Backstage: Uptown Kingston, New York

Philadelphia-based Man Man rocks the house at BSP, spring 2013. Photo by Eric Francis / Blue Studio.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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

Inner Space Monthly Horoscopes for September 2013, #964 | By Eric Francis

The Virgo New Moon is Sept. 5. It makes aspects to many influential and even powerful minor planets — among them Chiron, Pholus, Ixion, Borasisi and Chaos. These are not asteroids; they are centaurs and points in or near the region of Pluto. The New Moon chart is about maintaining enough intellectual objectivity so as not to be afraid to ask deep questions, and size up the answers honestly. Next up is the Pisces Full Moon, which takes place Sept. 19. If the New Moon is about going deep, the Full Moon is about going wide — maintaining a global perspective, seeing the impacts of your decisions, and noticing the way that events ripple out into your world, and the world. Finally this month we have the Libra equinox. The Sun changes signs and the Northern Hemisphere summer ends. The three months encompassing Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius can be the most hectic of the year, as the days grow shorter and the holidays approach. Pace yourself — make a plan now.

Aries (March 20-April 19) — Calculate your risks. Do not take them frivolously. I know this is not a popular activity but for you it’s a necessary one. You are more inclined to go out on a limb right now; at the same time there are factors in the equation that you may not be aware of. Therefore I suggest you consider worst-case scenarios before you do something that is potentially dangerous. At the same time, some of those scenarios have ways of expressing themselves that come up in your favor. For example, a phase of adversity in a relationship can work out in your favor, by taking you deeper with someone, and helping you build trust with them. Yet it’s essential that you be conscious as you do this. I am not suggesting that you stoke your insecurity — only that you look before you take a soulful, bounding leap.

Taurus (April 19-May 20) — A relationship seems to go through a series of tests, and many of them may be centered on what a close partner or someone who’s an erotic interest is going through. Yet these are not tests — they are the experiences of life that are normal for the territory that we’re in. One of the central questions for you is how you handle your own insecurities. There may be a seeming conflict between your boldness and another person’s hesitancy, or between your desire to be spontaneous and your need for stability in the relationship. I think that the key to your situation is recognizing the impact that your feelings have on others, even when you don’t say anything. Your emotions move you and the world around you. They are especially likely to have that influence now. So pay attention and participate consciously.

Gemini (May 20-June 21) — Keeping things in balance is one thing. Knowing how to respond when situations go out of balance is another. First, be aware that there are some conflicts that will seem dramatic and significant but which do not directly influence your life, except on the intellectual level. Assess each of them on two levels — how does this affect you, and how does it affect your community? That question will provide significant useful information. You are involved in some truly significant assessments of your security base, home and family matters, and you must sort out information that is useful from that which is merely controversial. Pay particular attention to health-related topics, get to the truth and more than anything, notice the role that stress plays in the equation. Carefully consider adjusting environmental factors first before you seek any form of outside intervention that you don’t need.

Cancer (June 21-July 22) — Your ideas have both influence and impact, though it will help considerably if you keep your flexibility. You seem to be bumping up against a fear — it could be the fear of going deeper, or of losing control, or of the unforeseen consequences of acting on your desire. If you run into a situation wherein you feel fully committed but still cannot get your situation to budge, take a gentler approach. Consider the ways in which you can flow around something rather than push it or force some kind of movement. You need to be the flexible one in the equation, and you can count on that talent being available if you remember to call on it. A little confidence will go a long way — that will build as the month progresses, as you learn more and act on what you know.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23) — In any relationship situation it’s necessary to maintain awareness of your own identity, desires and needs, and those you share with other people around you. Usually we take for granted having to sacrifice one or the other. That is an idea from the distant past, usually advocated by our parents and grandparents, but which is no longer true for you. It’s not a question of ‘all you’ versus ‘all about the other person’. And it’s not a matter of alternating between the two. At this point in human history we face the authentic challenge of being wholly self-present and wholly present for others in your context as a relationship or business partner. Is this more than prior generations can handle, or were they merely lacking that concept? You can handle the stretch, and you have the concept available.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22) — If a situation seems to be running out of control, I suggest you adjust your perspective till you see it in such a way that it’s workable. You’ll be surprised by how much changes with your point of view. It is therefore essential that you keep your point of view portable, and that you not be driven by fear. If you get stuck, ask yourself what you’re concerned might happen. One thing to be mindful of is discerning fear from intuition. Fear usually describes an outcome you don’t want. Intuition usually describes how to create an outcome that you do want, or at least provides some useful information on how to prevent a negative outcome. Therefore, it’s essential that you recognize that worry is not a form of intuition, no matter how vivid it may seem. Keep a wide perspective — especially about yourself.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23) — You will need to talk about what you’re feeling and what you’ve been through recently — if you want any sense of contact with the people around you. The past matters, especially the past four weeks, and what you experienced will have an influence on your current choices. You’ve just been through another spell of “I can barely believe I’m going through this,” though at least this time around you had the presence of others to verify your experience. Remember how good that felt: you don’t need to go it alone, and the one sure way not to do that is to maintain open communication with people you care about, and those with whom you share common interests. Be real with people and you will have real friends. Stealth and secrecy are not all they’re cracked up to be.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) — Build up your momentum working on a long-term goal — which implies knowing what it is, beginning the process and focusing your energy. Get accustomed to working through the inner resistance that gets in the way of your most cherished desires for achievement. Recognize the degree to which any worldly goal involves overcoming some inner obstacle or remnant of history. If you encounter a personality trait that consistently holds you back, now is the time to deal with it so that you can move onto truly greater things. If you put your mind to that project, there is little that will be able to stop you. And you will need them when, later in the year, the astrology brings nearly total focus on your sign and you’re in the spotlight in a much bigger way. That’s the future; this is the point of origin.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22) — You’re in a situation where you must be both the micromanager and the visionary. This isn’t easy. All the details in the world don’t add up to the larger scenario, no matter how well attended. But they do need to be attended. You also know that you’re one of the few who cannot only understand the grand scheme — you’re one of its most influential authors. Therefore, make sure that the details get taken care of, but don’t let them bog you down. One way to do that is to take care of them well in advance. You know what they are; you know who is dependable and who is not; you have a sense of the timing involved. Keep a grip on this layer of things and you will soon emerge as a leader of the people and the author of a genuine idea or concept.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20) — You might question whether what you perceive in others is your own shadow projected onto them, or whether it’s really some issue they have. It could be a little of both, though in any event there is significant benefit that can come from asking the questions that help you verify your perceptions. Relationships often get tangled in a hall of mirrors, and this is the stuff of which those mirrors are made. If you determine that something belongs to you, it’s that much easier to address. If you determine that something is the property of another person, that at least helps you understand where the lines of responsibility really are. All of us who live on our particular planet have work to do. It helps considerably if we do our own work and allow others to do theirs.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19) — Others may challenge your authority over the next few weeks. It could be some professional situation, or a household-related theme, or your moral authority — and you will need to figure out a way to handle it that works for everyone, or for as many people as possible. Remember that often, when someone is trying to razz you, they’re doing it for its own sake. It may be a form of amusement or a not-so-dangerous way to take a little risk. That said, take a real look at any beef someone has with you and offer them some kind of compromise. Leave yourself room to negotiate; don’t give it all away at first — just enough to send the signal that you’re open to a discussion and that you have a fair mind. This will work anywhere along the spectrum from personal to political.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — All the facts in the word don’t add up to the truth. So where you’re inundated with data, make sure you look at it in a way that tells you something. Now, that something may well be subjective. You may get an opinion confirmed; you may see a pattern and come up with a new theory. The message of your charts is all about seeing patterns and discerning what they tell you. Here is a clue: To do this well, you need to have faith in yourself and in your intelligence. Pisces is good at being circumspect, which is a way of saying taking in a diversity of viewpoints — though you have to trust your own, and give the opinions of others weight only to the extent that they’re presenting something compelling. Just keep that theory in mind — that a lot of information is not necessarily what you need. It’s a coherent point of view and a flexible plan of at least three steps toward the goal.

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