Cool jazz, toe-tapping zydeco, blow-out-your-eardrums rock, mellow folk. These are just some of the treats awaiting visitors to the area's hottest nightspots. Prepare to be wowed.
In need of a little night music?
Here¡¯s a roundup of some of the Valley¡¯s hippest,
most happening venues
By Steve Hopkins
It¡¯s a Saturday night, in the summer of 2004, and here you sit, looking blankly at the nightlife pages of your local arts rag, stumped. You¡¯re a demographically attractive, culturally aware, semi-hip person of increasing vintage looking for a place to go to recharge those ebbing batteries with some real, live music, played on a stage by actual human beings. You haven¡¯t been out to a music club in a couple of ¡ª oh, let¡¯s admit it, five or six years. As far as live music goes, you¡¯re not only out of the loop, you don¡¯t even know if there still is a loop.
The night world in the Hudson Valley has gone through a sea change since we last tackled this problem a few years ago. Back then, if you wanted to experience a Manhattan-style eatery or club scene, you had to go to Manhattan. Well, Manhattan has expanded up the Valley, bringing with it a vibrant new way of dealing with the dark. A lot of downtowns have been brightened up and colonized by art galleries, bistros, restaurants, and clubs, many of them open into the night. So our reporting this time around will focus mostly on urban spots, with a few mitigating sprinkles from left field. Enjoy the tour, and if you go, tell ¡¯em Steve sent ya.
Have you been to North Pearl Street in downtown Albany on a Friday night lately? It¡¯s virtually unrecognizable, having been transformed over the past few years into a crowded bar and club scene ¡ª a cross between the new Times Square and Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Where once you couldn¡¯t find a sidewalk caf¨¦ if you walked for miles, there are now nearly a dozen in a five-block area. The caf¨¦s front a phalanx of brightly lit, bouncer-guarded bar/restaurants filled with happy-hour professionals and state workers, most of whom are supplanted later in the evening by hordes of pub-crawling college students and those trying to pass as such.
On the north end of the district at Clinton Square ¡ª home of cultural mainstays the Palace Theatre and Capital Rep, and where, a sign crows, ¡°Herman Melville studied and worked during formative years in Albany¡± ¡ª lies McGeary¡¯s, the trailblazing Irish pub, holding its own admirably into the new millennium. Ever adaptable, McGeary¡¯s has co-opted the square in front of it, where it is presenting a summer concert series in a tent with serviceable R&B cover bands and plenty of beer on tap. The atmosphere is predictably beer-soaked and woozy.
Downwind across Sheridan Street is the Big House Brewing Company, which, according to bar manager Steve Hovey, offers cover bands Thursday nights after the ¡°Live at Five¡± concert series all summer at Riverfront Park, and on Fridays during happy hour. Bands like Sirsy, Blue Machine, Schmooze, and Jones take the stage until 9 p.m. on these nights, after which the place turns into a 17,000-square-foot, three-floor pick-up scene.
Friday and Saturday after 9 p.m., there are two DJs pumping out familiar tunes on the first floor, and newer dance music, techno, and hip-hop on the second floor. Up to 1,200 revelers at a time can, and often do, jam into the place. ¡°We get a mixed bag of professionals early and then a late night crowd of students. Their ages average around 35 weeknights and 25 on weekends,¡± says Hovey.
The other bars sprouting around Clinton Square and southward along North Pearl ¡ª a few of which feature live music ¡ª include the C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station, the Victory Caf¨¦, Speakeasy Lounge, Jillian¡¯s, Pearl, and Bayou Cafe, a big first-floor bar and restaurant with an outdoor caf¨¦ and a pretty good rock duo playing in the window the night I was there. Then there¡¯s the Mad River Bar & Grille at North Pearl and Sheridan, which is packed with college jocks and the girls who love them.
Most of this is not really my scene (and most likely not yours, either) so I head serendipitously southward, across State Street to the less gaudily lit South Pearl Street. In the first block, just before the Pepsi Arena, I stumble across a smallish basement club called Savannah¡¯s: ¡°Real Food, Live Music.¡± The joyous bluesy noise thumping into the street from inside sounds pretty good.
The place is an oasis of genuineness. The spiritual descendant of the Chambers, a fine R&B and jazz club that was once in the same location, it¡¯s a dark and comfortable sit-down club with great sight lines to a raised stage. It¡¯s full but not overly crowded with patrons who are obviously there for the music first, along with their food and drink. The band on this particular night is No Outlet, and a quick look at the marquee confirms that this is a full-time music club. There¡¯s something going on six nights a week. The bands are sturdy denizens of the Albany area scene: Ernie Williams, Pearl, Lustre Kings, the Tom Healey Band, THICK¡and every other Wednesday an old friend and great guitarist/vocalist, Bobby Vandetta, teams up with the club¡¯s talented owner, Laura Paigo, for a duet.
The food¡¯s pretty good, too ¡ª and for what might be considered a song. There¡¯s a full menu of appetizers, soups, and entrees, not the least of which is Mama¡¯s homemade lasagna for a very reasonable $7.95.
Up on River Street in Troy is a big old 19th-century waterfront warehouse space that was converted about a year and a half ago into a state-of-the-art music venue. Revolution Hall, a.k.a. ¡°The Rev,¡± is run by the same people as Brown¡¯s Brewing Company next door, a good-sized brewpub that draws its own considerable clientele.
On the Friday night I looked over the place, the Ryan Montbleau Band was winding up its last set. The sound was better than terrific, and not only because the band was good. Revolution Hall is blessed with a killer sound system and a room that has been acoustically engineered to make the most of the space. When an act like NRBQ blows into town ¡ª a show scheduled for September 17 at 9 p.m., by the way ¡ª they may not want to leave the stage. The sound system was custom-built by Dalbec Audio Laboratory in Troy, a company that also furnished sound system components for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Pepsi Arena, the Egg at Empire State Plaza, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and Studio 54 in New York City, among others. The company¡¯s ¡°Linear Q Transition¡± technology creates the effect of the sound coming from everywhere, rather than from a big bank of speakers.
The place is comfortable for the audience, too, with room for 800 on the main floor and a wraparound mezzanine. There are only a couple of structural poles to spoil the view. This is not, however, a place to sit down, except for 12 or so two-seater tables along the mezzanine rail, a few bar stools, and a couple of long deacon¡¯s benches in the back of the club. There¡¯s plenty of room to sit and rest your tired dogs at the brewpub next door after the show, especially on nice summer nights when the outdoor ¡°taproom¡± on the Hudson waterfront is open.
A finger in the Van Dyck
A few other Capital District venues deserve mention. Three are in the rock category. For years, Saratoga Winners on Route 9 in Latham has been packing them into an enormous roadhouse-like room for some of the best rock shows. Just don¡¯t stand under the giant wagon-wheel chandelier. It may go any minute now.
Northern Lights is a big throwback of a club in a strip mall on Route 146 in Clifton Park that puts on the kind of shows most people who don¡¯t live on Long Island will never get to see. Queensryche, Dokken, Mudvayne, Third Eye Blind and Danzig are just a few of the big, nearly out-of-print names that have graced this not very graceful suburban stage.
Back in Albany, out on New Scotland Avenue in the college ghetto, Valentine¡¯s packs 250 or more souls every weekend night into its cramped, dingy space. I know a lot of young ¡°scenesters¡± who swear by the place, and word-of-mouth and a smattering of online reviews suggests that a few 40-to-50-year-olds will put up with the beer-stained environment if the music is worth it. Often, it is.
For something completely different in the Tri-Cities, you have to go out to Schenectady and risk getting lost trying to find the legendary Van Dyck. On Union Street in the historic Stockade part of town, the Van Dyck is a beautiful Georgian townhouse. In business for at least 56 years, the place has gotten bigger in the modern era, and is now a restaurant, brewpub, and record label in addition to being a renowned music venue where jazz greats like Chick Corea, Mose Allison, Roy Haynes, and Pat Metheny come to play. Classic rock performers like Jefferson Starship and Little Feat have been added to the mix of late, in addition to a few folk acts.
The place has had its share of financial woes. After a $2 million renovation in 1997, the club¡¯s four squabbling owners ended up in dire straights. Help arrived this May when the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, a public benefit corporation funded by local sales taxes, handed over a $375,000 assistance package to Peter Olsen, the sole survivor of a tricky corporate restructuring in which his three partners opted out. Olsen is in the process of reorganizing the club¡¯s finances, firing up some more beer and ale, expanding the patio, and applying for a $500,000 loan to get him to the next level. He says business is great.
Through it all, the level of music has somehow remained consistently top-shelf. Advice to jazz fans: if you¡¯ve been meaning to hit the Van Dyck one of these days, now¡¯s the time.
Smooth, sophisticated, and sensual
Having exhausted myself rooting out nightlife in the northern reaches, I decided to shoot to the lower reaches of the Valley and work my way back up to the middle, where I live.
Next stop was Plums, a fine, sophisticated jazz room on Wickham Avenue in Middletown, Orange County, started by two retired, decorated New York City cops. Darryl Hayes and Ben Judge are friends of 17 years who share an aesthetic sense of jazz, food, and atmosphere. The club they fashioned has candlelit tables and plum-colored accents everywhere, including the tablecloths. It¡¯s an extremely pleasant place with contemporary American food, and a refreshingly mixed crowd.
The club¡¯s jazz, which sometimes drifts languorously across genres, tends toward the sensual as well. Recent offerings have included the Madame Pat Tandy Quartet; the Jazz Squids, a funk blues outfit; and an Afro-Caribbean jazz band, Hai Rezolution. Derek Strange, George Pelecanos¡¯s noir detective, wouldn¡¯t feel out of place in this joint.
The Chthonic Clash Coffeehouse on Main Street in Beacon is a product of the great re-imagining of that once-decrepit river town as a Manhattan art enclave. Dia:Beacon has helped spawn all kinds of support businesses to keep the artists and tourists fed, clothed, and entertained. Indeed, Chthonic Clash proprietor Nell Timmer is herself a transplanted Manhattanite with a degree in art history.
The pleasantly trendy space augments its high-ceilinged, raw brick ambience with wooden accents, antique couches, chairs, tables, and lamps. Besides the requisite coffee-swilling; chess, Scrabble, and Trivial Pursuit playing; laptop doodling; reading, writing, and poetry-spouting ¡ª all occurring with charming irregularity ¡ª there is some pretty good art adorning the walls and some excellent, eclectic music being performed by young punks and hipsters playing acoustic instruments with verve and fresh wit. The Wiyos and Matt Turk come to mind. The Mammals, who are great, are playing there on Friday, August 13.
Got my Mojo workin¡¯
The minute you walk into Mojo Grill you forget you¡¯re in a strip mall in Wappingers Falls, as you are transported into a subtropical paradise ¡ª surrounded by the hand-painted wraparound murals of a lush, sandy atoll, with the dining area as the central lagoon. An incongruous red-and-white-striped New England lighthouse juts up from the middle of one of the beaches, its beacon shining with a real light. Enormous domed chandeliers hover overhead, draped with island-colored swatches of cloth that make them look like giant alien sunflowers. The bathrooms are similarly fanciful, featuring undersea murals.
The bar area where the band plays is separated from the dining room ¡ª where most of the patrons are ¡ª by a tall room divider. The music is mostly jazz, with occasional blues, bluegrass, and rock performers.
Give Poughkeepsie a Chance
Crannell Street, once a dangerous dead-end alley in downtown Poughkeepsie, is a lot more pleasant now that Main Street is again open to traffic. In fact, with The Chance as nighttime anchor, this once-desolate block of Main Street is now alive. Cars and police cruisers glide up and down the well-lit thoroughfare, and there¡¯s a lively throng entering and leaving the club, filling Crannell Street and spilling onto Main, which now boasts a number of other open late-night businesses. A big, bright municipal parking lot behind the club is similarly active.
The Chance itself has morphed over the years into four venues: The Chance Theater, a converted old movie house where all the national acts play; Club Crannell St., a more intimate performance area with food; The Loft, an upscale, Miami-style nightclub; and The Platinum Lounge, an even more upscale environment that aspires to interest those wanting top-shelf liquor and $15 specialty cocktails. The night my pregnant wife and I went to a show at The Chance Theater, entr¨¦e to the three other clubs was blocked off and patrons were herded into the theater, so we didn¡¯t get a glimpse of anything ¡°upscale.¡±
Once inside, however, we were treated to a soul-stirring feast of some of the best reggae music since the death of Bob Marley. In fact, one of the triple-bill of headliners was Marcia Griffiths, a former member of the I-Threes, backup singers in Marley¡¯s legendary band, The Wailers. Griffiths tended toward genuine Rastafarian anthems in praise of the religion¡¯s deity, the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. The club was packed with a mix of casual reggae lovers and Jamaicans who revere the music. ¡°Poughkeepsie has a natural mystic quality,¡± intoned Griffiths, not kidding. ¡°It¡¯s because of reggae music.¡±
She performed a few Marley tunes and a tender duet with her son, a kid with a serious voice of his own, before launching into her big hit, the incongruously secular ¡°Electric Slide,¡± during which she exhorted a passel of fans onstage with her.
We couldn¡¯t stay for the final act ¡ª the great Beres Hammond, whose set started well after my wife would have turned into a pumpkin ¡ª but we managed to hang tight for Maxi Priest, a great entertainer with a killer set of soul pipes and a mass of braided dreads.
Ulster County, home to a vigorously arts-conscious minority that is as close to becoming a majority as anywhere in the nation, is predictably a hotbed of live music. Paradoxically, Woodstock, the namesake of an entire musical generation, is a place that has trouble supporting even one halfway decent music club. Tinker Street and Joyous Lake both bit the dust, bringing the grand total down to a nearly extinct two: the somewhat hippy-dippy Colony Caf¨¦ and Legends of Woodstock, a big, unwieldy club that seems to be perpetually on the verge of going under.
Saugerties is home to a number of live music venues, some of which like to pretend they¡¯re in Woodstock. In the village center there¡¯s the Chowhound Caf¨¦, an eatery with bluegrass, jazz, folk, and eclectic bands on weekends; Doolittle¡¯s Pub, whose owners have a line on some pretty good regional country bands; and the Dutch Tavern, offering smaller acoustic groups in a cozy Rip Van Winkle setting. Out on Route 212, almost in Woodstock, is New World Home Cooking, which offers a diverse menu of healthy, tasty food, and cooks up a zesty multicultural bouillabaisse of party music on weekends as well.
New Paltz, home of a big state university, is for its size and reputation almost as musically underserved as Woodstock. There are nightly bluegrass, jazz, and other bands at Gadaleto¡¯s Seafood Restaurant. There are a smattering of cover bands on weekends at places like the Gilded Otter and Snug¡¯s Tavern. But the only place you¡¯ll see a consistently interesting and varied lineup is the Oasis Caf¨¦, a live venue on the second floor of Cabaloosa, a Main Street dance club. One of the bands making quite a stir there of late is the Kiss Ups, a hyper pop-rock duo of bass, drums, and vocals who make a joyful noise that induces girls to scream like bobbysoxers and boys to dance on their heads. Literally.
Kingston is on another level entirely. This reemerging cultural center is bursting with creative energy, and is home to scads of galleries and performance spaces. It has UPAC, a regional performing arts center, and a burgeoning club music scene. The Rondout section down by the waterfront has a number of live music venues, including the West Strand Grill and El Coqui, a Puerto Rican restaurant that packs them in on weekends with some top-notch salsa bands. But the best venue in Kingston right now ¡ª and my choice for best venue in the Valley ¡ª has to be The Forum on Broadway in Midtown.
The small, clean, Manhattan-esque club is blessed with music-conscious owners who are waging an aggressive, intelligent booking policy, drawing the sort of national and regional acts that keep a die-hard music fan glued to the place. In the month I researched the Hudson Valley music scene ¡ª just eight weekend nights to catch all the high spots ¡ª it was impossible to stay out of The Forum on three of those nights. The first can¡¯t-miss show was Vernon Reid of Living Colour, an unsung living legend who astonished the small but enraptured crowd with a series of guitar feats unmatched since Jimi Hendrix kissed the sky for the last time. The second must-see was the Push Stars, a now faded pretty-boy pop band who deserve a much better fate and might just find one as their lead singer/songwriter, Chris Trapper, gets more in touch with his moody Irish sensibility. The small club was packed with dewy-eyed fans, and the rhythm section was wildly overqualified to be playing such simple changes; their considerable efforts to keep themselves under wraps provided much of the delicious tension at the heart of the band¡¯s appeal.
The third show featured regional icons Pitchfork Militia, who tore up the place as cowpunk poet and guitar god Peter Head went through a pack of strings. Weiners were being served out back on the patio, people in ten-gallon hats danced like dervishes, and some old dude broke out a bizarre Mardi Gras string puppet that nearly turned Mr. Head¡¯s permanent grimace into a smile. It was as close to musical nirvana as one could hope to get for five bucks. ¡ö