Spotlight: Bands members bring Thanksgiving Eve tradition to Jim Thorpe
Free Range Folk’s founding members Josh Finsel, Shawn McCarty and Kevin Ruch, harmonize during the band’s annual Harvest Jam at Mauch Chunk Opera House on Nov. 27. PHOTOS BY CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Dark Star Orchestra plays its annual Thanksgiving show at Penn’s Peak on Nov. 27.
Pat McShane of New Jersey sells enamel pins on Shakedown Street prior to Dark Star Orchestra’s show at Penn’s Peak on Nov. 27.
Karen Freese and her granddaughter Daisy James Dougherty enjoy the buffet at Harvest Jam.
Dark Star Orchestra fans look over T-shirts for sale outside the band’s show at Penn’s Peak.
Marc Baker sells one-of-a-kind clothing and skateboards at concerts around the country, including Dark Star Orchestra’s annual Thanksgiving eve show at Penn’s Peak.
Like most families, the band Free Range Folk has trouble getting everyone together in one place outside of the holidays.
But each year on the night before Thanksgiving, you can find all 10 members of the Jim Thorpe-based band celebrating at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, enjoying food, friends and music at the annual Harvest Jam. Band members serve a feast and provide entertainment for hundreds of their friends.
“It’s a celebration of friendship, and community for everybody who shows up,” said Kevin Ruch, guitarist and singer for Free Range Folk.
The night before Thanksgiving is known as a night for friends to reconnect. After eight years, including many sold-out shows, Harvest Jam is without a doubt a Thanksgiving tradition in Jim Thorpe.
Just up the mountain at Penn’s Peak, an even larger gathering takes place each Thanksgiving eve. Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band, has played the venue on Thanksgiving eve for 14 straight years, many of them sellouts as well.
“It’s like a reunion show. You see the same people every year. The venue itself is probably one of my favorites,” said Marc Baker, an artist who sells his work on “Shakedown Street” — a midway of traveling vendors who set up outside music festivals across the country.
It’s not unusual that Penn’s Peak and Mauch Chunk Opera House hold shows on the same night. But the night before Thanksgiving is unique because the same two bands have been filling their respective venues year after year. Both shows are often sold out.
While they are technically competitors, the two venues look at their shared success on the night before Thanksgiving as a positive for everyone involved.
“My interest in general is that Jim Thorpe be known to audiences as a music town — whether they go up there or here, it’s all good. I honestly think it’s good for both of us,” said Dan Hugos, part owner and general manager of Mauch Chunk Opera House.
There are many bands who pay tribute to the Grateful Dead by re-creating their songs live. Dark Star goes a step further, reprising entire concerts which the dead played in the ’70s-’90s.
“I think they sound more like the Grateful Dead than the surviving members do. I’m not embarrassed to say that. There’s a lot of people who would think that’s blasphemy,” said Craig Smith, a vendor from Connecticut.
While the band plays more than 100 concerts nationwide, fans say that the Penn’s Peak date always feels like a reunion. Many of them are die-hards who attend more than a dozen shows a year. During the winter, there are fewer opportunities. The concert draws jam band lovers from beyond the immediate area.
“I see some of the same people, people I don’t know, but do know now,” said Dan Griffiths, a Scranton-area resident who has been going to the show for four years.
The venue itself is a big part of the draw. The large parking lot allows plenty of space for vendors to sell their art, and a view of the Kittatinny Ridge. Some Deadheads swear that the lights of Blue Mountain Resort are intentionally positioned to spell GD in honor of the band.
Of course, Penn’s Peak’s wooden interior and soaring ceilings make it unlike most other venues nationwide.
“It feels like Beowulf’s lodge,” said Chris Bertoti of Kutztown.
Vendors start setting up their tents at Penn’s Peak hours before the concert begins. Selling art and collectibles at concerts won’t make you rich, but if you love jam band music, it’s a good way to pursue that passion.
“The pay is a combination of the money you earn and the fun you have,” Smith said.
Free Range Folk’s Kevin Ruch has built community through his band, his organic farm and Union Publick House, the bar-restaurant in Jim Thorpe which he co-owns. Harvest Jam combines all three.
Admission to Harvest Jam includes not only entertainment, but also a smorgasbord of food which Ruch and his wife prepare with help from bandmates and the crew at the Union Publick House.
“We’re naturally biased — but we really think it’s the best deal in the USA. It’s $20, we have two really good bands, great food from Union Publick House and 14-acre farm. Our slogan is food friends and music,” said Hugos, the general manager of the Mauch Chunk Opera House.
The show came about as a way to celebrate the harvest at 14 Acre Farm. They mark the end of the farming season with a feast including root vegetables grown organically on the farm. The rest of the food comes from the kitchen at UPH — pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, chili and more.
“It’s a rewarding experience serving a healthy product, and you can’t be no healthier than organic,” said John Kupec, a friend of the band.
Kupec said Harvest Jam has the feel of the famous concert film, “The Last Waltz,” where The Band celebrated their final show by welcoming some of their friends — including Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
“It’s a unique and loving experience. You feel the love from the people who put this together,” Kupec said.
This year, the band shared the stage with Serene Green and Paul Thiessen. Some members of Serene Green were once sitting in the audience for Harvest Jam, and now they are embarking on their own musical careers. Josh Finsel, a banjo player and singer in Free Range Folk, said they try to showcase local talent for the mostly local crowd.
“We try to bring in new local musicians and writers, playwrights, every year. Of course the food is awesome. It’s a way to have dinner before Thanksgiving dinner — and relax,” he said.
While it may not draw as many fans as Dark Star, Harvest Jam is a thriving gathering of friends. Most of the people at Harvest Jam have some tie to the Jim Thorpe area, or they know Free Range Folk from their concerts around Pennsylvania.
“I love that we see the same people — that it truly has become a community tradition to the people of Jim Thorpe. People talk about it year-round,” said Sara Ruch, Kevin’s wife and also a co-owner of Union Publick House.
Some of the fans at Harvest Jam have also been to Dark Star Orchestra’s Thanksgiving eve show.
“There were times we went to the Peak for DSO and it was sold out. We couldn’t get in. We came here, and had a great time,” said Leo Forte, of Bethlehem.
Free Range Folk has been playing for nearly 10 years, and it can be difficult to get all 10 members together. Several of them have families, and their trumpet player now calls New Orleans home. But when Harvest Jam comes around, the band, and old friends from Jim Thorpe, all get back together.
“That’s what I like about this whole thing,” said Daisy McCarty, a Jim Thorpe native and daughter of Free Range Folk mandolin player/singer Shawn McCarty. “It doesn’t feel like a concert. It feels like a bunch of friends and family.”