Go to a show at the ABC Café on any Saturday night, and the large crowd will be spilling out of the restaurant’s dining room and into its attached coffee shop. Watch the artists squeeze themselves into a corner at the front of the room, barely able to move around their gear. Sip deeply from a chai or an imported beer and listen. Tomorrow, it could be a different club, a different band and a different drink, but the city and the spirit would remain the same.
Qualifying Ithaca’s music scene as “good” or “bad” is an incredibly subjective exercise. What some would consider the city’s musical high point, others could consider a low. Depending on the perception of what makes a good band, a good show or a good venue, people will define the city’s music scene differently.
But the one thing most Ithacans can agree on when it comes to live music in Ithaca is this: While the “quality” has ebbed and flowed over the years, the elements of a great music scene have always been here.
On Feb. 6, Ithaca College’s Bureau of Concerts, the Cornell Concert Commission and local concert promoter Dan Smalls worked together to bring Canadian indie band STARS to the State Theatre. In an Ithacan article on Jan. 29, Smalls expressed a desire to improve Ithaca’s live music scene.
“I want to get this town back on the map, where it was when I was in college,” Smalls said in the article. “Every band wanted to play here on every tour.”
Smalls graduated from Cornell University in 1992 and lived in Ithaca until 1994. During that time, he worked with John Peterson, who owned The Haunt from 1973 to 1996. Smalls said Peterson turned Ithaca into a “Mecca” for reggae and blues acts such as Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and the Wailers.
“Name any reggae act that ever toured, they would come up here in the winter and play The Haunt,” Smalls said. “[Peterson] was definitely an impresario and a person who changed the fabric of music in this town.”
Pete Panek, host of Blues Progressions, a radio show on WICB, and a former booker for The Nines, said in its heyday, The Haunt reminded him of blues clubs from his hometown of Chicago.
Panek said he has seen a void in the downtown scene since Peterson’s retirement in 1996 and The Haunt’s relocation under new management in 2000.
“No venue is known for being a great venue anymore,” he said.
Smalls said the marketing of the State Theatre as a “performing arts center,” has compounded the problem. He said he thinks this approach limited the venue’s ability to draw big-name acts and made the ones they bring difficult to market to die-hard Ithaca concertgoers.
Still, Smalls finds it hard to say the scene was ever “bad,” even during its supposed post-Peterson lull.
“There have always been great musicians here,” he said. “The scene still supported itself. But I think more notoriety is being paid, even to the local musicians, because of the bigger names having come to town.”
Historically, Ithaca College and Cornell University have been responsible for bringing many of those big names to town. With large on-campus venues like Barton Hall and Ben Light Gymnasium, and ready-made audiences of college students, Ithaca’s institutions of higher education play an important role in the local music scene.
The “past shows” section of the Cornell Concert Commission’s Web site reads like the greatest hits of the last five decades. Through the years, musical acts have performed at Cornell at the height of their popularity: Joni Mitchell in 1974, The B-52’s in 1982, Coolio and The Roots in 1995 and Incubus in 2002.
Justine Fields, president of the commission, said this history reflects one of the main goals of the group’s concert planning.
“The concert commission’s aim is to bring these big acts,” she said. “It’s definitely to bring the community together — we love seeing our ticket sales be high for both students and people from off campus — but it’s also to bring the entertainment that isn’t typical of Ithaca, to Ithaca.”
With a smaller student population, smaller facilities, and a smaller budget than those of Cornell, Ithaca College is viewed by concertgoers as less of a force in local music. Still, with a show history that includes Bob Dylan twice (in 1989 and 1994), Tori Amos (in 1999) and Ben Folds Five (in 2000), the Bureau of Concerts has clearly left its mark.
Senior Kate Trautmann, executive director of the BOC, said the group’s goal isn’t necessarily to get big names but to consider which artists are touring that year, whether they suit the college’s audience and how much they would cost both the BOC and the ticket-buying public.
Fields said, in recent years, this last factor has led to a drop in the number of concerts at both Cornell and the college. Some students said they have noticed a lack of quality shows on the campuses lately, as well.
“As far as I know, the Bureau of Concerts hasn’t had any real big ‘gets’ in the time that I’ve been here,” said junior Dylan Thomas, a frequent attendee of concerts in the Ithaca area. “When I was a freshman, [upperclassmen] would talk about how they used to get some bigger bands.”
Both Trautmann and Fields said concert-planning groups must be more cautious in making their selections now than in the past, in part because of limited budgets.
“To get the big acts that everybody wants over the years has become much harder, because budgets don’t increase as much as the [artists’] honorariums do,” she said.
The colleges and the downtown clubs are far from the only options for live music in the Ithaca area. ABC Café, The Lost Dog Lounge, and The Nines, are just a few of the many restaurants and bars that host concerts on a regular basis. While these locations never bring nationally touring acts, Smalls said they contribute positively to the overall music scene.
“The more venues, the better,” Smalls said. “Everyone should have the opportunity to play.”
In some ways, Fields said, these smaller venues offer the most distinctly Ithaca music experience, often featuring local bands, free shows and a more intimate connection between the audience and the performer than at a larger club.
“Things like that definitely embody the Ithaca music scene and are unique to this area,” Fields said.
Junior Emma Harris said this intimacy is one of the things that is common at concerts throughout Ithaca, regardless of venue. She said she’s a big fan of live music, and the connection between artists and audiences is one of her favorite things about the Ithaca scene.
“The energy that a lot of bands have when they’re performing is definitely something that you can experience up close,” Harris said. “You can feel that coming from the band, because there’s such a personal atmosphere.”