan of this incredible band, I’ve always wondered how hard it is for Charlie to find the right people to make it a band rather than a solo project with backing musicians.
“The thing with Mike, and now with Bob and Vince, is that they’re all of the same mindset. All of them are seasoned musicians who’ve played in the past or even currently are playing in other projects, but their passion lies in the same field as mine, with this instrumental music. They’re thrilled to be playing with me, and I’m thrilled to have guys who are supporting the type of music I write and play. It’s so great to have that kind of support. Quite frankly, I have nothing to offer any musician other than the experience of playing that music, so if they’re not into it, they’re not going to be there long. I’ve already proven that with a few musicians who’ve come through and didn’t quite realize where my mind was at,” he noted.
“We’re not a typical cover band or a radio-friendly pop band. I’m hoping this is very emotional music that touches people. It’s instrumental. It goes back to the days of Bach and Beethoven. By no means am I comparing myself to them, but the point is, they were doing instrumental pieces to get their messages across. Listen, there have been plenty of musicians from the turn of the century until now who have been doing instrumental music; they’ve paved the way. There’s an audience there, and I just want that audience to know that here we are and to give it a listen. If they like it, great. If not… move on.”
Those who have seen the Russello Project already understand that message. The emotions are definitely felt. From people even crying at the majesty of songs like “Sky” or “Fly Away” to couples embracing each other while listening to the warm melodies of “Breath,” which features vocals from Charlie’s wife, Sarah, to pure unadulterated headbanging to songs like “54” or “Ride It Out.”
“You know, there’s elements of headbanging in our music, but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff too that far outweighs the headbanging. People who go out to party and head bang are a crowd that’s out to have a good time. When you come to see my music, I want you to enjoy yourself, but it’s a different enjoyment. It’s a reflection, a self-reflection, thoughts and emotions that I hope I’m somehow laying a soundtrack to people’s lives,” Russello emphasized.
“They can reflect on memories, and the music is there to support those feelings. The best thing to ever happen to me, my entire musical career, is when I get off stage and someone is crying or emotional because of the music they just heard us play.”
The band recently played one of their first gigs together at Scott Church’s Living Room in Lebanon. Church is a world-renowned photographer who has an art gallery/studio/entertainment facility that features many different kinds of art, including music of all genres. Charlie believes a venue like that is almost the ideal place for his music.
“It’s an art gallery, so people who can appreciate art can probably appreciate the music we play. It is more abstract, we’ll say. You sit and look at a painting and you think, you feel something. Our music is the same way. I just paint with sound. That’s it. My goal is to get us to theaters. We’re not a bar band. We’ve played bars a hundreds of times and it always goes well; we always win them over. We tend to appeal to a more mature crowd, though, and I need to find that crowd,” he said.
“I think the jazz and the blues and the fusion… I think somewhere in there is where we belong. Those people enjoy listening to the sounds and not necessarily just the vocal melodies. I love vocal music, obviously; I just played a big show with a metal band [the debut of Canedy at the Blues on the Bridge Festival on Sept. 8], but this is different. The music has to touch you in a way that your mind fills in what the music is saying, not the lyrics. You decide.”
The strong sentiments found in their music fit their latest appearance in Scranton for a memorial at the Irish Wolf Pub on Sunday, Sept. 15 to honor the life of Mike Draper of Psycho Nurse fame. The night started with a candlelight vigil held on Courthouse Square, followed by a gathering of friends and former bandmates of Draper’s at the pub. Many area musicians got up to tell stories and play some songs at this open mic-type event, so the Russello Project played a short set of their more emotional pieces. The band was on fire, and Charlie told a few stories about his relationship with Mike while growing up in West Scranton. Mike had been one of the very first students that Charlie ever had, and from the start, he recognized a passion and artistic flair within Draper that was second to none.
A calm silence fell over the crowd as the band played their set – very unusual for any kind of bar atmosphere. Other than the music itself, you could hear a pin drop as they played their signature piece, “Sky.” The usually very wordy local radio celebrity Freddie Fabbri, who was emceeing the event, was nearly speechless. He had one word to say over and over: “Wow.” Watching the awe of their peers as everyone enjoyed this incredible music, especially those who had previously played with Charlie but had not seen this version of his music, was extremely satisfying.
They plan to impress and astound again tonight with the Phyllis Hopkins Electric Trio at the Border Bar (333 Laurel St., Pittston). Charlie reminisced about the first time they played together and had nothing but high praise for the band and their singer/guitarist Phyllis Hopkins.
“She’s a great blues guitar player. She really is. I met her several years back when she’d called and asked if she could come up and take some lessons. I was shocked. What do you need to take lessons from me for? She said, like any great guitarist, she knows she could always get better. Just like myself, I’m always looking to learn in some way. She came to me… I gave her whatever I had to offer over the time she took lessons with me, and she took it and ran with it,” he recalled.
“About a year later, I ran into her and she told me she was using all the stuff; it took a while to digest it, and now she’s using it in her music. And I can tell because when I hear her play in recent times… wow, she’s great. She’s a really good player. So that upcoming show is going to be great. If you like guitar, you have to come see us play. She’s going to play, and I’m going to play, and we’re both going to do our thing. She and I play nothing alike, but we belong together on the same bill.”
Having seen these two incredible bands play together before, I can vouch for what a great night of music you’re going to be privileged to hear. From the blues and jazzy styles of Phyllis Hopkins to the new-age, progressive, and classic instrumental stylings of the Russello Project, you will not be anything less than fulfilled. In the meantime, check out both bands’ incredible music at their respective websites, therusselloproject.com and phopkinsband.com.
See NEPA Scene’s photos of Charlie Russello performing with Canedy earlier this month here.
by Ken Jones
Ken has been a photographer for over 15 years; his specialties include nature and live music photography and video. His work has been featured in ION Indie Magazine and many local publications.