20 Watts


ISSUE 19 | The Ithaca Sound: One of the Northeast’s most vibrant music scenes lies just an hour away from Syracuse. 20 Watts went to Ithaca to check it out. by Irina Dvalidze
20W November 2009 Final1edited

Caution Children are one of the many bands that characterize Ithaca sound

Nestled in the foothills of the Finger Lakes, right in the heart of wine country, Ithaca is a community secluded 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.  One could easily assume that if it wasn’t for Cornell University and Ithaca College, Ithaca would have just been another Podunk upstate burg at the edges of the Rust Belt.

Yet this small college city, just over a one-hour drive from Syracuse and a little under five 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 familiar and ethnic music styles, fundamental to the popularity and acceptance of Roots. Acclaimed reggae group John Brown’s Body considers Ithaca home, as do country singer Johnny Dowd and folk singers The Burns Sisters.  College-town venue The Nines has been hosting the Blue Monday jam session for over 29 years. And the local award-winning college radio station WICB carries such programming as “Home Brew,” a weekly show dedicated to local music, while graduates at the School of Music at nearby Ithaca College go on to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

“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.”

Putting a face to Ithaca’s intricate personality is difficult at best, simply because it has too many faces to represent its storied history:  the veteran blues artist, the bartender at one of the hottest venues on the Cornell hill, the bouncer who’s worked all across town, the respected Visitor’s Bureau promoter, the music writer turning the city inside out, and the students who, in just three years, have carved their place in the scene. 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 this scene has had on their own lives.

THE BLUESMAN

Music in Ithaca always changes. The scene flows in four-year waves, rising and ebbing with each incoming and outgoing college class. But there are still some elements of permanence here: take Pete Panek, for example – 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.”

A consummate bluesman, Panek can recite a who’s-who of blues legends he has shared the stage with: Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Charles Musselwhite. He played with the legendary Bo Diddley as his backup band, twice.  Since moving to Ithaca in October 1982, he’s been jamming at The Nines in Collegetown each week — 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.”

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.”

THE BARTENDER

Talk to enough people in town about good venues for live music, and a few names will emerge from the riffraff: The Nines. Castaways. Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. The Shop.

Ask John Peterson his favorite venue, and he’ll surely tell you the Haunt Bar and Grille, which he owned until 1996.

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.”

More original bands started to filter in, playing original reggae and blues.  And eventually, Peterson became a partner and stayed in Ithaca to steer The Haunt towards becoming the 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.”

“Having a nightclub was just a cool thing and I was very enthused about bringing these bands in,” he said.  “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.”

Those acts included the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, who Peterson paid $250 for 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 four to five nights. With his guitar.”

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 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.

“The thing that makes me happy about Ithaca now is that it’s known as a town that really supports alternative ethnic music,” Peterson said. “People in Ithaca have a broad taste of music. It’s that kind of community… there’s a definite vibe in Ithaca that makes creative type people stick around that will help keep the scene alive.”

THE BOUNCER

Tim Mavros may be a self-proclaimed metalhead, but his job takes him all across town and 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.

Working directly with the shows also means that he’s seen the scene change from time to time and knows 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.

He’s also felt the sting of the economic 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.”

THE PROMOTER

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.”

Seventy to 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.”

THE JOURNALIST

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. 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, he plans to continue covering music.

Being a music journalist means that he caught a lot of shows, including Dread Zeppelin, Soul Asylum, Buddy Guy and Jeff Buckley. 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,” he saoid. “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.”

THE YOUNG BLOOD

Worthwhile new acts, in fact, lie no further than Ithaca’s South Hill, home to the music-intensive Ithaca College and dozens of young student acts.

The six beard-toting, flannel-wearing members of Caution Children spent their junior year in a house on South Hill, drinking Utica Club, recording demo tracks for Myspace and playing gigs on and off campus when they had the time.  Though they’ve since moved into separate houses, they’ve still become something of a fixture on the college scene — so much so, in fact, that they seem to open, headline or otherwise involve themselves in every show that IC puts on.

But for keyboardist and IC senior Aaron Terkel, at least, Caution Children are more a band from Ithaca than a band from Ithaca College.  It’s an atmosphere that he and other college acts say is very hospitable to young bands, largely because the local scene itself is so vibrant.

“There’s a lot of music in this town,” Terkel said by e-mail.  “It has been said that there are more musicians (or at least, musically inclined people) per capita in Ithaca than anywhere else in upstate NY… Local music will always be present and be a big driving force behind what keeps people going in this town.”

Caution Children originally formed in 2007, after an open mic night at IC’s Campus Center.  The band began as a kind of free-spirited collective, sitting on a rainbow parachute and jamming out on toy instruments.  As they began practicing more regularly and playing actual songs, they gained a small following and a reputation for spirited, often riotous, live shows, complete with the token parachute and the “pistols in the sky” hand gesture that have become something of a calling card.

Last year, they opened for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Cornell University.  This month, they’ll play an IC homecoming event.  And over the upcoming winter break, the band intends to record their debut album with Sixteen Sixteen, an artist label and collective started by frontman Steve Burton’s high school friend Chris Ploss and home to fellow IC acts Radio the Ape, Kites in Space and Dandy Little Lions.

But Caution Children are a part of the four-year cycle that Pete Panek and other scene vets cite as critical to Ithaca’s music scene: most of the band’s six are not native to Central New York, and though they groan — literally — at the mention of post-graduation plans, it doesn’t seem that they’re likely to stay in the area.  Few college bands do, said CJ Knowles, a 2008 IC grad and the former frontman of now-defunct folk-pop act the Tundra Toes.

“College bands are in a lot of ways flashes in the pan doomed to fizzle out once everyone graduates,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “But each one definitely leaves behind some influence, particularly on the administration’s support for college music and the local venues’ ideas of its worth.”

Knowles said that Jack Bauer and Stanley and the Livingstons were critical in paving the way for his band, while Tundra Toes went on to clear the way for Caution Children.  There’s a lot of crossover between the three bands: Caution Children’s saxophonist, Reece Lazarus, used to play with Tundra Toes, while Knowles once played with Stanley and the Livingstons.

Caution Children also share their bassist, Mike Grippi, with Dandy Little Lions, a noise-driven electro act that went on hiatus when keyboardist Jake Forney and drummer Nick Carr graduated last spring.  Forney has since relocated to Brooklyn, while Carr lives in Rhode Island.  There’s no word on if or when the Dandy Little Lions will return.

But that isn’t the case for every college band playing Castaways and The Nines these days.  Nick Bullock, Jason Pratt and Devon Reehl met in the IC dorms in 2000 — nearly 10 years and two line-up changes later, Revision remains a staple of the funk/jazz scene.

Keyboardist Jonathan Petronzio said that it’s a scene on the brink — a fact that explains why Revisions, at least, have never left.

“I’ve often wondered why and how Ithaca isn’t viewed as the Nashville of the Northeast,” he said.  “I compare Ithaca’s music to the likeness of a Carnival quarter machine where all of the quarters are lined up teetering on the edge, and ready to fall at any time… We only need one band to break.”

When all is said and done, the future of the Ithaca music scene appears as strong as ever, in spite of the recent recession, changes to the scene and changes to the industry overall.  The trendsetters of contemporary music are still here, coming and going every four years: these kids know what they want and they are ready to reshape this weird and beautiful town in their own ever-changing image.

“So do what you want, don’t follow trends, make your own trends,” Panek advised newcomers to Ithaca’s music scene.  “And then let them follow you, wherever that may be.”

– story by Blake Rong and Caitlin Dewey
— additional reporting by Donata Lockett and Jamie Miles

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