John Burdick surveys the regional musical scene with a fine-tooth comb
As press releases, event announcements, links, lineups, and requests for coverage race across my virtual desk like a flickering news ticker in a time of multiple crises, I can’t help but be alarmed by how active, ambitious, diverse and high-quality the mid-Hudson Valley live music environment has become. I’m alarmed, because I know how endangered and temporary a renaissance like this can be and how dependent it is on audiences, the elephant that may or may not be in the room.
Right now, in our midst we have a delirious overgrowth of talent, homegrown and urban refugee, names you know and names you will know, jazz legends you can walk right up to as though they were ordinary people, New Paltz and Kingston indie bands getting signed and getting coverage in Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, the still-vital luminaries and heirs of the Woodstock folk and rock scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. We have intrepid music-first venues and promoters of all kinds. We have historic theaters that cater to all tastes to the college- and church-hosted programs that preserve classical repertoire and incubate new serious music. We have the national-circuit rock, roots and jazz clubs that now dot the river from Hudson to Beacon to the bars, barns, boutique listening rooms, and ad-hoc street venues in practically every town.
It’s a paralyzing surfeit of sound in some ways. Too much to do, too much to hear, too much to get hip to. In summer, it gets especially thick. There is almost no logical, comprehensive or reassuring way to lay it all out for the good people of the valley. There is, quite simply, a panic of world-class music out there, every night. The key is to keep a cool head and make the scene as your time and resources allow. Do your part, express your preferences with your presence.
Attendance is activism, but you can only do so much. The summer festivals ask a lot and deliver a lot; the night-to-night in the clubs and theaters is low-commitment by comparison but perhaps contributes even more importantly to the noble ideal of long-term sustainability.
In the fields
Summer festivals, which start well before mid-June, are the binge viewing of the music world, mega-doses of genre-focused music, often unified statements of culture, art, cuisine and political and social affinities as well. The mid Hudson-Valley seems to have been transformed into Festival Central, with established and in many cases best-of-breed events in nearly all genres from folk (new and traditional) to experimental serious music. Festivals are a win-win-win for artists, audiences and promoters. They allow for the sharing of audiences and production resources, and provide a way for us country folk to approximate the population density that fosters urban scenes.
Typically, festivals are niche concerns, ephemeral cities of the like-minded. Their size and the wow factor of their lineups are determined by how wide a niche they serve. While Mountain Jam, one of the granddaddies of the new rock festivals, have been busy preparing Mr. Plant’s green room and readying its three stages, the staff at Bethel will still be clearing away the last of the spent glow bracelets from Mysteryland USA, the touring international electronic music and arts festival that rather inconspicuously drew more than 50,000 digital people to old man Yasgur’s place.
True, a few of the more ambitious indie and alt festivals in the area, such All Tomorrow’s Parties (for which legends such as My Bloody Valentine and Pavement would reunite), Truck, and the Hudson Music Project are gone, on hiatus, or at least in jeopardy (nobody said this game was easy). But the hip fringe still has Basillica in Hudson, whose most recent festival was a 24-hour drone. The electro-hip of the Wassaic Project Festival goes down July 31 to August 2 in Wassaic, and O+’s non-hostile takeover of uptown Kingston happens in October.
Meanwhile, Full Moon in Big Indian hosts the programming and workshops of Woodstock’s legendary Creative Music Studio. Woodstock stages its next-gen Saturday-on-the-green concert series all the way through September. Beacon Riverfest, a lively one-day festival on June 28, is headlined this year by the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, Tracy Bonham, and a brace of New Paltz and Kingston’s finest indie bands such as What Moon Things, Shana Falana, and recent Bar/None Records signee Breakfast in Fur.
Folk-music enthusiasts are especially well served in the land of Seeger. Pete’s own Clearwater Festival (Croton Point Park, June 20 and 21) is ironically among the most daring and least doctrinal of all the folk festivals, typically featuring plenty of rock and global fusions as well as a requisite share of folk puristry. This year’s headliners include David Crosby, Neko Case and Los Lobos, but check the website, for this festival’s lineup, per usual, is staggeringly deep.
The sprawling Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (July 31 to August 2) is loose and groovy, a natural complement to the more banjo-centric (and star-studded) Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, (July 16 to 19 in Oak Hill, near Durham). Closest to home for most of us is the Summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center in late August. The Hoots always boast an impressive lineup of nationals and locals (not yet announced for 2015). Their cultural and community purpose is every bit as much the star.
Although their definition of festival is different and considerably less bacchanalian, fans of serious music find our summer offerings no less inspiring. Bard Summerscape leads the way, this year interrogating the work and times of Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chávez in August, staging Ethyl Smith’s opera The Wreckers, and providing piquant entertainment practically nightly in the upscale, surreal Spiegeltent.
Part workshop, part festival, New Paltz PianoSummer, under the leadership of virtuoso Vladimir Feltsman, blocks out July with world-class piano performances and elite mentorship for select students. The Music and Art Center of Greene County, one of the oldest classical music summer concert series in the region, offers outstanding performances in the architecturally unique Grazhda hall, an integral part of the Ukrainian cultural complex built around St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jewett.
In Woodstock, the Maverick’s summer season of chamber music (and, now, some jazz and children’s music as well) is simply among the very best in the world. The Phoenicia Festival of the Voice (July 29 to August 2) recruits absurdly outsize talent to the little mountain town that could. Nearby, Mount Tremper Arts, now entering its eighth season, offers one of the most uncompromising, cerebral and experimental lineups of serious music and performance to be found anywhere north of the city. The MTA Summer Festival runs from July 11 to August 22.
In the streets
The big story in the valley in the last decade is the emergence of several thriving national-circuit clubs and theaters. At one time, there was only The Chance in Poughkeepie, the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and that remote jewel, the Towne Crier Café in faraway Pawling.
The Towne Crier has relocated to a larger new facility in Beacon, a more convenient spot for most of us. It continues to provide a diversity of world-class roots, singer-songwriter, and blues for mature tastes. Across the street, Quinn’s caters to the avant-garde and the outré. A bit further down Main Street, the historic and beautiful Howland Center hosts an abundance of chamber music (much of which is recorded for broadcast or commercial release because of the Howland’s phenomenal acoustics).
Plying a similar stylistic vein as the Town Crier but many miles to the north is Club Helsinki in Hudson, a venue that made its name in a tiny space in Massachusetts before relocating to a beautifully renovated, acoustically fine industrial building on Columbia Street. Around the corner, The Half Moon in Hudson rocks hard, while the Spotty Dog on the main strip, Warren Street, is one of the few truly prestigious bookstore music venues you will find, as well as one of the few that has micro-brews on tap.
When Tony Falco moved The Falcon from his barn loft to the current spacious location on Route 9W in Marlboro, we lost one of our best boutique listening rooms and gained an almost shockingly world-class jazz, blues, rock, and world-music establishment that routinely brings in the biggest cats and next big things from New York City player world and beyond.
Fans of the kind of independent and alternative music that has seldom found purchase in the area genuflect daily in gratitude for the revitalization of BSP, a venue on Wall Street in Kingston that, thanks to the tireless legwork and due diligence of Output Agency, has developed a reputation as a major stepping-stone club for the smartest, hippest, upward bound indie acts. Kingston enjoys the sweetly remodeled Anchor on Broadway and continual avant-garde programming at PaulineOliveros’ Deep Listening space.
The people’s republic of Rosendale boasts several hopping venues, including Market Market (where tastes are not all that dissimilar to BSP’s) and the always-vital Rosendale Café, who routinely book leading names in Americana, jazz and blues. New Paltz is a late-night bar scene, of course. Check in at Snug Harbor (38 Main Street) some night if you want to remember what an intense, sweaty and packed bar show looks and feels like. Despite what you might think, you’re not too old for it.
One of the owners of the Rail Trail Café at the River Road Extension outside of New Paltz is the great drummer Brian Farmer of Futu Futu fame. It’s no surprise that this novel and rustic rail-trail eatery will be hosting the Music in the Woods series, live music on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer.
Inspired by the wild success of the Hudson Valley Sudbury School monthly benefit, the Old Glenford Church and hall in Glenford (south of Woodstock off Route 28) is now expanding its offerings. At another jewel of a listening room, the Empire Railway Museum in Phoenicia, Flying Cat music is now resuming its regular, Amerciana- and Celtic-leaning shows featuring well-known national acts such as Lucinda Williams’ producer and sideman, Gurf Morlix.
The big news at the Bearsville Theater is the recently announced partnership with Bowery Presents, the huge booking agency that handles many of New York City’s finest rooms, such as Bowery Ballroom, Terminal 5, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg. How this plays out remains to be seen. Expect to see some changes in the nature of the big headliners in the venerable barn-theater. Expect to see Bowery Presents respecting the local aesthetic as well. In some ways, the Bowery Presents/Bearsville deal is emblematic of the current state of mid-Hudson music. Vital and promising, incomparably rich, confusing, and still very much to be defined.