Artists leave home for wider worlds but often return for the hometown comfort of this sometimes-confining one. Rock singer-songwriter Stephen Clair boomerangs back Friday to WAMC’s The Linda, his music enriched by many points along that arc: school bands in Ballston Spa; teenaged SPAC pilgrimages; the University at Albany and the city’s club scene; grad school with a south-of-France sojourn; Brooklyn family-building; a name change; launching the Beacon Music Factory; finding Americana community affirmation in Nashville and troubadour support at the Folk Alliance and SXSW; and building a new band and album.
His first professional gig in a Ballston Spa park earned a fee in strawberry shortcake, and his band Glaze was the only rock group radio giant Don Weeks ever interviewed on WGY.
Playing in Albany on Friday, Clair foresees, “There’s some homecoming piece to it; that was a formative time.” Over coffee at Professor Java’s on a recent morning, Clair said, “It’s where my early adulthood musical roots are.”
Even earlier, he was inspired by Michael Jackson on TV, Johnny Cash on his grandfather’s stereo (the first LP he heard), grade-school music lessons and learning chords from Rick Bruno. “I was a guitar-playing teen wandering the streets of Saratoga,” Clair said. Saratoga Performing Arts Center lawn tickets cost just $6 or $7 then. “My mom would drop us off to see Bob Dylan, the Dead, Tom Petty.” By high school, he led his own bands, continuing as a UAlbany English student. “I was going to be a poet and a musician,” he said. “I was sure I’d get signed by a record label in college” — a path pioneered in the ’70s by John Simpson, later Marcy Chapin Carpenter’s manager, but I digress.
“It was pretty vibrant,” he said of the ’80s Albany scene: playing bars, clubs and the street. “But we all loved to complain about it.” Clair recalled, “There were tons of bands, and touring bands coming through.”
Playing here in Glaze, Cactus Loveseat and other bands, Clair learned, “The greatest outcome is from strong, amicable friendly ties and collaborations.” Of that sense of community and validation, he said, “I found it in Albany with Michael Eck (bandmate in Glaze) and Pete Hutchinson” (leader of the Oneonta rockers Subduing Mara.) Clair added, “A little bit of brotherhood goes a long way.”
Clair also acknowledged, “I stuck around [Albany] too long.” He said, “It got comfortable and easy to be here. … I had aspirations of busting out.” His then-employer, potter Liz Vigoda, fed those aspirations with an ad for Bard’s MFA program. She told him, “You should apply, go there and get out of here.” He did. “My world got bigger,” he said, through the New-York-City-artist example of his teachers and a term in Lacoste, France.
After Bard, Clair moved to Brooklyn, freelanced as an editor, married, played solo, flying around the country for a week of gigs here, another there, until a daughter arrived. Booking New York City gigs, he was often confused with another musician named Steve Ferguson — Clair’s birth name. Ceding Ferguson to the former NRBQ guitarist, both Clair and wife Jennifer adopted his middle name. He continued writing, following Bard instructor Arthur Gibbons’ advice: “The key is going home at night and not having a beer. Keep going.”
Soon “going” meant moving, upriver to Beacon, where they bought a colonial house. “If I could have moved anywhere, it would have been Austin,” said Clair, “so I started making Beacon Austin for myself.”
He invited New York artists to play Beacon venues, ran the Beacon River Fest from 2010 to 2015, and founded the Beacon Music Factory, first in a church basement, then in a bowling alley and other rented spaces before finding its own home for 14 teachers. “We have as many students over 45 as under 15,” he said, explaining that students learn to play entire albums together. Clair started making another album of his own. Time freed up as he watched his son and daughter “age out of needing you so much.” He said, “Last year at this time, I decided to step back into doing this more seriously.”
He felt ambition that matched his experience and craft. “I wanted to make something to stand behind,” he said, “not to discount past projects,” which include “Altoona Hotel” (1998) and “Little Radio” (2003), or the Millionaires, the rocking trio he brought to Steamer No. 10 in 2014, his last local show.
He formed a new band, the Pushbacks: Brad Hubbard, baritone sax; Sarah Arnold, keyboards; Daria Grace, bass; and Aaron Laptos, drums; all but Laptos sing. They recorded basic tracks together, at AV Lab in Beacon, but Clair had the studio to himself on Thursday nights, overdubbing parts. “We didn’t have a deadline so I could record as well as I possibly could.”
Meanwhile, he solo-showcased his songs at the American Festival in Nashville, the Folk Alliance and SXSW. “I felt more embraced and validated than way back when,” Clair marveled. He said Americana is “age-blind,” noting he has one foot there, the other in punk rock. After similar acclaim at the Folk Alliance, “I’ve taken that nugget of validation and steamrolled since September,” said Clair. Some of “Stephen Clair and the Pushbacks” has steamroller punk-rock energy, other tunes feel more thoughtful. “The songs and the way they’re presented make sense now, as a 51-year-old guy. I can’t think of anything better than writing songs and growing old playing them.”
Stephen Clair and the Pushbacks play Friday at WAMC’s The Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany). 8 p.m. $15 advance, $18 door. 518-465-5233 www.thelinda.org