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Eight To The Bar Swings into 35th Year: May 14 Celebration at Toad's Place

Eight to the Bar's 35th Anniversary/Reunion Gig is Friday, May 14 at Toad's Place, 300 York Street, New Haven. Doors open at 7 p.m. Schedule as follows: The Blue Lights, 7:30 to 8:10 p.m.; Helium Brothers, 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Eight to the Bar 1975ers, 10 to 11 p.m.; and Eight to the Bar current lineup, 11:20 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $15 on the day of the show. For more information and tickets, call 203-624-8623 or visit www.toadsplace.com.

In an era earmarked by constant change and short attention spans, the locally based band Eight to the Bar (ETTB) has the unusual distinction of not only surviving, but thriving, for 35 years.

Everyone in Connecticut knows ETTB, either because they played at their own wedding or their best friend's wedding or they saw them play a gig as far away as the Caribbean or as close as The Chowder Pot in Branford.

The band's rigorous performance schedule includes between 150 and 200 dates per year. And not only is ETTB still pulling people in droves up on the dance floor with its high-energy combination of swing, boogie woogie, R&B, and Motown, but four of the six current members are also either from the original lineup or have been in the band for the more than 15 years.

In celebration of ETTB's 35th anniversary, Toad's Place in New Haven is presenting a reunion gig on Friday, May 14 with performances by the band's original 1975 lineup, followed by the current lineup. Two other New Haven-area bands that have been around all these years will also perform: The Helium Brothers and The Blue Lights (formerly Washboard Slim & the Blue Lights).

ETTB's founder and leader Cynthia Lyon-the band's primary songwriter and arranger-has lived in Northford for the past decade with her husband Collin Tilton, the band's saxophone player, also an original member. Tilton is known for his sax and flute playing on Van Morrison's million-selling Moondance album and for performing with Etta James on the Rolling Stones's 1978 U.S. Tour.

Other current members are Michael Corsini on bass and vocals, best known for his work with Magill-LaPine jazz quartet; Tom Whalen on guitar, also leader of the blues rock band Tommy Whalen & the Ragged Edge; Shawn Meehan on drums, a Berklee College of Music graduate who's toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe; and the newest member, Brinna Jones on vocals and percussion, who's opened with Souled Out for The Drifters, The Pointer Sisters, and The Temptations.

Original members who will perform at Toad's include John Baker on drums; Tom McNamara on bass; John Brown on pedal steel; vocalists Barbara Lyon (Cynthia's sister), Polly Messer, and Rob Jockel; and honorary guitarist Steven Baldino of B. Willie Smith Band (the original guitar player moved to the West Coast in 1976).

Going the Musical Mile

Lyon attributes ETTB's longevity to several things-most important that she can't picture herself doing anything else.

"In 1985, I broke up the band for one year-I was exhausted and burned out and I had laryngitis all the time," she recalls. "But by the end of the year, I was really suicidal. I made a deal with God that if I could put the band back together, I would never leave. There's really nothing else out there that I would want to do."

Lyon thinks the music stays fresh for fans over so many years because "we want to make the music engaging and put out energy. It's really a reciprocal thing-we give it out, the crowd gives it back, and you have a kind of symbiotic relationship. You have to have both."

The band started out as a Western swing band, which Lyon says was too esoteric for the general public.

"So, in 1978, we traded pedal steel for a saxophone and went into regular swing music," she says, "which really boomed around 2000 and became familiar to most people."

She notes that The Swing Dance Society has been going strong since the '90s and members love to come out to dance to ETTB. Also, the popularity of TV shows like Dancing with the Stars has been a boon to the band.

Lyon also points out that swing is a timeless style of music and even when ETTB is playing covers, members put their own original twist on the tunes and also write a lot of their own material. ETTB is releasing its 11th CD-on which 9 of the 12 songs are originals.

"In the past, I was the primary songwriter. This time, just about everyone in the band stepped up and wrote at least one song, putting their stamp on the CD," Lyon says.

The title of the CD, The Romper Room, takes its name from a track by Mike Corsini.

"It's a hilarious tongue-in-cheek song about a brothel," Lyon says.

"Mike's writing is more jazzy, Tom is more bluesy, Britta has a '60s bossa nova feeling, and I write [what can be described as] early Elvis meets Count Basie," she adds.

Brian Phelps, owner of Toad's Place, commends Lyon for both her talent and tenacity.

"It's amazing how fast the years roll by," he says. "Cynthia did a great job finding the right areas for her group to flourish as the decades moved forward."

Looking back to 1975, when Toad's Place opened and ETTB was formed, Phelps observes that things were very different and yet the same.

"People enjoying themselves and making music a part of their lives is a concept that will never end. If it does, so will humanity," he says. "People listening and smiling and dancing to music is such a large part of the basic core of our existence. Whether the year is 1975 or 2010, the music is still alive and well."

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