A series of oil paintings, by singer-songwriter Rob Eldridge, arranged in video. Lyrics shown in music video.
The year 2020 was a bane and boon to Robby Eldridge. The historic pandemic forced him and other American musicians to delay projects and tuck away their tour gear for who-knows-how-long. Frontmen like Eldridge, leader of Pittsburgh, PA’s popular rock outfit Steelesque, are starving for stages, and fans of live music are just as hungry. Not. Fair. At. All.
Fortunately, Eldridge is among those artists who looked at 2020’s offering of solitude as a gift. He conjured something new in the studio: The Warm Auction.
Currently, The Warm Auction is a four-song collaboration between Eldridge and Steelesque bandmate and friend Sam Baldigowski. The Warm Auction is still a work in progress — Will it be the name of the band or the album? — but Eldridge and Baldigowski have laid strong groundwork with quasi-completion of the first four songs, which they will release for public preview as an EP on Dec. 23. The EP also features Nashville/PGH recording artist, Shawn Mazzei, on lead guitar.
The duo hit the pause button on Steelesque to “make new sounds with old tools,” Eldridge says. They succeeded. Vintage instruments (with the exception of programmed drums) carry the songs, which are laced with themes of change. The sound is light, easy and enjoyable — technically and musically — but there is depth here, too; the lyrics are sublime at times. So if you’re looking for what’s destined to be popular in 2021 — trite pop hooks blended with sugar-soaked lyrics that attempt to make some sorta (non)sense outta COVID — look elsewhere. Warmth abound on The Warm Auction — just as intended.
“Sam and I have always flushed out my songwriting ideas,” Eldridge says. “He’s a very patient listener and usually knows exactly what I’m aiming for with my songs.”
Baldigowski appears on mandolin, pedal steel and lap steel guitars on The Warm Auction, and it’s clear that he enjoys his role as Eldridge’s support player. Baldigowski confidently and competently balances Eldridge’s voice, which is Eldridge’s finest instrument. Eldridge is featured on guitar, bass, keys, banjo, percussion, and programming on The Warm Auction, but his voice is the star.
Eldridge is an unabashed disciple of The Church Of Mick And Keith, and his Jagger-meets-Dylan-meets-Lennon baritone has traditionally been the glue of his live and recorded works. However, on The Warm Auction he now uses his voice as a means to an end. The near-whispery, no-stretching-necessary authenticity of Eldridge’s voice on The Warm Auction bolsters his songs’ credibility. There is a strong marriage of music, melody and lyrics — no overshadowing allowed. He’s hit a high point with that marriage.
“I am very much conscious of that,” he says. “I used to emulate many (artists) and was self-conscious of my voice and how it sounded. I’m not focused on that now when I write and tell a story with my voice. I just sing and let the emotion influence the inflection and delivery of my voice. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize this earlier in my career. I think with Steelesque I gained more confidence in my songwriting abilities. I was more forthright in expressing what I heard in my head with the fantastic musicians that believed in me.”
If an election was held to see which song opens The Warm Auction — and that could still be up in the air — the winner would be “Darkness, Learn To See.” Eldridge and Baldigowski open the song with a seamless countdown that is underscored by a chorus of crickets.
Then, suddenly, there is a quiet kick into double-time. Slide guitar slithers over banjos, bass and drums. The windows are down, and things are a bit dusty, but this is a cool, fitting invitation into the mind of Robby Eldridge. So go along. He’s in the driver’s seat and “in the midst of living” (he says on his Web site).
With a play on words, Eldridge nudges us to pay more attention to the darkness that might face us, so that we can change and find light on the other side: “Some sidestep the mourning./They never open the door./They just keep walking/Right past it.”
Eldridge says “Darkness, Learn To See” is a reflection on his recent, hope-filled transition to becoming a single father. “My world became more visible within the darkness I resided in for many years,” he says.
He channeled those feelings through the chorus of “Darkness”: “And I never feared the alone./Still a king but I/lack a throne/A place to call my home/and turn my key.”
Love, change, inspiration and hope also punctuate the other three songs on “The Warm Auction” EP: “Loving Well,” “Sit In Irons” and “Coming In Real Thin.” “Loving Well” might be Eldridge’s tongue-in-cheek nod to the Stones’ “Loving Cup,” but he’ll never tell, and he doesn’t have to. The song stands on its own as a dense metaphor, and it’s catchy and mellow from the onset. (What’s NOT relaxing about bongos, tambourines and a Wurlitzer piano?)
“The ‘Loving Well’ should be in everybody’s life,” Eldridge says, “What’s a life without love, right?”
Like “The Loving Well,” “Coming In Real Thin” and “Sit In Irons” make for excellent earworms. “Coming In Real Thin” starts with an almost eerie western feel, and then Eldridge’s voice comes to the front: “The dreams come alive/in my bed./You’re trying to make sense of it all./Just taking in your environment.” Each chorus repeats the song title on a descending scale — almost making it dreamy.
“Sit In Irons” is more sonically straightforward. Petty-like in its delivery, Eldridge has a blast with his lyrical cadence. Baldigowski helps keep matters a bit quiet, until he and Eldridge burst into a fuzzy and loud yet hopeful refrain: “Rest your head up/like another hangover/a cool glass of water is what you do/So make the most/of your chance/Change your colors./Replace the blue.”
Eldridge speaks to “you” throughout The Warm Auction, but just who is “you?” Is it family, friends, society, or the man in the mirror?
“There’s a cast of characters that have been ‘you,’” Eldridge says, “and I’ve learned many lessons from each of them.”
Outside of the upcoming preview EP, four other songs could potentially make the final cut for The Warm Auction: “Energized American,” “Pinwheel,” “Dead On the Vine,” and “She Can Change A Man.” “Energized American” is a poetic, Springsteen-esque look at working class America — and a great homage to Pittsburgh — and it is the most visual, image-evoking song on The Warm Auction. Tentatively, the set ends with “She Can Change A Man,” a playful, Lou Reed-ish roll call of characters in a story of a downtrodden man and the girl that gives him hope.
More recently, Eldridge wrote and recorded a rough version of a new song called “Change Moves The Needle.” He’s mulling whether to include it on The Warm Auction. Given the first word of its title — and its musical and lyrical consistency with the rest of the project — he should find a place for it.
“Winter is coming,” they say in Game Of Thrones, and it promises to be a long one. (Thanks, COVID!) So if you find yourself in “the midst of living,” or if you’d like to hitch a ride there, connect with Robby Eldridge and Sam Baldigowski on The Warm Auction. Change is only a few songs away.
•Leon Thompson is a writer based in Vermont. (email@example.com)
“I’m absolutely a goal-oriented person, whether it’s developing a strong soccer program that is competing for WPIAL or state titles or leading a group of musicians in creating art and producing a finished product that we can be proud of,” said Eldridge.
I have a strong competitive spirit and sometimes that needs to be calmed,” he added. “I do that by reading, songwriting and through my music. For me, it’s the yin and yang of life. It works well together.”
Throughout his life, Eldridge weaved sports and music together successfully. A Vermont native, he started skiing at age 5. He began playing soccer at 7 and evolved into an All-American while excelling on the Johnson State College team that competed in the national championships. While earning his masters degree in education, Eldridge helped coach the James Madison University men’s soccer team.
At that Harrisonburg, Va., school, he met his wife, Kim. When she took the lacrosse coaching gig at Duquesne University, the Eldridge family moved to Pittsburgh, where Rob took the assistant coaching job with the Dukes men’s soccer squad in 1996.
In addition, he joined the Beadling Soccer Club as a head coach, directing teams to multiple state championships and one regional title. Between 2002-07, he served as Peters Township head coach, guiding the Indians to three section banners, one WPIAL championship and two district runner-up titles.
Since 2007, he has been at South Fayette, claiming several COTY laurels in consistently guiding the Lions to the district and state playoffs. The Lions won a WPIAL title in 2015.
Music has been with Eldridge every step of the way. Raised in a “classical formal tradition” as maternal grandparents, Elizabeth and Herbet Kenyon, were a concert pianist and opera singer, respectively, Eldridge taught himself how to play various instruments, including piano, bass and electric guitar, which he plays on stage. “Never took formal lessons,” he said.
Eldridge said he started playing because he had written songs – he has more than 100 published pieces – so he decided to learn the instruments to “be in a position to write better what I wanted to sing.”
While his mother, Roxy, is a classical vocalist, his father, Bob, introduced him to the sound he prefers and performs.
“He exposed me to all the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s music,” Eldridge said. “I caught the rock ’n’ roll bug from him. He’s an artist, painter and illustrator. He designed the cover for the release.”
“Toro Toro” features six songs written by Eldridge. The CD was recorded by Mike Ofca from Innovation Studio in Steubenville and Eldridge at his in-home studio, dubbed Sonic Planet Studios.
Eldridge is the lead vocalist. He plays guitar, keys and banjo. His next-door-neighbor, Sam Baldigowski, excels on the mandolin and lap steel. Ron Castelluci (percussion and noise makers), Jerry Courtney (bass guitar and backing vocals), Eric Drake (lead guitar and back vocals) and Bruce Virtue (drums) complete the band, which Eldridge started three years ago in Pittsburgh.
“We’ve had a couple of different lineups but it’s mostly made up of professionals and buddies, all accomplished musicians. I know they were auditioning me as much as I was auditioning them,” Eldridge said of the players, most of whom hail from Weirton, W.Va.
Featuring a blend of genres, Eldridge described the CD as rock ’n’ roll with blues elements. The six-piece ensemble delivers the swagger of bands from days gone by while echoing its own influences. If it has a sound similar to British blues and the Rolling Stones, there is good reason: Mick Jagger and the boys are Eldridge’s favorite.
“I only wish I could perform like Mick,” he laughed. “Usually I have a guitar around my shoulder, so I am unable to move around the way he does.”
During his youth, Eldridge moved around a bit. He started with The Warehouse Band playing music from a range of bands like the Hollies, Stones, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Led Zeppelin, The Cult and Tom Petty. He moved on to the Voodoo Dolls, which included one member that currently plays bass for the “Jersey Boys” production in Las Vegas. The Voodoo Dolls covered more redent bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction and supported national acts like Gov’t Mule, the Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo and Edgar Winter. One of his biggest groups was the Spring Heeled Jacks.
Eldridge’s experiences have included encounters with Mick Taylor, who replaced founder Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones after he mysteriously drowned, along with Bob Dylan, Frankie Vallie and Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes, who also played with the Allman Brothers and Phil Lesh and Friends.
“I met a lot of awesome musicians,” said Eldridge, “and it’s been wonderful but not my real desire.”
As he aged, Eldridge said his goals changed. While he has released a solo record on vinyl that can be heard on Pandora and Spotify, written background music for independent films and documentaries, and provided soundtracks for a local outdoor adventure show produced by Joe Rossi of Peters Township, Eldridge’s main focus is his family.
He is a father to three sons. His eldest, Ray, plays football. Heading into his senior season, he already has 15 Division I scholarship offers.
“He’s a self-made kid, good student, hard worker,” said Eldridge. “He did all the right things and followed Joe Rossi’s ground rules, and that had a big payoff.”
Eldridge’s two other boys – Gavin, a sophomore, and Chad, a freshman – have followed in their father’s footsteps and play soccer.
“I have been driven by raising my sons,” Eldridge said.
Through his music, he is driven to expose others to the art of writing songs and performing. Eldridge says that there are other things he wants to do but sharing is foremost on his list. While he’s excited about his CD release and calls it a “celebration and culmination” of the process, he is “pushing” for newer endeavors.
“I have an opportunity to help other artists,” he said. “You know, it only takes one song.”
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“Taking video footage from my trip to the Everglades, Florida spurred the idea”
It’s not what you stare at – it’s more what you see
Knee deep in the different – our knees shake in the streams
I’m considered rich with my wants being cheap
Pockets full of stubborn – is all that you keep
Does my heart good to see these fine folks receive their vinyl gift. I am so appreciative of their support and how they all dug in to help me realize my dream. It’s pretty cool to hear your music on vinyl and even cooler to see other people enjoy it.
Thank you thank you thank you!!