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Ben Martin sings his heart out at La Casbah.
Ben Martin sings his heart out at La Casbah.

North Country's live music scene thrives through economic blues

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This week, North Country Public Radio has been celebrating the region's vibrant music culture. You can listen to the entire series on our website, ncpr.org.

Today we dip into the business of music and take the pulse of the region's live music scene. Despite the two year-old recession, bars, music halls, and university performance spaces are keeping live music onstage. As David Sommerstein reports, the people involved in that business believe live music in the North Country is thriving.

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Mike Scriminger of Fourth Coast Entertainment says regional music is thriving

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David Sommerstein
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It’s early on a Friday night in Potsdam.  At La Casbah, a Moroccan restaurant and music club, Ben Martin’s unwinding wires, plugging in amps, and warming up instruments.

[harmonica] Doing a Neil Young song there, Heart of Gold.

Martin glances up and scans the room.  A few clusters of folks sipping drinks, some people finishing up dinner.

Supposed to be starting at 8, but it’s a little quiet right now.

Martin’s a senior in electrical engineering at Clarkson University.  He just got this weekly gig.  In his hometown near Saratoga Springs, he’d hop from open mic night to open mic night, anyplace he could play.

Just to play out as much as possible just to get your name out, and if you have something to share.  That’s the way you’re going to get exposure.

Places like La Casbah provide the space for that musicians’ proving ground.

[Ben plays]

[sound upstairs]

Upstairs, co-owner Ray Bourhout connects the taps and stocks beer cups behind a second bar.  It was added on a few years ago to make the restaurant more of a nightclub.

It’s a lot of work, takes a lot of work.  Lot of work, lot of sacrifice and energy to do that.  I enjoy what I do.  I just enjoy it.

It’s the drink sales up here that’ll help pay for Ben Martin’s live music downstairs.  By midnight, this room’ll be bumpin’ with college students, a pulsing LED light array, and DJed music like this…

[Jennifer lopez]

The live music business isn’t easy, especially in the sparsely populated North Country.

They’re selling alcohol to make money at doing this business, but I see them dropping cover charges lately to get this many people in the door.

Mike Scriminger is a publisher of Fourth Coast Entertainment, a free monthly live music tabloid serving the region from Watertown to Plattsburgh.

He’s also a longtime musician.  He plays me a brand new demo on his computer speakers in his office in Canton.

This is Dave Parker.  We started working on a new project.  It’s going toward more jam rock.  “Turn it up a little bit”.  Sure… [music]

Scriminger says the scene’s growing.  Even despite the recession, or many because of it, he says, live music in the North Country is thriving.

People are staying closer to home, trying to find out what more is going on, spending their money more wisely, the entertainment industry, I feel, has grown.

Scriminger’s promoting a lot of shows in Watertown lately.  Across the region, local rock bands hop from bar to bar.  They combine forces for double billings to generate more buzz. 

Scriminger says things are bubbling up.

I feel Potsdam’s very cultural and it could be a bigger scene.  It’s full of local musicians from Crane and look at St. Lawrence University, with the music talent they put out.  It’s growing.

[street sound]

Potsdam has a history of that sort of thing.  This corner, Market and Main, used to be the hub of all kinds of live music.

Right over there where it says Happy Daze, that started out as the Tudor Room when I came here in 1973, but it became the Smilin’ Dog.

Robin McClellan was one of the college students packing places like the Wild Oat, Django’s, and loads of coffeehouses.  National acts like Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton came up to play all the time.  And local music was vibrant, too, says McClellan.

So you could go down to Alger's, which was a bar down under the old Arlington, the basement of the old Arlington, you could hear Renee Fleming sing scat with a bunch of jazz musicians, so it was one of those times when it was pretty magical.

The 21 drinking age has thinned out the crowds and victimized many of the bars.  But other kinds of venues have stepped in – renovated opera houses, college auditoriums, outdoor festivals in summer – bringing a fresh vibe and talented acts.

Yeah, I’m back in Saranac lake at Bluseed Studios.  This is an awesome venue…

Canadian Annabelle Chvostek, nationally known musician, former member of the Wailin’ Jennys, played at Bluseed Studios in Saranac Lake last December.

[music]

Bluseed is an art gallery turned music venue, a not-for-profit.  It doesn’t sell drinks or food.  Just good music.

It’s a very intimate space.  It’s a very different kind of space.  It’s like a house concert.

Carol Marie Vossler is Bluseed’s founder and artistic director.  She says deep in the High Peaks people get to enjoy the kind of concerts you’d expect in places like Albany and Boston.  Some are even recorded for use on the nationally syndicated public radio music show Folk Alley.

And the fact that we could bring such quality musicians and they responded so positively, it just builds its own momentum that way.

It’s impossible to name all the venues across the North Country that attract top notch touring and local musicians alike – the Recovery Lounge in Jay, Java at St. Lawrence University, Community Performance Series at SUNY Potsdam, the Clayton and Edwards Opera Houses.

Hillary Oak directs the St. Lawrence County Arts Council.  She says it’s impossible to underestimate the economic impact these venues and the people who play them have.

Musicians, it may not be their full-time job, it might be their weekend gig, but they’re earning money, they’re feeding their families, they’re selling their CDs, they’re getting out there, they’re exporting their talent.

Live music, Oak says, also brings people closer to the art form and to each other.

You see the expressions and the movement of the musicians.  You get to connect with them in a very different way than if you hear it on the radio or on a CD.  When music is playing, it brings people together.

[stairs]

That’s what keeps Brandon Devito going, he says as he walks up to his office at the Waterhole, a popular bar and concert venue in Saranac Lake.  He’s coming off a run of 10 packed shows in 10 days during Winter Carnival.

It was pretty unique.  We definitely put the room to the test and it worked.  And by having ten different genres of music, we were able to get a different crowd each night.  It was pretty cool.

He says it was exhausting.  It was a risk.  But it was worth it.

I love live music.  It allows people to dance and cut loose and have a good time.

More than anything, it’s that passion to bring people together that keeps the North Country live music scene alive.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Potsdam.

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