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Right Here, Right Now

With a little bit of perspective, it becomes apparent that the grass may actually be greener on the Capital Region’s side of the music-scene fence

By J. Eric Smith

So what’s the biggest problem with the Capital Region’s music scene these days? Well, the way I see it, our biggest problem is the fact that so many people spend so much time asking “So what’s the biggest problem in the Capital Region’s music scene these days?” Because, despite conventional wisdom, despite the common buzz of background carping, and despite the seemingly chronic, self-induced “Smallbany” mentality that underpins so many conversations about music in our home region, I look around me and see a vibrant and vital collection of musicians, making exceptional sounds in a strikingly wide variety of venues—many of them truly succeeding in pursuit of their chosen musical goals.

Joe Putrock

You can accuse me of wearing rose-colored glasses, sure, but if you’re inclined to do so right off the cuff, then I suggest that you stop reading right now, because I’m going to spend the remainder of this article explaining why each and every one of us should be grateful to make our musical homes in the Capital Region.

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, though, I would also note that if you have that knee-jerk, stop-reading-now reaction when faced with me (or anyone else) singing the praises of our musical community, then you’re probably also a part of the problem in perception that plagues us hereabouts—as you obviously judge the Capital Region’s relative wealth of resources and performers to be lacking something, somehow. I simply can’t appreciate, much less understand, such a conclusion.

You still with me? Good, so let us go forward then, you and I, to look at our regional music community with open eyes and ears, and then to ponder how such a wealth of riches could ever be reckoned inadequate.

First off, note that I’m intentionally not talking about “the Albany music community,” instead referring to “the Capital Region.” It’s crucial that we think of our greater metropolitan statistical area when assessing our musical market, and get over the provinciality that leads us to judge Schenectady, Saratoga, Troy, Albany and western Massachusetts as separate regions with mutually exclusive infrastructures, when you can get from or to any of those areas within an hour.

It takes well over two hours, by comparison, to make it from Aberdeen to Seattle (both viewed, from afar, as part of the same regional music community), and it can take longer to make it from one borough in New York City to another if you’re schlepping gear in a van instead of taking public transportation, or to wind your way around the Beltway in Washington, D.C., or to get from the westernmost side of Minneapolis to the eastern edge of St. Paul. Within the strictures of our local psychology, though, we often think nothing of fighting traffic to get from Center Square in Albany to Crossgates Mall, but find Troy “too far” to travel for music—even though it takes less time to get there. If we don’t view ourselves as an integrated music market, then no one else is going to, either.

What do we see when we cast the net that widely? We see a wealth of performing-arts venues of every shape and size, offering music of all flavors, for every type of audience imaginable. Sometimes a favorite club closes, sure, but that’s the nature of the beast in this business, and with well over 100 venues vying for customers, flux and change are to be expected. That’s a helluva lotta clubs, particularly when you consider for perspective (and more on perspective later) that the legendary Athens, Ga., music scene grew from two main venues—the Uptown Lounge and the 40 Watt Club—neither of which are anywhere near as nice as, say, Valentine’s.

Lest you think I exaggerate about that number of outlets in the Capital Region, take a look at last week’s Metroland, which had (by my count) 49 advertisements offering live music, 125 venues listed on the clubs and concerts page, and nearly five full text pages dedicated to previewing upcoming musical events, or reviewing performances and records—a good number of which are of local origin. And we’re not the only ones previewing and promoting local music: Greg Haymes does yeoman service including local music in his weekly columns in the Times Union, and the Gazette and Record are generous with the ink they give to local music as well.

Take a gander online, too: The Hidden City, C.R.U.M.B.S. (on hiatus at the moment, but hopefully returning), Bumrock and other websites provide many opportunities for getting the word about your event out—or getting out the word that you want to have an event. At the risk of self-horn-tooting, I have to point out Sounding Board (which I host) for consideration too, since Time Warner Cable has piped more than 100 performers into nearly a quarter-million homes over the past five years, putting us right up there with Nashville and Austin on the very small list of markets with long-standing local-origination music-television broadcasting.

We see, too, as we look about us, a strikingly large number of colleges and universities, chockablock with students ready to be enticed by local musicians—sometimes on their own campuses, sometimes in the clubs (most of which offer at least occasional all-ages shows) throughout the area. Not to mention the nearly three-quarters of a million other people who live and work in the Capital Region, some large percentage of whom surely possess creative bones—or bones that vibrate when stimulated by others’ creativity. That’s a lot of potential customers.

We’ve got geography working on our side, with ready access to New York, Montreal, Boston, Syracuse and everything in between—which provide outlets for those ready to move beyond the Capital Region and (more importantly, to my view) make us a logical stopping point for musicians touring throughout the Northeast, many of whom are going to require an opening act or two when they stop here, a crucial step in networking between regions.

While New York looms large in our local corporate consciousness, I would also propose the large number of cold-weather colleges and universities scattered throughout upstate New York and New England as being ripe for exploitation by Capital Region artists. Sure, while it may not have the same cultural zing as playing to 18 people at CBGB, I’ll guarantee you that the hundreds of students who regularly turn out to see January shows at SUNY Potsdam will appreciate you more should you head north instead of south when you take your show on the road.

Of course, lots of musicians hereabouts never will take their shows on the road—and I think that a big part of our collective feelings of inadequacy stem from our frustration at that fact. I ascribe that frustration, though, to an unrealistic sense of expectation about what’s likely to happen when one embarks upon a career as a musician. Because here’s the real deal, in the Capital Region or anywhere else: Start a band, and you’ll get the occasional free beer, sure, and you might get lucky with the opposite sex more often than you would hanging out in your basement with the four-track recorder, but only very, very, very, very few of you (and not necessarily the most talented ones) might someday sign a record contract or head out on a national or regional tour.

Is signing a record contract necessarily a good thing? Ask the former members of the Clay People, Bloom or Lughead how well it worked for them. Or ask the current members of Super 400 about their experiences with major labels, or ask the Figgs about their multiple rolls in the hay with the industry. Record contracts and tours are, ultimately, nothing more than tools for sharing music, so if the contracts and the tours themselves are the end goals you set for yourself, and you spend all of your energy chasing them, then you’re going to be disappointed when they arrive, since they often create more problems than they solve.

I’d argue that those who focus instead on making the best damn music possible in their own home market, right here in the Capital Region, are the ones who often find that success beyond their markets will come to them in its own sweet time and in its own subtle ways. We somehow feel that we haven’t made a mark on the outside world musically, but look at some of the longtime performers hereabouts who have, through that crucial combination of tenacity and talent, made their mark here and elsewhere: Johnny Rabb, for instance, or David Malachowski, or Blotto, or Ernie Williams, or Lee Shaw, or the late Nick Brignola, or the Figgs (isn’t serving as Graham Parker’s backing band an international-caliber honor?) or Super 400 (who have spent a good amount time touring in the United Kingdom), or Jason Martin (handling soundtrack work for a New York-based video company).

Look, too, at those who have passed through the Capital Region, making their mark here before following their dreams elsewhere: onetime University at Albany student and genius songwriter Jed Davis, as an example, or (Ed) Hamell on Trial, or Stephen Clair, or Raif, or Ireland’s Nero, who (smartly, I believe) chose Albany as their first base of operations in America. Didn’t they make great music while they were here? And didn’t that make you happy at the time? It sure did me . . . and I sure think that that’s the whole point, when you get right down to it.

So what if you play well to the punters here in the Capital Region, but don’t ever get that call to take your art elsewhere? Well, no big deal, I say . . . as long as you take joy from making music and sharing it with other people, who (hopefully) take joy in receiving it. Some of my favorite concert moments in the Capital Region have come from bands who haven’t, and aren’t ever likely to, rip themselves up and relocate abroad. I’m grateful for that. Look at the example of Cleveland’s legendary Numbers Band, playing contentedly in the same bars for decades, while their peers went on to national acclaim in Pere Ubu, the Dead Boys, the Golden Palominos and others—but who all generally defer to their hometown heroes as Cleveland’s Greatest Band, ever. I’d sure be content if Pere Ubu’s members thought my band was better than theirs. Even if I was still living and playing in Cleveland. Or Albany.

And that brings us back around to the issue of perspective, and of how we view ourselves and how we view those who make music here, and nowhere else, and how we compare ourselves to, say, Cleveland, or to any other community. Generally, when we look to make comparisons between our market and other markets, we all too often look to New York City—a grossly unfair comparison, given the relative size of the communities in question, and the relative rate of immigration. New York draws artistic types like flies to stink, and we don’t. We work, for the most part, with what’s bred here, occasionally supplemented by college students and faculty or incoming employees of the state or its myriad support industries.

I would argue, instead, that we need to compare ourselves to like-size markets throughout America, and I would wager that those who have spent a good amount of time in like-sized markets are more likely to appreciate just how solid our own music scene really is. I count myself as fortunate in having spent much of the ’80s in Athens, Ga., Washington, D.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C.—each of which provide instructive data points for assessing the Capital Region.

Athens was a too small college town, for instance, largely fueled by fraternity functions and the sorts of college bars where guys played Van Morrison covers, with only the two aforementioned clubs offering much excitement beyond that. Chapel Hill was equally lacking in many regards, and I got tired of seeing the same people doing the same things pretty quickly—even though many of those things (Let’s Active, say, or Flat Duo Jets) have actually held up quite well over the years.

Washington had more clubs, but it was so racially and socioeconomically divided that its music community was fragmented and divisive. When I was watching Minor Threat with 50 other people, I had no clue that I was standing at the ground floor of something that people would talk about for years to come, because I knew that 99 percent of the people living in that market at that time didn’t support it. But what those 50 people in Washington’s early hardcore community, and their more pop-and-rock-oriented counterparts in Athens and Chapel Hill had in common was a complete, unshakable belief that they were part of something that was great.

And, ultimately, it was that strong sense of self-worth within those markets—and the resultant desire to self-
promote that stemmed from it—that defined those communities internally and, eventually, led others from the outside to investigate and bandwagon-hop the buzz. While I’m not particularly interested in having the Capital Region emerge as “the next Athens” (I can’t tell you how many bad R.E.M. clones I saw there once Stipe and company broke big), I would like to reach a point where we, collectively, share the sense of self-worth that Athens felt in the early ’80s—particularly since I believe that there’s more of interest going on in this community, right now, than there ever was in Athens or Chapel Hill or Washington when I was there.

Naïve? Overoptimistic? Self-delusional? Maybe. But I love this musical community, and I respect the infrastructure that supports it, and I long for a day when the question on everybody’s tongue is not “So what’s the biggest problem with the Capital Region’s music scene these days?” but instead “Can you believe how good we’ve got it here?!”

And there’s no reason why that day can’t be today.

Doin’ It for Themselves

In the liner notes for Build-ing a Scene, a new, two-disc compilation of songs by local DIY bands, there are two slogans that sum up the way most people deep in the DIY culture feel: “hardcore = community,” and “apathetic = pathetic.”

In actuality, DIY—which stands for “do it yourself”—isn’t strictly a musical style, though most of the groups involved have a sound that falls somewhere on the punk-noise-hardcore continuum. Musically speaking, this means louder, faster, heavier, and as enthusiastic as most anything you might care to compare it with. According to the folks involved, it’s a counterculture in the best sense: It is, literally, about making your own scene. It’s not about getting signed to a major label, or finding a niche in the music business, or becoming the “next big thing.” It’s a way of creating music and sharing it with others, in a communal sense: No one is in it for the money.

“You do it because you love it. You don’t care about the money,” says Nick Acemoglu, of the bands Once and for All and the Glacier.

“The whole point is to do it yourself,” explains Matto, of To Hell and Back and Kitty Little. He adds, “To me, it’s like the most sincere way of doing something. It really speaks to everybody.”

It isn’t just music. Musicians in the scene operate their own record labels and publish online and/or print zines. The effort is all about free expression, owning your own works, and promoting them they way you want.

Building a Scene, released by Linwood Bingham’s Losing Face label, is a textbook example of the DIY ethos. “It was an idea originally proposed by Don Naylor of [the band] Endicott. The basic concept was to put together something cheap, and easy to reproduce—accessible to everyone,” tells Ace Goulet of the group Madeline Ferguson. Goulet notes, “We chose the least expensive format, and gave permission to the bands to copy and sell the discs themselves, as long as they don’t charge more for the discs than the list price.”

In a similar vein, Goulet also created and maintains a useful, local DIY Web resource, Scenester.com. “I started Scenester online (www.scenesteronline.com) a little over a year ago when I was in school in New York City,” he says, “as a way for me to keep track of what’s going on, and give back to the scene.” Goulet loses money on the free site, but isn’t looking for special recognition for his effort. Feeling that everyone should give what they can, he explains that this is what he can do: “I know how to make a Web site.”

For the most part, bands book their own shows. Sometimes these will be in clubs or American Legion-type fraternal halls; just as often, bands will get together and play in someone’s basement. Shows have low door prices, or are free. These “house shows” aren’t small-time or infrequent affairs, either.

“I go to two or three house shows a month in Albany,” notes Matto, happily.

It’s a local community with national connections. “I love house shows,” says Scott Jarzombek of Burning Bridges. “Every band I have been in has played house shows, from Kitchener, Ontario, to Nashville, Tenn.”

Jarzombek, who also publishes, in print and online, the ’zine Bystander Fanzine, enthuses, “It is a great way to get to know people, and it is just more fun. He adds a caveat: “It is a bit more stressful when you’re putting on the show because there’s always the fear the cops will shut you down, but watching a ton of people crammed into a basement totally breaking down that barrier is worth it.”

Simon Andrew, whose band Food have regularly played house shows in the area north of Troy, says, “We get bands from hours away. . . . The shows are advertised mostly by local enthusiasts, and we sometimes see the basement full of people, there to see the shows.” True to the DIY code, Andrew notes: “What’s more, we are almost entirely community-based, and every show that happens . . . is free of charge.”

Community—when talking with people in the DIY scene, this is a word that comes up more often than any other. As the Switched On’s Thomas Falk says, “The relationships between most bands are definitely community-oriented.” Over and over, folks stress the importance of cooperation.

“We are always trying to make friends with new bands, so that everyone can benefit. I really think that’s what DIY is all about,” says Andrew. “We [Food] have been around since the beginning of the year, and are organizing a regional tour for winter break. This is another place a strong network really helps. Bands can tell each other which are good places to play around the nation, and which aren’t.”

As for the Capital Region scene, most folks are amazingly enthusiastic.

“In general, I think it’s going pretty well,” says Matto. “There is a diversity of music in the scene; you can at least find one show [on any given night] you’re interested in.”

“The Albany scene is really great—it’s thriving. People support each other,” notes Seth Odell of the Oneonta-based band the Pushcart War.

Even though an important independent venue, Miss Mary’s Art Space, was closed down recently by the city of Albany, things are still going strong. As Falk explains, “Of course, I miss Miss Mary’s, but all is not lost. Word on the street is that Miss Mary’s is actively looking for a new space and one that will be able to have shows again, at that.”

More importantly, the DIY scene is, by most accounts, still growing. “There are lots of scenes with people I don’t even know about,” says Matto.

“In my school district, Hoosick Valley, a public high school of about 400 kids, about five bands are established,”claims Andrew. “I think that’s a pretty good sign that the music scene is very much alive.”

The scene will thrive, it would seem, as long as it continues to stay outside the mainstream and remains true to its sense of community. As Scott Jarzombek says, “That is the number-one thing hardcore has always been about, unity. DIY just solidifies those bonds because you can’t do it without working together.”

—Shawn Stone

Party Like It’s 12209

Quick quiz: What’s on the cover of your favorite live album? Chances are, it’s a photo of the band who performed and recorded your favorite live album. It’s the angelic and enraptured headshot of a dramatically backlit Frampton and his guitar; it’s a series of frames showing a sweaty Jagger and the boys, ’cause they’ve Got Live if You Want It; it’s the oddly similar series of Otis Redding doing his thing In Person at the Whiskey a Go Go; or it’s the mascara’d monsters of rock, Kiss, perched awkwardly—groins thrust forward—on platform shoes, amid dry-ice smoke and the light of multicolored gels.

But on the cover of the newly released live disc by Hair of the Dog, the local pub-rock outfit helmed by longtime Capital Region musician Rick Bedrosian, there’s a much different image: five pints of Guinness raised by anonymous fists in celebration and good cheer toward the hot glow of a stageside light. In short, the cover of Hair of the Dog at the Parting Glass is a considerably less ego-driven pic than is featured on most concert albums. The point of a Hair of the Dog show, the shot seems to say, is the high spirits of the audience during a performance, the bonhomie, the whoopin’ it up that takes place before the stage. (Now just between you and me, a close examination reveals a marked similarity between the cuffs ’round those upraised wrists and those in the band photo on the CD’s inner sleeve—but the point stands.) Rather than implying that you, the listener, should judge the contents based upon the technical or theatrical skill of the performers, it invites the listener to be a participant, to grab a glass and sing along. The image suggests a different, more affective, criterion for evaluating a show: Did you have any fun?

It’s not a critical standard that’s often employed by the commenting class, fun. Fun is for amusement parks; art is another thing altogether, right? And in rock & roll, art is original songs about social ills, disenfranchisement and desperation—heartbreak at the very least: “And for my 19th birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat . . .” and all that. But each and every weekend in venues all over the region, pint glasses and hearty voices are raised to bands playing covers of songs with much-less-exhausting subject matter. Sure, we’re fortunate to be blessed with more talented songwriters than you can shake a stick at, songwriters who will tackle the thorny, the ambiguous, the ironic, the dark and the outright weird—but, for many folks, when you’re weary with toil, there’s nothing to top the appeal of the party band.

“We do stay away from ballads, the cry-in-your-beer stuff,” says Bedrosian about his band’s selection of material. “Even though that’s a big part of Irish music, we kind of stay away from it, because that’s not really our function. Our function is to let people get away from that stuff and have fun.”

Bedrosian has done original music both with bands and as a solo act—he made a move to Nashville and secured a recording contract with CBS in the ’80s—but now believes that the pursuit is, in some ways, a younger man’s game: “Unless you’re really, really great—like Springsteen or Tom Petty, or whatever—you’re not going to make any money doing it, and nobody’s going to hear you,” he says, laughingly delineating the common woes of the aging musicians’ life. “You’re going to be frustrated and pissed off and miserable and broke, and your car’s going to break down, and nobody’s going to want to date you, and your hair’s going to fall out . . .”

And if you’re frustrated and pissed off, it’s likely to come across in your music and in your attitude toward the whole enterprise. Which is fine if that’s your thing. But, according to Bedrosian, in short order that kind of thing wears thin.

“I get a kick out of people who condemn bands that do what I do with Hair of the Dog as sellouts,” he says. “They don’t know; they don’t understand. I took my shot at the original thing, doing my own stuff. I’m comfortable that I’m not the next Bob Dylan. I mean, I can live with that, you know?”

For Bedrosian, the pleasures of playing in Hair of the Dog, an admittedly “more commercial project” than his former bands, far outweigh any criticism. And, he contends, the reasons for which Hair of the Dog and other popular bar bands (bands such as the Burners U.K. and the Refrigerators) are slagged or dismissed are the very same reasons the genre is popular, why so many people turn out regularly to join in the revelry.

“There’s a lot of people who’re maybe a little more highbrow, who look down on what we do because it’s not the most challenging stuff in the world and it’s not original,” Bedrosian explains. “But with Hair of the Dog, it’s easy to get people hooked quickly, because it’s not real thought-provoking.

“You know, people’s lives are stressful, people have problems,” he points out sympathetically. “When people come to our shows, they can forget all that and just have a good time.”

—John Rodat

What’s the 518?

Before the recent DJ slashing, many folks in the region didn’t even know we had a hiphop scene (at least one strong enough to create a long-standing rivalry that supposedly dogged the disputing DJs). And it’s a damn shame that mainstream eyes only glance at our hiphop scene when they’re rubbernecking. But, folks, you should turn that glance into a gaze, one that, aided by area hiphop visionary Sev Statik, will encounter a growing scene remarkably lacking in negativity and violence.

“There is a scene here,” Statik says. “It’s more of an underground feel, more of a street-type thing.” But Statik, whom you may recall as a member of Albany hiphop group Master Plan years back, has been working to fatten up our area’s live hiphop offerings, an idea that feeds on itself. Connect the music lovers with the music, and the musicians will continue to thrive. Statik set that ball in motion this past June when he began Pitch Control Music, a Web site, fanzine, and all around centerpiece of the community he’s part of.

“I’ve been to all the major cities, and they all have a hiphop scene. They all have what I’m trying to create with Pitch Control Music,” says Static. “They have a radio show that pumps the local hiphop scene. They all have a newsletter or flier that gives exposure to local hiphop acts. And they put them on this pedestal that they’re just as good or better than the mainstream cats. That’s how they’re able to stay successful.

“I’m just basically taking that same exact mold and adding our artists,” he explains. “I really have a vision for this.” And in putting that vision into practice, Statik is bolstering our hiphop offerings. PCM has put on roughly 30 shows at nearly every local venue. There are CD-release shows all the time, as the many bands on the PCM roster are as active in their home-studios as they are in area bars and clubs.

Statik, also a member of Los Angeles-based national act the Tunnel Rats, began the hiphop collective as a means to promote his own music locally. His presence on the internet is huge, and his reputation elsewhere is admirable—it’s just that nobody in the Capital Region knew who he was. Statik set out to put together a flier to inform his potential public, and he decided to include similar artists. After going through the roster, he ended up with quite a crew. “I was like, ‘man, let’s just put everybody on this flier.’ ”

So the bands began to play out, wandering from bar to club, averaging two to four live shows monthly (the shows
are all listed on www.pitchcontrol
music.com). Area college radio helps fan the flame, with WRPI shows The Main Event, on Fridays 10 PM-midnight with DJs Toast and C-Nice; and Superfriends on Saturday 10 PM-midnight with Nate the Great and J-Swift. “These guys really help out,” Statik says. “They’ve been showing love even before Pitch Control. They always wanted anybody to come up and promote what’s going on with their personal music.”

Statik’s familiarity with the business is a boon to the scene, as he brings a level of professionalism to all of the shows he puts on. “I’m trying to put Albany on the map,” he explains. “Any kind of exposure we can get here in the 518 for anybody, it’ll bring A&Rs, it’ll bring managers, and the attention of the industry to the Albany area.” So that bands playing Valentine’s today, may open up for big-name acts tomorrow. “I’m bringing up underground cats that people don’t know about—that will be big in two years.”

It’s a given that audience support is what’s needed to help the area’s hiphop scene develop, the lack of which, along with the allusions to violence associated with hiphop, is a large stumbling block. (“We’ve never had any negative issues at any of our shows,” Statik relates. “We’ve never had fights.”)

“Our answer is, stop hating on each other,” says Statik. “Let’s respect each other and build from there.”

Statik’s plan: Create a loving environment where, if artists get big and leave the area, they’ll want to remember from whence they came. “Say I make it to BET or MTV and I’m shouting out 518, you’re going to have other artists and managers and producers and record labels going to Albany, New York, saying ‘Where are these people?’

“Cause right now, nobody’s here pounding down the door,” Statik says. “That’s the ball I’m trying to start rolling.”

—Kate Sipher


 
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