Lowell Wurster (left) and Kevin Sabourin (center) of the band Lucid, play at a recent First Weekends gathering with Gionanina Bucci.
Plattsburgh’s music community cannot be painted with a broad brush. It would be hard even to paint the music landscape on one mural.
On first blush, the music scene in Plattsburgh might appear to revolve around a couple downtown bars, a bunch of inebriated college kids and a few unruly locals looking for a fight. While that may have been the reality years ago, it has grown well beyond those constraints, and continues to evolve. While establishments like the Monopole and Olive Ridley’s remain stalwarts of live music here, smaller venues now share the landscape with a growing yearly music festival juggernaut in Peru, and other genres like bluegrass have carved out a presence outside the city as well.
The number of bands in and around Plattsburgh rises and falls cyclically, and it appears that according to some in the local music industry that it’s currently on a low ebb.
“Five years ago there must have been 10 or 15 local bands, whereas right now there just doesn’t seem to be,” said Corey Rosoff, owner of the Monopole who also does all the musical bookings for the bar. “The music scene is vibrant in Plattsburgh, I just see it with different bands now.”
The ebb and flow likely has a lot to do with North Country demographics. Small communities like Plattsburgh have long been known to suffer a “Brain Drain” of intellectual talent to larger cities with more job opportunities. A musical Brain Drain can be at play as well, as musicians leave towns for both better non-musical jobs, as well as more or possibly better opportunities to play their music.
Occasionally, they come back. That was the case with local singer-songwriter Giovanina Bucci, who moved back to the North Country three years ago, after being away for 10 years. Having been away and come back, she has possibly a clearer perspective than most on how the scene has changed. She currently sees local support for music, and for the arts in general, to be much stronger than it was a decade ago.
“Of course there’s room to grow, but basically, if you support it, it will grow,” she said. “I think we’re in this really ripe time for that.”
Bucci, and numerous other local musicians, point to grassroot efforts by newer venues like the ROTA gallery, and efforts by First Weekends in Plattsburgh to both support young, up and coming bands, as well as to bring in bands from out of the area to play. Established musicians like Bucci occasionally play shows at ROTA without compensation, in order for them to be able to support a traveling band from outside the area who might be playing on the same night.
Other venues like the Unitarian Universalist Church at 4 Palmer Street in Plattsburgh, and the Naked Turtle feature live music in Plattsburgh as well. Off the Hookah plans to soon bring in live music as well. Underground spots where musicians can play, such as one that used to be located on Mason Street in Morrisonville, pop up from time to time as well. While some of these venues pay little, if anything, to a band, they are definitely a crucial piece of the puzzle for nurturing young musicians, critical to regenerating any area’s music scene.
“It’s very grassroots, because we are that size of town,” says Bucci. “It’s all the reasons you love this town, and hate this town.”
Local bands in Plattsburgh also suffer from a traditional reluctance of locals to pay more than a nominal cover charge to see live music. Plattsburgh is, along with other things, a college town. Notoriously ‘frugal,’ many college students who are old enough to see a band in a bar, would rather spend their money at the bar than at the door. This over the years has helped to stagnate what a band, even a band with a decent local following, can make playing their music.
“A lot of these bands, it (the cover charge) should be $10, but people get to the door and they’re just outraged,” said Lowell Wurster, percussionist and singer with the Plattsburgh band Lucid. “The point is people are used to not paying for music around here. They’ve been spoiled for a long time, and that’s how bands are going to make their money.”
Outside Plattsburgh, the numbers of bars that used to feature live music has definitely declined over the past decade or more. This has, along with other genres, impacted the number of country bands who can be found playing in the area.
“In this area I don’t see a lot of places that bands…like country bands can just play and go to. I don’t see a ton of (country) bands, period,” said Julie Hogan, singer and bass player for the bluegrass band Beartracks.
Hogan used to play in country bands in the bar scene outside Plattsburgh. Those bars have dried up, she says, likely from a combination of greater DWI enforcement, changes in smoking laws, and the downturn in the economy. While they play a limited number of shows locally, Beartracks spends much of the summer traveling to as far away as Calgary and Colorado to play bluegrass festivals. The nationally acclaimed bluegrass band The Gibson Brothers also hail from the North Country, but travel to play most of their shows as well.
One of the most promising developments on the musical landscape over the past several years is the yearly Backwoods Pond Fest, formerly Pondstock, held in Peru each summer. Backwoods has grown to be the largest music festival north of the Albany area. Averaging about 22 bands per year, the weekend festival has been attracting not just local and regional, but national acts in a host of various genres. Last year Backwoods attracted about 2,000 attendees according to Wurster, who helps organize security for the event.
The complexity of the scene in Plattsburgh is summed best by Wurster, whose band has garnered a loyal following throughout the New England and the North East, and is easily one of the biggest band to come out of Plattsburgh in recent memory. He says that Lucid has been approached on numerous occasions to leave the area where they might make more money and have a better shot at the musical Holy Grail of fame and fortune, but they choose to stay here because, in part, of the ‘other’ things Plattsburgh has to offer.
“People say all the time, you guys should move and all this. Not only is this our home, but I feel there are people trying to do stuff here.”
Only the time, musicians who make the music, and the patrons who choose whether or not to support it, will tell