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Bill Toms finds his own voice … new record is out Oct. 20 |

Bill Toms finds his own voice … new record is out Oct. 20

Dean Zobec
Bill Toms
Laith Al-Saadi
Slaid Cleves

While growing up, Bill Toms attended an evangelical church with his parents. Every Sunday he dutifully sat through sermons he didn’t understand. What remains from those experiences is Toms’ appreciation for the preacher’s theatricality.

“He would just present whatever it was he was presenting,” Toms says. “It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, I was in awe of his dynamics.”

That idea of spirituality ­—­ however oblique, unknowable or impermeable — informs Toms’ new record, “Good for My Soul,” which will be released Oct. 20 at Club Café, Pittsburgh’s South Side. Featuring his band Hard Rain and the production work of Will Kimbrough and Rick Witkowski (of Studio L in Weirton, W.Va.), Toms’ new album is a tributary that flows from artists such as Ray Charles, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Toms is a guitarist, but on “Good for My Soul” the keyboards of Steve Binsberger and saxophone of Phil Brontz shape many of the tracks. With Bernie Herr on drums, Tom Valentine on bass and guitarist Tom Breiding of Hard Rain, and the Soulville Horns (Steve Graham and J.D. Chaison), Toms wanted to channel a bit of Memphis and Alabama in the recording sessions.

Kimbrough, who’s produced records for Todd Snider, Kim Richey and Matthew Ryan, was especially sympathetic to Toms’ vision of blue-eyed soul.

“Will is from Alabama so he understands that firsthand,” Toms says. “What we were trying to do with this record, if you listen to it, is that it’s very much like a record that would have been produced at Stax (in Memphis) or Muscle Shoals (in Alabama). He made very sure that the horns … were used in a certain way. Will knew what I wanted and where I was coming from.”

A sly and pensive lyricist, Toms wrote the songs during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Neither overtly or implicitly political, the compositions do reflect his concern over the world’s increasing fragility. Lyrically, Toms took cues from blues artists in the first part of the 20th century, who were not able to openly write about oppression or discrimination.

“Metaphorically, they would put things in,” he says. “They would use symbolism. In this album, there’s a lot of that going on. But I don’t know if people listen to that. I don’t know if people just sit around and wait for the next guitar solo.”

So why invest so much time studying the music and lives of blues and soul legends, “connecting the dots,” as Toms calls it, if a large segment of listeners only hear the music on a superficial level?

Toms, who first came to prominence as the guitarist with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers 30 years ago, says it’s his fate.

“I don’t have a choice,” Toms says. “I didn’t choose this. … We read these stories about Tom Petty suffering from depression, and we learn that other guys like (Bruce) Springsteen suffered from depression, too. There’s a conflict going on in your mind, sometimes, about not having a choice of what I do. People say to me, ‘Why did you quit the Houserockers?’ It had nothing to do with the music, or what I thought about the guys. It’s what I had to do. … I had to find a vehicle to express my own voice.”

Details: 412-431-4950 or

Upcoming benefit shows

Upcoming benefit shows

The Fall Ball, Nov. 3, James Street Ballroom, Pittsburgh’s North Side

A benefit concert for the Homewood Brushton YMCA Creative Youth Center, which provides access to arts, digital media and S.T.E.M. for youths 8-18. Curated and organized by Ben Alper of Cranberry Sanders, the performers include Wreck Loose, Ink, Junk Foods, Royce, The Telephone Line and Bindley Hardware Co. Admission is $10. Details:

Move a Mountain for Mike, Nov. 19, Grand Hall at the Priory, Pittsburgh’s North Side

Mike Gallagher has played Irish music in the region for more than 40 years and been a regular at charity events since he was 16. Now unable to work due to a serious bout with cancer, Gallagher’s family and friends are staging Move a Mountain for Mike to help defray his expenses. Admission is $50 and includes a buffet and music by Guaranteed Irish, Corned Beef and Curry, Bruce Foley and Mary Coogan, Johnny Gallagher, Mark Guiser, Terry Griffith and the Shovlin Academy of Dance. Details: Also, to make a contribution go to

Shows of Note

Laith Al-Saadi

Oct. 19, Jergel’s Rhythm Grille, Warrendale

He was the atypical contestant on “The Voice,” his bearded countenance in sharp contrast to all the young fresh-faced kids. But Laith Al-Saadi’s years of experience paid off in 2016 when he made the finale of the reality show. His appearance at Jergel’s will showcase an expansive range that extends from blues to soul to earthy rock ‘n’ roll. 724-799-8333 or

Ben Folds

Oct. 22, Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, Munhall

Folds’ sound is equal parts inspiration and sophistication, his songs a cut — or two or three — above ordinary pop fare. This concert, part of Folds’ Paper Airplane Request Tour, promises the ultimate fan interactive experience: Fans will be encouraged to launch paper airplanes with their requests written on them to the stage. 877-987-6487 or

Slaid Cleaves

Oct. 24, Club Café, Pittsburgh’s South Side

Slaid Cleaves, who grew up in Maine and now lives in Austin, Texas, sings most often about the unknown and unrecognized laborers, culled from his own experiences as janitor, groundskeeper, pizza delivery and ice cream truck driver and film developer.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Reveiw contributing writer.

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