Free live music on Friday. There are few things that get people going as much as a good happy hour band. In bars, clubs and other venues in and around Ithaca, 5 p.m. Friday is synonymous with the laid-back attitude of a community getting their weekend on. With or without a drink, outside if weather's permitting, audiences head straight from work can catch all sorts of music, from old-time to good old-fashioned rock and roll. Long dismissed and derided by music fans, the 5-8 p.m. slot may be the most rapidly growing time slot both in demand and in quality.
"What we've seen happen in the last year has been a growing number of bands that have expressed interest in playing Friday happy hour," the booker of the Haunt Chris Mazer wrote by email. "We've started slotting some of those bands into a Saturday matinee slot (7-10 p.m.)."
And while The Haunt, which has been offering free music every Friday since 2007, may be the most popular location, Castaways, Oasis, the Crossroads, the Beach House in Lansing, Dorothy's Music Room in Trumansburg are all hot spots. For a younger crowd, the recently opened Westy and Silky Jones have both drawn during happy hour, and Felicia's Atomic Lounge has found success in offering an old-time Friday in the alley.
Here, the Ithaca Times offers a round-up of some of the most popular acts.
"It's funny that the word ‘blues' is in our band's name," Jacob Crawford, the lead singer and chief songwriter for the rocking 505 Blues said during practice. "We'll pull out a 12 bar ever so often... really we're bluesy but not a blues band."
Crawford met his four bandmates through an advert on Craigslist almost five years ago, after moving to Cornell to graduate school. And though he's a generation younger than the rest of the band, which includes bassist Donald Specker, drummer Russ Maracle, keyboardist Dennis Montgomery and harmonica player Don Fenton, judging by his truck parked outside Montgomery's boat shop, the Baltimore native fits right in.
"When I first responded to the Craigslist ad, it turned out these guys were a bunch of old dudes," the front man said. "But my parents are very musical, and I grew up hanging out with my mom's friends so it didn't feel that weird to me."
Crawford stands out at a crowd at Castaways, where 505 Blues performs regularly. He has a swagger that keeps the crowd moving, and he performs at the caliber of any live act in town.
"The bottom line is that we play really good music, and we just happen to be a happy hour band," Maracle said, setting up his drum kit for practice. "I recall that we played Castaways a couple of years ago, and about two songs in the soundman said, You guys aren't a happy hour band!"
Of the 11 tracks on the band's new record, "Fortified" eight are originals, and 505 Blues are less a cover band than an act that can get behind the material of others. Bernard Allison's "Meet Me Halfway" is given a funky ride, and the band performs work by Hendrix and Buddy Guy. The band will celebrate the CD release party Friday, Sept. 9 at the Haunt from 7-10 p.m., stretching its set over both happy hour and a regular nighttime set.
"We've done a late Saturday night at Casty's and Saturday night at the Haunt and neither have done well," Maracle said. "We could probably generate a following that late, but there's nothing that we don't like about getting done at nine o' clock."
Just as the local music scene was once dominated by funk, the happy hour scene has more than its fair share of classic rock cover bands. And while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a repertoire that sounds like I-100, the more unique bands bring more character to the scene. Iron Horse, who has been performing for four and a half years, typifies this uniqueness.
The act, which offers good old fashioned Southern Rock, is fronted by Mark Armstrong and Dave Halton, who got together after talking about how Ithaca was missing some swagger.
"We have a good old boy blue collar beer drinker and hell raiser mentality," Armstrong, who is a registered nurse, said by phone from work. "And we just tried to get away from the classic rock show."
Iron Horse principally performs at the Haunt, where booker Chris Mazer cites them as among the most popular in the venue's six-week rotation.
"Skynyrd has been around for more than 35 years, and they're still drawing a crowd. Our goal is to keep them, and bands like ZZ Top alive, and here in town."
With a set that is entirely covers-based, Iron Horse has found favor around Ithaca, in Cortland and Auburn, as well as outdoor venues in the summertime.
"We play Crossroads in Lansing, we've done Oasis once or twice, and they really like us at Rascal's in Jacksonville," Armstrong said.
On October 1, Iron Horse will play a double bill with a new band called Tokyo at the Haunt, offering a set that will begin at Happy Hour but run through the night.
Iron Horse has a massive following, but they believe they can do better.
"I've got to get out there and hit the streets," Armstrong mused. "25 years ago I was always there watching these bands, now I'm up on stage, living it."
The Purple Valley
John Saylor, who performs with his wife and daughter in The Purple Valley, has a long history in town. They have been a band since 1995, and the current configuration is Gina Smithson on vocals, Sue Compton on keys, Curtis Kretz on drums, Joseph Rayle on bass, Patrick Barrie on harp and Saylor on guitar and vocals. Saylor and his wife have played with a number of musicians in town, but the family band has stuck for the last few.
"We're partially influenced by Ry Cooder, and we live on Caanan Road in a valley, so the name comes from a confluence of things," Saylor explained by phone. "We always knew the title had to have a ‘the' in it, you know, like The Commitments."
Principally Purple Valley perform at Castaways, but the act also has regular gigs at the Roosterfish in Watkins Glen, the Americana Winery, Dorothy's, Oasis and the Haunt.
"We also enjoy playing benefits and festivals like the Ithaca Festival and the Apple Harvest Festival...this year we'll be playing Porchfest for the first time."
A versatile band, The Purple Valley mostly plays covers, but "it is always danceable, eclectic and covers that people have not often heard. We play a lot of blues and lately have been mixing in more country to country rock kinda material. I think we have a great harp player, a nice mix of vocal harmonies and a fantastic rhythm section."
"Some of the crowd are people we know but most are people we have gotten to know through our gigs, people who like to dance or relax and listen to our music," Saylor added.
Djug Django came together about a decade ago when the Moosewood restaurant asked Harry Aceto to put together a band. "I suggested gypsy jazz," he said. "It was something that I liked, and they were into it. But then they changed their policy about live music, so we tried a few other places and then landed at the Lost Dog four years ago." The Lost Dog has since become Delilah's.
"I've loved this music for a long time," said Aceto. "I was playing it at Jay Ungar and Molly Mason's music camp [at Ashokan in the Catskills] every summer." Djug Django gives Aceto the opportunity to sit down and play the guitar. "The bass pays the rent," he said, "but this is my therapy."
Djug Django has three guitarists, Aceto, Doug Robinson, and Dave Davies. "Django Reinhardt's band had three guitarists," said Robinson. "His brother and cousin were the two strummers, and he did the hot licks." Although the Djug Django guitarists are not related, they have played together for so long that something approaching telepathy has been achieved, according to Robinson.
"There is an unspoken connection," he said. "You pick things up like subtle cues in body language. When we started out people asked how we would keep from getting in each other's way. Over time we did it without talking about it; it just evolved. No one plays the same parts; they complement each other."
The band does not rehearse. While the shows ostensibly begin at 6 p.m., there is rarely anyone around until about 6:45 p.m. They use that 45 minutes to try out new songs on each other, rejecting what doesn't feel right and keeping what does.
In the second set of the evening they invite members of the audience who have prepared charts to sing. "We started that in the Moosewood era," said Robinson. "We have a sign-up sheet and voice teachers bring their students." The students range in age from 12 years old to retired folks. In addition to having guest singers, visiting musicians sit in with Djug Django. "Harry and Dave are on the festival circuit," said Robinson," so they meet all kinds of people. If someone plays in town, they might stay with one of them and sit in with us." The fluid nature of the membership means that Djug Django never sounds quite the same from week to week.
Other regular members of the band include Eric Aceto, Harry's brother, on violin; Jim Sherpa on washtub bass; Al Hartland on drums; Chad Lieberman on piano; and Brian Earle on clarinet.
Djug Django performs every Wednesday at Delilah's from 6-9 p.m.
Garry Bordonaro was the bass player for the Rods, a 1980s metal band from Cortland, and then played with blues rockers Savoy Brown for a couple of years, but he quit the music business in 1986 to do electromechanical work. He is now a technician in the nanotech facility in Duffield Hall at Cornell. About four years ago he was convinced to pick up his bass again.
"It started with some of us just messing around together," he said. In addition to Bordonaro, the band consists of drummer Alan Macomber, guitarist Toby Becraft (of Hammerd), and guitarist Billy Beck. "We started out playing just what we wanted to play," said Bordonaro. "A lot of it some of us had played many years ago in bar bands."
Beck is the only member who is not a veteran performer. He a lighting director and designer who has done work for En Vogue, Kentucky Headhunters, and the Bolshoi Ballet, and he worked for the Rods back in the 1970s. Much more recently he started playing guitar in public, and Bordonaro said he has come a long way, to the point where he was now trading leads with Becraft.
Their set includes selections from the time-honored catalogs of Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, 10cc, and Aerosmith. "We've been trying out some Led Zeppelin more recently," said Bordonaro, saying that Robert Plant's vocals are the difficult part of Zep songs.
"We were a little surprised that people liked us," said the bass player. "Now we usually have a pretty good crowd." Their appearances aren't as regular as some happy hour bands because the band members' schedules don't allow for it. Beck travels frequently for work, as do Macomber and Becraft.
"I actually went on tour with the Rods the summer," said Bordonaro. "We did a new album ["Vengeance"] and then did a tour of Europe." During their ‘80s heyday, the Rods, who are frequently compared to Mötorhead, were consistently more popular in England than in their native country. "We've played one [Coots] show since I got back," Bordonaro said, "and we sounded pretty good. Maybe not practicing is the answer."
They usually practice on Sundays, "when we get a chance," which is about once or twice a month. "It's always at Alan's house," said Bordonaro, "when his family isn't around."
Macomber named the band ("We're just a bunch of old coots") and all of them are on board purely for the fun of it. "I've been in bands since I was 15 years old," the former Rod said. "I joined the musicians' union at 16 and did it for a living until I was 29. Now I'm pretty embittered about the entire industry, but I still like to play to keep up my chops."
The Coots perform about once a month on Fridays at the Haunt from 6:30-8:30 p.m.
"Our audience likes to be in bed by 10," said GoGone drummer Scott Wiggins. "So we play early." In addition to their regular slot at Castaways, GoGone appear frequently on Fridays and Sundays up at Americana Winery in Covert and at area festivals through the summer.
They play all original rock and roll songs, unusual but not unknown for a happy hour band. "[Robert] Cooper does the majority of the writing," said Wiggins, "and Meryl [Young] writes some of the songs and Jon Pargh makes his contributions." Cooper and Pargh are guitarists and Young plays the piano accordion. Bass player Lisa Bloom rounds out the band.
"We do our own stuff and always have," said Cooper. "Ithaca is a good place to do original material." They have been playing at Castaways since it opened over ten years ago. "There were fewer happy hours back then," said Cooper, "although I don't' think they're were fewer happy people. I looked in your paper this Friday, and there were about 10 bands starting between five and eight."
Cooper began writing songs while traveling in South America in the 1970s. "About 20 years ago I was jamming with some friends and said ‘I've got some songs' and they said ‘let's hear them,'" he recalled. "They liked them, so I kept writing them. I still write mostly when I'm traveling." The songwriter frequently travels to Thailand, sometimes taking along clients who avail themselves of the high quality, inexpensive health care there.
Young plays guitar and piano, but often adds atmosphere to the band's sound with a piano accordion. "I bought one at a garage sale," she said. "I didn't know what to do with it, but it was so beautiful." Someone eventually told her what the buttons did. "A little world opened up to me," she said. "I learned ‘Happy Birthday' and would just show up for people's birthdays, play it, and leave.
"I think of it as like percussion," Young said of the accordion's role in the band's sound. "I stay in the background and don't want to take a lead."
She does, however, regularly take the lead vocal for her own compositions. "I've been writing since junior high," she said. "The first one was called ‘Weeping Willow,' and we made it in one of those booths they used to have. I still sort of remember it; it was pretty terrible."
Wiggins said that GoGone is active between May and October every year. Several of the band members go away for extended sojourns during the colder months.
"We practice on Tuesday nights," said Wiggins. "Lisa and I jam all winter in my practice space, inviting other people to sit in. It's a lot of fun."
Cooper brings his songs to the rest of the band with only the part he's written for an acoustic guitar. The rest of the band creates the arrangements.
"About half of the songs are really danceable," said the drummer. "We have a large following that know all the songs. It's great to hear them singing along. The other songs are just fun to listen to. Cooper's lyrics tell a good story."
GoGone put out what Cooper called a "CDette" about three years ago, five songs from the studio and five live.
"It's like pulling teeth to pull the second one together," he said. "But I think it'll be out next month."
Go Gone performs from 5-8 p.m. the last Friday of each month at Castaways.