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—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.
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 with 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 Sternstein 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.
Sternstein 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.
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.
That 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.
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 Man Man 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.
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."