Avis Reese takes to the road

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Danielle Ponder’s music director and keyboardist has set off on a 10-city, 10-month journey. (Photos courtesy of Avis Reese)

Avis Reese is one of the driving forces behind Danielle Ponder as music director and keyboardist. 

Now, she’s hitting the road. A week ago, Reese began a 10-city, 10-month, soul-searching journey looking for the next Avis Reese. As of July 30, Avis Reese has left the building. 

She packed a grip, loaded up the Dodge Caravan to the point that it looked like the Beverly Hillbillies’ jalopy and headed off in search of what to do next and where to do it. She’s on a sort of musical reconnaissance mission. Reese is looking for the vibe that a new and exciting city’s music scene presents. 

“It’s an adventure,” the 34-year-old Reese says. ”I just wanted to do something different and try out a couple of new cities.”

Her initial thought was to move to Los Angeles. But as she was making plans, it somehow didn’t feel right.

“I’m a vibe person,’ she says. “I’ve got to feel a vibe. Something’s got to click for me. But L.A. felt too definite. And I was curious about these other places. What was their music scene like? They had great music scenes that I had heard about but hadn’t experienced.”

So, Reese started mapping out a route and booking Airbnbs.

“So, I said, “Let’s check it out, let’s test it out, let’s see what the music scene is like in Washington, D.C. Let’s see what it’s like in Austin. Let’s see what it is like in Chicago. Let’s see what the difference is and decide which one fits me the best,” she says. “That was the motivation behind it.

“I’m starting out with 10 months. But I’m flexible. The cities I’m going to, I don’t really know anybody. So, I’m going to have to be strategic with networking.”

Reese has been a full-time professional musician since 2015—playing in bands and churches, and teaching music lessons.

“It isn’t like I’ve made a whole lot of money,” she says. “Somehow, everything has worked out for me. I wasn’t ever in starving artist mode. I feel truly fortunate to have figured out a way to make it all work. My family and friends are here. It’s hard to leave the security and stability I have here.” 

Reese will return this fall for some previously booked shows with Ponder.

“I wouldn’t say it’s forever,” she says. “Right now, I have a 10-month plan for it to stick to. A different city every month, 10 cities total. After that, I’m pretty much open to whatever. I’m not necessarily gonna have to know after that 10th city. I may spread it out and try some more cities. There are some overseas things as well. Right now, I’m really open to a lot of options.” 

Reese won’t miss the upstate weather, though.

“I don’t think I’m going to miss the winter at all.”

Record Review: McKinley James

“Still Standing By”

Red Lodge Records

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Nashville-by-way-of-Rochester guitar slinger McKinley James has shifted gears. 

Once I dropped the needle in the groove of his latest EP, “Still Standing By,” I was pleasantly surprised. At just 20 years old, the young man had undoubtedly been on his way to locking up some nasty shufflin’ blues and jumpin’ rockabilly. Some stuff straight out of the jungle. To see James a few years back was a cross-cut education in the guitar work of Eddie Cochran, Link Wray, Bo Diddley and James, who, starting in his mid-teens, took to the stage playing it lowdown and mean.

But then he started writing his own material … and in came the soul. 

The tunes on “Still Standing By” are all bluesy and dapper and sound entirely cohesive. James had dialed it down and dialed it in with producer Dan Auerbach (Black Keys), a producer you’d think was there to dial it up. But it helps introduce James as a formidable guitar player and songwriter. And support is coming from the home front as well. James’ father, Jason Smay (Hi- Risers, Los Straitjackets, J.D. McPherson) has left all distractions behind to play drums with his son on the road.

The songs on “Still Standing By” are genuine and not at all contrived. The segues are effortless and smooth. They come easy as James peels them off one by one. 

One complaint; it ain’t enough. There are only six songs to cling to. So, fans are simply gonna keep standing by.

Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer.


Here’s a comprehensive list of live shows in and around Rochester: Get Your Gig On

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