Schenectady’s Central Park loomed large for me long before Music Haven iced the cake with rich summer sounds.
As high school ne’er-do-wells, my friends and I swung on the tall swing-sets east of Iroquois Lake, drinking beer bought in bars nearby. Once when some college-age friends and I played younger guys in a pickup basketball game, we were astonished to learn afterward we’d beaten most of the Mohonasen varsity. Our children offered excuses to return to Central Park; to turn them loose in Toyland, sled down the snowy hill west of the lake and scramble up the stainless steel triangular slide — long since removed, like the swings. We rode the miniature train with them, cheerfully chugging past picnics, playgrounds, people from every neighborhood in town.
The train seemed nostalgic to me even then, and it has since tracked off into some sunset where big toys go to die; while Music Haven’s 30th anniversary brings echoes of past seasons. I recall summers of sounds pumping hot from both the original ramshackle stage and its replacement.
The original stage sat against a hill. Fans had no seating at all. We brought our own or sat on bare blacktop; many danced. The folk group Atlantic Bridge played Mona Golub’s first show on the original stage.
Music Haven changed in July 1999 when donors’ dollars and leaders’ energy built the new stage; a symphony-sized platform with real dressing rooms, lights, a sound system installed on the building rather than trucked away after each show. Imagine! Back then, dancers’ feet stirred dust in funky clouds above the space left for them below the new wide stage. The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra played the first show on the new stage, and Golub’s first series concert starred the Clancys, on July 11. We sat in molded plastic chairs impresario Golub or her volunteers personally re-straightened into rows before each show, wiping away dust or rainwater.
The music didn’t change, though, from the vision Golub sketched early on, inviting crowds to “travel the globe, one concert at a time.” From the first, Music Haven has been a dynamic discovery zone, introducing artists either far from their homelands — but expressing universal human truths in sounds exotic and strange — or newcomers early in their artistic journeys.
Who could forget the masked marvel Lagbaja from Nigeria, the massed ngonis (goatskin-clad rectangles, like Bo Diddley’s guitars) of Malian Bassekou Kouyate, the expatriate angst of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, the delirious dance-crazy crowd exulting with Amadou and Mariam, the mysterious sensational Ukrainians Dakha Brakha. I loved them, writing here, “Imagine Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam playing a wedding in the Carpathian Mountains, Rasputin strutting in a Mardi Gras parade with Sun Ra, ‘Strange Fruit’ suddenly spiced with a wailing red instrument like Rahsaan Roland Kirk at his wildest. They sang like the Swingle Singers, or like a trumpet, they rapped like Eminem…Dahka Brakha was beyond music.”
Since playing Music Haven, jazz prodigies Esperanza Spalding and Joey Alexander have both grown careers that took them to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, The Egg and Saratoga Performing Arts Center. When I interviewed Spalding before her show and told her my daughter Pisie also played bass, we found her to be generously gracious backstage after a triumphant show. When I introduced them, Spalding said, “Oh, I know all about you” in the most encouraging way.
The place has a big vibe.
I know from talking with folks that many arrive with no idea who’s playing. They trust Music Haven to serve up something fresh and exciting. Not everything feels odd or unexpected, because music from various American roots ring out there between Afro-pop jump-ups and European excursions including Celtic reels.
Louisiana came to town with traditionalists the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Zydeco masters including accordionists Rosie Ledet, Jeffrey Broussard and Geno Delafose; Cajun two-steppers Beausoleil; brass bands including Rebirth; Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians; and hybrid crews who blenderize tradition with fearless young energy — the Bluerunners, the Pine Leaf Boys and the Red Stick Ramblers — also bluesman Anders Osborne.
Texans Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo — great singer-songwriters, wired for rock and roll — and the polka wildmen Brave Combo have wagon-trained us to the dusty plains and honky-tonk heaven.
The blues work at Music Haven even in the daytime, notably by Rory Block and Ellen McIlwaine, while Charlie Musselwhite, Kenny Neal and others went old-school and Otis Taylor made blues so deep they might have been forged in a diamond mine, hard and bright.
Bluegrass comes to Music Haven — masterly precise in the hands of Alison Brown, and the Earls of Leicester — playful by Twelve Mile.
Locals get the spotlight, too; Ruth Pelham and Alex Torres vying for the frequent flyer award. We can claim Chatham’s Rory Block as a hometown hero. Bands and individuals played Music Haven before their last notes: the recently departed Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen with her Urban Holiness Society, Greg “Sarge” Haymes with Blotto, and Nick Brignola — to be remembered in a tribute show July 31.
Music Haven’s rain sites work just fine. Escovedo rocked Union College Memorial Chapel, though the weather turned out better than the forecast. Troubadour David Wilcox invited everybody onto the big stage with him. And I recall terrific indoor sets by jazz pianist Monty Alexander and Afro-pop string band wizard Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba and Proctors.
Even shows held in bad weather outside worked. I don’t recall which of Irish singer Maura O’Connell’s five shows happened in the rain there, but I remember sharing my umbrella with two friends, standing before the old stage — where I feared NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson might melt away in the sunny heat.
Music Haven is a windshield facing the future, presenting stars in the making; a rearview bringing back music of memory, and a globe, spinning sounds for us from everywhere. After playing Music Haven, world-beat artists Novalima, Red Baraat and Mokoomba all returned to play Proctors under Music Haven auspices “between the summers.”
When Amir ElSaffar & Two Rivers Ensemble played Music Haven in August 2017, Music Haven honored me as its Music Maven of the Year and I got to speak from the stage where I see so many remarkable shows.
That fall, after the music echoed away, I visited Music Haven many times photographing improvements. Visionary designers and surveyors shaped the place. Skilled crafts-people graded, terraced and sodded the hill to welcome picnic blankets and lawn chairs. They poured and smoothed concrete in front of the stage and set rows of permanent seats there. They built a low block wall separating those spaces, stretched a security fence across the stage and refurbished the electrical system. ReTree Schenectady planted shade trees on and around the hill. This spring brought a new sound system.
The place was quiet during these projects, at least until trucks and workers arrived each morning. Hawks, herons and geese glided overhead. People biked and walked through, with or without dogs. One day a carpenter gave me a pencil stenciled “Carpenters Local 291” and said, “You’re one of us, now.” The Collins Concrete Construction Company chief, who worked harder than anybody, gave me one of their glow-in-the-dark safety shirts. Every day, I marveled at their skill; how a ‘dozer operator abruptly stopped his blade, jumped down and moved a clutch of turtle eggs out of harm’s way; how wiry, thin guys with ropy arms tossed heavy stone blocks into place seemingly without effort.
The new Music Haven audience area that those artisans made feels far more welcoming in creature-comfort-terms than the old, Spartan one. I sometimes miss that old train I rode with my children, or holding onto a swing chain with one hand and a beer in the other. But we can buy beers at Music Haven now. And we can swing on the music.