By DAN BAUER
Editor-in-Chief of Web
Once upon a time, in the nineties, the Meadville area had a music scene.
A real live music scene, for local bands and national acts alike. Fred Oakman, Meadville native and local musician, rattles off the names of a few bands that came through the Edinboro-Erie-Meadville circuit.
He rattles them off casually while my jaw drops. Goldfinger, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, The Dillinger Four.
The Alkaline Trio once tried to come through, having heard great things about “The Shack” in Meadville by word of mouth.
But The Shack turned out to be a high school kid’s parents’ barn and the show would have been on a school night, so things didn’t work out. So it goes.
“Meadville happened to be almost a strange kind of Mecca in Pennsylvania,” he says, again quite casually. “It’s a smaller town and kids don’t have as much to do. So we made things to do.”
Oakman was in a variety of bands back when the scene was thriving. He picked up guitar in seventh grade after seeing a local band called Jerkwater play at the Woodcock Township Building.
“It was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life,” he said. “It was angry, it was fun, it was really raw… I saw these people a little older than me who were, in my opinion, masters of guitar in these bands. I was like, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.”
Oakman started The Twirpentines with some friends in 1994. This was before Green Day had really broken through and before Blink-182 had inspired everyone and their brother to start a band. It was, in Oakman’s words, a “different” time.
“My buddies and I, we would get out of school and people would throw mud at us,” he said. “People were really judgmental back then. So this little thing we had, we felt like it was our own place to get away, and there weren’t a lot of people who really understood.”
The Twirpentines evolved as they got older. They put out two full-length CDs along with a seven-inch record and an eight song demo tape. They toured the United States. But eventually, things came to an end.
“We played, we had a run, we all got a college education… everybody had their own thing they had going on,” said Oakman. “We said, ‘we’re not paying the bills, we’ve had a great run. Let’s have one last show.”
The Twirpentines played their farewell show to a packed house in 2002.
“There wasn’t even shoulder room,” said Oakman. “It was crazy.”
Not long after, Oakman formed another punk band, Signal Home.
“At that point, we had legs on us,” he said. “Coming out of the Twirpentines, people knew who we were. We had a little bit of traction.”
Signal Home’s break came out of an instant message from JT Woodruff of Hawthorne Heights, who Oakman had met while still playing with the Twirpentines. Woodruff was starting up a label called Carbon Copy Media, and soon enough, Signal Home was signed.
“It was crazy,” said Oakman. “Coming from being in seventh grade, being made fun of for looking a certain way, being from a small town and not really living anywhere else, to going to Best Buy and Target and seeing your CD on a shelf… we said ‘You know what, if you’ve got a passion, you can follow it. It just takes a lot of time and effort.’”
Signal Home began touring, playing shows around the country, sometimes headlining, sometimes opening for Hawthorne Heights. They released their first album, A Fragile Constitutional, in 2006. They still had the trappings of the small-town, do-it-yourself punk band. They were traveling without a booking agent or a manager, handling things as they came.
“It was at the point where it was either going to go one way or another,” said Oakman.
And, as it turned out, it didn’t last long. Hawthorne Heights got into a lawsuit with their label and Carbon Copy Media went defunct. Signal Home’s contract was voided.
“It just didn’t pan out,” said Oakman. “We were getting a little older, and we said ‘We don’t have enough money to sit and write a new record. We didn’t make the right kind of contacts while we were on the road because we thought we had a bed to lay in at the end of the night and it turned out that we didn’t.”
Signal Home went on indefinite hiatus and Oakman began a solo career. He released an album and started a tour.
“Touring was cathartic, but it was equally depressing,” said Oakman. “There was a point where I opened my guitar case and I had this wad of money that was all I had to my name. It was in some faraway state. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Wow. To go from playing shows to 4,000 people and having a CD in Best Buy… to opening up my guitar case and having 35 dollars to my name and having no idea when I’m going to get paid next is a tough thing to go through… I better get a legit job. This isn’t cutting it.”
Oakman came back to Meadville and got a job with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He’s still playing as a solo act and just released an EP. He also started a new band in December 2011 called One if by Land.
“I’m trying to find that happy medium where you can afford to do the things you love and not worry about your debt,” he said.
Oakman is also trying to revive the music scene that he grew up playing in by opening up venues such as the Gardner Theater above the Market House to local music.
“I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for those shows,” said Oakman. “It changed my life. I would like to see that happen again.”
Along with local musician Seth Brewster, Oakman organized a last-minute show at the Gardner Theater last December and was encouraged by the response.
“The turnout blew our minds,” said Oakman. “That told us that people want to go out, they want to see local music, and they don’t want to necessarily sit in a smoky bar to do it.”
That show inspired an ongoing series called Indie Nights on Market. On the first Friday of every month, the Gardner Theater will open up to musicians from Meadville and the tri-state area.
The first show is tonight, Friday, March 2. Oakman will headline, along with Tyler Smilo of Ohio and Lauren Joyce of Edinboro.
“We’re just trying to create an awareness of the talent in our backyard,” said Oakman. “We feel like we can get something off the ground.”
The Twirpentines- The Seams
Signal Home- A Fragile Constitutional
Fred Oakman- Windowed View Virginia