In awarding management of the Cohoes Music Hall to Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse through an RFP process, the City seems to be punishing success while repeating missteps of the past.
We’re seeing the same bad movie, again.
Over the past several years, Holly Brown and her team operated the Hall so effectively that Times Union readers honored it as Best Small Live-Music Venue of the Capital Region in 2019.
As music reviewer for Schenectady’s Gazette Newspapers, I appreciate the Hall’s high quality programming including particularly impressive shows I saw there by Alejandro Escovedo, Rodney Crowell with Joe Robinson, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet and Terrance Simien and his Zydeco Experience. Many, many more first-class artists have played the Hall in a busy schedule with consistently high performance and production quality.
The Hall wasn’t broke: Why “fix” it?
Over time, the Hall has survived a roller-coaster ride of hopeful ambition, investment and achievement followed by depressing let-downs that eroded its momentum, energy and support.
After decades of dormancy and neglect, the Hall welcomed the Eighth Step for a time, presenting quality national and regional folk artists.
Then, the city evicted the Eighth Step in favor of a theater company, C&R Productions, which imploded and withdrew.
After another dormant period, regional promoters Greg Bell (of Guthrie Bell Productions) and Sal Prizio (then of the Massry Center at the College of St. Rose, now with Proctors Collaborative) promoted a variety of popular music events in the Hall.
But these competent, creditable promoters were soon ousted, like the Eighth Step, followed by another dormant period.
See; the same bad movie.
When the City hired Holly Brown, formerly at Albany’s Palace Theatre, a true renaissance began at the Hall.
A busy concert schedule brought in top talent, which brought in crowds and revenue, both for the venue and for neighborhood hospitality businesses through dinner-and-show promotions. Moreover, Brown and her team oversaw improvements to lighting and audio systems that enhance the audience experience.
The Hall was busy, on a roll.
Granted, I write my concerns without having reviewed the management proposals from which the city chose that of Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse. And this is not to denigrate that organization, which has for 30-plus years presented quality musical theater in Washington Park’s Lakehouse Theater and in the Hall, seemingly in effective cooperation with Brown’s management team, Similarly, impresario Mona Golub’s Second Wind Productions cooperated with Park Playhouse to present its varied musical offerings in Washington Park on nights when Park Playhouse was dark.
I question the City’s choice due to admiration for the presentation quality and quantity Brown and her team had built in the Hall.
I also doubt specifically that Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse has expertise in varied bookings and presentations equivalent to the skills she brought to the Hall.
The pending management change will likely narrow the artistic spectrum of performances in the Cohoes Music Hall, at the expense of the quality musical fare of the past several years, and fans of that fare.
The Cohoes Music Hall isn’t broken; I urge the City not to “fix” it.
The Legendary Characters Play Freedom Park Quarantune Streaming Series Tonight, July 25
From leading the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band Blues Band and Out of the Blues in the 80s and 90s, Rick Siciliano now plays what the drummer-singer cheerfully calls the “silver-haired circuit” with the Legendary Characters, a trio that entertains in nursing homes and rehab facilities.
An expended Legendary Characters crew plays the Freedom Park Quarantune Series tonight (July 25) from Scotia, though locations don’t mean much in these plague times when live music comes to us via streaming.
Siciliano hadn’t made music in public for a decade and had retired from his photography and video business, Digital Imaging Technologies; but he hesitated when a former bandmate invited him to play again.
Then he remembered his 96-year-old mother’s complaint about the entertainment in her nursing home. “Most of them stink,” he recalled her saying. He realized, “Old people, they know good stuff. They deserve good music and to have a good time.”
Delivering good times was the blueprint for the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, formed in 1982 as house band for parties of the ski club by that name. (Skiing comes back, keep reading.) Gregarious, a natural host and catalyst, Siciliano has long mixed fun with; well, everything. A leading commercial photographer, he answered the phone saying “Studio” as if there were no other; and his Albany Street workplace-residence hosted legendary Halloween parties and other gatherings.
His Out of Control Rhythm & Blues band became a leading cover band delivering R&B, soul and rock good times in bars and private parties. When he left that big band in 1994, he built another, the eight-piece Out of the Blues crew, a similar party juggernaut. By 2003, he disbanded it, tired of handling the band’s business including booking shows and being “band shrink.”
An avid outdoorsperson, he became a ski instructor then, a member since 2003 of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
So was John Hall, leader, singer and main songwriter of Orleans. Hall started teaching in Catskills resorts between that pop-rock band’s hit-making days and a seat in Congress. One day during class, Orleans’ “You’re Still the One” played over the instruction-slope sound system. “That’s me,” said Hall. His class wouldn’t believe him until he sang along, as their jaws dropped. But I digress.
After Siciliano sold Digital Imaging Technologies in 2010, he became bus aide to special needs students in the Scotia-Glenville system. Then keyboardist John Dross, once Siciliano’s bandmate in Out of the Blues, asked him to play in a new small community band in libraries, nursing and rehab facilities. They sounded good to Siciliano who remembered his mom’s complaint and resolved to deliver something better than the solo acts dominating that “silver-haired circuit” where gigs might pay “15 bucks and a tuna sandwich.”
Originally a quartet of Dross playing guitar and keyboards, Siciliano singing and playing drums, keyboardist David Gerhan and accordionist Ralph Brooks, the band continued as a trio after Dross died of cancer. They’d been playing once or twice a month until “I got the fever and wanted to start playing more,” said Siciliano. He took over the bookings as the band updated its repertoire, dropping its swing-era tunes to concentrate on 50s and 60s rock, and became the Legendary Characters.
“When Elvis hit, I was 10 or 11, but the people we play for now, they’re older,” said Siciliano, now 70, sometimes the youngest person at a show. “They were out partying when Elvis came out.” He said, “We heard from the directors of these facilities that people like rock and roll, so we hop it up, we come in and get them going, we get them up and dancing.” Pointing out a spry woman who kept bringing her fellow residents to their feet at one gig, a staffer challenged Siciliano to guess her age. Late 70s, maybe 80, he guessed. The woman was 90 and a sparkplug.
“They’re old, not dead,” said Siciliano. “They appreciate good stuff” – the stuff he grew up on, the stuff his silver-haired listeners partied to, decades ago. “The people we play for, they all say to us, ‘This was part of our life, and we enjoy this.’”
The Legendary Characters play 1950s and 60s jukebox classics by Elvis and other 50s pioneers, also harmony classics by the Everly Brothers and other groups, plus vintage country fare including twangers by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty.
They also take their “Legendary” moniker seriously.
“We give people historical perspective,” said Siciliano. “We tell them the history, so before we play ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ we tell the history of why he wrote it and how he wrote it.” He said, “We talk about Buddy Holly dying when he was just 22, then we do a Buddy Holly song.” They reach through the songs to the stories, the legends. “We enjoy it, and they enjoy it,” said Siciliano. “It’s like being out at a club for us.”
Siciliano said return gigs allow the band to get to know the audience. “They look forward to us coming in, because we have more energy than just a solo act.”
The Legendary Characters were on target to play 100 shows this year, but cancellations began with a St. Patrick’s Day show as the pandemic shut down live music. Siciliano said he’s grateful that the facilities where they play are “staying with the guidelines to care for their people.” But he added, “We hope it opens up for outdoor things.”
Meanwhile, such virtual streaming performances as the Freedom Park Quarantune Series brought a new way to bring artists and audiences together. Like the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band and Out of the Blues, the Legendary Characters have played Freedom Park in the Scotia venue’s 43 years, explained Siciliano, a board member.
For the July 25 streaming show, the Legendary Characters added guest players and taped at Turf Tavern a few weeks ago. In addition to Siciliano, drums and vocals; Gerhan, keyboards; and Brooks, accordion; the expanded lineup includes Bob Maslyn, bass; Gary Herba, sax; and Ralph Spillenger, guitar. Maslyn and Herba played with Siciliano in previous bands while Spillenger, a longtime restaurateur (the Bijou, the Bayou Café, Jillian’s, NaNola and others) played with the Students.
The Legendary Characters recorded 14 songs in their hour-long taping (versus the 90 minutes typical of actual live shows). Their show streams tonight (Saturday, July 25) at 7 p.m. and will be available thereafter, at https://freedomparkscotia.com.
The first live music I’ve heard since early March was karaoke at a birthday party yesterday in Carolina’s yard. The barbecue smelled great, the talk sounded happy, but the best part for me was the singing.
It was all in Caribbean Espanol, it was pretty loud and it was very up and down. But, from the brash guy with the agile and on-the-money baritone to the shy woman with the pitchy alto who took a while to find herself in the song, everybody who was coaxed to the mic – or jokingly shoved away from it – sang with the same passion and total investment in the music.
That’s the thing I most value in performance, from seeing the greats in the venues we can’t go to now to a neighbor’s party.
That passion and pleasure in the singing made it great fun to hear voices in the air, voices full of personality, voices in the clear, voices in the happy here and now.
Big ups to brother Jim Hoke for his traditional jazz arrangement of Janis Ian’s “Better Times Will Come.”
Traditional jazz* was the first music Jim and I fell in love with, growing up in Guilderland. I remember that Pee Wee Hunt album he holds up in the video as a real ear-opener – first 33-1/3 rpm album we ever saw. There’s SO much to love here, from the overall feeling of sheer exuberance, with bouncy street parade momentum, to such details as the jaunty uplift in all the horn parts and the off-beats on the snare near the end. He arranged and played everything.
The video knocks me out, too, filmed at Jim’s Nashville place where I visited in January, before The Plague. Check the zoom-in on the neck of the D-18 our nephew Jared decorated with Jim’s name, on his gig making guitars at Martin in Nazareth, PA; and a jazz portrait of Louis Armstrong – betcha he’s grinning at THIS one! – with Jim’s face cleverly inserted by his wonderfully talented wife Lisa Haddad and her friend Eva Sochorova.
Hit this, and be delighted:
This music is ”Dixieland” everywhere but in New Orleans whose musical geniuses invented it; there, it’s “traditional jazz” – Hunt’s album title notwithstanding.