Driving into the Empire State Plaza to see Shelby Lynne at The Egg, I saw a man walking a very, very small dog. “Is that Mouse?” I asked. He eyed me suspiciously. I told him I write about music, that I had interviewed Shelby by phone for a story and had asked the name of the tiny dog in her publicity photos.
Reassured, he said he was “Charlie, the bass player.” I asked, “Are you Charlie Chadwick?” Surprised again, he said he was, and I told him I’d met him in Nashville the year before, playing in my brother Jim Hoke’s band. In fact, I had sung with the band — in Russian, but none too well — at my nephew Austin’s bar mitzvah, trying to keep up as they swung “Midnight in Moscow.”
That’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to performing at The Egg, as it marks its 30th anniversary this year. In fact, Mouse got closer to the stage than I did — one of many dogs, two elephants and a panther to do so in a 30-year parade of musicians, dancers, children’s performers, lecturers, comics and a circus troupe or two.
The elephants? Before a circus performance, they calmly rode the freight elevator nine stories up from the loading dock to the stage. Much less calm were those who discovered the panther caged backstage that night. “Scared the hell out of the overnight cleaning crew,” recalled executive director Peter Lesser.
Nobody was alarmed when Emmylou Harris brought her three dogs onstage in October 2006, or when Levon Helm led a huge band and a calm black Lab onstage for his tremendous show last fall. His fans liked the music more than the dog, who wandered offstage after a while.
Levon sometimes visits backstage from his home in Woodstock, when he’s not even playing. When guitarist Sean Costello played a blues festival at The Egg a dozen years ago, Levon and his daughter Amy Helm, then Sean’s girlfriend, showed up backstage. Amy has since played The Egg with her band Ollabelle, is married to saxophonist Jay Collins and the mother of Lavon Henry Collins. Levon brought former Band-mate Garth Hudson to visit bluesmen James Cotton and Johnnie Johnson backstage, and banjo master Bela Fleck dropped in on Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, and on Uncle Earl and Carrie Rodriguez. (He plays with Uncle Earl banjoist Abigail Washburn in the Sparrow Quartet.) Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette came to check out Savion Glover, whose recent show with the McCoy Tyner Trio marked his record-setting sixth season in a row at The Egg, a tie with the Zucchini Brothers.
DeJohnette watched Glover from the audience before going backstage in his self-effacing, quiet manner; but dancer Bill T. Jones exploded from the audience to the stage during a performance. The program included a piece in which a silk or taffeta curtain would run on a custom-designed traveler track, opening to reveal different scenes. Everything worked fine in rehearsal, but the track hung up during the performance, leaving the dancers to “ad-lib” uncomfortably and stare helplessly into the wings in search of technical assistance. Deciding he could take no more, Bill T. Jones ran from his seat in the theater and jumped onto the stage waving his arms and in a loud demanding voice stopped his own show until the mechanical problem was corrected.
Not always Smooth
Things generally run more smoothly at The Egg, one of the best-run and best-programmed venues in the area; though its evolution was not always smooth until Lesser took over in 2000, moving to The Egg from the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
The Egg opened on May 27, 1978, first night in a weeklong run of the musical “Peter Pan” performed by the Empire State Youth Theatre Institute (ESIPA), The Egg’s resident company. In addition to its own school and family theater productions, ESIPA also presented musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Ruth Laredo, the Modern Jazz Quartet and others, plus the dance companies of Paul Taylor, Edward Villella, Garth Fagan, Joffrey and more.
By 1989, territorial tensions erupted between ESIPA, led by Patricia Snyder, and the Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Corporation, led by Barnabas McHenry, over workspace and programming. ESIPA became the New York State Theater Institute (NYSTI), moved to the Troy campus of Russell Sage College and continued its successful productions under Snyder’s direction, while The Egg searched for a new identity and purpose.
Executive directors came and went: Terry Lorden, then Barbara Baehr and Joan Roberts. “In the beginning, programming was very sparse, since they were not only building a program but also a staff and finding a niche,” said Kim Engel, who danced with the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company while working in The Egg’s box office, before becoming The Egg’s publicist, then moving on to a management role with the UAlbany Performing Arts Center. “Under Peter [Lesser], music developed enormously,” said Engel, who also credited Baehr with bringing in resident theater (Actors Collaborative) and dance companies (Sinopoli, and Capital Ballet).
Dance and music
Now, 30 years on, The Egg still presents many touring dance companies, presenting nine Nutcrackers (the record) in 2002, for example: three by the Malta Ballet and two each by Capital Ballet, Berkshire Ballet and the Youth Ballet. But The Egg may be best known for its musical offerings, particularly its American Roots & Branches series, which reflects baby boomers’ affection for the rock of their youth and the influences that shaped it, and the Rhythm International series, which includes both jazz and wide spectra of overseas influences. The fastest sellout in recent times was the Pixies’ 2005 acoustic reunion show, which created a buzz and a stampede for tickets; and the longest was probably the 31⁄2-hour New York Banjo marathon.
What’s in a name
The Egg is also known for the sometimes clever, sometimes rude, comments musicians often feel compelled to make about the place. They gaze around at its roundness, switch on their imaginations and go for it, speculating what solar system it flew in from, suggesting it’s hard-boiled but wondering what it would look like if scrambled. Perhaps the rudest came from Suzzy Roche of the Roches who said its outside looked like “the legs and ass of a really fat guy.” When Neko Case played The Egg just before the Super Bowl, she felt we were all inside the similarly shaped game trophy.
A few weeks ago, Iris DeMent recalled playing at an intersection under a traffic signal that concert organizers forgot to turn off, and alongside a pig race at a fair. “I thought I’d seen it all until I got here,” she said, “but I never thought I’d be inside something like this.”
A few weeks before that, Lyle Lovett spoke of seeing a strange, round building looming on the Albany skyline. Next to him, highly amused, was John Hiatt, veteran of many shows at The Egg and therefore qualified to inform Lovett, “You’re inside it.”
The cleverness prize goes to They Might Be Giants. The bold, bonkers Brooklyn duo created a song and video about it on their “Venue Songs” DVD. After the announcer dubs it “a gigantic concrete performance orb,” They Might Be Giants ask permission for The Egg to land, inquire “When will it hatch?” and sum up succinctly: “No corners for you.”
They Might Be Giants return to play The Egg on April 19.
Tonight, Joan Baez plays The Egg at 8 p.m. Tickets are $34.50. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.