August 21, 2018

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.

Many Unity Hall programs are made possible with funds from the Decentralization Program,a re-grant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by CNY Arts.

We were pleased and proud to  be recognized as one of the Best Venues for live music in the 2019 and 2020 SAMMY Awards. Our thanks to the Syracuse Area Music Awards board and all those that voted, and congratulations to the venues we share this distinction with.

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