Pittsburgh City Paper

Neon Swing X-Perience celebrates 20 years of music at the Hard Rock, Fri., April 13 

“But no one ever thought in 20 years it’d still be going!”

Swingin’: NSX’s Joe Palacki, Dave Frye, Mike Urick, Walter Hunter and Ken Reeser, outside NOLA on the Square - CP PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
  • CP photo by John Colombo
  • Swingin’: NSX’s Joe Palacki, Dave Frye, Mike Urick, Walter Hunter and Ken Reeser, outside NOLA on the Square

Neon Swing X-Perience began when the band’s original members were in high school and came together for a talent show. Twenty years later, they’re still going strong. 

“It means that I don’t know when to quit, I don’t know when to give it up,” jokes Mike Urick, about the time he’s spent rocking and swinging with NSX. 

“We never thought we would play anything past the one show,” says Urick, NSX’s lead vocalist. “We had such a great time that we decided to just keep doing it. But no one ever thought in 20 years it’d still be going!” 

The band began as a cover act under the name Neon Spam X-Perience, because the members wanted the name to include an element from the periodic table (neon), as well as a misspelling. “We were so nerdy,” laughs Urick. 

But NSX was worried about copyright issues stemming from the canned-meat product. But they wanted to keep the same initials, so “Spam” was changed to “Swing.”

“Swing made sense, because we’ve always had horns in the band. Why not lean into that sound?” says Urick. 

Growing up, Urick had a close relationship with his grandfather, and the two would listen to big bands and Louis Armstrong. “He had played in a band for 65 years, and he played a lot of the same music we ended up covering,” says Urick. 

But Neon Swing is not your traditional swing band. 

“We have elements of classic swing, but we picked up lots of other genres along the way, too,” he says. 

To mark its 20 years, the band is releasing We’ve Only Just Begun, a 15-song album with originals, covers and reworked classics from the band’s tenure. It is the band’s eighth release, and it features energetic covers of songs like “I Wanna Be Like You,” from The Jungle Book, and “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” a polka standard. It also features originals like “275 Miles,” a song about the time that Urick spent driving 275 miles back to Pittsburgh to play with NSX when he lived in Cincinnati. Then, there’s “Thomas, WV,” a song about the band’s first, but comically unfortunate, out-of-state show.

“For our 10-year-anniversary album [Here to Stay], we went for more of a ‘best of’ feel. But this record was more about having fun and picking songs that had meaning for us, and seeing how it would all hang together,” says Urick. 

Twenty years is a long time to be a band, and there’s bound to be some personnel changes. About 40 members have rotated in and out of the ensemble, and the group currently performs as an eight- or nine-piece. The current lineup, as featured on the album, is as follows: Urick sings and plays trumpet and nose flute; Walter Hunter plays saxophone, clarinet and trumpet; Joe Palacki mans the drums and percussion; Steve Tomkowitz sings and plays saxophone; Dave Frye riffs on the guitar; Chris Dufalla sings and plays trombone; Carmen Marotta plays piano and keys, and sings; and Ken Reeser and Randy Miller take turns sharing bass duties, depending on who is free for the many gigs that NSX performs. 

“The first tour that we did was a lot of fun, and at the time, I was at the point where I was thinking I wanted to slow down, maybe be done with it. But we figured, let’s go on the road and give it a shot,” explains Urick. “It was so much fun that we didn’t want to stop doing it.” 

Since then, the band has performed at dream venues and opened for its idols in Pittsburgh and across the country. “Ten or 11 years ago we performed in Hollywood in the Derby, where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played in the movie Swingers, and we really love Big Bad Voodoo Daddy,” says Urick.

The group has also performed on the same Central Park stage in New York City where Duke Ellington’s band performed, and have played at big rockabilly festivals like Viva Las Vegas. 

NSX is now an institution in Pittsburgh. The band performs each month at NOLA on the Square, and this year, Pittsburgh City Council proclaimed April 13 to be “Neon Swing X-Perience Day.” 

In an effort to catalog its legacy thus far, the band will perform two sets at the Hard Rock Café this Friday. The first is a performance of We’ve Only Just Begunin its entirety, and the second set is a mix of “best of” songs and requests from the audience.

“We’re trying to use [the second set] to hit some things that didn’t make it to the album that means something to us, and also to be able to take requests from our repertoire,” explains Urick. “Rehearsing for the second set has been kind of fun, because it’s a work in progress.” 

Urick is just excited to share the album with NSX’s fans, and to perhaps get people dancing the night away.

“The bottom line is, we just want people to have a good time and enjoy the album,” says Urick. “It was really a labor of love putting it together, and we just hope people enjoy it as much as we do.”

Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Neon Swing X-perience show will definitely be fun

 | TuesdayApril 10, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

They've opened for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the B-52s, have led a costumed dog parade in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and were nearly run out of a small town in West Virginia. They are an elastic ensemble, in both numbers — five to eight musicians, depending on the venue — and in the range of music performed.

But Neon Swing X-perience's greatest feat just might be thriving as a swing band for two decades.

“Even though we're primarily a swing band, we have that party atmosphere,” says Mike Urick, a Greensburg-based singer and trumpet player who is the lone remaining member from the band's inception in 1998. “Sometimes you hear swing band, and you get the sense it's going to be uptight. Is it going to be fun? We're definitely fun.”

Neon Swing X-perience celebrates its 20th anniversary with the release of a new album, “We've Only Just Begun,” April 13 at the Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square.

“We've Only Just Begun” features bookend covers of two swing standards, “Tiger Rag” and “Alexander's Ragtime Band.” They are considerably rawer than the rest of the songs, with a sound that's reminiscent of a vintage soundtrack.

“I was a little bit concerned because people are used to hearing us loud and in your face, having a tight rhythm section, hearing a bass, hearing a guitar,” Urick says. “Just hearing a march, it was kind of a risk to open and close the album like that, but we wanted to simulate what we do at the dog parade, leading it marching style. … When we were rehearsing, we thought, ‘why don't we record this, too?' ”

The other song that's culled from the band's live shows is “Thomas, W.Va.,” which is equal parts “Goodnight, Irene” and a booze-fueled drinking song. The town in eastern West Virginia, about 60 miles southeast of Morgantown, has become a hipster haven in recent years. But when Neon Swing played there in 2006 — the band's first out-of-state appearance — an audience of about half a dozen showed up at the venue expecting bluegrass music.

“The characters in that song are people we actually met,” Urick says, admitting the band got a little rowdy at its bed-and-breakfast after the show. “The person who asked to move our truck, that actually happened. It was garbage day the next day, and we were thinking why do we have to move it now? And we were really low on gas, and there's not much around. We were really concerned we weren't going to make it out of town.”

While Urick is the lone original member, three musicians — Walter Hunter (sax, clarinet, and trumpet), drummer Joe Palacki and Steve Tomkovitz (sax and vocals) — have been full-time members for at least 15 years. Keyboardist and vocalist Carmen Marotta was a Neon Swinger from 2001-06 before rejoining two years ago. Guitarist Dave Frye started playing part-time in 2002, and has been a full-time member since 2014. Chris Dufalla (trombone, vocals) joined in 2014, and bassists Ken Reeser and Randy Miller joined in 2017.

Urick points to the musicians' diverse backgrounds in jazz, country, rock, classical, and even metal, as the reason Neon Swing X-perience is unlike any other band in the region, if not the country.

“We take all those elements and blend them together to make something that's uniquely us,” he says. “But everything we're doing is rooted in some way to the big bands of the '30s and '40s.”

The show on April 13 has been proclaimed Neon Swing X-perience Day in Pittsburgh by Mayor Bill Peduto, and will feature the full eight-man version of the band.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Neon Swing X-perience
Neon Swing X-perience
Neon Swing X-perience
Neon Swing X-perience
Upcoming Shows
Listen Here
Connect with NSX