June 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

O’Toole’s was packed for the June 17, 2024 VOCAL Showcase featuring songwriters Dave Drouillard and Norman Roscher.  Dave started the evening off with his solo set, and, after a short break, Norman performed solo and then alongside his band Norman and the Clackwells.


Dave Drouillard

Dave opened with a lovely mandolin instrumental called “Grandma Betty’s Waltz”, which he wrote three years ago for his mother.  Next was a new song named “Hymn to the Crooked Road” which he wrote as part of a writer’s project for The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail in Abingdon, VA.  Then, Dave shifted to his six-string guitar and finger-picked his song “Angel in High Heels”, about a young woman who came to Boston to study law and “defended the lowest…before a judge…an angel in high heels…country music her delight”.

Dave continued with “Walk Away From My Door”, a song about the Dust Bowl he wrote 60 years ago when he was 14 years old, trying to imitate Woody Guthrie.  Lyrics included “…We came out west to work the land, we found America together hand in hand, but now the dream has turned to dust, the well is dry the plow is rust.”  “Robin’s Song” followed, an Appalachian folk tale Dave wrote for his wife Robin, including “…and I love you forever like grapes on an endless vine.”

Dave, in white collared shirt and blue jeans, and grey-speckled hair and beard, switched to a Roland keyboard for his next song, “After The Buffalo”.  He wrote this around the time of the Kent State Shootings, which occurred at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970 at a rally opposing the Vietnam War.  Four students were killed and many wounded.  “You cannot understand why it haunts me so…” he sang of that tragic time.

Dave finished his set with an inspirational, moving song written by fellow VOCAL member Glen King, entitled “Walking in The Light”.  At the keyboard, playing with purposeful intent and with strong vocals, Dave sang:  “I do not tremble, when I see a cloud.  I feel no panic in a gathering storm…I am walking in the light, in the light of Jesus.  I am walking where shadows fear to go.”  Dave’s set was well-received by the appreciative crowd.


Norman Roscher

Norman walked onstage in striking visual style, with multi-colored top hat, jacket and tie, his long hair tucked neatly under his hat, along with his full, flowing beard.  He played a KORG keyboard for his first song, entitled “Heaven”, and sang “…If I should ever get to heaven, it won’t be because I lived a holy life…”.  The song continued that maybe he drank too much whiskey or loved too many girls, but that he could only be himself.  A bouncy vocal interlude of “bump, bump, bump” got the audience singing along.

It has been said you can identify a great artist immediately upon hearing them.  Norman is one of those artists.  Top hat or not, when you hear Norman, you know it’s Norman.  The gravelly growl, calliope piano sound and brilliant costumes harken back to vaudeville and make Norman a one-of-a-kind musician and singer/songwriter.

He introduced his next song “I’m A Fool” as a slow one, and it had strong chords and a boogie rhythm.  “I’m just a simple man….but I’m a fool” he sang, playing quick runs up the keyboard.  Next was “So Long Baby”, a toe-tappin’ composition Norman wrote in the 1970’s.  He was joined onstage by Charlotte, and, one of Norman and Charlotte’s three daughters, Deanna, who both provided background vocals.

“I Think I’m Going to Take My Baby Dancin’” followed, a jumpy tune written by VOCAL’s Bill Wellons, one of Norman’s favorite local songwriters.  “She’s got no rhythm, but she don’t care….well, I’ve never been a Fred Astaire.”  The O’Toole’s crowd sang along at the end, “Tonight!...tonight!”

The beautiful “Waiting for the Moon” included vocal harmonies from Deanna and Norman’s youngest daughter Melody (Mel).  Norman recalls recording the song with musical partner Glenn Habel in the 1990’s for Dog’s New Clothes first real CD.  Mel, just 11 years old at the time, was in the studio as they worked on it.  As he sang, Norman showed his proficiency on the keyboard with almost chime-line sounds, and ended the song by telling the audience “Singing with my daughters is the greatest high.”

Norman said he started writing songs when he transferred from John Tyler Community College to VCU in 1970.  He continued his set by strapping on his guitar and bringing up The Clackwells, whose lineup is: Eliza Brill (Slinky Clackwell) on vocals and washboard; her husband, Evan Esche (Stinky Clackwell) on vocals, fiddle and bass; Deanna Lorianni (Blinky Clackwell) on vocals and percussion; and Christie Wright (Pistol Clackwell) on Drums.

The Clackwells first song carried forward the distinctive tongue-in-cheek Roscher style, the lively “Dr. (Doctor)” with the lyrics “I liked to play doctor, because at doctor I was best…” and later “…I found what I was looking for, so I don’t play doctor anymore….”  The rollicking “You, Me and Baby” followed, a song Norman wrote for his kids, which featured great vocal backup from the Clackwells.  Then “Sweet Nector”, a song about an imaginary pot farm, and also “You’re Beautiful”, a song encouraging the listener to say you’re beautiful when you wake up, which featured a jaunty “call and response” between the band and the audience.

Norman dedicated his next song “The Hat” to his young grandson Cyrus, who was in the audience with Norman’s family.  Lyrics included “I live in my hat…..my hat is the perfect place to be.”   Norman then brought up VOCAL member and Spectrum band’s Gary Shaver (The Blade), who added his saxophone to “Roamin’ Eyes”.   Gary, in Hawaiian shirt and shorts, blew notes up the scales, eyes closed as his smooth, rich sax sounds reached soaring heights.  Norman said the song was almost 40 years old and originally arranged and produced by Richmond’s music legend Bruce Olsen.

Norman then thanked the large crowd for coming out, and introduced the Clackwells’ last tune, the love song “Within Your Eyes”.  After they finished, the large crowd insisted on an encore, which they obliged with the “Clackwell Theme”, a hilarious fictional history of the Norman and The Clackwells Band, with the mom as a lady wrestler who “….learned to play the washboard doing laundry all the time…” and “If you don’t like their music, I guess you’ll leave the room.”  But the real finale and show stopper was Norman’s quintessential song “Boobs”, “…shoo-ba-dee-do…” about a man’s live-long love, obsession and devotion.

A fine night of music, iced-tea, onion-rings, dark and light beers, and friends.

Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello


May 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Our May VOCAL Songwriter’s Showcase was again live at O’Toole’s with performances from long-time members Steve Nuckolls and Rona Sullivan.

Steve opened the showcase with a great tune reminiscing about his childhood home in southwest Virginia, a town that was “Two Hours From Everywhere.” Then his solid tenor took us to “The Gossen Mines”, a place he knew in his childhood near Galax where you would get “iron your clothes” just by walking through. His song spoke of the risky thrills of exploring the old mine that his dad warned him about. The minor key infused the memories with a tension and longing well suited to his range.

Steve introduced us to a song “rewritten a hundred times” concerning “you know when you toil Monday and it seems you’ve already worked the whole week.” Despite the “workplace bull”, the singer is still headed for “Destination Party Time.” Next, he gave us a new song about a lesson from his dad on the subject of appreciating life and understanding rather than “things I have to do,” “You Get To” participate. “There’s a Future in Us” called on Steve’s high register and expressed the singer’s longing for relationship and the opportunity he felt was eluding him with someone who was once part of his life.

Another new tune was a stellar story about “my favorite waitress” who might not know the narrator yet but at least “She Remembered My Beer.” There was a nice sense of anticipation in the lyric that paid off at the bridge when they “finally got to know one another” and the lady “knows my beer by heart and now remembers my name.”

The song “Married to the Same Person” was based on acquaintances whose first marriages had been unsuccessful because of the similarities of each other’s spouses. The good news in the song is their new relationship represented “a just reward for our painful past…now that we’re married to the right person.” Steve closed with “Praying for a Rocky Top” where the singer hoped to find in his new home a place that recalled his fond childhood memories of a hometown “Rocky Top” establishment. The tune was another that rested in Steve’s higher register and you could hear the yearning for the security and sense of belonging from an earlier time. Well done.

Rona Sullivan’s set reintroduced VOCAL to her powerful alto and muscular songwriting after a couple of decades absence “because I lived on a farm.” She brought “Just Gimme the Truck” alive as the narrator told off her ex and dismissed the settlement for the mode of transportation most desirable at that time. Using an off-meter line to highlight the titled refrain made the message even more clear.

Next, she softened the delivery for a finger-picked “Beside the River,” an ode to her current home and the charms of waterside living. This used several augmented and ninth chords to accentuate the poignancy and allowed the nice vibrato in her voice to be accentuated in the longer notes during the mournful melody. Next, Rona took us to “a scary place in Virginia” to tell us the story of Three Forks, where “the snakes they handled” and the “secrets held by folks in the grave” spooked her so much, she was glad she “got out alive.”

The next song performed (she said it was out of her “angry” period) matched the stronger female narrator against a less skilled guy to whom “For the Cowboy at the Bar” was dedicated. The singer asserts, “I’m a gypsy [and] you think you are a cowboy.” However, the storyteller could see right through the bluster and wouldn’t be put on the “chain around your neck.” Similarly, “Expert” took issue with a narrow-minded fellow who claimed Rona wasn’t the right person to sing the blues, so she immortalized his appraisal by writing a blues tune to give him “your 15 minutes like Warhol said you would” while dismissing his “expert” opinion and proclaiming “I’ll sing whatever I want to.”

Woman in Black” was the tale of a self-described confident woman who is “a little bit weird” but sees herself in demi-god terms with “wings on my back” and later “flames on my back.” This was followed by a newer song about relationships where she admitted “Wherever I Am” she was always the person making the choices. She had some regret that “I follow me wherever I am” and she “can’t get far enough away from me.”

Songs can come from the weirdest places, Rona explained, introducing “I Don’t Need You” as an example, taking that phrase as a title when a friend asked her to stop looking over his shoulder in a project. The lyric confirmed her goal of making her own way as a singer/songwriter and not be silenced.

A lightly picked “Words” featured Rona’s compelling vocals in a folky ballad reminding listeners that she’s “got stories to tell.” The creativity will be in lifting the stories from her own life says the lyric. The final “Boggie Man” was a raw blues number about a character who “curse[d] the day he was born.” With “friends in high places” there’s a threat that he’ll “put you down” if you don’t steer clear. Glad you’re back in the fold, Rona. Let’s hear some more.



Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and John Ellis

April 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Tonight's VOCAL showcase was what one might call a folk festival featuring two acts of great classic folk music. Doug Patrick is a long time VOCAL member and he started off the night with a five pack of his seasoned songs. "Good Time Train" followed the longings of a down and out family with each member longing to catch a ride out of dire circumstances on the song's title. "Put Him In The Lineup" was a cry to give a much unheralded baseball player a chance to get in the game. pleading to the team manager that the guy could "hit the tater a country mile". Commenting on the wasteful conditions the world is in, "Leave It Like You Found It" was a song asking the listeners to treat the planet with respect and give recyling a chance. Doug's tender side came out next in his "Ill Hold You As Long As I Can" telling a distant lover while out on your journeys, keep me in your heart. Closing this segment of the showcase, Doug was accompanied by Gary Shaver on clarinet with a nod to "New Orleans Nights" with a tribute to the great music one can find down Bourbon Street in places like Preservation Hall.
Next up: The duo of Gene and Gayla Mills began their set with " Anna Mae" painting us a picture of a venerable lady, followed by "Eight Lanes Headed West" a musical map of how to get the heck out of Florida with all it's vulnerability to hurricanes and other disasters. "Fools Gold" is a stand in for love unrequited with is better left alone just like a worthless stone. Talking To A Stone" exhorts the listener to talk to those you love and respect before they are out of your life because a stone cannot respond emotionally. The last song in their set was the story of the "Fiddle In The Wall" which tells about how a fiddle was discovered buried inside a wall of a cabin being torn down and how it got to be there. The reason suggested that the hider's motive had to do with a religious belief that "When my Savior calls, gotta put his ( the devil's?) fiddle in the wall."
The third segment of tonight's showcase was a collaboration between Doug and the Mills, trading off songs through their set.
"Bad Luck" by the MIlls was a description of how being down can affect one's life causing them to suffer such things as bad booze and rotten meat. After all. "Bad Luck" by any other name is just a numbers game. Next, from Doug, his story song about lessons learned while growing up and being "At My Grandfather's Knee" was the safest place to be.
"Around the Lake" was an instrumental picked by Gene Mills. "Where The Wild Wind Blows" was a sad tale of lonliness by Doug. This was followed by Gaya Mills who took her turn at the mike with "Twelve Days" of an exasperated person trying to find work and not having much luck, finally declaring "I'll take any job at all." Going back to his East Kentucky roots, Doug regaled us with "Getaway" and living life back in those younger days. Finally: another going back to your roots song from Gene "Forks Of Buffalo" told us about his life away from that tiny Virginia town and how after living 40 years away in places as diverse and California and Maine, it was a pleasure to once more see that old home town again.

A very appreciative audience gave the performers a rousing round of applause for a great night of music and camaroderie.


Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and John Ellis

March 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Another fine night of music as Glenda Creamer and Jim Puckett, two of VOCAL's  regular members, shared their talents with the assembled audience.

Jim Puckett

Jim was first to perform. Five songs were brand new. He started his set with "The Act of Mercy" which was a confessional song hoping to receive atonement for breaking the rules of life. This was followed by "Ragged Edge" then a song about mortality "Kicking Up The Coals". "The Speed Of Sin" told about a person who acted foolishly and paid the price for her actions. "Everybody Needs A Home" described the anxiety the singer felt about returning to his roots and how he might feel when walking through the door once again. Next: "Pick Up The Phone" was a desperate plea to a loved one to answer the phone and hopefully, be alone and not with another lover. Going back into his catalog, "Poor Elena" was based on a true story about a midwife in the back country who despite her own loss of children, brought forth many others in her life's work. This was followed by "Home, Tonight" wishing to satisfy his need for love.

Glenda Creamer

Glenda is a long lime VOCAL member and a frequent showcase performer. She began her set with a series of song inspired by the Bible. "Wherever You Go, I Will Go" has the singer pledging herself to follow the love of God and God himself. "Your People Will Be My People" gives comfort to those who follow Jesus by assimilating His words. "This Wine" refers to turning water into wine, and being a "mighty fine wine". In order to fully understand the message of Jesus it is important to "Slow Down" while walking with Him and more so, to get back on your feet should one fall down on the way which was told in "I Fell Down, Last NIght" . Moving away from the testament, Glenda switched to some humorous songs "Frogs" being first up. As she tells it, frogs are everywhere, On your windshield, in the trees and scarlily, in your toilet bowl. Like the frogs, they should make you jumpy whenever they appear. After pulling the "Horse in The River" out, we were given a a tour of "Mrs. Grizzard's Washing Machine" wringer and all. "I'm Leaving Cody" was a tale of heading back home from the Wild West to Virginia, "Moonshine Sky" was followed by one of Glenda's standards "I'm A Witch, Today" describing the singer's feeling of casting spells and flying. "Confessions Of A Germaphobe" was self explanatory about the fear of being infected by things like a dog bite. Returning to Bibical references, her last song of the night was "The Splendor of King Solomon".

Thus, the showcase concluded with a wide spectrum of musical subjects and styles.


Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and John Ellis

February 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

The February 2024 showcase took place on February 19th at O’Toole’s. An intimate and attentive crowd attended the event with one patron even seeking out a tip jar!

VOCAL President Matthew Costello opened the accompanied by backing tracks as he is unable to play guitar at this time. Walkin’ Willie is a catchy number many of us can relate to about a bomb-surviving war veteran whose purpose in life seemed to be walking the streets all over the town. Not sure exactly where he needed to be but he was heading there anyway! The Ghosts of Centre Hill is a Petersburg-based story about ghosts inhabiting the house and grounds of this early 19th century mansion. Shadows of September is one of Matthew’s more recent signature tunes that I believe came out his songwriting classes with Harriet Schock. The tune has some beautiful imagery and play on words describing the long shadows of the short days in September.  Get Me Some Happy is the story of curbing a life of excess and taking the correct turn at the crossroads of life, occasionally resulting in “getting’ some happy”! He then delivered The Artist That Hung The Moon, one of his most touching works describing the wonderful artwork of John Atkinson Grimshaw. Missing Planks is a new song containing numerous images of a deteriorating dock observed over time and etched in your memory. The heart pine from a tree was like the branches of a family. Matthew ended his set with Behind the Scenes, a vision from a dream where he seem himself out front on the stage, but there’s a backstage crew making everything happen. Way to go, Matthew!

Russell Lawson took the stage with several of his awesome tunes. Montana Wide recounts the experience of a mission trip to Blackfoot Indian country in 2016. He has numerous vivid images of this breathtaking part of the country along with the spirituality he felt along the way, totally in harmony with the people of Montana. If You Call Now is a love-lost song with the narrator at fault. He knows that she’ll probably never come back to him but he’s leaving the door open in case she has a change in mind. Life Sentence is another love-lost number about being locked up without her love with no parole/visitors and having to spend this grueling life knowing what might have been. Russell then brought us Hallow Ground, a haunting yet beautiful tale born from attending a memorial service in Hollywood Cemetery. Wheatland is a tranquil spiritual story about departing this earthly world and looking down upon the serene river property on your way to Heaven. The grieving hearts will eventually find peace knowing you’ve found freedom in your beautiful resting place. High Road and Low describes the life of attempting to take the high road most of the time but inevitably falling down along the way – now that we’re here on this mountaintop with family and friends we’re back on the High Road! Ol’ Jack and Daddy is an interesting tale of Daddy’s love for Jack Daniels that made him run away from the family. He did have the decency to leave a note in an empty whiskey bottle along with a check for Mom to use for the kids! He then performed Charleston, an ode to his hometown in South Carolina that included vivid imagery of this beautiful country. He demonstrated some mighty fine whistling on this number! Penguin Blues is a “cool” tune that took flight when he was helping his son with a school project related to Antarctica. All I eat is fish, gotta go with the floe, etc. Wayne and Maggie’s Grill is a signature Russell tune that came from a dream. It’s a nostalgic view of an old truck diner that was torn down to build an interstate highway. Many great memories remain of its heyday when great food was being served and nightly live entertainment was held. RIP Wayne and Maggie’s Grill! Great job, Russell!

Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and John Ellis

January 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

After a week's delay due to weather conditions, The January 2024 VOCAL Showcase  got back on track at O'Toole's on the 21st. Despite the delay: There was a packed house ready to be entertained by the night’s songwriters. Performing this week were two veteran VOCAL songwriters, Jeff Wagner (with his wife Sherry) and Matt Manion.

Matt Manion.

To begin the night, Matt went up first and began his set with an old song, "Things Have Changed" which related the story of a liberated woman who decided to go out on her own. This was followed by “Don’t Stand By Me” one from his catalog, depicting the anguish a band member feels when one of his mates is fooling around and he fears a jealous husband will shoot the guy while he’s standing next to him on the stage.  “Getting Old is Getting Old” relates the emotion the singer feels as the title says, and “a long life could be considered a luxury”. Early Richmond was the seat of slavery and in “Devil’s Cafe” we get a picture of what it was like to live in those times. This was followed by “Forget Yourself” a song about forgetting yourself.  Cranking up the tempo, Matt rocked out “Playing On My Dobro” though, not on one.  Next tune “If That’s What It Takes” asks the listeners to me less self-involved and think of others in a collective way as “us” and not “’you and me”.

To finish his set, Matt revived one of his classic rock tunes “Thank You Chuck Berry” which as the title implies, is a tribute to the late great guitar and blues player.

Jeff and Sherry Wagner

Jeff and Sherry make up a husband and wife music team, though Jeff sometimes solos, at showcases. Tonight, both playing guitars traded off songs during the set.

First up “She Was Raised on Sad Songs” one of his standards, about a woman growing up on music that matched her life conditions. Sherry took a turn and gave us “Fierce Friendship” depicting the depth of commitment one can evoke when there is reciprocation. Jeff continued with “Ghost Rider” an eerie tale of imagination and then gave us “Play From The Heart” a moon shiners lullaby and life tale.  Sherry followed with “Soft Petals”, a lovely song about flowers that flourish with sun and air and give you a beautiful garden to love.  This was followed by “the Devil’s In The Details” and then an epic song about “The Old Guard”. Based a real life experience, Jeff relates the tale of four of his friends who have grown up together and the paths their lives have taken. Some of the lessons they learned appear in the lyrics. “we have seen our share of life” and “we suffer no fools”.   Good advice.  Lastly, “Musicland” presented the audience with a musical tour Jeff and Sherry took of Nashville and the sights and sounds it offers.  Music being the main thrust with people singing everywhere even “someone singing in the sheets”.

A great night of music, friends and food.

Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and Norman Roscher

December 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase


The December 2023 showcase took place on December 18th at O’Toole’s. There was quite a spirited crowd in attendance and most folks were very attentive to our performance. This showcase is always special as it features numerous VOCAL members who are playing mostly holiday and/or seasonal-themed songs. VOCAL threw out a challenge years ago for the members to write such songs for this annual event. Door prizes are also offered at this event so there were many happy winners of VOCAL-related merchandise, gift cards, etc. and even signed books from a local author, Maggie King! (thanks, Maggie!).

Long-time member Russell Lawson opened the show with three of his finely-crafted tunes. Ice Falling is a sobering story depicting the signs of global warming. Dear Santa is a fairly new song of Russell’s describing how the times have changed now that the kids have grown and everyone wants iPhones, x-boxes, etc. under the tree. We are still amazed at the magic way you do the things you do! Christmastime is Here is Russell’s first holiday challenge song from 2004 where he reveals all the vivid and memorable details of the Christmas season (hurried shoppers, mistletoe, candlelight, etc.)

Matt Manion then took the stage and opened with The Crossroads, a tribute to the Saturday night showcase from the 70’s that was held in the basement of St. James’s Episcopal church. He recounted the excitement and eagerness of getting your slot on the stage. Blue Ridge Mountain Hideaway was co-written with his friend Richard which conveys a sense of peace and comfort hanging out on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge witnessing breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Quarter to Midnight is one of Matt’s signature tunes recounting his experience on Christmas Eve heading to Midnight Mass and the human interactions he is involved with along the way.

Long-time member Glen King then opened his set accompanied by piano. Christmas Came Early tells the story of the best Christmas gift ever for a loving couple when their baby was delivered in July. It was 95 degrees in Abilene, the paper said July but he had snowflakes in his eyes. Song on the Radio was written for the ukulele but sounded just fine on the keys (“you’re like a song on the radio, an angel in the choir, saying words I wish I had”). Glen left us with another holiday song I’d Like to Spend New Years Eve With You. Now that all the holiday rush is over, there’s still one present I’d like. I’d like to spend time with you and make your New Years dreams come true!

John Ellis then treated us to two of his signature holiday/seasonal tunes with his stellar guitar playing. Winter Solstice is an intriguing instrumental that allows the listener to conjure up their own images of the season. Me and My Baby on a Cold Winter Day offers the perfect warmup recipe for romantic, cozy indoor time with your lover!

Glenda Creamer graced the stage with three of her holiday-related tunes. We’re Getting Ready for Christmas describes the planning, shopping and all around hustle and bustle that accompanies the holiday. The Story is a very beautiful biblical tale about the birth of Jesus and the true meaning of Christmas. The Cookie Exchange describes that munching temptation this time of year and balancing it with your dietary needs.

Carol Torricelli (aka “Torch”) pinch-hit for another member and brought three lovely tunes to the crowd. We Are Virginia describes the many splendors of The Commonwealth and could be the official state tourism song. The Ode to Thanksgiving gives a bit of pity to this oft-overlooked holiday as it’s sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas. When candy corn goes straight to candy canes you know you’re missing something in between. The Roads In Between Us is the story of her life in New Jersey and Manhattan when many of her friends moved far away. Even though miles apart she could sing to the sunset and bring them back close.

Jim Puckett brought a couple of his seasonal tunes to the stage with Snowey Mountain Bride, a Civil War-era number about a man leaving the battlefield on Christmas Eve for the western slopes of the mountain where the lady to be his bride is waiting. The Morning After New Years Eve is a new tune asking for a chance at redemption in the new year, as it’s never too late to make amends.

The Bluegrass/Folk duo of Gene and Gayla Mills ended the evening with a handful of their homespun tales. Let Fallen Snow Be All We Hear is rich in cozy images of being stuck in a cabin in the woods with heavy snow and no distractions from the modern world. Riley’s Horn Pipe is an original instrumental fiddle tune that was well-accepted by the crowd. I Want a Car with a Carburetor harkens back to the good old days when things were a little simpler (no pagers/cell phones, etc.) and coffee was brewed in a percolator! They ended the evening with a very beautiful medley of Christmas songs (What Child is This and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen).

Great job, guys, and Happy Holidays to all!

Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and Norman Roscher

October 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase


The October 2023 showcase had an intimate and attentive audience who gathered at O’Toole’s to hear three fine VOCAL talents, Rona Sullivan and Gene and Gayla Mills. Rona was a member several years ago and is back in the area performing her original tunes. Gene and Gayla have been members for several years and are back following the Covid/Plague hiatus. Welcome back to the fold!

Rona Sullivan

Rona opened the show with a few of her bluesy/folky heartfelt tunes. You Could Have Had Me asks why he would go to California or other places when he could be here with her in Virginia with all the beauty it has to offer (Blue Ridge Parkway, Chesapeake Bay, etc.) Her “short-marriage divorce song” described the give-and-take relationship they endured, but she finally just told him to keep the house and give her the truck! Three Forks is a tale about a really scary place in rural Virginia that involves snake handlers and other creepy things – don’t even think of taking me there again! Beside This River conjures up some very picturesque images along a peaceful river as we trod the mossy ground taking in beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Wild Weed describes a fast-growing child who’s “got the fever and hears the thunder”. Expert is an attitudinal song about a former attorney client who tried to tell her how to sing (e.g “you can’t sing the blues because you don’t have enough wrinkles on your face”). She tells him she’ll sing anything she wants and may even sing a song about him! Wherever I Am won’t let her get far enough away from her! Great job, Rona!

Gene and Gayla Mills

Gene and Gayla then took the stage with Gayla on upright bass and Gene on his vintage Martin. They brought us several homey/folky heartfelt songs with awesome harmonies and great cross-picking. Don’t Wait ‘Til You’re Talking to Stone conveys a great message about living in the moment, telling folks how you feel about them while you/they are here to do it. Waiting for Rain describes the plight of many in the same boat (pun intended) who really need the rain (farmers, fisherman, etc.) Gene delivered some fancy guitar picking in New Used Heart, the tale about two lovers-to-be on their second time around, tired of experiencing that “shade of blue”. Earl Thomas Johnson was inspired by a homeless man who lived under a bridge near their house. They befriended him, helped him out a bit, and learned about his past, including that he had to move out of his family home because of rising rents. Here We Are (where we said we’d be) is an autobiographical tune about the two of them, married for 37 years (congrats!) Gayla sang lead on this one with Gene joining on backup vocal and guitar. The Last Lullaby is a sad but beautiful song they wrote about a dog that was near death, but the song has apparently taken on a life of its own with other people requesting it be played for someone special in their lives. The next tune was inspired by people having great eyesight, wanting to see stars in the daytime sky and crows in the darkest night. They ended the evening with a really cool song called Fiddle in the Wall, a story about old-timers in the Blue Ridge Mountains who had to hide their fiddle in the wall because it was thought the instrument only played the Devil’s music. When the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built in the 1930’s a lot of old cabins were torn down and the fiddles were discovered. Great set, Gene and Gayla!

Showcase Photos

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November 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Another great night of original music at O'Toole's Restaurant as two performers, one new, and one old member of VOCAL presented their songwriting chops to the assembled audience.

Stephen Rockenbach
Stephen is new to VOCAL and, interestingly, performed his set on a banjo, which actually might be a first for the showcase. First song on his set list included "Pull Me Up By My Roots" in which he described his father's influence on his music. by introducing him at a young age to many types of instruments. Next up, was a singalong song "The Happy Bunny" in which the audience was invited to come in on the chorus. "Love In The Apocalypse" seemed fitting for today's dystopian world as it talked about zombies taking over mankind. Steve finished his set with "Last Song Of The Night" describing the turmoil in a band over what songs they should play and what should be the order of the set list. A good one to end his performance.

Gary Shaver
Gary is a long time member of VOCAL but rarely performs at the showcase, so it was a pleasant surprise for the audience to get a taste of his piano rendered songs. The band supporting him included musicians and friends he has written and performed with: Larry Lyles on violin, John Milano on drums, and Frank Lucas on guitar. They share a strong creative bond which started in High School.

His program of songs was presented in a chronological order, which go back as far as 1976.

This was the lineup of songs:
"Memories" (1976) telling about a 17 year old boy looking back over a long life. (!)
"How Could Love" (6/8/84) A sweet ballad.
"Trading The Present' (12/30/95) dedicated to Big Al Evans.
"Running Away From Love" (2002/2003) A country song
"Your Smile" (2005) dedicated to his lovely partner MMC. With lots of chord changes.
"How To Let Go" (2017) with his full band accompaniment.
"You Know, I Know" (1976/2022) A mashup of an old song recently redone.
And finally: The Mystery Song. ( Apparently an oldie)
"Follow Your Heart" and follow your dreams.

Gary has been a member of VOCAL since 1989 and had held many executive positions. He also is the historian, having collected programs , pictures and memories of his long association with the group, for which he are grateful.

Next month: The big Christmas show on Dec. 18th. with multiple performers, door prizes and good cheer. See you there.


Showcase Photos

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September 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Continuing the tradition of live performances, tonight’s showcase at O’Toole’s  restaurant, featured two performers, Burke Ingraffia and Steve Fisher.   Burke is a relatively new member of VOCAL, while Steve has been with the group for a while. As is true in any live situation, an audience helps the performers bring out their best work, and tonight was no exception. Luckily for the two tonight, a large group of enthusiastic listeners assembled.

Burke Ingraffia

Burke is a New Orleans transplant to Richmond,  and brings with him a corresponding musical sound, lively, bouncy and upbeat.  During his song set he occasionally added harmonica to his guitar playing as was demonstrated in his first song, “Dusty Old Clock” which extolled the virtues of using time wisely. “If I don’t take the time, time will take me” he sang.   “Checks and Balances” took a humorous look at money saying in one line “I own a bank……..a piggy bank”,  which got  laugh from the audience.   a funky blues tune “That’s The Way Mountains Are Made” followed.  Next. Even though rainy weather may be depressing and something over which you have no control, you can control your inner self and how you react to your outer surroundings was the message of his  next song “Change of Heart”  this was followed by a great description of the over eager salesperson  which he cartooned in  “Business As Usual”  which made fun  of the stereotypical  guy with the glib tongue and half truths.  “Traveling At Night” followed and proclaimed “I won’t be slowed by the speed of light.”  His last song, also the title of his latest CD was “Waves” talks about inspiration and how it appears without warning “thoughts come out the blue” and we need to grab them before they disappear.  In his set, Burke showed a great versatility of ideas and styles of music which was well received and applauded.

Steve Fisher

Steve is a member of the Tin Can Fish band, a local Richmond mainstay.  Tonight he appeared as a solo act . Not to be undone in his performance, he started off with a rousing tale of a lady of the night “Brown Eyed Biloxi Queen” with whom he consorted at the astounding price of $20.   “Stow Away” pleaded to a lover “”Let’s go away together” and leave the world behind.  In “Falling Knife” the singer exhorted that we should be aware of the dangers in life and “you can’t catch a falling knife” without suffering the consequences of your actions.   In “Holding On” Steve talks about being estranged from life, disconnected from feelings and trying to get back home, all of which remain elusive.  Next song was “All Alone” sort of a spinoff of the previous song.  If ever anyone can find a permanent way to honor love and commitment, having their image “Tattooed On Your Heart” would certainly fit the bill and in here he sings about just that.  Next in his set was “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Back To You”, a rousing number that outlines all the clues a lover might find to want to return to a previous committed situation, “I heard a song that made me cry” was one.  Lastly: “Fields Of The Lord” was a tribute to how black and white folks came together in the south through playing music together, stating “There must be something in the water” that unifies us all.

A good way to end the night.

Showcase Photos

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August 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase #2


Our August VOCAL Showcase featuring 2023 Songwriter of the Year Carol “Torch” Torricelli continued the recent “live at O’Toole’s” performances that we have returned to after three COVID online showcase years. What a relief!

Steve Nuckolls
Steve opened the showcase with a song reminiscing about “Gossen Mines“, a place he knew in his childhood near Galax, and spoke of the risky thrills of exploring the old mine that his dad explained to a small boy while the minor key infused the memories with a tension and longing well suited to Steve’s solid tenor.

He followed that with the jaunty “Everything’s Just Two Good” that included some excellent and unexpected word play in a story about being grateful for a significant love relationship. Some great high notes in the melody showed off Steve’s mature vocal control. “What If She Liked It” was a memoir about meeting the woman who would become his wife, another relatable song drawn from his personal life. He explained that this tune was co-written with another musician in New England through a Zoom meeting.

What Keeps You Up At Night“, Steve explained, was one of many of his tunes that he didn’t “know where it comes from,” as he began writing with just a title and a guitar riff. What developed was a message about his significant other being able to count on him to be around to comfort her at tough times. “If You Want To Know My Love” had some strong guitar lines surrounding a tale of starting a relationship while feeling vulnerable from other hurts because “sometimes it’s not what’s said, it’s the words that go unspoken” that can reveal the truth of someone’s love. “A Future In Us” wrapped up his set with a song about compromise and a plea for patience and understanding to build up a relationship he believes in.

Carol “Torch” Torricelli
Headliner Torch also won (with co-writer Glen King) the Song of the Year award and she opened with that, delivering “Give Me The Simple Life” on her ganjo, a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar, with a tune that showed off her finger-style skills and her firm and flexible vocal delivery. Her next was COVID-inspired, her song “People Need Each Other” evoking the craving for intimate connection during the pandemic-necessary personal isolation, where touching wasn’t physically possible but forced us to reach out into a virtual space.

Switching to “Highway to Your Heart” (also co-written with Glen), she sang of missing home and a lover while her fingers kept a percussive beat on the strings. “Come to Virginia” was a love song to our state with details drawn from Torch’s long service with the state tourism agency.  This opened with a nice descending guitar line and moved to minor sevenths while Torch’s high-register vocal delivery and vibrato brought thoughts of early Joni Mitchell to mind when the melody ranged over several octaves.

Don’t Slow Me Down” drew on a “bucket list” trip to Italy some years ago to visit the origins of her immigrant parents. The trip included “my guitar, too” to help “lose the winter blues.”

Swinging and Swaying” recalled a trip to a national meeting, discovering a new friend that she was now missing, and used a compact chord structure to demonstrate the feeling of a desired closeness in the melody, which showed off her vocal chops and emphasized her expressive vibrato. Continuing the stories of personal liaisons, “Tossing Like A Salad (Over You)” used the fun and memorable metaphor to describe the difficulty of a long distance relationship that included unanswered messages by text, Facetime and email that “tossed” the singer’s feelings. This tune was distinguished by an interesting jazzy chord structure and arrangement that brought a “samba” feeling to the room.

The final two songs both concerned her nephew, Tommy. They showed a clear distinction in Torch’s songwriting development as the first about his birth, “Miracles Like This,” was written early in her musical life and the second, “Major Dad,” was penned decades later as Tommy concluded a long military career. “Miracles” used a simple straightforward chord pattern and a sweet melody line for a heart-felt homage to her sister and the new baby. “Major” was more melodically complex and leaned on Torch’s songwriting maturity to point to Tommy’s admirable strengths and accomplishments. Torch’s strong and accurate vocals and fine guitar work made both songs shine at the showcase.

~ Russell Lawson

Showcase Photos

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July 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

The July 2023 showcase resumed at O’Toole’s for the third month since our COVID hiatus. This was a very intimate evening featuring two of VOCAL’s fine talents, John Ellis and Ken Roller.

John Ellis

John kicked off his acoustic-electric set with A Band of Silver, born from overhearing a conversation of a couple discussing the style and purchase of their wedding band. Needless to say, the stone/metal/shine/cost of the ring is nothing compared to the love it should represent! Honestly (featuring really catchy guitar licks) is the tale of the feelings and emotions you experience at the end of a relationship that didn’t go well. Sometimes you just need to let off the steam. He next treated us to his signature tune The Stranger, where he deviated a bit from his usual delivery of this song with a subdued acoustic vibe rather than a driving electric guitar. In this tune he recounts various relationships that were doomed for failure, hence the stranger to love. John ended his set with Autumn Hours, which also has some really cool guitar licks to draw the listener in, dancing around the lyrics of preparing for a cold winter while clearing your mind with cool peaceful nights. Great set, John!

Ken Roller

Ken, a new VOCAL member, then took the stage and treated us to an eclectic variety of tunes. It’s no secret that the love of family is the source of most of his inspiration. Lost Myself in You is a beautiful love song about falling in love with his wife. Goodspeed You Home is another tribute to his wife recounting the time she was traveling and he was home alone with the fireflies and the sunset. Song For David is a very heartfelt song written in memory of his brother whom he dearly loved. Gonna Roll All Night is the reaction to seeing that special look in her eye and not knowing exactly what to make of it (we’ll roll to the left, roll to the right, maybe we’ll roll all night!) Let Me Be There was a tender love song written about his daughter’s birth thirty years ago and which he finally finished with her wedding last year. There were some beautiful images here, always wishing for blue skies but knowing there will be rain, wishing for happiness but knowing there will be pain. The writing of a good song takes time! In Virginia was inspired by an old mill in Hanover County but goes on to describe many of the wonderful treasures in the Commonwealth, such as Shenandoah, Blue Ridge Mountains, Chesapeake Bay, and Mt. Rogers. Diversity is a funky/catchy tune telling us to look beyond the black and white and the prison that enslaves our mind, and instead focus on the beauty within. It Always Beats for You is another song written for his wife at the time their daughter “left the nest”, asking her to put her head on his chest and listen to his heart beating madly for her. Lockdown is another funky groove co-written with Jim Puckett about “Lady Covid” floating in the air, in-between the sheets, etc., a plague topic that we can all relate to! The Road is a minor-keyed number about the churning and grinding, wheels turning, feeling like the road is driving me. Can’t Find The Sunshine For The Rain is a love-gone-south number about hearing distant thunder and seeing the Heavens open up and pour out the truth, reminding me of my love with you. Excellent job, Ken!


Showcase Photos

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