Stories from the Ithaca music scene
September 30, 2009
Originally Published in 20 Watts Magazine, Syracuse, New York
Nestled in the foothills of the Finger Lakes, right in the heart of wine country, Ithaca is tucked away from the rest of the world. There are no major interstates that cut an unsightly swath through its downtown; no passenger trains rumbling across the Cayuga Valley. Ithaca’s old train station has long since been converted into a bank. Bus service is available, but limited in its scope and reliability. A small regional airport serves commuters hopping to Rochester or Syracuse via turboprop planes, but that’s about it.
One could easily assume that if it wasn’t for Cornell University—whose alumni are quick to remind you that yes, it is an Ivy League school—and Ithaca College, Ithaca would have just been another Podunk upstate burg at the edges of the Rust Belt. Yet this small city—yes, it’s classified as a city—just under a 2 hour drive from Syracuse and a little over 4 from New York City, is home to one of the country’s most eclectic, powerful, and thriving music scenes.
After all, the ever-elusive “Ithaca Sound” was created here: a fusion of vast familiar and ethnic musical styles, fundamental to the popularity and acceptance of Roots music. Collegetown venue The Nines has been hosting the jam session Blue Monday for over 29 years. Local award-winning college radio station WICB carries such programming as “Breakfast with the Beatles” and “The Funk Show,” while graduates at the School of Music at nearby Ithaca College go on to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and both the U.S. Army and Marine bands. Acclaimed reggae group John Brown’s Body considers Ithaca home. So do country star Johnny Dowd and folk singers The Burns Sisters. Spurred on by the contingency of active college students as well as Ithaca College’s acclaimed School of Music, the city has welcomed such national acts as Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Blues Traveler, during the early 90s before they sold out stadiums.
“Whenever you have a college town like this, you have a naturally reoccurring base,” says Dan Smalls, a concert promoter who has been part of the Ithaca scene since his freshman year in 1989. “A scene is only as good as the musicians who lived here, and there were always great musicians here. If you continue to do cutting-edge music then you’re going to have a good scene.”
Now here is the Ithaca scene complete with all of its diverse eccentricities, told from the eyes of those who know the city the longest: the veteran blues artist, the bouncer who’s worked all across town, the just-graduated student who elected to stay, the bartender at one of the hottest venues on the Cornell hill, the staff writer turning the city inside out for over 10 years now, the respected Visitor’s Bureau promoter. Each of them has their own stories about the music and the people, the bands and the bars, and none of them can ignore the impact it’s had on their own lives. Like a force greater than themselves, they can’t take their eyes away from it.
Music in Ithaca always changes. The scene flows in four-year waves, rising and ebbing with each incoming and outgoing college. Some stay behind in the small town of 40,000, finding moderate success in the local scene with a steady and reliable audience. Others move on, never to return. But there are still certain things that are constant about Ithaca: each class leaves behind an imprint of their musical tastes on the city—just a small sample of bands that form and break up, movements that fall in and out of fashion, the fusion styles their musical experimenting takes them, and the resurgence of certain genres that trendsetters know to pick up with almost Pavlovian instinct.
Pete Panek is one of the few, rare constants in a city whose musicians often grow up and move out. “We’re the old guards,” says the 58-year old guitarist and lead singer of his epynomous band, Pete Panek and the Blue Cats. “We’re constant, we’re here forever.”
He can recite a who’s who of blues legends he has shared the stage with: Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko “The Queen of the Blues” Taylor, and Charles Musselwhite. He played with the legendary Bo Diddley as his backup band—twice. It’s what happens after living in Chicago, the city that gave the world Chess Records and Howlin’ Wolf, and taking that same music passion to upstate New York.
But Panek was surprised, however, to find a thriving music scene already established in Ithaca comprised of both local musicians as well as others who have also uprooted themselves from Chicago. And since moving to Ithaca in October of 1982, he’s been jamming at The Nines in Collegetown for 29 years now—one of the longest-running open blues jams in America, he’s quick to point out.
“In its heyday in the mid-80s, right after Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn came out, it was crazy,” he says. “One night 24 guitars showed up to jam, which was insane.”
As a forum for students to meet and experiment, Ithaca is fertile ground: Panek estimates that 80% of the bands playing at Ithaca’s major venues are college students, as opposed to out-of-town bands.
Yet it’s retaining these acts that’s the major problem.
Panek acknowledges that bands in Ithaca frequently outgrow their small college-town status. Those that move to Boston or New York to take their chances are rarely heard from again—if they even stay together. “It could be a case of big fish in a small pond,” he shrugs. Once band members graduate after being popular for 3 or 4 years, there’s “almost like a scramble” for another band to fill the void. Other times, bands that find success in Ithaca usually stick around, sometimes for a few years, sometimes more. “There’s always a lot of bands, but the ones that really make it to the top have been together for a while. It takes time to get tight.”
And what works in Ithaca may not always work elsewhere in the country, as Panek points out. “To be honest with you, a lot of times the bands that are really popular locally for a while, don’t leave town for a reason. Because they’ll get their asses kicked.
“Some of the bands are pretty good for Ithaca, but if they leave town they’ll get burnt to death. All of a sudden, they’re a little lightweight. It’s a problem.”
But with the talent from the music schools, Panek knows that Ithaca won’t come up short for new and diverse bands anytime soon, and especially now.
“The music is good, the bands are as good as ever, and getting better,” says Panek, keeping an eye on how the current school year is progressing. “It remains to be seen. This semester’s so young.”
Talk to enough people in town about good venues to see live music at, and a few names will emerge from the riffraff: The Nines. Castaways. Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. The State Theatre. And The Haunt Bar and Grille on Willow St. consistently appears near the top of everybody’s list—ask the veterans of the music scene who were lucky enough to see Pearl Jam, Fishbone, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, all in their heyday as small alternative acts.
Ask John Peterson, longtime proprietor of The Haunt, as well. Originally, Peterson had intended to stay in Ithaca only for one summer after graduating Cornell. He took up a bartender job at The Haunt in 1972, back when the venue featured one or two local bands covering the Allman Brothers every week. Peterson didn’t stand for it.
“I knew exactly what the college kids wanted,” says Peterson. “It was later in the 70s, between 1976 and 1977 that we started bringing live entertainment back. Strictly original bands. No bands that played covers. I wanted bands that played original music.”
Eventually more original bands started to filter in. They played original reggae and blues, different genres that strayed away from Top 40 music but held their certain appeal to a diverse audience. And eventually, Peterson became a partner and stayed in Ithaca to steer The Haunt towards becoming the Ithaca institution it is now.
In those initial years Peterson took a trendsetting approach to booking, oftentimes bucking the trend on mainstream music. For him, working at The Haunt was a “labor of love.” Peterson continues: “having a nightclub was just a cool thing and I was very enthused about bringing these bands in. I would promote them really hard and as opposed to bringing in what people really wanted I brought in bands I thought I could develop a market for.”
Bands such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, who Peterson paid $250 for him to play to a crowd of 40 people back in 1981—the same Stevie Ray Vaughn who went on to record Texas Flood and cement his reputation as one of the most acclaimed guitarists of this generation.
“I used to let the bands stay at my house back then,” recalls Peterson, “and Stevie was leaving kind of late after the act. He planned to stay in their van, but he stayed at my place for 4-5 nights. With his guitar.”
The Haunt became the place to see bands and for bands to be seen at. Somewhere down the line, “bands started feeling like it was really important to play at The Haunt,” says Peterson. The 80s and early 90s brought a solid rotation of acts: Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Phish all played then, as part of the jam band surge of the period.
The scene is just as strong as ever, Peterson says. But he remembers the earlier years in the late 70s when live music was coming under threat from the disco movement. He still remembers cleaning out the cash register in order to pay the band and having other bands cancel on a Saturday night. Peterson couldn’t always see lightning strike twice with then-unknown bands like Pearl Jam: “it took me a long time to figure out the fundamentals of the concert business and the music business.”
And after being in town for so long, someone like Peterson starts to notice trends. Jam bands are on their way out, he says, a sentiment he shares with Panek. Heavy metal, despite the presence of Pyramid Sound studios that mixed the first two Anthrax albums, struggles to find a thriving audience. Soul and funk are currently crowd-pleasers, as well as African-inspired roots music mixed with good ol’ rock n’ roll.
Peterson attributes this to being a shrewd manager: always keeping one step ahead of the crowd, appealing to the alternative, non-mainstream tastes of the city, and knowing not only what the city wants but where the money goes to keep the scene alive.
“If you’re in the business, your ears get a little bit more advanced than the man of the streets and you’re 2 steps ahead of the crowd,” says Peterson, citing the time he brought Pearl Jam in as a prime example. “The thing that makes me happy about Ithaca now is that it’s known as a town that really supports alternative ethnic music. People in Ithaca have a broad taste of music. It’s that kind of community…a lot of people interested in alternative types of things. These people are interested and open to things that are not on commercial radio.
“It’s often easier to sell bands that play hits, but ultimately if you’re really into music you want to hear something new and fresh,” says Peterson.
It’s this fusion of genres, coupled with the creativity of the college-student performers, that makes Ithaca so surprising. Peterson puts it best: “there’s a definite vibe in Ithaca that makes creative type people stick around that will help keep the scene alive.”
Dirty bars, run-down bathrooms, glaring stage lights and sweaty drunk crowds—Brad Matthews revels in all aspects of the Ithaca scene, his enthusiasm never dampening for any of it.
A graduate of Tompkins Community College, Matthews is currently working on his own musical project with Zhivago Project Records, the label behind acclaimed local bands Candypants as well as The Sutras: just two of the bands constantly competing and pushing each other to be creative as a result.
It’s what happens when there’s such a small scene, he says. The musicians end up knowing each other, like Matthews and his studio musicians and the producer/owner of his label, and it becomes easier to start new side projects and move on to more intricate musical experiments.
“So many of the bands in town are from IC or kids that met at college and are now playing together. It’s like the winters here are so long that people have to listen to or play music. And the locals are so supportive you can’t help but love it.”
Matthews fondly recalls being shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow students at The Chapter House. He’s been in town long enough to have snuck into the annual GrassRoots festival once or twice. The best shows, he’ll tell you, are on Thursday evenings well into the morning, “which meant that Friday morning 8 o’clock classes were constantly challenges.
“To me, the local bar scene is way better than festivals. There is nothing like watching a close friend’s band kill it as a sweaty smelly bar. It would take like 30 minutes to get a beer and chances are you’re going to get bumped into walking back to the stage and spilling half anyway.”
As weird as Ithaca may seem at times, that’s an experience that hits home more often than not.
Tim Mavros may be a self-proclaimed metalhead, but his job takes him all across town across all different genres of music. He’s a bouncer who’s worked almost every major club in Ithaca and tossed drunks and underage kids out of most of them, but he is a man who enjoys the crowd too much to be confrontational. And working directly with the shows means that he’s seen the scene change from time to time, which venues he enjoys working with (Dark Star Orchestra are among the most entertaining of the “hippie shows”) and which ones may give him trouble (the nascent hip-hop scene isn’t his cup of tea). He enjoys the crowd, he enjoys the glimpses of the show he catches from the door, and he clearly enjoys his job.
And he’s also felt the sting of the recession, which threatens to pull the carpet out from under the entire scene. “The prices of everything went up,” he explains. “New York State wants to raise the liquor taxes. So you’re forcing the venues to up their prices, and it deters them from buying what they would usually buy.”
Venue owners rely on college students’ billion-dollar-strong disposable income to survive and thrive. When the recession hit, club owners were worried that their crowds would disappear, and reacted by reducing shows during the slow weekday stretches. But mercifully, the crowds haven’t disappeared altogether, the talent hasn’t vanished like the money has, and musicians are simply requesting more free gigs.
And the love-hate relationship between the permanent residents of Ithaca and the rowdy students on the Hill makes for an interesting dynamic. “Townies don’t like the students,” explains Mavros, “but they know they bring the jobs. Even mine.” No matter how bad the recession is, Mavros says, the goal of the bars and clubs are to bring in townies as well as students, and “the more people you bring in, the more money the bar makes, the more you get to work.” Easy.
Such is the scope and size of the two colleges, Cornell and IC, that during the summer over half the population leaves Ithaca behind to head home for the summer. What do the townies do when the college students’ disposable income goes with them?
“A lot of times, nothing happens,” Panek elaborates. “The actual musical calendar for college-oriented music follows the school year, basically. Everything shows down during the summer.” While the music isn’t completely silent, the summer seasons play host to more local tastes such as folk festivals and low-key acts.
Fortunately for Bruce Stoff, this summer’s tourism season shook off the worst effects of the recession. A 10-year Ithaca resident, Stoff is the communications manager of the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. His job entails drawing visitors to hike along Ithaca’s famous gorges, tour the wineries on the nation’s first wine trail, kayak down Cayuga Lake, go swimming at Buttermilk Falls, and do some shopping in the newly refurbished downtown Ithaca Commons.
And, while they’re in town, maybe catch a show or two.
“We just love the local music scene here, it’s fun. And we love getting all the national acts coming through,” says Stoff. “But from a tourism perspective, from the visitor’s bureau we just like to spread the word that people can come here and catch a good show.”
Stoff has been involved with the annual GrassRoots Festival for years—the “festival of music and dance,” featuring performers like Donna the Buffalo, has become a staple for folk fans across the country. And it’s one of the many promotions Stoff has worked on during his tenure here.
“We did a CD of local Ithaca music,” explains Stoff, “featuring some of the bands that are popular here. And we inserted it into 12-packs of Ithaca beer that were sold throughout the Northeast. And that was cool, just putting local music out with beer and letting people know there’s a fun music scene here.”
Additional projects target nearby metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, whose NPR station is working with Stoff to bring Lyle Lovett to town for an interview on the program “World Café.”
And the Chamber of Commerce does what it can to help out small and new businesses, says Stoff. Finding sources of funding for clubs, with their razor-thin profit margins, can be difficult, but when they become successful these businesses are a boon to tourism. That’s why local nightclub Felicia’s Atomic Lounge was recently picked by the Chamber as the Best New Business of the Year: “you don’t expect a chamber to pick a bar or a club as the Best Business of the Year,” says Stoff. “That’s how they try to bring attention to it.”
70-80 percent of the 750,000 visitors to Ithaca are in town primarily for the waterfalls and the downtown attractions. And after that, the remaining tourists are evenly split between the restaurants, the water sports, and the wine. To them, the music scene almost feels like an afterthought—a testament to Ithaca’s relative isolation on the national stage.
“It’s a little hard to get on the national radar like that,” says Stoff. “But there’s a really strong contingent of national performers who live here, especially with the roots scene.” It’s a challenge for Stoff, who acknowledges that while student musicians develop their talents in Ithaca, they make their professional impacts in major cities like New York. “The biggest stumbling block is, how do you keep the talent here long enough to really develop a name for the location? As soon as they start getting really good and popular, they move on to where they can get big shows and media attention.”
Or perhaps there are those in town who wouldn’t want Ithaca to become huge and corporatized, like the faceless record conglomerates in Los Angeles. After all, Ithaca is a town that prides itself on it strangeness and enlightenment, because being stuck in the forests of upstate New York does these things to a city’s populace. And it’s about time people, like those in LA, started to pay attention.
Jim Catalano has been covering the scene since 1992, when he wrote a weekly music column entitled “Soundoff” for the Ithaca Journal. Despite being laid off in June 2009—another casualty in the death of print journalism—he plans to continue covering the music he has been involved in for over a decade.
Being a music journalist meant that he caught a lot of shows: Dread Zeppelin, Soul Asylum, Buddy Guy (possibly performing with Pete Panek, even) and Jeff Buckley, all of which he credits John Peterson of The Haunt with bringing here. When he first moved to town The Haunt was located downtown instead of by the waterfront, Castaways was a metal bar called Max’s, and locals could earn a good living not only by playing clubs but also fraternities, hotels, and college dorms. The scene ebbs and flows, he says, “but that’s mainly due to the types of venues in town and the local promoters, rather than the musicians themselves.”
Today, Catalano believes the scene is poised for another upswing. With talented and dedicated promoters who understand the scene well, and two newly refurbished venues set to open, “I think it will continue to be bright,” says Catalano. He believes underground shows like Popcorn Youth, the Ithaca Underground, and Cornell University’s Fanclub Collective are shaping the contemporary scene today. Local bands such as the Sim Redmond Band, J-san & the Analogue Sons, and John Brown’s Body are also putting out new music that, no matter how large or small the crowd is, will manage to draw an audience.
And mercifully for his career, Catalano always finds something to write about. “I’ve had people ask me how I could possibly write a weekly music column for 17 years. I usually tell them that between the strong local scene, the number of cool national touring acts that visit, and the variety of regional concerts in the summer, when it’s easier to travel, there’s almost always something worthwhile to write about.”
“There was a guitarist from Binghamton,” recalls Stoff about a show at The Nines he attended about six years ago, “who was just 14 years old. He came in with a bunch of old jazz players who were buddies of his. And he just blew the doors off any guitar player I’ve ever heard. He played guitar like nobody’s business. He’s downing the Coca-Colas while the old musicians are downing the beers and the drinks, he had to get a special dispensation to get in the bar. And I just thought, oh my God, this is going to be the next coming, I don’t know who this guy is.
“It was unbelievable. Seeing something like that was just eye-opening. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. But I don’t know what happened to him since.”
Swallowed up by the encompassing music scene, one can imagine. Or maybe he left town after a degree in music performance from Ithaca College, headed to the bright lights of NYC to make a name for himself. Or maybe even hanging out at Blue Monday and jamming with Pete Panek. In Ithaca, the possibilities are endless.
The future of the Ithaca music scene appears as strong as ever, weathering certain setbacks in the past 30 years: the raising of the drinking age, the recent recession, or the horrors of disco music. The trendsetters of contemporary music are still here, coming and going every 4 years: these kids know what they want, and they know what eccentricities are in at the moment, ready to reshape this town as the weird, wonderful, distorted, beautiful mess it is.
“Let’s face it, when you’re a college student, you want to be different, which means you gotta be hip,” says Panek. “So do what you want, don’t follow trends, make your own trends. And then let them follow you, wherever that may be.”
Additional interviews compiled by Jamie Miles.