Assessing the Hudson Valley music scene (or lack thereof)

Mountain Jam, the Woodstock Radio event that runs at Hunter Mountain the fi rst week in June, carries on a tradition of musical festivals stretching back past 1969’s big event through Soundouts to the Maverick bow-outs of the early 20th century. (Photo courtesy Mountain Jam)

Mountain Jam, the Woodstock Radio event that runs at Hunter Mountain
the fi rst week in June, carries on a tradition of musical festivals stretching
back past 1969’s big event through Soundouts to the Maverick bow-outs
of the early 20th century. (Photo courtesy Mountain Jam)

I once asked Kingston musician and BSP booking agent Mike Amari whether we have a scene in the mid-Hudson region. How does one define a scene? Should we worry our heads about it?

They are paradoxical, elusive beasts, these scenes. In the minds of the purists, they die the very second they are declared. The urban refugees follow the scent of mountain air and the new vistas of hip, flocking upstate to bask in a spirit of scene. Sensing their arrival, the scene has already fled to the next hardscrabble neighborhood showing signs of life in the cracks. Pretty shops and real-estate offices, by this logic, are the headstones of scenes. Rinse and repeat.


With the ambitious booking of a happening national room on his resume, along with his part in the revitalization of uptown Kingston, Amari could be credited with being one of our scene-makers extraordinaire. His response to my question surprised me, and it’s only grown more resonant in the years since we spoke on the record.

“No,” he said.

We don’t have a scene. We lack the population density as well as some of the requisite economic and demographic conditions — meaning, I guess, droves of young people and jobs. What we have, Amari said, is a rich supply of locally residing and working artists, performers, and the oft-overlooked venue  bookers, program builders and arts administrators. With a virtuoso-to-audience ratio approaching one to one, we are simply not equipped to support this cultural infrastructure,

What a mess.  Most towns have a jazz café, of course, but it is not Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano and John Abercrombie, or Rebecca Martin and Larry Grenadier swinging in them on a weekly basis. Or Matt Finck, or Perry Beekman, or John Menegon, or so many others who help create this dangerous illusion of ours.

The theme of our music scene — and this extends to the visual and other arts as well — is disproportion. We enjoy a night-to-night grade and diversity of programming that is wildly out of scale with our numbers. This makes it both a dizzying and, in some ways, a depressing time to be a working critic and musician in this environment. You just can’t cull enough people from these hills to attend all this genius. Oh, well. This also means that any cultural roundup like the one you have stumbled upon is doomed from the start and must begin with apologies for all the glaring and inevitable omissions.

The start

I could begin at the Olive Free Library, a modest and comfortable multi-purpose space out in the sticks that has quietly become the site of some genuinely world-class classical music.

I could have started a survey of the area’s rich serious music landscape elsewhere. Bard would have been a logical choice, a leader in performance and canonical/cultural studies whose SummerScape program is so dense with thematically integrated concerts, theatrical performances, lectures, and exhibits (focusing on Puccini and his world this year). Its concise press release runs about ten pages with hardly a hint of hyperbole or fluff.

I could have begun with the venerable/radical Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, whose boutique and adventurous summer chamber-music concert series (in a one-of-a-kind venue) is one of the longest-running and best-curated in the country. Or I could have begun with any of our numerous and enduring chamber music societies, who routinely lure in elite string quartets and solo performers to local churches, like the Ulster Chamber Music Series, now in its 48th season of performances at the Church of the Holy Cross in Kingston, or the Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society’s concerts at the Church of the Messiah on Montgomery Street, now in its 37th season. Nor is it all churches: The acoustically pristine Howland Cultural Center in Beacon hosts a great piano series and frequent chamber-music programs. It’s also where many fine classical recordings go to be made.

I could have (and, as a New Paltz homer, probably should have) led with a shout out to SUNY New Paltz’s elite Piano Summer, the flagship master class and performance series that dates back to the hiring of virtuoso Vladimir Feltsman. Or the Pone Ensemble for New Music, a relatively stable group of ace players who have been singular in their focus on 20th- and 21st-century works for over 40 years (and who also haunt a church: The United Methodist Church in New Paltz).  On the theme of long-running native ensembles, how about Dr. Edward Lundergan’s wonderful Kairos: A Consort of Singers, the artists-in-residence at Holy Cross Monastery, fearless and wide-ranging in their repertoire.

I could have begun with the salient fact that our region is a global hot spot of new and experimental serious music: audacious, and envelope-pushing, multimedia-paired sound art of the kind that emanates from Basilica Hudson, throughout the radical Mt. Tremper Arts Summer Festival, the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, the avant-garde star-studded environmental music programming at Manitoga in Garrison, and finally in the shiny new shrine of radical music that is EMPAC, the Curtis R. Priem  Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on the campus Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

So what does the Olive Free Library offer? From the outside, one would guess the regular events programming might include voter registration drives, bake sales and field-stripping workshops. Instead, it features appearances by heavyweight chamber-music ensembles, such as the all-female early-music ensemble Siren Baroque, and a truly formidable tradition of solo piano concerts originally founded and curated by Grammy-nominated composer George Tsontakis. That is just so us.


All that jazz

This is jazzland and always has been, mostly because of our proximity to the Big Apple. In recent years, the jazz heavies in our midst have been playing out locally a lot more. There are several reasons why, the most obvious being that the dire commercial state of the genre (and of the music industry in general) requires even the established names to leave no revenues unrealized. The other main reason can be stated pretty simply: The Falcon. The venture outgrew Tony Falco’s barn loft (where one might go to sit at the feet of Brad Mehldau and a grand piano) and has fully grown into its current spacious location on Route 9W in Marlboro. They all play here: the living legends and every next-gen hotshot from the city. Plenty of excellent non-jazz too, but the Falcon is a jazz miracle.

As a part of its house focus on various flavors of retro and roots, the Rosendale Café has established itself as a center of swing and other traditional jazz styles. On the other end of the style spectrum, Quinn’s, the crazy ex-luncheonette in Beacon, has become a hive of notable avant-garde jazz, under the curatorship of James Keepnews, who also produces the Beacon Jazz Festival, the lineup of which includes the Sun Ra Arkestra this year, under the leadership of original member Marshall Allen.

Jazzstock is neither a venue nor a festival, but a jazz advocacy and promotional group founded by Teri Roiger, John Menegon and Dan Leader. As an event promoter, Jazzstock has really been hitting its stride in the last half-year. Their primary venue is the Woodstock Community Center, though a few shows have been bumped up to the Woodstock Playhouse.

Upriver, the Catskill Jazz Factory is another serious jazz incubator, a jazz advancement and preservation league of sorts that works closely with Bard College on state-of-the-art, conceptual performances.

DeJohnette, Holland and Abercrombie — The Gateway Trio — were early jazz settlers of the region. Their presence here no doubt attracted many more to come stay and, eventually, play here. But, oddly enough, the relative flatlands of Orange Country have become a jazz’burbia themselves (with the great tenor man Joe Lovano as the anchor). As a result, the exquisite multiple spaces of the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center often feature high-grade jazz.


Rock and, furthermore, roll

For the purposes of this story, I also polled local rock musicians and fans. Where was the music really happening? Most answers included BSP in Kingston, blending a steady stream of national acts from the indie rock and electro worlds with sympathetic locals, and the Bearsville Theater, even more a mixed bag than usual lately, but as ever a tremendous and historic space capable of booking outsize names. “Watch out for the Colony Café,” advised Woodstock native and (now Beacon-based) scenester Alex Law of Bearquilt. Surprises are taking shape there.

To the north, The Half Moon and the Spotty Dog rock along in Hudson, reflecting different aspects of that town’s arty personality, and of course Helsinki Hudson, trafficking in singer-songwriter folk and rock, roots music, and, increasingly, cabaret — risque and otherwise. Way to the south, the venerable Towne Crier in Beacon caters to much the same circuit as Helsinki, sans the cabaret, and Quinn’s with the outré. Nearby in Cornwall-on-Hudson, 2Alices is the little café that could, regarding live music. Dan Brown’s The Wherehouse on Liberty Street Newburgh, one of the anchors of the revitalization of Broadway, continues to serve nightly blues, rock and psychedelia.

New Paltz remains a vibrant bar rock scene, with Snug Harbor, Oasis, Café and Bacchus as the main “loud” rooms. As I was reminded by my bandmate Manny Yupa, the basement and house shows of the village are not mere child’s play. Several bands who came from that milieu or at least passed through, including Porches, Diet Cig, Quarterbacks, and Breakfast in Fur have gone on to various kinds of national recognition.

Basement shows are a funny thing, though. They don’t tell you where to go. You just have to know. Veteran songwriter and rocker Frank McGinnis (Frankie and His Fingers, who practically were the DIY scene back in the day) reminded me that record stores are venues too: Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie, Rocket Number Nine and Rhino Records in Uptown Kingston, Rhino and Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz.

It was inevitable that this story would degenerate into name checks and shoutouts. The High Falls Café is a hidden jewel of a venue with an unshakable commitment to live music and a handpicked roster of roots and rock acts. Market Market Café in Rosendale beat everyone to Brooklyn hip around here, note it well, and the Tributons are still the wildest nights on the local calendar. The Anchor in Kingston may have cleaned up the scene from its days as The Basement, but the wild spiritual energy of that venue is still very much in effect there.

Is all this scene? Only if you make it so. Sometimes a surfeit is worse than a dearth. Too much to do becomes an emotional rationale for doing nothing. Tony Falco at the Falcon has his mantra: “Support living artists,” he gravely intones every night out, and he has certainly  put his money where his mouth is.

I have a mantra, too: Attendance is activism. You don’t have to do it all, just your part.

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