It’s a Sunday afternoon and the sunny rays streamed through the window blinds in a local diner in Bethlehem. Looking around the restaurant, there’s a handful of patrons enjoying a late meal and conversations. Towards the center of the dining floor is a round table set for six.
Within a few minutes, the table fills with six men, comfortably dressed in tee shirts and jeans. For the curious onlooker, these men are relaxed, laughing, and talking as they order their drinks. It becomes obvious that there’s a strong brotherhood bond between them. Seated at this table are The Aardvarks, Lehigh Valley’s favorite hometown rock band.
The Aardvarks first formed around 2002, with Mike Rauscher, guitar and Rod Walls, keyboards. In time, they grew to a full sized band, and like many cover bands changed players along the way. Joining Michael and Rod at the table are Ted Donatelli, drummer, Jon Novak, bass, Jay Morgan, guitarist and Nate Hunsicker, sound engineer. This line-up of Aardvarks has been together as a band for the last several years.
Going back to the very beginning, musical taste can always be attributed to the music we listened to from our parents. “My mom’s music was kind of tame.” Mike said as he speared his straw into a glass of tonic water with a lime wedge perched on the side of the glass. “Johnny Mathis kind of stuff. Maybe Little River Band, and Lionel Ritchie. Those are the ones I remember getting her for the holidays. My father was a music fanatic. He is the reason I do what I do; an impeccable palate of classic rock. Hell, he had Jeff Beck’s ‘Truth’, and that speaks volumes! He made me learn the lyrics of ‘Rocky Raccoon’ in front of the turntable as a kid. Lost him when I was young, but I’d like to think that he would be pretty proud of his kid.”
Jay remembered, “My parents listened to whatever was on the radio. I do remember two specific albums in the collection though, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy’, and the Allman Brothers ‘Live at the Fillmore’, which pretty much shaped my musical taste.”
Ted, the latest addition to the band added, “It’s funny. I tell people all the time that my parents are more hip now than they were 30 years ago. When I was 18, they couldn’t stand what I was listening to at the time. Now, they’re going to rock shows and hanging out at Aardvark gigs till one in the morning,” he laughs. “They’re still into Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, so they balance it out.”
For The Aardvarks, their passion for music began at an early age. “I was about eight years old when I started taking piano lessons”, Rod commented. “One of the first songs I learned was ‘Just the Way You Are’ by Billy Joel. It was a favorite of my parents at the time.”
Jon added, “I was 15 when I started playing the bass. First actual song was ‘Come As You Are’ by Nirvana.
Mike chimed in, “My mom is the one who paid for my first guitar and lessons when I was eight. I love you mom!”
Nate took a sip of Coca-Cola and placed the glass on the table. “The first gig I ever had doing sound was at age 15 at Scarlett O’Hara’s in Bethlehem. I got the job because the house guy called off and friends of mine were playing that night. I knew nothing and just fudged my way by watching someone else do it. But I actually started out as a bass player around 13 or 14 years old.”
Nate is the guy you don’t see on stage, as the sixth member of The Aardvarks, he performs at the soundboard. “I hope people don’t think of the sixth Aardvark like they thought of the sixth Beatle. I come to almost every rehearsal. I’m involved in the song selection and sometimes even the arrangement of songs. I’m honored that the band values my contribution to the group and finds it substantial enough to be called a member.”
From one of their first gigs at Penalty Box on Lehigh Street to present day bookings at Musikfest, Sands Casino, Maingate in Allentown, to charity benefits as well as many community events The Aardvarks presence and popularity is well known throughout the Lehigh Valley. In over a decade’s time their music has undergone changes and evolved.
“We started as a very classic rock centric,” Jon stated. “Over the years we’ve become much more diverse. We play a wide range of music. The Stones to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder to Justin Timberlake.”
“Our attention to detail like dynamics and tempo have evolved greatly over the past three years”, Jay added.
“After I came onboard about ten years ago,” Nate started, “it left the band free to only concern themselves with playing. I had worked with Jay in a previous band, so I would come out and see The Aardvarks play when I had a night off. I remember watching Jon trying to mix the band with this little mixer on top of his bass amp while playing. It was not a recipe for success. The last big evolution for the band came with the addition of Ted. Bringing some new talent in from the outside renewed a passion for playing and performance within the band. After realizing the chemistry of this new lineup was going to take the band to the next level with the size and types of venues we were looking to book, the personnel change prompted me to ramp up the caliber of our production gear as well.”
Mike smiled as he began, “I was blessed with a team that is open to any ideas across the board. Nothing is taboo for us. If it feels good, we give it a go. Rod is the secret weapon that can conjure up the sounds needed to execute any given tune.”
“I believe we play the same type of songs, but we have gotten better at knowing which ones to keep in the set list and which ones aren’t just working”, Rod commented.
As summer begins, Aardvark season takes over the Lehigh Valley. Packing the venues around town The Aardvarks become high energy animals on stage. While watching them perform, it is apparent everything they do is for their devoted fans. For any band, it goes without saying that they would be nowhere without the solid following of their fans.
Ted explains, “The people that frequent our shows are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. They are kind, appreciative, and very loyal. They get there early and they stay late. I’ve been fortunate to play in this group for a number of reasons, one being that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and become friends with some really nice people. I’d say our crowd ranges from the early 40’s on up. However, when we do say a Musikfest gig, the 20 somethings really get involved. I’d like to think we offer a little something for each generation.”
“By the way, I’d like to thank all of our fans for supporting The Aardvarks”, Mike added.
Rod held up an empty coffee cup and signaled the waitress for a refill. “ Our formula has always been keep it up tempo and keep people moving. My wish for every performance is that people walk away having had a great time and wanting to come back for more. That’s our job as a cover band and if we do it well people will come back and see us again.”
It’s no doubt fans keep on returning based on the songs they perform. There are always favorites. Mike commented, “At this point, we are a medley driven band, and I love it. It keeps the asses shaking and that’s the most important thing in our business.”
“ ‘Rock and Roll All Night’ gets everyone pretty riled up,” Ted joined in with a hearty laugh. “ People go nuts for that song, as they should. It’s Kiss.”
“We put our own twist on most songs,” Jay said. “Probably because we never learn anything verbatim. We change things constantly. Another fan favorite is ‘Bounce Around the Room,’ by Phish.”
Jon added his take, “ ‘Summer of 69’,’ Jessie’s Girl,’ ‘ Jenny,’ and ‘My Sharona.’, ‘Under Pressure’ always makes the hair stand up on my neck.”
When it comes to the behind the scene action, to get an idea of those ‘Spinal Tap’ moments within The Aardvarks, we turn to Nate. “There’s always the possibility of equipment failure that haunts every band. Once I had to rig a guitar amp with a fuse wrapped in aluminum foil to get through a show. There was an infamous event where an unnamed member was presumed dead after being unreachable by phone and almost slept through a show. Lots of forgetting instruments at home or getting stuck in traffic. But as far as I know, our previous drummer is alive and well and did not die in a bizarre gardening accident.”
As the conversations shifts to the Lehigh Valley music scene, these guys are the experts, as all members reside in the area at least for the past twenty years.
“I think there’s a lot of talent in our area and a lot of hard working artists and bands out there.” Rod commented.
“The bands are still there, however, the rooms are dwindling down a little.” Ted leaned back in his chair and continued, “The Sterling Long Bar is gone, as is Second Ave in Bethlehem, and a bunch of others. Those rooms had a lot of character, and smells,” he laughed. “But overall, it’s a pretty good area to be in.”
“I truly love this area,” Mike boasted. “I’ve played in quite a few places in this beautiful country, and have seen some of this beautiful world, but on these little gig excursions I still always got homesick. We have a good thing going in this valley of ours. Embrace it. There is a reason John Lennon took a limo with his son Julian to walk in the rose gardens down by Cedar beach. A Beatle can’t be wrong!”
The Aardvarks have a busy schedule ahead this summer. Going around the table we find their personal lives are just as busy. “I look forward to taking my car to the race track,” Jon commented.
“I look forward to spending time with the people I love,” Mike added.
“I have a six year old daughter, “ Rod began, “and I really enjoy taking her to Dorney Park frequently. It thrills me to see how excited she gets. It keeps me young at heart.”
“I look forward to getting out on my mountain bike”, Nate stated.
“I look forward to traveling with the family and playing with the band,” Ted said.
“I just love to be outside in the summer.” Jay smiled as he continued. “Doesn’t matter if I’m on my bike or just sitting on the back porch. I just love the warm weather. I am most grateful that I have found these gentlemen I play with, it’s more of a family than a band. If we didn’t play together, we would still socialize with each other, which is really important. No one makes me smile or laugh like those guys. It really doesn’t get any better.”
Check out The Aardvarks at their upcoming shows:
- Friday June 24 Covered Bridge, South Whitehall
- Saturday June 25 Rock for MS, The Clubhouse Grill
- Saturday July 2 Molten Bar Sands Casino
- Friday July 29 Maingate
- Saturday Aug 6 Musikfest
- Sunday Aug 14 Musikfest
- Friday Aug 26 Colplay Community Days
You Can also find them online at: