David Vargo is no stranger to the entertainment world. His résumé includes playing and touring with Whitney Houston, Rupert Holmes — yes, the “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” guy — and Phoebe Snow. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, he had been flying below the radar somewhat until recent years, when he resurfaced with a debut disc and a renewed sense of performing.
His talent, likability and engaging personality allowed him to slip right back into the local and surrounding Jersey Shore music communities with ease. And the Pierce Sessions, a fantastic monthly original performance showcase, is a direct result of those factors. Or perhaps it’s more like accidentally volunteering.
“We have the events — hence the name — at the Pierce Presbyterian Church in Farmingdale,” he says. “I’m on the board of Musicians on a Mission, and we had been doing our MOAM-Palooza there for years and I had gotten to be pretty friendly with the pastor of the church. And a couple of years ago he said to me, ‘I have a very small contingency here and I’d really like to be using this church for more. People should be coming here and using this.’ And my response was, ‘Well why not try hosting music events?’ And he said, ‘Good, go ahead!’
“So, August of 2016 we did our first Pierce Session. And although it has changed a bit since the first one — which was comprised of George Wirth, Gorilla Bob and myself, the three of us each did a set with a dessert intermission in between and essentially we gave the people two hours of singer-songwriters — since then we’ve moved to just a two-performer format with two 45-minute sets and a coffee-and-dessert intermission. But yes, August of this year will be two years.
“We picked Tuesday nights, and it’s not always the same Tuesday nights, necessarily. It used to be a pretty open night but everything around here is getting busier and busier so the competition for an audience is growing. No matter what night you pick, there seems to be eight other things going on.”
Nearly two years of bringing some of the most talented local artists and even some players who are just passing through has had its rewards. But Vargo relies mostly upon relationships he’s built to assist with filling the performer slots and the seats.
“Mostly personal relationships,” he said. “Being a singer-songwriter, you tend to know a lot of people, and I get approached by a lot of people, most of which are not a good fit. I try and keep the talent level pretty high for this thing. I get some people coming through on tour sometimes, people like Jack Petruzzelli (The Fab Faux, Patti Smith, Joan Osborne) and Cameron Greider did a show in between Jack’s touring schedule, and Renee Maskin from Lowlight in between her tours. … But mostly it has been local people that we are trying to give a venue to play. It is very much a listening room. People will clap but there is usually no talking as everyone is there to listen. It’s been slow but we are starting to develop a nice audience for ourselves.”
The sessions are free of charge, but people are encouraged to bring desserts for the intermission. The artists work for tips. Vargo also credits local original music supporter, photographer and promoter Brenda Wirth with some inspiration.
“We ask people to bring a dessert to share. I’m not even quite sure where that came from; I guess it was almost a Brenda Wirth kind of thing. Kind of like when she would do house concerts that were a potluck, but I didn’t want to turn it into a whole dinner thing, however I thought if people can bring a dessert that it would become more of a communal thing. Not everybody does bring one but there’s always enough there and people get to mingle with themselves and also with the talent, which is kind of nice. They get to know the artists a little better and because of that relationship … we don’t charge admission for this thing, but people who come buy merchandise and they tip, and the tips have been very generous.
“We’ve had some artists make the money on a Tuesday night that they would make on a Saturday night at a full gig. The first two shows we did, we didn’t even think of a tip jar, and then we started putting it out, but we’ve had some really talented people perform and even if there’s only 20 people in the audience, they are still getting some great tips.”
So what does Vargo have planned for the series or to try and grow the audience?
“I’d like to continue it, as it’s only once a month, pretty close to my house, and doesn’t take up too much of my time. I like having the opportunity to bring new ears to these artists, but the biggest problem is building an audience. But at the last show we had around 40 people, and for us that’s a pretty good night. We are getting some help from the local businesses as far as promotion and I’ve been reaching out to the local press to get it out there, as opposed to just online. So I’d like to keep doing it and I’d love to get the audiences up to around 50 people or better.
“Everybody who plays the event seems to love it. They love playing the church because of the sound, there’s always a nice audience, they make a few dollars and most ask to come back. What I’m thinking of doing is utilizing the large landscaping venue down the street, which has a beautiful patio. I’m thinking of doing an afternoon fundraiser for charity, bringing the players who have appeared at the Pierce Sessions, and we can all play together to draw attention to the sessions and raise a few dollars for charity, too.”
This month’s session is scheduled for July 17 at 7:30 p.m. and features Matt Telliho and The Well Wish. “Currently we are booked out,” Vargo said. “I’m booking December right now so we will be full at least through the end of this year.”
When asked why he does it and if he has put any limits on his involvement, Vargo elaborated on the toughest part of the process: rejecting people who may be a bit below the standard he seeks.
“The hardest part of this is telling people who may not be up to par that I can’t get them in, and trying to figure out a way to say that nicely without hurting feelings. The problem with a lot of entertainers is that they can’t hear themselves or don’t want to hear themselves and face that they may not be as good as others around them. My first thing when people approach me is to tell them to come to a show first and see what it’s all about. They may come to the event and decide that maybe it’s not for them; I mean not everyone wants to play to a total listening room because it can be a very nervous experience. Renee Maskin, who toured with The Pretenders, was nervous as all hell to play in a church because the people are sitting very close and just listening and that’s not for everybody.”
Vargo’s solo career has received rave reviews, stemming from the release of his first CD, Burning Through, and he’s back in the studio recording the followup. “I’m recording but nowhere near close to releasing anything yet. I’m hoping to release a single sometime this summer, but the full thing probably not until October or so.”