Uncle Charlie & the Meatballs: New York Heartland Blue
Written by Liam Sweeny on January 30, 2021
Being a Capital Region publication, we like to expand our horizons once in a while to show you what’s going on beyond our borders. In Central New York, Uncle Charlie and the Meatballs happens to be the haps’. So we sit down with the band and chat about the western front.
RRX: You all are from Central New York, which is the western front for us. But of course, it’s home turf for you. So you get to be our ambassadors. Tell us a little bit about yourself as a band, and give us a “tour with words” of the Central New York region music scene. What are the haps, big and small?
UCMB: We’re just a good time, five piece band from the Utica, NY area that genuinely enjoys hanging out and making music together. Adam Bishton (harmonica/vocals), Matt Grimaldi (guitar/vocals), Frank Grimaldi (bass/vocals), Collen Roller (guitar), Tony Adamo (drums/vocals). We consider ourselves a blues band and have some original material in the works but for now, we play covers and try to inject our own flavor into them. We can get loud and rock and could be considered kind of “jammy”. We come from all different musical backgrounds with diverse influences and have been involved with numerous projects in the CNY music scene, some of us for almost 20 years.
The CNY music scene is incredible! (pre-COVID of course) There is so much talent and musical diversity we have to stay on top of our game just to keep up. There is no shortage of venues to showcase it. You can find live/local music any night of the week. From bigger venues like our historic Stanley Theater, several casino resorts, beach/lake/vacation areas, bars and restaurants, microbreweries and wineries, several local music festivals and maybe the biggest local music showcase of all, Saranac Thursday. It takes place every Thursday from May-September at the FX Matt Brewery. Bands that get the opportunity to play at the brewery for Saranac Thursdays, play to crowds of about 5000 people!
RRX: Every band has a story. Some bands tuck in and play it down, like it was just a notion over a beer that held through, but I’m not talking about that story. I’m talking about the real story; the first jam, the first really good practice, maybe even a funny thing that happened that cemented Uncle Charlie and the Meatballs as a thing?
UCMB: Our origin goes back about 15 years to our local Mohawk Valley Blues Society (MVBS) Jams. It’s where Adam and Tony met and got to know and play with other local musicians. Tony and Adam (along with guitarist Larry Giglio) formed a project from those jams, known as Sour Mash. Frank (who is also Tony’s younger cousin) used to record practice sessions and live shows for Sour Mash. Frank eventually became a bass player and started filling in with Sour Mash. Guitarist Larry Giglio moved away and Sour Mash was no more. Fast forward about 12 years and Frankie met Collen at work and they started another project together (Work Related).
Uncle Charlie & The Meatballs came about when Adam, Tony and Frank started hosting annual “Christmas Party Jams” at Swifty’s (a local bar/restaurant – there’s one out that way in Latham) when Larry would come home for the holidays. This went on for seven years or so and became a holiday staple. A bunch of us local musician friends (including Collen and Frank’s younger brother Matt), would get together and play, unrehearsed, all night long. Every year, we’d change our band name. One year a musician friend (Sean Gaffney) in a conversation about cliche’ blues band names, came up with the name “Uncle Charlie & The Meatballs” for one of the annual jams (a nod to our locally brewed Utica Club Beer – known as “Uncle Charlie” during Prohibition- and our incredible, Italian, culinary scene). Two years and two name changes later at another Swifty’s Christmas Jam, an older, intoxicated woman at the bar went on to tell us (as we were setting up our equipment) how much she enjoyed the band that was here a few years ago… Uncle Charlie & the Meatballs. We figured since she remembered the name, we should stick with it. In March 2018 we decided to keep the name and play out with it more than just once a year with original guitarist Steve Schoen and his wife Kelsey on vocals.
RRX: I saw one of your t-shirts, and it asked, “Who’s Uncle Charlie?” And since nobody in the band is names Charlie, it stands as a good question. Who’s Uncle Charlie, and where did the Meatballs come from?
UCMB: As mentioned above, Uncle Charlie’ was the code word for Utica Club (UC) beer during prohibition and what it’s affectionately called by us locals. Whether we’re hanging out, playing live or rehearsing. there’s always a few Uncle Charlies close by. We decided to put the phrase on our t-shirts because we get asked that question… ALOT!
RRX: Being in Central New York gives you some choices as a band. Obviously, you play locally, but also you’re in the middle, somewhat, between the Capital District and the bigger cities in Western New York, like Rochester and Buffalo. And we all have NYC. When you’re thinking road trip, where do your mind go first, and why?
UCMB: Some of our favorite shows have been road trips to clubs in Oneonta, Cortland and Syracuse. But if we’re looking to get away or even play a show in a cool/different place, we think of the Adirondacks and/or in Finger Lakes region.
RRX: In the Capital Region, we have a lot of diversity in genres in what people are playing. It’s not rare to see a band with three or four genres. Is it like that in CNY? Or is it more country-based? Do venues seek out more originals or more covers? And what genre (or genres) does Uncle Charlie & the Meatballs groove to?
UCMB: There is so much musical diversity here in CNY it’s quite remarkable. Venues obviously want to make their patrons happy and crowds in the CNY region predominantly want covers. Every working band/artist around here has a large catalog that they can pull from at any time, including rock, country, bluegrass, oldies, 80s, top 40 pop, classic rock, and the list goes on… As an example of the diversity CNY musicians have, check out the Sisti Brothers (Mark, Al and Dan) They have three distinctly different bands that frequently play out. An Irish band (Blarney Rebel), an Allman Brothers Tribute Band (Les Brers) and a blues band (King Kool). Same guys… three different bands.
On a personal level, our musical tastes are as diverse as the area we play in. Blues, classic rock/rock, alternative, pop, country, oldies, and hip hop. We listen to it all.
RRX: A lot of times, we’ve asked bands who their influences are, and that’s interesting. But I’m going to twist it. We need to extend the love in CNY, so, can you name three national acts that you all can agree influence you, and three local bands that you can agree influence you?
UCMB: We all have our own individual influences of course (Dave Matthews Band, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis & The News, Chris Stapleton, Kenny Wayne Sheppard) but we think that our overall sound can relate back to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Muddy Waters, and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to name a few more in a general sense. Locally, we already mentioned the Sisti Brothers but our good friends, Bluestreak, Blueprints, The Crazy Fools, and Last Left (specifically Spencer Morgan) have had a bigger influence on us musically than we’re sure they even realize.
RRX: Here is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. Good meatball recipe? Not who, but where is Uncle Charlie? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.
UCMB: Well Tony makes some damn good meatballs (his nonnie’s family recipe) and Frankie and Matt have some top-notch culinary talent on that side of the family (Boulevard Diner). Swifty’s Bar & Restaurant gave us our start and holds a special place in our hearts. It’s a frequent hang-out of ours because of the service and selection. We consider it our home away from home, but we have to give a shout out to “Old School Bar & Grill” here in Utica, NY. They hosted live music on Wednesday nights and have an absolutely incredible menu. Every Wednesday that we’d play there, they would run a “Utica Club and Meatball” special. Their meatballs are as close as you can get to nonnies and their steak sandwich is well worth the drive, no matter where you’re driving from.