Saugerties’ Morse art & music fest may take a new path

Jack Smythe performs at last month’s event. (photo by Doug Freese)

Jack Smythe performs at last month’s event. (photo by Doug Freese)

On its fifth anniversary, the annual event that gives students a chance to work with professionals in a variety of artistic fields — a.k.a. the annual Morse Rocks Music and Arts Festival — is bigger than ever.

Held for the second year at the Smokin’ Pony on Kings Highway, Morse Rocks continued showing its mettle as a dynamic music festival, with 36 bands spread out over the weekend of June 17 and 18. That’s up from 26 bands in 2015, the first year to also include comedians, poets and performance artists. This year the festival expanded even further, with a film festival and visual art.


“Morse Rocks was designed with the idea of creating an authentic festival,” said festival organizer Joe Defino, a special education teacher at Grant D. Morse Elementary, and the faculty adviser on the school’s student newspaper and website, Just Print It. “It’s not a recital, not a show. Something where legitimate aficionados of art choose to come to this festival to see the performances that are taking place, see the display of talent on hand.”

The lineup this year boasted a wide range of music both local and beyond, including Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band, a large touring outfit from Burlington, Vermont who were something of an unofficial house band for Bernie Sanders on northeastern stops of his presidential campaign. Local luminaries were also involved, with Innocent, Pitchfork Militia, the Paul Luke Band, the Rough Shapes and Carl Mateo all playing live.

“Our overall objective is to provide a festival environment whereby all the artists, all the guests, feel appreciated, valued and feel like it’s a place they want to be,” Defino said. “And for anybody who attends to feel like they had an experience that surprised them in terms of quality, in terms of value, and in terms of what they got to experience.”


Video, too, and more

The film festival featured eight submissions, one from as far away as California, and others produced by college and high school students. Defino said he’d hoped to have even more films, as he realizes it’s another way not only to engage artists, but also local kids.

“With filmmaking becoming so prevalent, especially with young people and their phones, they have access to techniques they never did before, and they’re able to use software that’s affordable if not free, we’re seeing an explosion of new ideas that are created through that medium,” he said. “I want to keep these filmmakers going. I want them to know that what they’re doing is appreciated. Because as they continue to develop their craft, who knows where it’s going to take them, and more importantly how many people are going to be affected by them?”

In addition to the music and films, Defino said there were 12 visual artists, nine poets, and six comedians involved in this year’s festival. Morse Rocks has grown so popular, Defino said, he had to turn away eight bands for the first time ever.

“We don’t want to turn anybody away,” he said, adding that he was able to arrange for four of the groups to perform at Cantine Field on July 4. “That’s the hard part, when you have so many people who want to be involved as artists and you’re not able to satisfy all those needs. There’s no better feeling than watching the excitement of the comedians, or the poets, or the musicians, or the artists when they’re part of this. And then to see the amazement of the guests as to what they’re getting to experience. There’s so much going on in our little town in terms of an artistic hotbed, it continues to amaze me as to what we have available. It’s incredible, and I want to share it.”

In addition to the performers and artists, there were also countless volunteers, both adults and children, who donated their time to an event that not only isn’t a fundraiser, but also isn’t making money.

“You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Am I burning out the people that are burning the midnight oil with me?’” said Defino. “That’s really important to me. Just because I think an idea is good, it doesn’t mean that I have the right to burn somebody out. How can I manage to keep this strong team, that we have together? How can we do it better than last year?


The future

Almost immediately after the 2016 Morse Rocks Music and Arts Festival was over, Defino and fellow organizers began planning for 2017. There were, he admitted, many questions they’re hoping to answer.

“We spent close to $5,000 on advertising and we drew fewer people than we did last year with a zero advertising budget,” he said. “What is the reason? That’s something I’m trying to figure out. The solutions to these problems are not as simple as I thought they may be.”

One possibility being discussed is whether to abandon the annual event in favor of a series of smaller bi-monthly events.

“The reason that [June] weekend is selected is because all of the high school athletics are finished, all the of high school testing is finished, graduation hasn’t quite happened, so those students that are involved don’t have school conflicts that might prohibit them from participating,” Defino said, “Maybe instead of a weekend we do bi-monthly, small festivals maybe at the Bearsville Theater, or some venue where we can hold it in the winter, spring, summer, and fall without worrying about the weather. We’re also talking about possibly combining it with the Fourth of July.”

Defino said the festival cost just over $15,000 to produce, including advertising and infrastructure, as well as the cost of the three bands which traveled the furthest to participate. He added that the festival had sponsorship assistance for the first time, which helped defray around $6,900 of the cost of the festival. But the festival still finished the weekend roughly $5,000 in the red, matching last year’s losses.

“I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for us, I don’t want anybody feeling bad for us,” said Defino. “We feel like we’ve been very, very successful in meeting the objective, and that’s the most important thing. We’ve got so many people committed to making this work, that that’s what I’d like to focus my energies and my attention on. The people that are involved, and we’re all volunteers, we don’t look at this as something that we determine success by if we don’t make money or turn a profit.”

Of course a profit would be nice.

“If we do generate a profit, which we have never done, what we would like to do is build a three-season amphitheater, maybe at the Morse grounds in honor of a beloved music teacher that served in the Saugerties district for 36 years, Mr. Dennis Jones,” said Defino. “But that’s a pie in the sky plan.”

In the meantime, Defino and other organizers are happy with how Morse Rocks happened for the artists involved, for those in the community who helped out it together, and for those who came out to soak it all up.

“We put on a really good festival for a bunch of people who have no business doing that,” he said. “It’s kind of a cool thing.”