A Northumberland County hard rock band that drew crowds on tours of the East Coast and Canada during the ’80s and ’90s — and developed an especially devoted following in Northeastern Pennsylvania — has scheduled a performance in Plains Township to show appreciation for those who supported the group throughout its career.
Harpo is scheduled to play during an evening of music that begins at 9 p.m. Nov. 4 in the Grand Ballroom at The Woodlands. Special guests Halfway to Hell will perform their AC/DC tribute to open the show.
Harpo was formed in Sunbury in 1974 by founding bassist Billy Kerstetter and lead vocalist John “Lloyd” Kistner. In their early days, the band played top 40 covers, but their abilities garnered attention even before they released original music.
“We first started touring Canada in ‘77 or ‘78,” Kerstetter said in a recent interview. “We did this big outdoor event that was an annual thing in State College … opening for Franke and the Knockouts. Their management came to our management and asked if we were interested in doing a tour in Canada. By November of that year, they had booked us for an 11-week tour through Ontario and Quebec.”
By 1980, Harpo had written enough original material to make a record, and a relationship they developed in Ottawa led to studio time and their debut self-titled album.
“I’d say our major influences are a mix between Zeppelin and AC/DC,” Kerstetter said.
A few years later, the band met Wade Perry, a Berwick native who worked for Mean Greek Management in Philadelphia.
“He produced our ‘Armed to Deliver’ album,” Kerstetter said. “We were blowing up around ‘85, ‘86. We were in Metal Edge Magazine, Circus Magazine, Rip Magazine. We were in all these national rock magazines as the next big thing. We had record labels flying to see us.”
Harpo even had a song that premiered on the Howard Stern Show. They’d go on to play showcases at popular New York City clubs like the Cat Club and Limelight, but as the group’s momentum swung them nearer to a deal with a major label, tragedy struck.
On Christmas Eve in 1988, Kistner was hit by a drunk driver and was seriously injured, leading to a stint in intensive care and a year of physical therapy.
“Everything changed,” Kerstetter said. “He was the main vocalist. (Without) the vocal ability he added with all the songs, we didn’t have enough material.”
Harpo regrouped and released “Fire Your Fire” with another singer, but by then, Kerstetter said, the music industry had changed.
“Now it was all about Seattle and Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and Nirvana, and hair bands were being made fun of,” he said. “The national acts that were established as hair bands were done.”
But that didn’t stop Harpo. Kistner would rejoin the band after he recovered from the accident, and they would welcome lead guitarist Chris Silvagni and drummer Richard Smith to form the lineup that has been constant since the early ’90s.
After releasing “Smoking Gun” in 1996, the band embarked on their Cocked and Loaded tour, the highlight of which involved them winning a local radio contest and opening for Queensryche at Montage Mountain in Scranton.
By 1998, Harpo had planned farewell performances, but their first reunion show in 2000 showed them that their fans were hungry for more. They played The Woodlands’ Grand Ballroom with local act Bad Hair Day, and, according to Kerstetter, “people were lined up around the block in winter.”
Since then, the band has played periodic reunion shows to similarly positive receptions. Last, year, they booked the F.M. Kirby Center’s Chandelier Lobby, and the show was a success.
So why does a rock band that had such success and reached so many fans have a comfortable home in NEPA?
“I think the main reason was there was so much exposure there for us, because there were so many clubs throughout that region,” Kerstetter said. “From Nanticoke up through Clarks Summit and Archbald, there must have been 10 to 12 clubs we played on every tour.”
Kerstetter estimates the band played hundreds of shows in the region, and the fans were always great to Harpo, he said.
“It makes the hair stand up on my arms when I think of the dedication the fans have,” Kerstetter said. They are the reason we keep coming out, to give them what they want. It’s not about money or stroking egos. It’s all about the fans.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Harpo with special guest Halfway to Hell
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 4. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Where: Grand Ballroom inside The Woodlands, 1073 state Route 315, Plains Township
Additional information: General admission costs $15 at the door.