At First Night in Saratoga Springs, it’s all about the local artists.
Saratoga First Night
When: From 3 p.m. Wednesday to midnight
Where: Various venues in downtown Saratoga Springs
How much: $15 for button that allows access to all venues; children 5 and under free
More Info:Go to ymcasaratoga.org/firstnight/ or call 583-9622 ext. 132.
Click HERE to view the complete schedule.
Jesse Champagne, who lives in Saratoga Springs and manages Saratoga Guitar, will be making his fourth appearance at the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, which takes place throughout the evening on Wednesday at various venues in the downtown area. And for the second time, he’ll be helping to ring in the New Year, with a 40-minute, 11 p.m. performance at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
“I’ve done the last set once before,” Champagne said during a recent interview at a coffee shop in Saratoga. “It’s usually pretty quiet, but hopefully we’ll get a big crowd.”
If past years’ First Night celebrations in the city are any indication, they will. The celebration has drawn roughly 14,000 people each of the past two years. And even with the economy in recession or heading there, organizers are planning for a similar number of visitors this year, according to Maureen Duda, First Night coordinator for the YMCA of Saratoga, which organizes the event each year.
“In fact, this [the economy] will probably increase, if anything, our attendance, because people will be discouraged from $300-per-couple, all-you-can-eat-and-drink barroom parties,” Duda said. “[With First Night] you get all this entertainment — 35 venues and 400 performers — and you can bring the kids right along with you. I think it will probably be one of our biggest years.”
This will also be the second year that Saratoga Springs has the only official First Night celebration in the Capital Region. First Night, which began in Boston in 1976 as an alternative to alcohol-fueled New Year’s Eve celebrations with art, music and other festivities, has spread across the country and the world. According to First Night International’s Web site, www.firstnight.com, 111 First Night celebrations are expected to take place on Wednesday evening.
However, the Capital Region has seen dwindling numbers of First Night celebrations. Albany’s First Night turned into WinterFest, which held its third annual event on Saturday. Oneonta will once again not hold a First Night, making this the second year in a row the city has not participated. However, the city’s centennial celebrations, which began on New Year’s Eve last year, will be concluding on Wednesday evening with fireworks and other arts events not dissimilar to First Night events. Check www.oneonta100.com for more information.
First Nights are still planned for some nearby cities, however, including Northampton, Mass.; Saranac Lake; and Binghamton.
The Saratoga celebration, meanwhile, continues to grow. This year, the city has added new venues to its lineup, including the Saratoga Spa State Park’s Little Theater, the Automobile Museum and the State Park’s administration building. Buses will be available to take people among venues. Admission to all events is through a First Night button, which costs $15 and is available through the Web at www.ymcasaratoga.org/firstnight, and at various venues listed on the Web site.
“We draw from all the surrounding states,” Duda said. “We have people from 20 different states who run in the 5K run. A lot of people spend the holidays with their family and make it a family affair.” The race, which starts at 5:30 p.m., has already filled its field of 1,000 runners.
Fire and ice
This year’s theme is “Fire and Ice,” with themed events including the Cosmic Karma fire singers and dancers at the opening ceremony, a hot air balloon and maybe a 24-foot tall figure 8, which they hope to light on fire at 10 p.m. at the State Park’s administration building. Of course, music and art are big parts of the celebration, as well, with such local favorites as the McKrells, the Audiostars, the Ramblin Jug Stompers, Hair of the Dog and the Zucchini Brothers.
Singer-songwriter Champagne may be less well-known to regional music aficionados, although he has been gigging at Saratoga venues such as Caffe Lena, Bailey’s Cafe and Gaffney’s Restaurant for some time now. A finger injury on his guitar-playing hand sidelined the folk guitarist for most of this past year, and he has only recently gotten back into performing.
“I was playing basketball; it’s crazy. It’s pretty ridiculous, really,” Champagne said.
However, he’s hoping that his First Night performance will kick off a revival in his music career. He’ll be taking a week off in January to record his first album at his home, which he hopes to release sometime in March.
Champagne is also looking to expand his sound beyond the singer-songwriter medium. He’ll be playing with fiddler Connor Smith at First Night, adding a different dimension to his usually solo acoustic performances of original material and covers from artists such as Jack Johnson, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger and Bob Marley.
“There’s a lot of Bob, a lot of different Bobs,” Champagne said, laughing.
It makes sense, considering that Dylan was Champagne’s first exposure to folk music when he moved to Saratoga Springs at age 15. Champagne first picked up guitar around that time and began delving into folk music. His favorite artist now is Greg Brown, who he met when Brown performed at The Egg earlier this year.
Champagne, who also cites groups such as The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana and Pearl Jam as early influences, didn’t initially fall in love with folk, however.
“It was definitely an acquired taste — I didn’t really like it at first,” Champagne said. “It’s one of those types of music where you’ve got to feel it out, and then you just become obsessed with it, you can’t listen to anything else.”
Inspiration for Champagne’s original songs comes from just about anywhere. He’ll carry around a small voice recorder to document ideas as they come to him, and has scraps of paper and napkins filled with ideas that sometimes make it into songs.
One such song, “Long Shot for a Lover,” took shape after Champagne wrote the phrase down on a ticket at Saratoga Race Course.
“I was at the track, and I was just going through a break up, and I wrote those words down on like a little ticket, a losing ticket,” Champagne said. “So it’s called ‘Long Shot for a Lover,’ betting on long shots that day. It sounds kind of corny, but that’s how it happened — a losing ticket.”
Working at Saratoga Guitar has also given him inspiration. The shop’s owner, Matt McCabe, who organizes the library stage that Champagne will be playing at, has helped Champagne get gigs here and there. And Champagne cites local musicians such as Rich Ortiz, Sean Rowe, Rick Bolton and Jeff Walton as sources of inspiration and encouragement.
Although he’s lost some momentum this past year, Champagne isn’t too worried. He said he’d like to make a career out of music someday, but understands that “you pretty much have to have a nine-to-five, especially in folk music.”
“I was thinking three years ago I’d be done with a record in like a year,” Champagne said. “So it hasn’t worked out to plan, but it’s got to be for a reason.”