If your life were to depend on the ability of Central New Yorkers to come to a consensus on their favorite type of music, you should say your goodbyes now. It was nice knowing you. Fan bases for a range of vastly different genres call Central New York home. Folk, punk, jazz, ska, funk—you name it, it’s here. But people involved in the local music business can seem to agree on at least one thing: In every genre, the music scene is thriving, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
“I can honestly say I’ve never been prouder of it than in the past few years,” says Dave Sax, one of the two guitarists for Syracuse-based instrumental rock band Ohne-ká and the Burning River, of the local music scene as a whole.
It makes Sax so happy because everybody’s trying something unique, and not just unique for the sake of trying to be different. He’s glad everybody’s doing what they love, making music they love. Even when it’s not a style he’s interested in, it’s easy for Sax to appreciate a band that’s true to itself. But he didn’t always used to see this in local bands. “A while ago I’d go see a show and at the end I’d be like, ‘I just saw the same band three times,’” he says.
When Sax wants to catch a show, he turns to the Lost Horizon, 5863 Thompson Road, or Badlands, 1007 E. Fayette St. They share his attitude toward music, which might be why they’re the two major places around the area Ohne-ká has played up to this point. The band is looking to branch out, though; they had booked a show at the Westcott in July and also had plans to expand to Buffalo and Rochester before Sax broke his ankle in June and needed reconstructive surgery. But they’re planning to get back on track soon. Ohne-ká and the Burning River is unsigned right now, but has recorded and self-produced its first CD, Where the Real Wind Blows, over the past year, releasing it in May.
Ryan Canavan works at the aforementioned Badlands, maintaining its blog and helping bands rent out the space, and he’s booked shows for punk and hardcore bands for 14 years. Badlands is a DIY venue “by the kids, for the kids,” as Canavan puts it, meaning it’s run by the punk and hardcore community. The venue doesn’t book shows, instead renting its close-quarters space out to bands and promoters in the area for shows. “If you’re expecting 50 people or less to show up, Badlands is the place to go,” Canavan says.
The popularity of the punk and hardcore scene in Central New York “certainly ebbs and flows,” says Canavan. After a peak in the mid-1990s, the scene had slowed, but now, it’s starting to flow again. Canavan has noticed that attendance is up of late. He thinks bookers contributed to the former lull by bringing in small acts people hadn’t heard of. That’s changed a bit recently, with, for example, Wisconsin punks Tenement playing Badlands Monday, Sept. 17, and he sees higher attendance at shows reflecting that fact.
In addition to working at Badlands, Canavan owns and operates the Syracuse-based Hex Records. Hex “fits with the punk and hardcore mindset,” but has a dash of the unconventional, he notes. Since Hex’s founding in 1999, bands have released close to 30 albums on the label. About half have been from local bands.
Claire Byrne, fiddle player and vocalist from the unsigned Binghamton-based folk group Driftwood, plays music about as radically different from the bands on the Hex label as the music spectrum allows. But she’s at least as upbeat about her genre’s scene as Sax and Canavan are about theirs.
“I think it’s thriving. I think it’s beautiful,” she says. She isn’t surprised folk’s so popular around the area. The local folk movement started in Ithaca years ago with bands like the Horse Flies, and it’s remained there ever since, seeping into the surrounding area. And she isn’t surprised the folk revival—visible nationwide on the Billboard charts with the successes of bands like Mumford and Sons, and the Avett Brothers—has taken a firm hold on Central New York. “I mean, we’re a bunch of dairy farmers up here,” she says.
Driftwood, which Byrne describes as “a mix of folk and roots and rock’n’roll with some pop elements,” embarked on a national tour two years ago all the way out to the West Coast. Since then, the quartet has toured up and down the East Coast. They’re thinking about returning out West again soon but they’re playing some local shows first, at Tramontane Café, 1005 Lincoln Ave., Utica, on Aug. 24 and at the Sticky Lips BBQ Juke Joint, 625 Culver Road, Rochester on Aug. 30.
Byrne thinks any band, even ones that aren’t from the area like Driftwood is, would be remiss to pass up our neck of the woods. “When we’re on the road, we’re always telling people, ‘Y’know, don’t skip Binghamton, Syracuse,’” she says.
When Byrne wants to see a show in Central New York, her first move is to check the schedule for the Chapter House Brew Pub, 400 Stewart Ave., Ithaca. “The sound’s always stellar; the atmosphere’s great,” she says. She also likes Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge, 321 S. Clinton St., and the CyberCafe West, 176 Main St., Binghamton.
Byrne does have some constructive criticism for the area’s music community: She thinks it needs more venues for small- to medium-sized national touring groups. Driftwood is an established band with a good reputation in the area, so it doesn’t encounter problems booking shows. But bands that are just starting to tour nationally, and don’t have a big following yet, can have a tough time finding places in Central New York that want to book them. She thinks more venues looking for those kinds of bands would be a boon to the music scene here for all genres. “We’d see so many more touring acts coming through here,” she believes. That would help further energize local bands and fans.
Canavan disagrees with her. He thinks Syracuse already has two solid small-act-friendly places: his Badlands and the Westcott Community Center, 826 Euclid Ave. A band might only have to front a couple hundred dollars to play at each, instead of the $1,000 and up—along with the reputation—they would need to play at a venue like the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St.
Even though Canavan’s a veteran booker in the area, he still likes to schedule bands for both Badlands and the WCC, which has played host to shows in everything from ska to metal, and right now has folk days the second Saturday of every month. “Both are great at opening their doors to new people,” Canavan says. “Syracuse is a small city. We have two legit places for people trying to break in, so I think we’re doing pretty well.”
Andrew VanNorstrand of Fulton—one of the brothers in the bluegrass-y Andrew and Noah Band—backs up Byrne’s points, and believes there could be a greater range of places to catch a show in Central New York. He says there aren’t many cheap venue options that aren’t bars. “We could especially do with a bigger variety of kinds of places to play,” VanNorstrand says. “There isn’t much right now in between sports bar and a full-on concert.”
He cites Funk ‘n Waffles, 727 S. Crouse Ave., as an exception to this rule. He likes it because it’s not a bar, but it’s a small venue, more like a lounge, which is something he’d like to see more of in the area. He says there aren’t very many coffee shop—or record store-type places—to play north of Ithaca. Funk ‘n Waffles is one of the select few that comes to mind.
Adam Gold, the owner of Funk ‘n Waffles, says the all-ages feel of the club’s shows and the lack of alcohol bring in a broader crowd than most venues would. His shows often feature local bands, many of them young, so both the clientele and the acts performing for them are in a constant state of flux. He says the VanNorstrands are one of the few consistent acts on his radar right now.
Andrew VanNorstrand sings and plays guitar in his and his brother’s
“Americana groove” band, a blend of folk and blues, as he describes it.
There are several incarnations of the band—he and his brother sometimes
work as a two-piece; other times they join forces with their mother,
Kim, and perform under the name Great Bear Trio. But most recently
they’ve moved on from being just “the two brothers who played bluegrass”
around the Syracuse area, putting together the six-piece Andrew
& Noah Band and they tour nationally.
With this band, whose members come from Syracuse and Ithaca, they recorded their most recent album, which is eponymous and self-released. And however the personnel shifts, they’ve enjoyed success: Their latest album rose all the way to the No. 2 folk record in the country, and their cover of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Cry for Me the Rain” reached No. 6, both as listed on folk music airplay charts.
Like Byrne, Andrew VanNorstrand isn’t surprised about the success of their genre in the area. “I mean, there are the three things Syracuse does best: blues, barbecue and basketball. They’re the three Bs of Syracuse.”
VanNorstrand likes to catch shows at the music halls around the area. He enjoys both playing and seeing shows at the Oswego Music Hall, 41 Lake St., Oswego; the Morgan Opera House, Cherry Avenue, Aurora; and, one of his personal favorites, the Earlville Opera House, 18 E. Main St., Earlville. “But it’s way the heck out in the middle of nowhere, which is pretty unfortunate,” he said. That said, he thinks it’s well worth checking out.”
Recently, the VanNorstrands realized that their extensive touring in North America had taken a heavy toll on the amount of shows they play locally. They recently decided to change that. They held their CD launch party in March at the Palace Theatre, 2384 James St., and they’ve resolved to play more shows locally for a while.
They’re starting with Funk ‘n Waffles, beginning a monthly residency there Sept. 20, playing on the second Thursday for the following three months. The idea is they’ll host a show, joined by other bands each of the four nights, and each date the focus will fall on a different sound. Maybe it’ll be Celtic music one night, maybe ska another, and then they’ll play at the end of the night, incorporating the theme of the night into their own music.
In addition to owning Funk ‘n Waffles, Gold plays keyboard for the band Sophistafunk, so his job is a bit of a quirk in the music business: He has the chance to book himself at his own venue. Sophistafunk is a well-established local funk and hip-hop act that has toured nationally. In July they played at Funk ‘n Waffles every Thursday, each night paired up with a smaller local act.
This and the Andrew and Noah Band shows fit with Gold’s strategy for
booking shows at his venue: He likes to have a local band open up for a
touring one. “Local bands bring friends, the national bands bring fans,
so both get new fans out of it,” Gold says. Sophistafunk has played
shows at area venues like the Westcott Theater, Empire Brewing Company
and Sterling Stage. Having toured nationally for two years, they’ve made
it as far west as Colorado. Gold says they’re hoping to reach
California sometime soon.
The Syracuse New Times publishes the most comprehensive music listings in the city. For information on these, and other, acts, and when and where they’re playing each week, consult our Times Table and Club Dates sections in both the print edition and online at syracusenewtimes.com.