Evan Dean draws on early musical experiences to keep on rockin’
Talk about bad timing for a 13-year-old.
“I broke my ankle on the last day of school, wrestling with a buddy,” Evan Dean recalled about the end of a middle-school academic year in Mt. Lebanon.
“And so I needed something to do for the whole summer,” he said. “I couldn’t run around. I was on crutches. So I talked my parents into buying me my first guitar, so I’d have something to do. And it turned out to be a good thing, because I just played guitar every day.”
Combine that, uh, lucky break with his singing in church choirs since he was 5, and you have the makings of a dedicated musician.
These days, you can find Dean performing regularly around the area in various combinations.
He’ll strum his Martin acoustic and blow harmonica for solo shows, or be joined in a duo with fellow guitarist Ed Kowalski of Robinson Township, with who he’s been playing for five years. And they’ll add a rhythm section – most recently, Steve Dunn on bass and his son-in-law, Chris Belin, on drums – to rock out as the Evan Dean Band.
Plus there’s Evan Dean and the Shakedown, coming soon to a venue near you: specifically, on June 10 at Mr. Mike’s in Irwin, which is close enough.
“The Shakedown is exclusively blues and R&B,” with the rhythm-and-blues component covering such legends as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. “It’s a very upbeat, happy, move-your feet type of music. That’s the way I love to sing.”
Joining him in his latest musical venture are guitarist Joe Bradley of Mt. Lebanon, bassist Andy Shissler of Bethel Park, keyboard player Joe Cipollone of Shaler Township and drummer Bob Bradley of Canonsburg, who came up with the band’s name.
Dean will admit that he’s not so fond of attempting to come up with names, but those of some of his past groups resonate with creativity.
First, there was the Don Stairs Vigil, which he formed while studying creative writing – that apparently applies to band names, too – at Carnegie Mellon University.
“That was basically because we practiced in a basement,” he explained, “and ‘Don’ is kind of a Pittsburghese pun.”
The band released an EP in 1998, and a couple of years later Dean was at the core of another group, Ouve Azzy Runk, a neologism for “groove jazzy rock funk.” That’s where he met drummer Belin, and the band’s EP “Tree” came out in 2001.
Later in the decade was the 29th Ward, so named because Castle Shannon, where Dean now lives, once was the 29th ward of Pittsburgh. The band’s album, “2008,” was released in – you’ve guessed it – 2008.
“I had a lot of songs on there about depravity and suffering, pretty dark,” Dean said. “You write about where you are or where you wish you were. And I guess that’s where I was. But even then, writing about dark subjects, I try to take the approach of moving through the darkness to a better place.”
Another example of that approach is the recent original “Roll Away the Stone.”
“That’s a song about learning to love yourself, about being down and feeling outcast and unwanted, and then loved,” he explained, “and learning how to roll that weight off myself and appreciate who I am, without judgment.”
Finding time among all his musical pursuits, Dean earned a master’s degree in social work.
“It really influenced me, in terms of doing my own personal growth and making my music more positive,” he said. “Even in the darkness, there’s a way forward into the light. So I try to reflect that in my lyrics. I want my lyrics to have a positive effect. I don’t just want to depress people.”
Even though he’s been singing for such a long time, including stints with paid choirs when he was in college, Dean started taking voice lessons a few years ago from Hilerie Klein Rensi. They clicked immediately, and she was sufficiently impressed to hire him as an instructor at her Higher Voice Studio in Carnegie.
“Because I wanted to get better,” he said about continuing his vocal education. “I figured, hey, you can always get better.”