Concert Review: Schenectady Porchfest @ GE Plots, 09/23/2023
When COVID fear felt deepest, endless, we’d walk past an Ardsley Road porch where neighbors made Sunday morning music.
In those days without concerts, they gave us one, and it always brought hope for better days.
On Saturday, those same young musicians – dubbed Nice Hockey – played on that same porch, one of four in Schenectady’s first Porchfest. This afternoon-long fest (13 acts on four porches, noon to 7 p.m.) of free music gave a similar uplift.
The music invited neighbors and visitors to listen, walk around and talk, and likely made visitors covet homes in the comfy, well-treed GE Plot that hosted the fest. Any event that makes us feel better about neighbors and neighborhood deserves community love. Add a cool soundtrack and the gentlest of rain and that event wins big.
Part of its charm came from the fact that it wasn’t big; none of the four porches drew as many as 100 people. Crowds were fluid, flowing from porch to porch. Musicians gazing at sparse throngs wondering “Where is everybody?” soon got their answer as parades of lawn chairs showed up. Hosts deployed chairs, some handed out blankets, and a balloon-festooned sidewalk birthday party on Ardsley spilled over generously into Porchfest, sharing cake, custom mock-tails and a block-party welcome feel to music-fan strangers.
The Plot is home to jazz fans who walked to A Place for Jazz when it presented shows at the Unitarian Universalist Society on Wendell Avenue; jazz was a strong musical flavor.
A jazz fan hosted on Rugby Road where Cliff Brucker’s New Circle played the first set. They looked tired at first; drummer/leader Brucker and eight bandmates from the Brucker Weisse Canterbury Jazz Orchestra that played A Place for Jazz on Friday played Porchfest too-few hours later. BWC band members I met around Porchfest agreed Friday’s was the band’s best-ever, tightest and most powerful gig. But I digress.
In trumpeter Chris Pasin’s “Meter Made” early on Rugby, the rhythm section (drummer Brucker and bassist Rich Syracuse) vamped a New Orleans groove while the horns (Pasin and Don Nicholson, trombone) sorted out what key it’s in. Then they grooved it strong together and built a virtuoso jazz run. The mellow swing waltz “Ishfahan” got a modernist shine; next, as I buzzed to nearby Stratford, the blues I could still hear from Rugby blurred into the baroque feel of the Epilogue Trio.
Schedule and distance limited how much of each set even drivers or bicyclists could access. The most distant porches, Douglas Road to Ardsley Road, sit six-tenths of a mile apart. Despite doubts, street parking was plentiful so older or frailer fans could drive from one to another. I hit all but one set on foot: 9,299 steps by iPhone. Everybody’s experience was fragmentary, particularly fans who stayed at a single porch, just as some fans at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest do.
Epilogue (Melanie Chirignan, flute; Andrew Snow, viola; and Karlinda Caldicott, harp) on Stratford echoed chamber-music austere dignity at times, or the airy agility of Jean-Pierre Rampal’s “Japanese Melodies for Flute and Harp;” their most inviting number was Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” Later, on Ardsley, the Hansbrough-Quigley duo played a Piazzolla suite. Both groups honored the tango-master’s dance-y lyricism.
Hereafter, I’ll try to stay chronological but can only offer short bites about sets I partially saw.
On Douglas, pop-rock duo Evidence (keyboardist Rob Aronstein and guitarist Mike Derrico) played soul and boogie then found their sweet spot with Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” – Aronstein asked afterward “How can we top THAT?” – then Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” a sweet slow waltz.
Back on Rugby, torch-y singer Kaitlin Fay went antiquing with sweet croons in “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Do Right Blues,” “Cock-Eyed Optimist” from “South Pacific” and Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” dedicated to daughters, including her own. Her band was aces, featuring Brucker and pianist Wayne Hawkins from New Circle who preceded her.
On Ardsley, trombonist Ben O’Shea led a similarly all-local-stars jazz crew, co-starring with tenor saxophonist Dave Fisk in “Autumn Leaves” after a bracing “Solar.” They played powerful and tight, celebrating melody, running the changes.
On Stratford, which set a sort of grad-school feel, Brass Abbey brought two trumpets, trombone, tuba and French horn into polished, powerful numbers. Some goofed: A dad leaned to explain to his daughter why a quote of the “Addams Family” theme, complete with finger-snaps on the bandstand, made us oldsters laugh. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” did the New Orleans parade tradition proud, thanks to a surprise second line upshift and Omar Williams trumpet fireworks. “Caravan” had stop-and-go zip and a “Pink Panther” quote.
More jazz on Douglas with the tasty Grudecki/Hearn/Johnson trio. Grudecki played guitar with only short sustain for percussive momentum and made tricky runs smooth. Drummer Andy Hearn (who also played with other bands Saturday) and bassist Erik Johnson expertly spiced Bernie Miller’s “Bernie’s Tune” with reggae beats and charged the jagged cadence of Grudecki’s own “Gregor Samsa” (Kafka “Metamorphosis” reference) with punchy energy.
On Ardsley, things were quieter in the expert, classically-trained hands of Yvonne Hansbrough (flute) and Paul Quigley (guitar). Their eloquent, soft-spoken set (the half of it I caught) peaked with a lovely four-movement Astor Piazzolla suite.
Like Kaitlyn Fay on Rugby earlier, pianist Ken Olsen’s quartet looked back through jazz history, most often relying on trumpeter Steve Lambert for Louis Armstrong echoes in “West End Blues” and “Hello Dolly,” then Dizzy Gillespie in “Salt Peanuts.” Here, around 4:20 a very light rain began; umbrellas opened but nobody left, and Horace Silver’s spiritual, spunky “The Preacher” was worth sticking around to hear.
Then, back to Stratford for five men in lederhosen and Swiss mountaineer hats. The Signature Brass may look like escapees from the Ed Sullivan show but they played for real: two trumpets – Porchfest organizer, trumpeter, BWC co-leader Steve Weisse played one – trombone, tuba and accordion wailing on the oompah or polka.
A hot-foot up to Ardsley and I was ready for the Dylan Canterbury Quintet and pleasantly surprised to see now-Vermont-based saxophonist Matt Steckler on the stand. The raised-here virtuoso played the role with Canterbury’s crew that alto saxophonist Cliff Lyons had filled Friday with BWC at A Place for Jazz: the killer from outta town.
They started with the chestnut “Without a Song” but concentrated on Canterbury originals, all vying for timelessness through melodic invention, strong beats and crips, dynamic playing.
Hiding from the rain on the far edge of the porch, I could see the frantic pump of Rob Lindquist’s right foot under the keyboard and see how Canterbury directed traffic, happily handing off to Steckler for fireworks in funk-bop “Spin,” to Dave Shoudy’s bass (he starred with Fay, also) in “Torgo’s Lament,” a bluesy waltz, and Lindquist with Horace Silver dash in “Inconspicuous,” a bop-swing whirlwind. His own solos, though, expressed the feel of each tune most clearly; unless he played to a tie with Steckler.
Canterbury spotted Weisse in the crowd, calling for applause for “that man in the lederhosen” and pronounced the whole fandango a “pretty spectacular success.”
What happened next was tangy icing on that cake.
Chad Rogers – owner of the Ardsley porch and one of the guys playing there in deep-covid fear times – had little time, per the schedule, for the 20-step load-in of gear from his front hall to the porch. By 6:20, he and his bandmates in Nice Hockey were ready to rock: keyboardist-singer Dominque Vuvan and drummer Jesse McCaughey.
They grafted even-in-the-pandemic hope onto punk-rock’s blunt-force energy to fun effect. Rogers slashed Clash-slam guitar chords, Vuvan power-pounded her keyboards and stood on tip-toe to sing at too-tall mics and McCaughey slammed garage-y beats. It was raw, rocking and at times funny, as in their dark-humored closer “I Go to Therapy (And You Should Go).”
Weisse told me such gleeful garage rock dominates porchfests elsewhere. Hats off to him and four porch-hosts, and hard-working musicians – mostly in wintry garb – for serving up a more diverse musical menu.
As for Nice Hockey as apt closers, I loved how they echoed the home-made spunk of their Sunday porch jams that, to these ears at least, inspired Saturday’s neighborhood-wide free fest.
Do this again.
Two women, one visibly and happily pregnant, pushed a stroller bearing two toddlers together and led three well-behaved dogs on leashes. They and many other children spotted at porch after porch changed my view of the neighborhood’s demo, definitely skewing younger.
The neighborhood was busy at times with the hammering sounds of carpentry; almost NEVER on the beat, though. A curious woman drawn by the music but unaware it would be happening walked up to join the rugby crowd in paint-spattered clothes. She wiped paint from her hands with a rag and said the music was more fun than rehabbing her porch.
I was sorry to miss the (bassist) Linda Brown Jazz Project on Douglas with guitarist Mike Novakowski and violinist/singer Teresa Broadwell, as I’ve known Linda since we both worked at the Gazette; so did both parents and brother Gary. But no way I could race from Ardsley down to Douglas and back to Ardsley when there was no scheduled break between Dylan Canterbury’s Quintet and Nice Hockey back to back on Ardsley. Next year, maybe a shuttle?
Among people-powered vehicles were maybe a dozen bicycles, several skateboards, and a tandem.
Although parking was plentiful, a shuttle might have encouraged more fans to leave cars at home. Also, a few more porte-johns (there were two) would have been welcome and will be when this thing grows.
I spotted a purple WWOZ (New Orleans NPR station) cap in a porch-to-porch commuting crowd clad in everything from aloha shirts and shorts to parkas.
A guy watched from his Jeep idling on Douglas until traffic impatient to get to the Union College home opener nudged him along.
Later, cannon blasts explosively bragged on Union touch-downs, punctuating fans’ cozy chatting and periodic dog barks.
Oh, yeah – Union won 43 to 7 over Montclair State, pumping their scores-versus-opponents ratio to an amazing 205 to 14.