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Philadelphia-based Man Man rocks the house at BSP, spring 2013. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
Backstage: Uptown Kingston, New York

Dear Friend and Reader:

I'm one of those people who needs to get out more.

In fact I need to get out so much that I hadn't noticed that a music venue had mysteriously appeared down the block from my photo studio in Uptown Kingston, NY -- or rather, that it had taken up residence in a place called Backstage Studio Productions, known locally as BSP.

I always thought the place had a lot of potential. It's a bar with a small stage, connected to a 20,000-square-foot vaudeville house in the back, dating to 1920 or so.

Planet Waves
Boston-based Bujak, Jeff Bujak and Jen Dulong, summer 2013. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
The place has needed love, attention and promoters for a long time; it was waiting for something cool to happen. I didn't discover that something was already happening until I mentioned to an acquaintance at a party that I was looking for a guitar teacher. He suggested that I go see Dan Sternstein, who co-manages BSP and also teaches music there.

I'd seen Sternstein around town for a few months, not knowing who he was. He has this larger-than-life, swashbuckling demeanor, but is also easygoing and charming. Turns out he's philosopher-in-chief at BSP, and doubles as its in-house music teacher. Not a guitar teacher -- a music teacher who works primarily on guitar.

So I started taking lessons. Another teacher, Rusty Boris, had taught me enough of the basics that I wasn't quite starting from scratch.

What I love about studying with Dan is that in addition to relating the elements of guitar technique in a clear, noncompetitive way, he's passionate about music theory. As someone with a lot of Aquarius in my chart, I love the theory element of just about everything, from astrology to architecture to art to law. I want to know why someone thinks something works a certain way, how it got that way and what the underlying philosophy is. That makes it more like a set of instructions or guiding concepts, which are delightfully flexible.

Dan was a music major but really his passion is composition theory. He's 25 years old and I don't think there's a song he hasn't taken apart, figured out and put back together a few different ways.

I started taking lessons weekly and, because I need to get out more and also because my schedule is so over-the-top, I went up to twice weekly to compensate for times when practice is more challenging.

We did most of our lessons in the club's Green Room -- the prep room for performers. I noticed that every time we sat down the room was rearranged. After every lesson he would tell me about whoever was playing that night or weekend, and I started coming out to shows.

Planet Waves
Trap drum setup used in rock music. 'Trap' is short for 'contraption'. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
Every time I did, almost without exception, I was amazed. The performers were original and well-rehearsed. I thought it was pretty cool the first time -- I could go out and see a hot show, right in the neighborhood.

There was an Oneonta-based Frank Zappa tribute band that turned out to be the creation of a SUNY music instructor named Mark Pawkett, Sternstein's mentor. What better way to teach college students how to play than get them to learn a whole bunch of Zappa tunes. I'll get to the Oneonta connection in a minute -- the BSP ethos and the scene that's grown around it is imported from a town two hours away. That hundred miles or so makes a big difference. Kingston is not a college town, and it would benefit from being one. Colleges provide a constant influx of young people, money, cultural events and new ideas. The BSP guys have delivered some of that from Oneonta.

Soon after, I saw a Philadelphia-based band called Man Man -- a high-energy ensemble of multi-instrumentalists who rocked a full house. Powerhouses of percussion, keyboards, guitar and various horns, it was hard to believe this was happening in Uptown Kingston.

The next Saturday, a group they inspired, called Grandchildren, also from Philadelphia, was the headline act. Somewhat less known, they didn't draw as large a crowd, but that was everyone else's loss. I stood there through the entire set amazed, taking in some of the best live music I'd seen in forever, marveling at the composition, vocals and the astonishing performance by the rhythm section.

That consisted of two drummers, each at one side of the stage, facing one another, who seemed to perform superhuman feats of syncopation and synchronized playing. One drummer played physical drums, which seemed to consist mostly of tom-toms and bass drums; the other played a set of digital pads.

Planet Waves
Dan Votke a/k/a Rusty runs the board at BSP. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
The percussionists seemed to stretch a trampoline across the stage and pull it taut for the rest of the musicians to bring in their cosmic psychedelic vibration. After the show I went back into the Green Room, where the drummers were hanging out, and I asked them the only question I could think of: how do you do that?

They said: We know each other really well, we play a lot and besides, Aleks Martray -- the front man, who plays acoustic guitar -- composes all the rhythm parts.

One night I strolled into the club and saw Melissa Pelino and Haden Minifie of the band Snowbear breathing fire on vocals -- in particular, impeccably performed rock and blues harmonies. Once again I stood there watching, astonished. After the show I met the ladies and said, "I bet that took a long time to learn how to do," to which Pelino blurted out gleefully, "It did!"

I have good music karma. If there were such a thing as A&R any more, I would be the guy for the record company to send out and scout talent. I've had fine musicians as housemates, therapists, parents, friends, mentors and two buddies who are fantastic lawyers. All of my astrology teachers have been musicians, particularly David Arner. Some of the best CDs in my collection I bought directly from the artists: Eric Nicholas, Sloan Wainwright, Big Spoon and others.

After a few weeks showing up at BSP and seeing one brilliant show after the next, I figured out that this wasn't just my music karma. It wasn't coincidence. It's not just that there's lot of young, unsigned musical talent out there. Something is going on at Backstage Studio Productions.

Planet Waves
New Paltz, NY-based Breakfast in Fur sound checks before their show at BSP, spring 2013. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
The core crew consists of three guys who graduated from SUNY Oneonta around the same time: Dan Sternstein, Dan Votke (a/k/a Rusty) and Trevor Dunworth. While they were students, they got into creating outdoor music festivals, in particular, one called liveLIVE.

One day they needed some stage equipment, and someone told them that BSP's owner, Teri Rossin, had some that she might lend them. She did, and when they returned it she asked them if they would consider promoting indoor shows at BSP.

They said yes, and arrived in Kingston in late 2011 and basically took over. I don't just mean they took over BSP. They have their hand in just about everything that's gone well in Uptown Kingston the past few years. If anyone is responsible for the reduced tumbleweed population in Uptown, it's these guys.

They were instrumental in the creation of the wildly successful 2013 New Year's celebration that drew hundreds of people into the streets and businesses of Uptown. They created the Kingston Film Festival, featuring unpretentious screenings of movies and shorts (the most recent was in August).

BSP is a major venue for the O+ Festival, a homegrown Kingston event where musicians and artists trade performances and artwork for medical, dental and holistic health care. Each autumn, Uptown is flooded with street art, music, doctors and lots of people who have never been here before. (The third, or is it fourth, O+ takes place in Kingston Oct. 11, 12 and 13. There's now a corresponding festival in San Francisco Nov. 15, 16 and 17.)

BSP provided the stage and booked the musical acts for Chronogram's 20th anniversary block party last month. The whole event came off flawlessly; the music was perfectly programmed for a diverse audience, it sounded amazing and people danced into the night.

Planet Waves
Pedro Soler, the renowned flamenco guitarist from France, performed at BSP. Bryce Dessner of The National played the encore with him. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
They use the venue to help independent film productions that come to the area; for community meetings; as a rehearsal space; and as a sound stage. There is a dance studio upstairs. And I could not think of better people to entrust with a 20,000-square-foot room where basically anything can be created. (That will be ready for concerts sometime next year.)

It seems like anything that you can do with a large room, a sound system and lights they are experimenting with.

The best thing that's happening, though, is that they are bringing new faces and constant live music to Uptown Kingston. This includes a wide diversity of styles, spanning from experimental rock to heavy metal to some fantastic folk music. One person behind this miracle is Mike Amari, who specializes in booking many of the club's musical acts.

They run hip-hop shows several times a year (a recent one featured Al Boges), and dance nights with deejays a few times a month as well. There are heavy metal thrash rock shows; there have been standup comedy nights and another one is forthcoming. The atmosphere is always laid back, giving the impression that you've showed up someplace that's the way things used to be in mellower times.

What I love about all these guys is that they are not trying to impress anyone with how cool they are. They simply are cool, and they are competent, friendly, straightforward, honest and helpful. Anyone who knows the music business knows how rare this is.

I will say this a different way. The crew at BSP embodies the kind of community spirit that everyone wishes ran the world, and that few people can figure out how to get going. At the same time, they are devoted to promoting young musical acts. And they are all musicians, though they've put their own projects on hold to open up a little bandwidth so they can do all this business and community stuff.

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Kathleen, harmony vocalist for the Zappa tribute band. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.
Personally I think it's healthy that people who have put 10 or more years into learning music, developing material and touring are the ones in charge of a venue. The world needs music promoters who know how challenging it is to get good at being a performer.

Since I get to spend a fair amount of time with Sternstein, I hear the respect and admiration he has for the acts that come through BSP. One of his favorites is a music and dance ensemble called Bujak. This consists of Jeff Bujak, who creates bass and rhythm beds, then performs improvised neoclassical music over them. His girlfriend, Jen Dulong, does a dance routine with electrified hula hoops. It's quite an effect -- and Bujak's recorded music is equally impressive.

Along this journey, I figured out how to solve the riddle of getting high-quality independent music onto my weekly webcast, PlanetWaves.FM -- hang out at BSP. If you listen to the past couple of months of programs you can hear some of what you've missed (a recent program featured the astonishing Treetop Flyer from the U.K.). I will be hosting the BSP crew on an edition of PlanetWaves.FM the first week of September.

One Friday recently, I finished my lesson and asked Dan what he had going on that night. "Gary Lucas," he said. I had no idea who he was; I found out that (among other things) he was the musical mentor of Jeff Buckley. Toward the end of the Kingston Film Festival, they screened Greetings from Tim Buckley, who was Jeff's father. The film is really about Jeff and his too-short, too-tragic journey.

After the film, Gary Lucas gave a presentation and answered questions from the audience -- then he played an absolutely beautiful set, mostly acoustic, partly electric. As Gary blazed on his guitars and soulful vocals, I stood there wondering: Where the f*ck am I?

Backstage Studio Productions in Uptown Kingston, New York.


Planet Waves
Gary Lucas performs at Backstage Studio Productions in Kingston, NY. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.

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