Mateo Vosganian remembers visiting downtown Saratoga Springs with his family to watch big acts take to stages throughout the city on New Year’s Eve.
Years later, he's started a new tradition: headlining First Night Saratoga.
The first time the band Wild Adriatic performed at the Saratoga Arts event was in 2016, and they’ll be at it again Tuesday, sharing the stage with the Joey Thomas Big Band at the City Center.
“We just remember being kids and going out with our parents, and seeing all the crazy acts. It’s really cool for us to be able to be a part of it,” said Vosganian, Wild Adriatic's drummer.
The rock outfit has been performing together since 2011, starting at places like Putnam Den (which is now Putnam Place).
“Saratoga’s really where we started playing gigs and learned how to play together and entertain a crowd. . . . We started playing to 20 people there and then expanded from there. The promoters over at Putnam have always been very supportive of us. It’s been a nice relationship over the last decade almost,” Vosganian said. “We’ve played a couple times since they’ve come back [as Putnam Place] and it’s better than ever, which is nice to see. Not a lot of venues put money and time back into their rooms the same way Putnam just did.”
The band tends to tour most of the year, whether it's a stop at the Mile High Music Festival in Colorado or hitting the road with the legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd. Each fall, Wild Adriatic also organizes a music festival of its own in Glens Falls, known as The Summit, and the band was selected as rock/pop artist of the year at the 2019 Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Awards.
“In a lot of ways we’ve achieved a lot of our dreams and done things we never thought we’d get to do as far as touring and travel. That’s opened us up to writing different styles of music with each other, spreading our focus from rock 'n' roll to a wider range of styles and sounds,” Vosganian said.
That’s on full display in the band’s latest EP “Our Time,” which came out in the fall.
“Our songwriting process, since we’re on the road so much, is [that] we all do things separately and record voice memos on our phones, and then we go on writing retreats where the three or four of us are just trapped in a room together for a solid week. So most of these songs came from one of the writing retreats we did last year in Virginia. We wrote probably 12 songs in four days and decided that those four are the ones we wanted to record. We went down to Brooklyn to make the record with our friend Dave [Brandwein] from a band called Turkuaz. He melds the old-school sounds that we like with a more modern production feel,” Vosganian said.
Wild Adriatic will be performing songs off the EP, as well as a new mashup.
“We always like to, especially on big nights like that, play a couple of covers or some of our songs that fit the vibe of what the theme would be. So we came up with a mashup of Prince and Death Cab for Cutie songs that reference the New Year. Two artists that couldn’t be further from each other, but we love them both and thought it would be a fun challenge for us to try. We’re playing a bunch of new songs [too], so that’s really what we’re excited about,” Vosganian said.
Playing Saratoga or the Capital Region in general is a homecoming.
“[Performing in the Capital Region] always feels like coming home. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to do a few things at home every year,” Vosganian said. Earlier this year, Wild Adriatic played as part of the Alive at Five series and the band has a show coming up with Twiddle at the Palace Theatre on Valentine’s Day.
But with First Night, the whole family will be coming out to celebrate a tradition years in the making.
“I’m pretty sure almost my whole family that still lives in New York Will be there, which is always the best part of playing at home,” Voganian said.
Wild Adriatic is one of more than 60 groups performing at First Night, including The Figgs, Sirsy, Drank the Gold, Blind Crow and others. According to Tanya Tobias, associate director of Saratoga Arts, in the weeks leading up to First Night other artists ask to get in the lineup at one of the 17 downtown venues that will host live music.
But the acts, which combined sometimes draw 10,000 people, are usually solidified by the summer, with applications for performers initially available in March. That might seem early, but the Saratoga Arts team that organizes First Night begins the planning process well before the spring season to ensure there will be a mix of genres and programs available to attendees.
“In February, we start thinking about the theme for next year’s First Night. We get a very, very short window of time where we’re not thinking about First Night. The reason we do that is so that we can start thinking about programming. The theme will often inspire programming decisions. It will help us seek out different opportunities from artists or different things from artists,” Tobias said.
This year’s theme is “A New Dimension,” which fits with the ushering in of a new decade as well as Saratoga Arts’ idea for a twist on its usual fireworks finale.
While a traditional fireworks show will take place at 5:45 p.m. in Congress Park — First Night organizers reversed course late last week on a plan to scrap the usual pyrotechnics — the countdown to midnight will be different this year.
Saratoga Arts, CMI Audio Visual and Dave Bigler Studios have compiled a video of community-submitted photos from past First Night events that will play as part of the countdown at the City Center as well as online.
The “digital midnight” will end with fireworks displayed on a large screen a the City Center and simulcast on the Saratoga Arts website.
First Night organizers said last week that restoring a traditional fireworks show will allow more children to see the show.
“More families and more of the community will be able to enjoy the early fireworks,” said Susanne Simpson, chairwoman of Saratoga Arts.
Another “new dimension” involves augmented reality.
“There’s an AR element that was built into it, where on First Night you can download an app for free and unlock it with a QR code that we’ll have here at Saratoga Arts, and it actually digitizes the button and has a preview and artist images,” Tobias said.
Then there are other, more classic elements, such as the Saratoga First Night 5K (which kicks off at 5:30 p.m.), as well as a mix of music from genres ranging from rock to jazz to folk. Other performing acts like Shakespeare Approves! will also return this year.
Dan Kostelec, an Oneonta resident, takes on the role of Shakespeare and storyteller with a show he describes as “an audience interactive, improvisational Shakespeare show.”
This is the fourth year he’ll return to First Night to perform at Saratoga Arts, bringing his improvised versions of “Romeo and Juliet” (which he titles “Romeo and Juliet: The Flying Implement of Doom Edition”) and “Macbeth” (or, as he calls it, “Macbeth: Death by Fluffy Kittens”).
Kostelec invites audience members to perform with him and the audience provides certain key lines throughout the productions.
“It’s just phenomenal seeing people open up. This might be their very first time that they’ve ever gotten on a stage or done any kind of public speaking at all, and watching them go from being a shrinking violet at the very start to hamming it up by the end of half an hour is an amazing experience. It blows me away,” Kostelec said.
“One of my favorite acts, and I think it’s just my personal entertainment preference, is Shakespeare Approves!. I love how interactive his performance always is and I love how people don’t realize they’re learning about Shakespeare when he’s talking to them,” Tobias said.
That spirit of interaction is part of the reason Tobias enjoys planning out First Night each year.
“I’m always grateful that we’re able to put this program on because we want people to know that the arts are important and we want people to know that the arts are for everybody, and this program [shows that]. For me, for as hard as First Night is [to plan], I always love to think back and think of all the people that came in the door and all the people we talked to,” Tobias said.
First Night Saratoga
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday to 12:15 a.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Downtown Saratoga Springs
TICKETS: $20 per button, which provides admission to all performances
MORE INFO: saratoga-arts.org