It’s been around nine years since the Ernest T. Band started “humping gear and playing gigs” in Ashtabula County.
After all that time, they’re still playing in bars and roadhouses, drawing a large, devoted following. They’ve found a niche that newer bands often have a hard time with. The secret of the Ernest T. Band’s perennial success is in its lineup and material.
Mike Penna, bass player and leader of the band, said he’s not really sure who came up with its name, or why it stuck. It seemed to be fun for people to guess who Ernest T. was, or if it meant they were serious. The first members of Ernest T. were formerly with the bands Moondance and The Saloonatics, and they jammed in Pennna’s garage long enough to build a set list. They were Penna on bass, Steve Barbato on guitar, Randy Coutts on guitar, Steve Tobias on vocals and Bobby Holmes on drums. Five years ago, Brady Burnett replaced Holmes on drums.
“Our song list is always evolving,” Penna said. “We add and delete but we keep something ready for any audience. It’s classical rock, rockabilly, blues and ‘b-sides’ we arrange our own way.”
Penna said the band’s most requested song was “Cool Water” by Jimmy Thackery. They close the night with “Goodbye Baby Goodbye” by Robert Gordon. There are Motown crossovers, and even some Zappa songs. The Ernest T. Band now has a 100- song list. “We go for anything with a big beat,” Penna said.
Their song list and chemistry have proven to be an effective formula. The Ernest T. Band has regular engagements at The Old Mill Winery in Geneva and the Grand River Manor in Austinburg. Other fairly regular gigs include the VFW club, Sons of Italy and Eagles Club in Ashtabula, the Eagles Club in Geneva and Pickled Pepper’s in Geneva-on-the-Lake. Ernest T. has played more than 1,000 concerts.
“We’ve got quite a steady following,” Penna said. “Definitely a lot of it is due to the lineup. We’ve got some pretty accomplished talent in our band.”
Ernest T. Band’s guitarist Steve Barbato played with his band The Heaters in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The Heaters played Madame Wong’s, the Starwood and Whiskey A-Go-Go and other high prestige Hollywood venues before returning to Ashtabula.
“My strongest influences are Rory Gallagher and Jimi Hendrix,” Barbato said. “I like getting to play some blues or old b-sides. Randy and I go back and forth on leads.”
Randy Coutts said his guitar heroes were also Gallagher and Hendrix. Though both have the same mentors, Barbato’s and Coutts’s styles are different enough to complement rather than clash. Coutts said he started playing at 10 and by age 14 he was backing up former James Gang member Glenn Schwartz.
“I like the blues songs we choose and Steve Tobias’s vocals,” Coutts said. “It’s a lot of fun to work with these guys.”
Steve Tobias’s vocals are one of the band’s main draws. “This is not milk and toast music,” Tobias said. “It’s shot and a beer music.”
Tobias, another veteran of many local bands, said his interest in singing and performing goes back to his childhood. “My parents always had music playing in our home,” he said. “In the third grade, three of us kids sang ‘Pepino the Italian Mouse’ for the Zonta Ladies Club. They applauded and gave us food and pinched us on the cheeks. I said this is the life for me.”
Brady Burnett, the band’s drummer, is known for his tight, metronome-like rock-steady rhythms. He’s the glue that makes the Ernest T. Band a musical unit.
“I love working with a lineup like Ernest T. Band’s,” Burnett said. “I feel really lucky. It’s fantastic.”