The Syracuse Area Music Awards show is one of the area art scene’s most egalitarian institutions. Everybody gets in on the act, from platinum artists who got their starts in our town to homegrown rockers who never even took a stab at the gold ring.
For more than a quarter century, the Sammys have honored regional rockers, soul singers, blues belters, bluegrass pickers and occasionally even classical performers and electronica practitioners (although the electronica category was dropped from this year’s award categories). Sammy honorees range from teen talents to veteran vocalists of all races. The 2019 Sammys, presented by Ish Guitars, lived up to its charter and then some.
On Thursday, March 7, at Upstairs at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the Sammys gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Lou Reed, a Syracuse University graduate who revolutionized rock’n’roll with worldwide hits such as “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane.” And on Friday, March 8, at the awards show at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre, the Sammys also recognized 61-year-old Syracuse busker Elijah Harris Jr., who plays for tips outside sports stadiums and bus stops.
Lou Reed liked to sing about the street. For Eli Harris, the street is his stage.
Two new awards went to often-overlooked contributors to the Syracuse scene: journalist-photographer Jack O. Bocchino and a deserving representative of the academic orchestral tradition, the Cicero-North Syracuse Marching Band.
The Bocchino Spirit of the Sammys Award, named after Jack himself, will annually honor non-musical personnel who strongly support the scene.
And after thousands of voters expressed their appreciation for the best scholastic marching band in the area, the Sammys committee wasted no time at all in acknowledging that sentiment by creating a new, fourth People’s Choice category dedicated to Scholastic Bands.
Toward the end of the awards show, as emcee Dave Frisina announced the creation of the scholastic category, the 130-member Northstars ensemble — which had appeared in the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — paraded proudly down the aisles at the Palace playing their instruments. C-NS band director Karen Seamans, herself an alumna of the high school, and her assistants, Drew Rebecchi and Rachael Howard, guided the musicians on and off school buses parked just beyond the Palace marquee on James Street.
The band’s bold and unexpected entrance was a stirring spectacle unlike any ever seen at the almost-annual awards show. Kudos to the Sammys committee — chaired by the indefatigable Liz Nowak — for immediately creating a new category for these blossoming musicians, and for booking the massive unit to appear at the awards show. That’s the future being nurtured right there. That’s forward-thinking by the Sammys.
Friday’s awards show, attended by 680 rabid local music fans, mirrored the 2018 event, which was the most streamlined Sammys show ever. Longtime emcee Dave Frisina — a 2018 Sammys Lifetime Achiever and drive-time DJ for The Rebel 105.9 — kept the proceedings flowing like Onondaga Creek. And that’s no easy feat given the 15 awards to be coordinated around five live performances.
At one point, Frisina introduced the man who coordinated the creation of the Sammys back in 1993: “None of this would’ve been possible if not for the foresight of this man, Frank Malfitano.”
After a four-year absence from the awards show, Malfitano returned to the podium this year to present a rare Founder’s Award to street singer Elijah Harris Jr. Just three previous founder’s awards have been bestowed: two to journalists Mark Bialczak and Molly English-Bowers in 2013, and one to the vocal group The Madisons the following year.
“It’s almost as if no one’s told Eli that the city streets he performs on aren’t really the main stage at Carnegie Hall,” Malfitano told the Sammys audience. “No matter the weather, he’s always there for us. And whether his guitar case goes empty or filled, he fills our hearts nightly, asking nothing in return.”
Among 2019’s surprise award winners were vocalist Emma Jude, a West Genesee High School graduate who honed her musical chops playing guitar for Carnival Cruise Lines. She took home the Best Pop trophy for her Pocket Full of Postcards CD.
The Americana category featured a fiddle showdown in which newcomer Eileen Nicholson Kalfass knocked out old hand Diamond Joe Davoli with her debut disc, Crossing Bridges.
Eileen grew up contra dancing throughout Pennsylvania, New York and other areas in the northeastern United States with her father, caller Bob Nicholson. That dance-scene background gave Eileen a solid foundation and she’s now more-than-competent in styles ranging from Celtic to Quebecois.
“I’m just glad another fiddle player won,” Davoli said.
Rookie state Sen. Bob Antonacci and veteran WSYR-Channel 9 producer Tim Fox presented the singer-songwriter award to Stephen Douglas Wolfe for his Quixotic Symphony disc. Wolfe thanked his wife, Catherine, and his daughter, Elliott, “who napped while I made this record in the basement of my house.” A product of the Lawrence, Kansas, music scene, Wolfe has left the Great Plains behind in favor of drumlins. One of the songs on his winning CD is titled “E. Fayette Street (Always Kiss Me Goodnight).”
The most emotional moment of the 2019 awards came when, as she accepted the Best Blues Award on behalf of Tas Cru, who was on tour with his Band of Tortured Souls, Maryann Casale simply couldn’t continue reading what Tas had written about her. So she passed the paper to bassist Bob Purdy, who shared Cru’s heartfelt appreciation of Casale, who wrote two tunes for his winning Memphis Song CD.
A few award-winners enthusiastically expressed their appreciation, including Best Hip-Hopper G-Netics (a.k.a. Lester Bell), whose Elevated disc earned his honor; and the Brian Bourke Award for Best New Artist for the ambient-rock band Trench, featuring Chris Reilly, Bob Becerra, Dan Sanborn and Ron Ballweber, who have been together since 2015.
Strange to Look At, a self-described “creepy” rock quintet whose debut disc was called Spooky, beat out five other nominees in the Best Alternative category. The Strange boys were duly impressed by the distinctive shape of the Sammys’ obelisk trophy. The band features Jeremy Allen on keys, synthesizer and vocals; his brother, Tyler Allen, on guitar; Beccah Avraham on vocals, keys and percussion; Dan Poorman on bass, vocals and additional guitar; and Gavin George on drums (although Giovanni Giardina hit the skins on the award-winning self-titled EP).
Count Blastula bandleader Adam Fisher was too ill to attend Friday’s show, but his band’s Jive Honey disc won the Sammy for Best Jam Band. Keyboardist Mike D’Ambrosio accepted the trophy along with bassist Jeremy Walts and drummer Jim Dunham. Speaking from his sickbed, guitarist-songwriter Fisher applauded the Sammys committee, and plugged the band’s free-admission March 31 album-release party at Funk N Waffles on South Clinton Street.
“I’m bummed I wasn’t well enough to attend the event,” Fisher said. “But I would like to thank Liz Nowak and all the presenters and people involved in the Sammys for their hard work. Every year they shine such a positive vibe on the local music scene and make so many people feel appreciated. It’s a great thing!”
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and City Councilor Joe Driscoll shared the stage to present an award, and their brief repartee hinted at possible political clashes to come. Walsh, an independent from a decidedly Republican family, quipped, “I want to be a rapper when I grow up, and I’m pretty sure Joe wants to be mayor.” Driscoll, a liberal Democrat, simply observed that both he and Ben would need some serious woodshedding before reaching those goals.
Live and Kicking
An absolutely transcendent set by Munnsville-based folk duo Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman kicked off the live performances. Winners of eight Sammy Awards over the years, Savoca and Heitzman added another trophy to their collection when they were inducted this year into the Sammys Hall of Fame.
With nothing more than a conga, a guitar and two human voices, the duo embodies the concept that “less is more.” On Friday, they opened with the song “Figure It Out” from their 2016 CD I Shook the Tree, followed by “Green,” punctuated by Heitzman’s marvelously minimalistic guitar before concluding with “In the Dirt,” which like “Green,” comes from the 2006 disc also named In the Dirt.
Both Karen’s vocals and Pete’s guitar work have only improved with age. Folksinger Greg Brown once said of Savoca, “If she were Native American, her name would be Sings Like Two Birds.” Acoustic Guitar magazine has praised Heitzman’s “sly touch,” which was particularly evident at the Sammys when he picked his plywood Washburn Woodstock, an instrument he can confidently crank up without feeding back. The music they make together resonates from Mother Earth to the wide blue heavens.
The Barroom Philosophers, winner of 2018’s Best Jam Band award, turned in an ambitious three-song set showcasing pony-tailed Dave Koegel singing “Angel in My Pocket,” “Peter Parker” and “Apathy.” The material reflects diverse influences from Pink Floyd to Bob Marley and the musicians make it happen: Guitarists Shawn Tallet and Josh Way both wail away on Gibson Les Pauls over a foundation built by bassist Ty Hancock and drummer Brenden Boshart.
Auburn dance studio guru Sean McLeod fronted a funkalicious combo including guitar fingerpicker Loren Barrigar, five-string bassist Edgar Pagan and a nifty horn section of valve trombonist Jeff Stockham and trumpeter Nick Fields.
While McLeod’s pipes may have wavered a bit on “Live in the Light,” and “What It Means to be a Black Man,” his energetic dance moves saved the day. And when he invited Alani Skye on stage to sing “Don’t Forget About Me,” her soaring vocals nearly stole the show before the band finished with “They Call Me a Suit.”
Two ex-sidemen from Lou Reed’s late-1970s bands — guitarist Stu Heinrich and bassist Moose Boles — led a band featuring singer-saxophonist Joe Whiting and keyboardist George Rossi along with two girl singers to pay tribute to the Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Their performance inexplicably failed to capture the dark dynamism of Reed’s best work. Boles voiced a relatively sweet “Sweet Jane” and Whiting sang a gritty “Walk on the Wild Side,” but the group never quite gelled, alas.
To close the show, the Sammys hired Stroke, Syracuse’s most popular Stax-Philly-style rhythm’n’blues band for the past 40 years. Frisina introduced the quartet led by bassist-vocalist Isreal Hagan as the winner of nine Sammys, but the fact is that Isreal himself won six including a Hall of Fame trophy, while his now-retired guitarist brother, Sylvester Hagan, won two, and the band Stroke won three for a total of 11. The quartet, which includes Hagan, drummer Buke Babikian, keyboardist Bill Barry and guitarist John Kelsey, inspired a couple dozen couples from the crowd to get up and dance to a Wilson Pickett number and the Hagan original “Your Love Makes Me Wanna Scream.”
Over the course of Friday’s show, several speakers had pointed out that March 8 was International Women’s Day. As Stroke opened its set, however, Isreal Hagan announced that their first song “is dedicated to my ex-wife.” The tune’s repeated chorus announced, “You hurt me, baby, for the last time.” Ouch.
Reed All About It
The 2019 Sammys Lifetime Achievement Award went to the late Lou Reed, who attended college at SU from 1960 to 1964. His widow, New York City performance artist Laurie Anderson, accepted the trophy on March 7 at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and she recalled that Reed seemed to find himself on campus.
“It was the first time he had a really great teacher,” she said, “that was Delmore Schwartz. That set a path for him, it really did. (Schwartz) was a person who really took him seriously.”
Reed credited Schwartz, a Brooklyn-born poet, with showing him how “with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.”
While at SU in 1961, Reed hosted a late-night program on WAER-FM called Excursions on a Wobbly Rail. He played guitar in a campus band, L.A. and the Eldoradoes, which played a song Reed had written to shock listeners, “The Fuck Around Blues.” Eldoradoes band member Richard Mishkin told Reed biographer Anthony DeCurtis that he and Lou would sit in with black bands at East Side bars in Syracuse, where they recruited female singers and musicians. It’s believed that one memorable lyric from “Walk on the Wild Side” was derived from those outings: “and the colored girls go: Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo. . . Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo. . . ”
In his 2017 biography, Lou Reed: A Life, DeCurtis observed, “Despite what can only be described as a rocky student career at Syracuse University — getting tossed off the student radio station and booted from ROTC, dealing drugs — Lou Reed graduated with honors in June 1964 with a B.A. in English. Along with his generally outrageous behavior and innate desire to shock, Reed displayed a characteristic savvy during his time at SU. His rebelliousness aside, Reed took care to avoid getting kicked out of school. He pushed the college to the limits of its tolerance, but he also taught himself how to work the system to his advantage.”
While matriculating here, Reed started working on songs that would become some of his most iconic tracks with the Velvet Underground, including “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.”
It’s too bad the Sammys didn’t hand over this award a few years ago, when Reed was still alive and kicking. He died in East Hampton on Oct. 27, 2013, at age 71.
Hall of Fame Honors
Four new Sammys Hall of Famers were inducted March 7, and those honorees each represent a separate style of music. Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman have taken their utterly original funky folk songs to the nation as touring performers on the coffeehouse-festival circuit.
Syracuse’s single-most dedicated ambassador of alternative rock, WAQX-FM 95X radio jock Scott Dixon (a.k.a. dXn), also joined the Sammys Hall this year. Beginning with stints in the 1990s as a show producer at clubs such as the Lost Horizon, Styleen’s Rhythm Palace and Armory High, Dixon continues to support the scene nowadays with his on-air show, Locals Only, and he assists his radio colleague, Joe D, to produce the 95X Big X Cuse, 95X-Mas Pajama Jam, the 95X Fresh Sounds Concert Series, the 95X Summer Concert Series and 95X’s Locals Only Fest.
Dixon got the Hall of Fame crowd laughing with his flashback about being a 13-year-old music maniac in Lyncourt who walked all the way to the Lost Horizon to see a hardcore show. Bar owner Greg Italiano looked at the underage concertgoer and asked, “You got six bucks for the cover, kid?” After the show, Italiano gave Dixon a ride back to Lyncourt, as both formed a fast friendship along the way.
Cortland’s “music man,” drummer and music store owner Al Falso, is another member of the Sammys’ 2019 class. Although he died in 1993, “Uncle Al” is fondly remembered by hundreds of area musicians. His own tastes ran to swing artists like drummer Gene Krupa and the Dorsey Brothers, but Falso also had a feeling for hard rock music, and once played harmonica on a track laid down by Rock Feinstein & The Rods. Several of Falso’s family members were on hand with heartfelt recollections.
The fourth 2019 inductee was Little Jan & The Radiants, accepted by singer Jan Perolla Reichard, who sang lead on two 45 rpm singles, “Heart and Soul” and “Is It True,” in 1959 and 1960, respectively. The Radiants first formed in 1958 when three male members of the Teentones — first tenor Billy Shelly, baritone Dominick Scretti and bass singer Tommy Nelli — replaced Billy Sanders, who entered the armed services, and joined with second tenor Carl Irvine and Sanders’ girlfriend, Jan Perolla.
The Radiants entertained at sports-o-ramas, sock hops, house parties and high school dances while sharing stages with artists such as Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Gene Pitney and the Four Seasons. The band broke up in 1961, and Perolla and Nelli are its last surviving members.
Trombonist Melissa Gardiner was named the 2019 Syracuse Area Music Awards Music Educator of the Year. The 30-something brasswoman is the youngest educator ever so honored, and deservedly so. Not only is she an instructor at Syracuse University, Cornell University and Le Moyne College, but she also teaches in less formal settings.
Every Sunday afternoon, for instance, Gardiner leads the house band at Funk N Waffles at a weekly jazz and gospel jam session, where she offers young musicians a priceless opportunity to hone their chops onstage alongside seasoned professionals.
The Julliard graduate maintains a private teaching studio locally and has also taught in the MANOS Makes Music program for dual-language preschool students.