Posted: Friday Sep 23, 2011
While fans mourn the recent breakup of R.E.M., the band that defined college rock for more than 30 years, Saint Vincent College students are excited about the local music world’s newest group – Phineas Gage – comprised of four SVC professors (three current, one former).
The group will be the warm-up band for an upcoming Student Government Association-sponsored concert by the Clarks for campus residents. They debuted on campus in April 2010 at a battle of the bands competition and again in December that year.
Dr. Michael Rhodes, associate professor of biology and the group’s “front man,” explained that they had an unusual beginning. “It all started with Guitar Hero,” Dr. Rhodes said of the popular video music game. “Mark (Dr. Mark Rivardo, associate professor of psychology) and I are both Saint Vincent alumni with the class of 1993 and have been good friends for almost 20 years. So, when I joined the faculty we started having lunch together on Fridays. During one of these casual lunches, I must have been a little tired, I don’t know. But I revealed that I had been playing Guitar Hero the night before just for fun.”
“On his coffee table,” Dr. Rivardo added.
“I was doing some stage antics,” Dr. Rhodes continued. “He had heard of Guitar Hero and had some family members who had similar systems that don’t require much musical ability. I told him how it kind of made me feel younger to do it. And, obviously, I told him about the crazy things I would do while playing, like jumping up on the coffee table and pretending to be a rock star -- and that’s when it occurred to us that we could play together.”
“I played bass in college but hadn’t played for years,” Dr. Rivardo noted. “Then Mike got me interested in playing again. I started playing Guitar Hero with my niece. Then, my wife and I bought one and started playing together. About a month later I thought to myself I could actually play these songs on my bass instead of on this video game. So, I started learning the songs we were playing and somewhere in there Mike was asked to judge for a battle of the bands on campus. He told us about his experience and about how much he enjoyed it. Then I was talking to Dante (Dr. Dante Mancini, then assistant professor of psychology at Saint Vincent, now at IUP) across the hall and he had played guitar since he was a teenager but probably hadn’t picked it up for five or six years. So I said well, how about we all get together and play. Then Chris (Dr. Christopher Oldenburg, associate professor of psychology) overheard us and said he had a keyboard and we started talking about playing together.” Another friend, Ron Weaver, was recruited since he played drums.
“So, we had a guitar player who was interested, a bass player, a keyboardist, a drummer. But none of us wanted to sing,” Dr. Rivardo noted. “Mike told me an interesting story about the first time he sang with his family so he became our vocalist.”
“So I am not the only vocalist now,” Dr. Rhodes added. “I have no musical training whatsoever. The only singing I had ever done was in the shower and that usually was followed by my wife telling me to stop. The first song I ever sang on Guitar Hero was Livin’ on Prayer by Bon Jovi. It was a song that had a lot of upper range vocals. Needless to say my family started to play their Guitar Hero instruments and when the vocals started, I started belting it out with all kinds of energy and they all buckled over from laughter. And the rest is basically history. Now the rest of the band members have gotten more comfortable with backup singing which has helped the songs become richer in tone and gives it a whole new sound.”
The group has chosen songs that they think will appeal to college students. “We want to be entertaining to the students,” Dr. Rivardo explained. “They see us in the classroom; they see us in our comfort zone. We have one-on-one time with them but certainly the role we have as musicians is much different. So we want to put on a show and entertain them. But we knew we would have to choose songs that they could at least recognize. It also had to be songs we liked to play. We will have some songs from the 60s, such as Hendrix, and some songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s. We are also into today’s music.”
They have performed in their garages regularly and twice before on campus in a battle of the bands competition but this is their first time doing for an all-campus outdoor performance in the stadium. They were invited to play by Student Government Association Executive Board President Renold Sossong who thought the student body would enjoy hearing a faculty band as the warm-up group for the Clark’s which is only open to Saint Vincent students.
“It took us almost a year to have six songs ready for our first performance,” Dr. Rhodes recalled. “But since that time we now have about 14 or 15 songs. We are gelling as a band. It’s neat.“
For their debut, they are planning to play Bill Idol’s White Wedding and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze and a couple surprises for the 30-minute performance.
The source of their group’s name is another interesting story. “We wanted to come up with a name that would really represent the band members,” Dr. Rivardo said. “So we have Dr. Oldenburg, Dr. Mancini, and myself from the psychology department. Mike in biology. The drummer works with Mental Health America. So we wanted to have a bio-psychology related name. So we couldn’t come up with something that represented everyone. Chris thought of Phineas Gage while he was mowing the lawn. Phineas Gage was a railroad worker in the 1800s. While doing some work for the railroad company he was trying to clear some rock and had a blasting accident. A tamping rod was shot through his head. He didn’t lose consciousness. He lived. He underwent some significant change but it was a really strong case study that integrates psychology and biology.”
All of the members of the group are from the Westmoreland and Allegheny County areas. Dr. Rhodes lives in Unity Township, Dr. Rivardo and Dr. Oldenburg in Latrobe, Dr. Mancini in Gibsonia and Ron Weaver is from Export.
Depending on how they are received, they are hoping to do a digital recording soon and produce a CD. They said they would consider playing a local club if they were invited.
“What’s nice for us is we get to put on a show for students,” Dr. Rivardo noted. “And they rotate through quickly enough that there are always new students here who have not seen us before. So if we play once or twice a year there will always be new students who have not seen us before. It can help keep it fresh. Some of our biggest fans are fellow faculty members.”
View the group's Facebook page at
Photo: Members of the Saint Vincent College faculty rock band, Phineas Gage, include (from left to right) Ron Weaver, Dr. Michael Rhodes, Dr. Dante Mancini, Dr. Christopher Oldenburg and Dr. Mark Rivardo.