May, 2022 Aztec TwoStep 2.0
My mother always used to tell me I was her favorite child (I was an only child). We'd laugh about it, but it was a sincere endorsement that I was on the right track. Still, the word "favorite" singles someone out as being very special.Sometime back in my late teens I traded in my electric guitar for an acoustic. I was still listening to my favorite rock groups, but I found myself detouring towards the music of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and others that comfortably wore the title of “folk musicians.” The rest of the popular music world were also being carried by that current. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, John Sebastian, and the Byrds all had an acoustic side to their music (not to mention Donovan, Arlo, and Richie Havens whose careers rode that current). Among my favorites were Aztec Two-Step. Their lyrics were hip. Neal Shulman’s guitar work was tasty and dazzling, and Rex Fowler’s songs left an indelible impression – songs that you took with you for decades. Rex and Neal took the name Aztec Two-Step from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti back in the early 70s, and went on to become major headliners, and a staple of progressive FM radio, major record deals, and non-stop touring, One music critic described the duo’s debut album as “one of the top five classic folk albums of all time”, and cites the duo as “surpassing Simon and Garfunkel for exquisite harmonies, musicianship and emotion.” During their stellar career they appeared in concert with such notable artists as The Band, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, David Bromberg, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, America, Orleans, Jimmy Buffet, and many more. They kept an unrelenting tour pace for 40 years, and their fans kept showing up.
Following Neal’s 2018 retirement and with his blessings, original founding member, principal singer and songwriter Rex has continued this legacy with Aztec Two-Step 2.0. I’ve had the good fortune to catch the new act several times. I think it’s important to point out that this new incarnation is not a “tribute band,” as it spotlights the intoxicating vocal styling and songwriting of original member Rex Fowler. It’s also not campfire, folk music. With exquisite harmonies, multi-instrumental arrangements, and dazzling guitar work, the new 3-piece group still captures the feeling of Rex & Neal’s original studio recordings, at the same time putting a fresh spin on the songs. Still performing favorite ATS classics and old forgotten gems, the stage patter is still as engaging, fun, and poignant as ever! The audiences I sat among loved them.
The members of the new ensemble include Dodie Pettit on acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and vocals, and Steven “Muddy” Roues on standup bass, vocals, and harmonica. I can’t wait to hear this music again at Unity Hall on Friday, May 13th.
August, 2020 Virtual Concerts - Round Two
Sometimes things just line up and point in the right direction.
Back in February, at the end of our last live concert in Unity Hall, most everyone there – volunteers, patrons, musicians – were making their way towards the door, obviously concerned about what was going to happen next. We had a concert scheduled for the next month. But I’d say most people there knew this kind of gathering wasn’t going to happen again for a while. It was especially difficult because most folks in this crowd aren’t the type to go a whole week without live music, let alone an indefinite number of months. The audience “knew”, but all tried to express their frustration in polite question form: “Is this really likely to be the last time we’ll get to see our favorite performers pick up their instruments (apologies to the piano players) and perform their voodoo live in front of us?” They also knew they could depend on Pandora, Spotify, Sirius, and their vinyl collection to carry them along if the shut down turned out to be long term. Sure, you could always count on Paul Desmond’s sax on Take Five, Robert Plant’s screaming vocals on Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and Etta James’ soul stirring voice on I’d Rather Go Blind to hit those important buttons and recharge your battery. But even the most iconic recordings can’t come close to delivering the experience of an in-person performance. It’s a living thing. The musicians wind up. Someone sets the rhythm. And a once-in-a-lifetime event occurs. The tune, the feel, the licks, your response will never be the same a second time around. It’s not just a great tune; it’s a scrapbook event.
Well, the answer to our February’s audience question turned out to be “yes”. Live music in Unity Hall and in just about every other venue worldwide got put into an induced coma to keep things safe. The people whose job it is to present performances went through most of the stages of grief before considering whether there might be any reasonable and creative compromises that could be put together.
Presenters everywhere have been rising to meet the challenge. Some are offering shows in a drive-in theater format. Some internet promoters are charging admission to performances by national favorites who live stream all over the world. Members of large ensembles phone in their parts in Zoom concerts.
Unity Hall’s idea was more homespun. We used our 2020 CNY Arts performance grant (that would have otherwise just sat there) to pay some amazing Upstate musicians to each record a limited-time-only set of music. Then we put 10 weekly concerts on our website, promoted the hell out of them online, and waited to see who would watch. You were there for some of them, right? Otherwise, who were those 10,000 viewers we counted over ten weeks? Still not the same as live shows, but each sure looked and felt like one. Some were staged in a living room. Some in an office. Monk was in the basement. I was surprised no one recorded themselves in their bathroom – the acoustics are usually so good in there.
Thanks to your generous online tips, the musicians were well-rewarded -- Ryan, Nick, Joe, Burns and Kristy, Ernie, Monk, John and Cathy Cadley, Rick, Mason, Ann Carey and I all thank you. In gratitude, we each agreed to donate one additional new tune which Unity Hall stitched together into a virtual musical quilt concert titled “Pay It Forward”. The concert premiered on August 8, but can still be watched at your convenience at unityhall.com until the start of September.
The intention of the “Pay It Forward” concert was to raise funds via Unity Hall’s online tip jar for future virtual events. Now, with tips earned from that event, we have the necessary funding to pay some extraordinary musicians to play for the next round of virtual shows. The first performance in the next series is scheduled to premiere on Saturday, September 12th at 8 p.m., with a new show every other week until just before Christmas. The schedule of performers will be announced soon. Our intentions are the same as they were back at the start of Covid – to help musicians earn some income during these strange times and to stir things up with some exciting performances.
The only thing missing is a hairy coconut.
March 2020 Virtual Concerts - Round One
Greetings and good health to you all (mental and physical),
How many of you remember those old TV game shows where they placed a contestant in an “isolation booth” so they couldn’t hear the answers to questions read out loud to the audience? I’m trying to pretend that someone is right outside my front door announcing the solution to this troublesome situation we find ourselves in, and that it’s only a matter of time until my patience is rewarded. But in the meantime…..
My impression is that everyone displaced by this pandemic considers their efforts an “essential service” as their hardship is just as oppressive (or maybe more so) as anyone else’s. Still, there seems to be common agreement about who deserves our respect the most. I won’t bother going down the list – we all know who they are. However, I’d like to emphasize one group of people who make a life changing contribution most all of the time, but especially during our elective confinement – the musicians. What would life be like right now without them? I realize that most of us have the luxury of tapping into a seemingly endless library of recorded music on our computers and stereos. But what if it ended there? And how game changing it would be if we were to start assuming that a live audience was somehow not an essential part of that creative process?
Along with many, many other groups, musicians are taking a hit – a powerful one. The ones that have done their apprenticeship over years may have finally reached a point where they can pay their bills by making people happy. I’m not talking about the Elton Johns or Adeles, but those determined artists who tour the country sleeping in different hotel rooms every night, eating breakfast in the nearest diner, or giving music lessons to beginners when they’re around, just so they can continue giving us this magic. For me it’s the next most important thing after food, drink and friendship (did I mention drink?).
Before the pandemic came into sharp focus Unity Hall earned its third grant from CNY Arts in Syracuse to help us continue our presenting efforts. It didn’t take a religious experience to realize how we should use it once the severity of this global event solidified. So here’s the plan.
Starting Saturday, May 9th, and every Saturday after that for ten weeks in all, Unity Hall will do what I think we do best. We have invited ten of the most feel-good musical acts (both local people and those farther afield) to perform a short concert (about half an hour) that will be broadcast on the Unity Hall website. That’s every Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. at unityhall.com. We plan to spend every last cent of the CNY Arts grant paying these musicians what they deserve. For some it may be the only paid performance they have in a month or longer. There’s a list of some of these performers below. More information will be posted on the website each week.
Put this on your calendar. Saturday nights with the Unity Hall crowd. Just like the not-so-old times. There’s no admission charge. There will be a tip jar on your screen that will further reward the musicians’ efforts. That’s up to you. Leave space at the back of the room for a dance or two. Grab your favorite beverage and a front row seat. Remember when Don McLean sang about “the day the music died”? We’re not going to let that happen here!
Here's the schedule for the first five weeks:
May 9: Nick Piccininni
May 16: Ryan Quinn
May 23: Mason McDowell
May 30: John and Cathy Cadley
June 6: Joe Crookston
January, 2020 - Better Than Bowling, Professor Louie & the Crowmatix
As I understand it, when Unity Hall’s next musical guests were first rehearsing as a group and the subject of picking a band name came up, someone posed the question of how did their “group sound” impress each member. Without hesitation, someone quickly offered, “Well, it’s better than bowling”, and a new star started to shine in the nighttime sky.
Better Than Bowling. Sez a lot (especially for bowling fans), but leaves a lot of room and points in many directions – and that suits this band to a T. Eclectic repertoire, plenty of space for musical prowess, a fun (and funny) elective activity. But such prowess has to be mindful of how to hold and release the ball, how to send it down that center isle and then connect with enough force to highlight that wonderful multi-sensory smashing moment (makes me want to cross my legs). Better Than Bowling comes to the Unity Hall stage on Friday, February 28 at the usual 8 o’clock showtime featuring a great electric guitar player, tight rhythm section, impressive shared vocals (you go, Sharon!), and the mellifluous pedal steel guitar of George Newton that sustains and carries the overall sound like a big safety net. Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Crosby, Still, and Nash. And wait a minute… did they just play Walk, Don’t Run by the Ventures?
As I write this, I’m captured by the similarity of these descriptions to what Unity Hall aims to deliver to its audiences on a regular basis. Quality. Playfulness. Good company in the context of a like-minded cultural community (yes, rock n’ roll is a legitimate cultural event when it’s done well. With winter winding down it’s time to open our calendars and once again mark the dates for Unity Hall’s upcoming concert calendar, to start the fancy footwork that makes for a cadence of fabulous weekends.
Here’s the skinny list:
Friday, February 28: from Syracuse, NY – Better Than Bowling
Saturday, March 14: from Woodstock, NY – Professor Louie and the Crowmatix
Saturday, April 11: Unity Hall’s tribute to The Eagles and Jackson Browne (featuring Unity Hall’s Last Waltz Tribute Band, The Justice McBride Band, The Burns and Kristy Trio, and Two of Us)
Saturday, May 9: from Ithaca, NY, the oh-so-fabulous Burns Sisters
If I don’t write these things down, I tend to forget, so take some notes. And as always, in the spirit of the Hairy Coconut, expect the unexpected!
As always, more info about the bands, video previews and advance tickets are just a couple of clicks away at unityhall.com and facebook.com/HistoricUnityHall
November, 2019 Session Americana and Open House
As best as II can remember, the last time I asked someone to trust me was nine months exactly before my son was born. And yet, here I go again!
I’ve been writing press releases and promotions for bands for a long time, for at least thirty
years. If you’re involved in making choices and booking a calendar of performance events for
an organization, it’s inevitable that after a while you can’t fully convince yourself that every band you book is as “astonishing” as you’ve described them. Still, people aren’t as likely to turn out for a show if you describe the performers as “pretty good, “not bad”, or just “better than most”. I believe I’ve been pretty lucky over the years that most of the acts I’ve invited to play are crowd pleasers, but I must confess that some of the time the audience liked them more than I did. I guarantee that they all looked impressive in print, but hey, what other tools does one have with which to sell tickets?
But once in a while, when the stars were lined up, I’ve run across a band that’s the Real
Schlemiel. And pretty consistently I’ve liked the band so much that I’ve gone out of my way to
see them again, usually in places where the crowds know and love them. That’s particularly
exciting because there is no learning curve for the audience’s excitement. They are there
because they know the music will be “astonishing”.
So, last February, immediately after two feet of snow fell, I trudged my way up to Montreal to
attend a Music Conference in hopes of finding some great acts for Unity Hall. The purpose of
the conference was to give both well-known and up-and-coming performers the chance to play short sets in front of hundreds of presenters -- people who had traveled from all over the world whose job was to book music for their venues, from coffeehouses to concert halls. The larger, better known acts got to perform on stages in good-sized conference rooms. But most of the hundred or so acts played in hotel rooms with the beds removed so that 10, 20, or 30 people squeeze in to hear their stuff (the event took up most of a large downtown Montreal hotel).
After an exhausting few days I returned home with a few acts that I thought would be a good fit for Unity Hall. But one band floated to the top of the list, a Boston-based band called Session Americana. I heard them first in a good-sized conference room with an impressive audience turn-out. After consulting the night’s schedule, I saw that they were also scheduled to play around midnight in one of the small upstairs rooms. An unbelievably tight fit, because there are six players in the group and they had invited some other vocalists to join them on a few songs. They played without amplifiers on guitars, an old field organ, a mandocello, blues harp, and an accordion, and used a suitcase as their kick-drum. They sang beautifully together and were tasteful on their instruments (one of the guys used to play with the J. Geils Band). They played some original songs and some familiar tunes from the classic Americana songbook. But what impressed me the most was how comfortable they made all the listeners feel, in both the big conference room and in this cramped hotel room with people placing their drinks on the dresser.It was like being at a really great house party at which the musical guests turned out to be – well– astonishing!
I never thought this band would be accessible to book at Unity Hall. Too far for them too travel,
too expensive, too big a group to put up for the night. But they were as friendly and genuine on
the phone as they seemed to be on stage, and we’ve made it work. I had to chuckle when I was writing their press release. One of their recordings was reviewed by Rolling Stone magazine who described them as “either a rock band in a teacup, or a folk band in a whiskey bottle”.I thought that fit them just right. Take a chance and join us for an exciting night of music. Session Americana hits the big Ed Rosenburgh stage at Unity Hall at 8 PM on Friday, December 6th. Trust me.
Before I sign off, I also want to make sure that you’ve heard about our big Open House/
Thank You music night scheduled just one week before, on November 30 the Saturday
after Thanksgiving. The Town of Trenton has recognized our efforts with a grant to do
something nice for the community. This is our response. A full night of free music!
We’ll have three consecutive bands, both upstairs and downstairs with our friend E.E.
Norris and keyboard player Joe Perry, followed by a great Beatles (and more) tribute
band called The Two of Us, and crowning it off will be Nick Piccininni with his trio
project, Follow the Muse. AND IT’S ALL FREE. The music starts at 7:30 and
refreshments will be available. Stop by, even if it’s for a little while.
August, 2019 - Dust Devil Band, Jamie Laval, Session Americana
I never really liked Kevin Costner, the actor, but as a formerly avid movie-goer I saw a lot of his early films. I watched him as Eliot Ness as he took down the crime kingpin Al Capone. I “Danced with Wolves” alongside him as he realized the US Calvary was not on the side of God. I treaded water along with the survivors of a world-wide apocalypse that left the earth a “Waterworld”. But the movie that I remember best was the allegorical “Field of Dreams”. You remember it, don’t you? An Iowa farmer hears voices that tell him to build a baseball stadium in the middle of one of his corn fields. He follows their lead and subsequently watches as notorious ghostly members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (who were banned from the sport for throwing the World Series) magically take the field and redeem themselves with one final baseball game. It’s not because it was an acting tour de force, or for that matter that the storyline was all that clever or captivating. But the film achieved something truly memorable. Here’s what -- the voice that Costner heard repeated over and over told him “If you build it, they will come”. This motivating phrase, over a relatively short period of time, has worked its way into the American vernacular. In just a few words it legitimized the passions that so many of us keep suppressed as we defer to safer and more practical choices – so safe as to make life seem bland and colorless at times.
Let me explain this as I understand it. In the film the voices were not just telling our hero to build this eccentric ball park in the middle of nowhere. They were recommending that if you pour the right energy into the right place at the right time then you stand a good chance of experiencing some of the best feelings that our dreams seem to offer us.
I’m not a fan of unflinching self-regulation. It chooses to ignore those mysterious voices from who-knows-where. It seems to quarrel with that electric buzz (no, not that other buzz) you get while listening to great live music (in the right place at the right time). It’s at odds with your right to hoot and holler at the end of a great tune, or stand up to dance in place because your body says it’s time to do so. It doesn’t approve of that surprise moment when you realize that you, and every other stranger in a crowded room are holding hands and swaying to the music. Then there’s that quiet place you find yourself in when your eyes are closed and you hear a beautiful slow song that tells you it’s alright to have strong feelings – even the sad ones. We don’t balance on a point. We live on the range! We are thrilled to ride the wave of a sine curve.
In just a few weeks Unity Hall will resume its live music offerings as our Fall calendar unfolds. As I wrote this, I promised myself I wouldn’t go into great detail – the musicians are all outstanding. But as you read through the blurbs take a minute and try to recall how you felt the last time you walked through the various areas of Unity Hall, with its tall wooden bowed ceiling and the way that the light splashed against those lacquered surfaces. Here are the nuts and bolts of the schedule:
Saturday, September 14: A double bill featuring (1) the Burns and Kristy Band, an exhilarating group from the Ithaca area (Terry is one of the plentiful and oh-so-musical Burns Sisters). Great harmonies, stellar guitar work, husband and wife chemistry, just the right cover tunes, and originals that remind us that just as you think all new music is boring there are still some bonanzas to be discovered. AND (2) Sirsy, a high energy duo with Melanie playing drums and bass pedals (from a standing position) and Rich delivering his impressive guitar work. Mel’s voice will take on all comers. Sirsy already has a strong fan base in our area. Ask your friends about them or lead the charge.
Saturday, October 19: Ed Rosenburgh brings our time-tested favorites The Dust Devil Band back for another outstanding concert on the Ed Rosenburgh stage. This annual event is always a great party. Opening for the DDB will be the bluesy vocals of Syd Pinto accompanied by area favorite Paul Case.
Saturday, October 26: National Celtic fiddle Champion Jamie Laval returns to Unity Hall two years after his sell-out show here (he had the floor shaking with stamping feet from his first set of tunes). Jamie’s stories behind the tunes are as entertaining as the tunes themselves.
Saturday, November 16: Last year Unity Hall had a Singer/ Songwriter competition that brought out the area’s best players. Jay Schnitt galloped away with First Prize that night, followed by Second Prize winner Gina Holsopple. This evening highlights these two outstanding local performers in the intimate setting of the first floor Hinge Parlor Room in a well-deserved night of their own.
Friday, December 6: I’m thrilled to bring Boston-based Session Americana to the Unity Hall stage. I saw this 6-piece band at a big music conference last year, first on a large stage as they huddled around a curiously placed coffee table that seemed right at home, and then in an after-hours showcase held in a jam-packed hotel room. The anything-can-happen feel of a Session show brings a kind of ease and genuineness to their timeless music, sometimes presenting their latest batch of original songs, sometimes reaching back into depths of the American song bag. Their members have played with Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter, and the J. Geils Band.
If you build it, they will come. The right energy in the right place at the right time. Temperature’s rising. You’ll be missed if you’re not there.
March, 2019 - Galumpha
Whew! I’ve been doing this live performance stuff for a long time. It probably started with my own garage bands in high school. Then four years of running a coffeehouse at college. I thought I had broken this Bohemian habit when I entered the bar and restaurant trade, but as it turned out both of my businesses were little more than excuses for hiring bands and placing them in the front window. This was followed by my “classical” period – five years of supporting the Performing Arts offerings at Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, with programs ranging from the B Sharp Club programs to the Paul Winter Consort at their first Concert in the Court. The Center for the Arts in Little Falls followed and allowed me the privilege of working with the likes of Tom Rush, David Bromberg, Aztec Two Step (not to mention The Chamber Soloists of Uzbekistan – oops, I just did). That evolved into many happy years working at the Kirkland Art Center and the summer Art and Music Fest in Clinton. And after I hit the pause button for a brief time, here I am at Unity Hall, and oh so happy to be here.
Forgive me if I’m boring you with these details. This is not a job interview. I just want to share with you favorite performances I’ve been involved with over these many years. I do this from time to time like others reminisce about their favorite vacations, love affairs, or the best pizza they’ve ever had. The list changes from time to time, and it’s usually limited to just my top three of these wondrous memories.
I find it particularly ironic that the one act that has remained on the list since I started was in fact not a musical act, but a dance trio that I’ve worked with numerous times. I don’t quite remember how I learned about them, but at the time they went by the name Second Hand Dance. For quite a while now they’ve gone by the name Galumpha. It’s not enough to say that these three very talented, coordinated, strong, and humorous performers are not your mother’s idea of professional dance. They don’t move to the music of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, but to The Horseflies, one of my favorite bands from the Ithaca area. They form amazing composites and counterbalances with their athletic bodies, like a complicated three-dimensional puzzle. They make me laugh out loud as they wear pots and pans on their butts and then use them as drums with their hobnailed boots. Their movements are sinewy and muscular, forcing you to take them seriously in their more sublime dance numbers. Kids love them, dance fans find them as creative and refreshing as Pilobolus. I even know some bikers that like them (but I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody).
Galumpha is coming to Unity Hall on Friday, April 26 at 7:30. I wouldn’t have invited them if they didn’t fit with my formula – to give our audiences another sky-high evening in our wonderful building. Let’s face it. It’s great to treat yourself to a night out, especially after another winter exhales its last breath. It’s great to step through those wooden front doors situated somewhere between the 19th and 21st century, and then to move around in all of UH’s interesting spaces. It’s great to confirm that the performers you came out for met the high bar that was promised. It’s especially great to know that all of those buttons were pushed and you had one more reason to trust Unity Hall, whether you knew the performing group or not, whether you’re a dance fan or not, that your choice not to stay home that night was a good one – no, a great one.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Galumpha made it onto your list of favorites. They’re that entertaining. Doing anything that Friday?
August, 2018 - Monk Rowe, John Hutson
First of all, let me say how pleased I am to have been invited to join the Unity Hall family as Music Co-ordinator. As I’m writing this I can look across my living room at an old poster for Puttin’ On the Ritz, a large band that I was part of for a really long time. There’s a caricature of some fellow in a 1940’s zoot suit stretching out one leg in a cocky stride and flipping a coin with one hand. The date for the gig is too old to mention. The venue was Unity Hall. Over the years
I’ve been fortunate enough to return many times to Unity Hall’s stages, both the wondrous upstairs auditorium whose tall, bowed wooden ceiling honestly reminds me of an upside-down 19th century whaling vessel, and the nostalgic downstairs dining room, complete with fireplace and vintage furniture, where 60 people seem to ingest the music as caringly as though it was their grandmother’s best apple pie.
Do you remember the character of Ted Baxter on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show who always used to boast of his career that “It all started on a small 1500 watt television station”? My love for live music started on the steps of the Ritz Restaurant in East Utica when I was 14 years old. Every Tuesday night my friend Kenny and I would stand outside on the stone steps and peek through the window into the room where a band called The Royals played for the over-18 crowd. Sure, there was a bar. But that was in an adjoining room way in the front. There was a small area designated for dancing, but there were too many people inside to really do anything more than find your groove and everyone in the room certainly seemed to have found it. The band was amazing (one of its members went on to join the super-group Boston). But what I eventually became transfixed on was how demonstrably happy everyone there was (okay, maybe the alcohol had something to do with it, but it was a Tuesday night!).
Looking back now I think I’ve been trying to recreate that wholesome zeal, that ecstasy for most of my adult life. My ongoing analysis of the experience pivots on these key points. The music has to be outstanding and accessible. The musicians have to somehow connect with their audience. And the setting has to have some magic to it. You might not be able to put your finger on just what it is – maybe it’s the size of the place or the shape of the room, or the materials that were used to build and furnish it that are still in plain view, or how good the acoustics are in that space. But there are such magic places, and you know it when you’re there at the right time.
I’ve been fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time on numerous occasions, but only a handful of such memories make me smile automatically. We’re talking serious happy here. Unity Hall is on the A-list of such memories.
Just last week I attended a show at the Hall that featured local musicians Monk Rowe, John Hutson, and Tom McGrath. Nice late-summer evening. Good crowd. Plenty of potato chips downstairs (I like potato chips). It didn’t take long for the magic to start working. The music was excellent. Monk is an “artiste” when it comes to welcoming an audience and drawing them in. Pretty soon everyone was grooving in their chairs and then the dancing broke out in the back. By the end of the program it was literally one big happy cheering family. These were smiles that promised to give you a hangover the next day.
Later, when I snapped to I realized that I’ve heard these fellows play several times over the last year in different spots. Same musical expertise, same amount of heart invested, and the crowds genuinely enjoyed the music. But something was different. Plates of food in front of people. A busy bar in the background. Loud conversations competing. Sure, there are lots of places to hear music in the area, but only a very few where you can “listen” to it and be affected by its magic.Those who were there, and those who have attended other performances at the Hall know that. It’s a singular and very special experience.
So that’s my compass. It’s not just to hire certain great bands that play a certain kind of music. It’s to re-create this magical combination for this large and growing family. I don’t want to have people remark that “I think the Joe Mattarazz Band is playing at Unit Hall sometime soon”. I want them to say “I wonder what’s going on at Unity Hall in the next short while. I always have a great time there”.
This astonishing old wooden building deserves a lot of the credit. But there’s also something magic here – something magic. Join our family. Make sure we know how to keep you posted. Tell your friends.
December, 2018 - Annie and the Hedonists
It’s the morning of Christmas Eve. It’s quiet where I am, kind of insulated from the holiday eagerness (and madness) that so many are propelled by before joining friends and family tonight and tomorrow. As compelling as it is to look forward to what the New Year promises, I find myself still looking back a few weeks to The Last Waltz Tribute on the big stage at Unity Hall in early December. It was my first official program responsibility as the new Music Coordinator for this totally volunteer non-profit foundation that continues to defy the odds in keeping this big old 120-year old building alive, active, and welcoming. Twelve musicians from all over Upstate New York were invited to participate in this reboot of one of the all-time classic rock concerts immortalized in the feature film of the same name. These pros learned the music, got together for a few rehearsals, and then got on stage and made it look easy before a crowd of 150 people. The response from the audience was exhilarating, right from the first song, and it never let up.
I am the first person to be suspicious of screaming superlatives promoters use to describe their achievements or to seduce their perspective guest list to come to the next fabulous, amazing, unbelievable, astonishing event. But without apology and with a straight face, it was a magical night. And everybody there knew that it wasn’t just about the dynamic vocals, the refreshingly familiar music, the great guitar, fiddle, keyboards, bass, harmonica, accordion, and drum work. It had something to do with the sea of familiar faces – some old friends, some familiar frequent concert goers, some just snapshot memories from who-knows-where. But from where I sat on stage, I could look out and see one person after another craning their neck to look up and make a long visual sweep of the Hall’s handsome auditorium with its tall bowed ceiling and that neat chandelier. Some places just feel good to spend time in. I think that’s especially true when a place is old and has resisted the corruption of passing years (that’s why my kids tell me they like me).
So, that’s the recipe for a good batch of music gumbo. Great uplifting entertainment, a gathering of like-minded souls a sense of belonging to or becoming a part of a community, and a good-looking stew pot in which all those wonderful ingredients, spices, flavors can mellow and ripen. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I was so fortunate to be a part of it.
So what’s next? When can we do this again? Well, to coin a few overworked clichés, practice makes perfect and the sooner the better. Unity Hall’s music calendar resumes in early February, 2019.
On Saturday, February 9th, one of my favorite groups, Annie and the Hedonists will make the trip to Barneveld from their Saratoga / Albany home base. They’ve played all the major music venues in the Northeast (including Cafe Lena in Saratoga where Bob Dylan played in the early days) and are frequent headliners at music festivals. I’ve seen them and worked with them many times over the years and they never fail to get a crowd excited. Annie Rosen’s lead vocals have been described by the media as “thrilling”. She convincingly delivers familiar tunes from the great female blues artists of American culture – Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Billie Holiday – from a time when popular music hadn’t been sanitized or censored yet. She also always throws in some other surprises (for example, she does a great version of Grace Slick’s White Rabbit), and her tight band is right there to support her. We’ve also invited Nick Piccininni and Jay Barady (Nick & Jay), two well-known string players from Central New York and founding members of the group Floodwood (with members of moe) to open the celebration. As an acoustic duo, the sky’s the limit for Nick & Jay, covering old fiddle tunes, bluegrass, classic rock, country, jazz and artists such as Mumford & Sons, Keith Urban, Michael Jackson, John Denver, Jimmy Cliff, Pure Prairie League and countless others.
Perhaps the standout surprise of our recent, sold-out Last Waltz tribute concert at Unity Hall was the amazing vocal talent of Danielle Ponder from Rochester. We were so impressed with her rich, soulful, Gospel voice (not to mention the immediate audience feedback we received) that we invited her back while the iron was still hot! On March 30 Danielle will return appearing with her own band, The Tomorrow People to present her own tribute show she calls “The Women of Soul”. You won’t want to miss this rocking performance featuring the classic sounds of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, Etta James, and others. Come on out and testify with us.
With mixed emotions I have to tell you that we were flattered by how fast the Last Waltz show sold out. But that meant that there were quite a few disappointed people who couldn’t get a seat. If you’re interested in reigniting the magic, please don’t wait until it’s too late to buy tickets!
More to come. Oh, yeah – Happy New Year.