It felt like Syracuse had transformed into Union Square for the evening. With art, music and dancing in the streets and local establishments like Anthony’s Pasta Bar, World Lounge and Martini Bar, and Anthony’s Elbow Room with their doors wide open, Hanover Square hummed. The electric energy to the air only multiplied as the sun went down.
Festivities in Clinton Square at the Jazz and Wine Festival kicked off with music at 5 p.m. from John Piazza’s Best of Blue Note Quintet at the Mardi Gras Pavilion and Michael & Anjela Lynn at the World Beat Pavilion. Those acts would return to the stage again at 7:30 and 9:15 p.m., between main stage performances at 6:30 and 8:15 p.m., drawing progressively bigger crowds.
While Piazza offered a tame, more traditional jazz option with any variation of tenor sax, trumpet, keys, drums and upright bass participating, Michael and Anjela Lynn got the party started with covers spanning Stevie Wonder to a taste of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Two keyboardists, bass and drums backed the duo, but their vocals captured all of the attention. With energetic delivery and perfect voices shared by complementary pipes, the two kept the party going and people coming as the crowd spilled out of the tent.
Meanwhile, across Salina Street, things began around 5 p.m. as well with opening remarks from Stage of Nations co-producer Irv Lyons and a performance from the Haudenosaunee Singers and Dancers who would reappear throughout the weekend. The energy ramped up immediately as audience members joined the professional dancers; the crowd didn’t stop dancing either when Morris and the Hepcats took the stage around 6:45 p.m.
Songs alternated between covers of The Beatles and The Clash to swing and beach music, keeping the attentive audience on their toes. People watched from tables over dinner, lined up along the tiered cement rows and encroached from the sides of the stage.
The Blacklites kept the energy up over in Clinton Square, beginning around 6:30 p.m., with their lively show that is always sure to provoke dancing. For a band that began back in 1972 (they are in the midst of their 40th anniversary celebration), their spirit and youthful spunk are engaging.
Wouter Kellerman followed at 8:15 p.m. on the Main Stage in Clinton Square, taking the crowd in yet another mellow, soothing direction. The well-known South African roots and world music flutist brought rich, rhythmic songs to life through thick instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, keys, percussion and layered vocals. The band even used water sound effects, created on stage using a basin and a towel, to add to the denseness.
By the time Corn-Bred took the stage at Stage of Nations, the crowd was large and abuzz, ready for the steaming set the all-Native group brought along. The weather was perfect in the mid-70s, local businesses were full of patrons and the ripping harmonica of Curtis Waterman and smooth but hot guitar of Morris Tarbell completed the scene. The band kept the audience happy until just after 10 p.m.
Gerald Veasley took the Jazz and Wine Festival Stage around 10 p.m. and played to a decent crowd though the feel was distinctly mellower than the rowdy Stage of Nations stage. Veasley delivered cool, smooth jazz, including ever-popular tunes like “Just the Two of Us” into the set and left the crowd impressed by his skills on the bass guitar, wooed by his voice and ready for another day full of music.
Saturday got off to a slow start at the Jazz and Wine Festival. Puddles had formed from the morning rain, chairs were still not set up by 2 p.m. and barricades that had blocked off seated VIP areas from the general public were in disarray. The Battle of the Community Bands entertained a small audience though groups like the Jazz Kats, led by the strong vocals and trumpet of John Saltamach, deserved better.
The rainy morning delayed events on the Hanover Square stage, but it didn’t deter local favorite Los Blancos from delivering their typical solid set. Lead singer and guitarist Colin Aberdeen lit up at the sight of his 5-year-old daughter Marley making her way into the crowd and immediately dedicated a song to her; he noted that while most normal children ask to hear lullabies at night, Marley prefers a “dirty, old jazz song.” He had the crowd responding to his calls, “Do you call that a buddy?” with “No, no” and hula hoopers started swinging their hips. By the end of the set, dancers were getting over their shyness and filling the square.
Following Los Blancos, the Haudenosaunee Singers and Dancers amazed onlookers with their traditional dances, all with specific purposes and themes. Most impressive was Miko Sampson, a Seneca and son of Will Sampson, who portrayed the iconic Native American in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Miko performed a dance where he picked up small hoops with his feet and intertwined them around his body to form different shapes and recognizable animals. As he imitated a flying bird, a chomping alligator or Mickey Mouse, the audience sat wide-eyed and fascinated.
The crowd stayed equally engaged as the Fabulous Ripcords hopped up for their turn to impress. Dancers shuffled their feet in front of the stage and the band sounded tight as ever. Guest frontman and former member Dugan Henhawk added an extra spark of energy and keys and guitar solos traded between Scott Ebner and Rex Lyons kept things burning. Just as the energy level reached its peak, wind began to blow and a slow rain began to fall, eventually building into a steady pitter-patter over the warm bodies moving to the music.
The pitter-patter turned into a downpour following the Ripcords’ set and listeners over at the Jazz and Wine Festival packed into tents for Jeff Stockham’s Jazz Police at the Mardi Gras Pavilion and Brownskin at the World Beat Pavilion. The two tents provided a healthy contrast for fans: the Jazz Police provided “straight-ahead jazz” as Stockham coined it, performing solid takes on jazz classics like Miles Davis’ “So What.” Meanwhile, Brownskin kept fans dancing to upbeat R’n’B and funk covers of songs including “Sex Machine” and “Sexual Healing.”
The rain let up for set Steve Wilson’s set on the main stage in Clinton Square at 6:30 p.m. and a moderate-sized crowd enjoyed his smooth saxophone and backing band of the young, local piano-man Noah Kellman, bassist Kate Davis and drummer Tom Killian. The Urban Jazz Coalition appeared on the same stage at 8:15 p.m. bringing lively funky jazz with some attitude and spunk to the slowly expanding crowd. They closed with a rousing and crowd-pleasing take on “ABC” from the Jackson 5.
At Stage of Nations, crowds came out for Jana, who delivered a set defined more by sexy than substance. The beautiful vocalist in high studded black heels and a short black skirt had shining moments in her set when her voice dove into deeper registers, but also hit some hard notes on impossible covers of songs like Whitney Houston’s take on “I Will Always Love You.” She performed to a backing track with her manager, Stephan Galfas, on guitar, though his contribution seemed superfluous. Her charm helped keep the crowd roped in, but she couldn’t compare to the act to follow.
Joanne Shenandoah closed the Hanover Square event on Saturday night with perfect vocals and complementary string work on her bright white guitar. Her sister Diane and daughter Leah accompanied her, contributing harmonies and percussion. Shining moments came often in the set, but most of all when mother and daughter each performed a cappella, fully demonstrating control of their powerful voices.
After the purity of Shenandoah’s performance, where she proved beyond a doubt why she is a Grammy-winning artist, Jessy J’s flashy set at Jazz and Wine didn’t seem as impressive. Dressed in a short, bright green dress, she chirped away on stage introducing songs like her cover of Santana’s “Oye Como Va” by saying things like, “This is for Latin lovers. You can love Doritos or Latin music.” Her saxophone sound was focused and fluid and her backing band, The Urban Jazz Coalition, provided a firm base, but she would have done just as well with less cuteness and more music.
Fans flocked following the final act to nearby Wise Guys, 201 S. Salina St., for a late night jazz jam with local trio, E.S.P., and Noah Kellman as well as a whole troupe of young players. It was an appropriate end to a long weekend of music—young players finding the stage following all the acts of the past two days, at two different fests with a total of four stages.
Though at times the amount of activity downtown seemed overwhelming, at others, it seemed just right. Whether people wanted art, shopping or a variety of music to choose from—it was all available, all free and all within walking distance on hot summer days. Syracuse needs more weekends and more functions just like this.