From the closing of the Haunt, to Covid-19 shutting down nightlife, the live music scene in Ithaca has had a rough couple of years. Now with covid-restrictions loosened and people regaining comfort in the idea of a night on the town, the music scene is expanding at a rapid rate in the form of new venues, familiar faces and local bands. Here’s a look at some promising developments:
Located on 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the basement of the Watershed, the Downstairs is a fairly new addition to the scene, soft-opening in August 2020. Ashley Cake, owner of both establishments, said music wasn’t in the cards at first, but when the pandemic prompted her to use the Downstairs as a private event space, she found an increasing demand from people wanting to hear live music.
One of the first live events Cake hosted was a stand-up comedy open mic, which continues to be one of the venue’s most popular events, hosted every Tuesday night starting at 7 pm.
“Despite all the [Covid] variants, it became a real community event and it felt really good for these performers to have a stage of some kind.” Cake said. “It got to the point where I said, ‘we need to pivot and I have to invest in the live entertainment aspect of the business in order for it to have a shot.’”
Just a short jaunt away from The Downstairs is The Upstairs (formerly Lot 10) located on 106 S Cayuga Street.
Despite similarities in names, the Upstairs has different owners, is a bit bigger and a bit louder, and offers a party-like atmosphere overlooking the Commons from its second floor perch. Its mix of bands and DJs can draw a variety of audiences on different nights, from college students to local residents.
While the Upstairs frequently hosts local bands, it also brings in larger out-of-town performers. Most recently, bassist Karina Rykman, who has played with the likes of Marco Benevento and Seth Meyers’ 8G band took the stage at the end of November.
Like most venues, the Upstairs also hosts a weekly open mic, on Wednesdays. The main difference here is a killer house band led by host/drummer/sometimes bassist Jeremy Bussmann of the local band Mostly Microbes. With an eclectic mix of performers ranging from jazz to rap to rock, these jams bring together unlikely combos of musicians and draws a surprisingly large audience, often going late into the night past 1 am.
Deep Dive is arguably making the biggest splash on Ithaca’s music scene as of late. Located on 415 Old Taughannock Boulevard, formerly the site of the Dock and previously Castaways, the venue has always been a prime music destination. Now with new owners and a substantial interior facelift, the Deep Dive has been hostingmultiple acts a week, attracting locals and out- of-towners as well as a surprising amount of college students. The Deep Dive’s location away from the center of town certainly has its drawbacks, but where it lacks in foot traffic it makes up for in the potential to bring in nearby Trumansburg residents and other travelers passing through the outskirts of town.
TJ Schaper who runs Deep Dive with Jack Clausen, went to Ithaca College and played Trombone in John Brown’s Body, performing at the venue when it was the Dock. Schaper met Clausen when they put together the Ithaca Night Bazaar this past summer at the Ithaca’s Farmers Market.
The Deep Dive sees itself as a “feeder venue,” acting as a club-level venue perfectly sized for bands that have outgrown the local bars but aren’t big enough to book the State Theater. Indeed, the venue has a bigger footprint than both the Downstairs and Upstairs.
Schaper also said he wants to cross-promote national and local music having smaller Ithaca-based bands open for larger touring acts and conversely have lesser-known touring acts open for popular hometown acts as well.
It is this type of diversity in both location and venue size that makes Ithaca’s live music comeback so exciting. While before it could sometimes seem as if the Haunt and State Theater were the only venues, now there is an abundance of choices all over the city for both local bands and out-of-town acts of all shapes and sizes to choose from.
Kevin Black, a local booking agent and promoter, agreed that the increase in venues has the potential to bring in new talent.
“Everybody’s always wanted to play here but they’ve never had the opportunity to play here,” he said. “There almost weren't enough places but now, there will be more opportunities to bring more of these acts that want to come in to play.”
Sacred Root Kava Lounge and Tea Bar
Often overlooked as a music destination, Sacred Root’s atmosphere is worlds apart from the other destinations but a welcome alternative for music lovers seeking nightlife without the excessive noise or alcohol.
Sacred Root has found its home in Ithaca for nearly a decade, first opening in 2014. It also can lay claim as one of Ithaca’s only late-night non-alcoholic establishments, staying open until midnight on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Replacing the alcohol with Kava tea, a soothing drink known for its calming qualities, also makes for an entirely different music experience for both audience members and performers.
“The musicians always feel like the audience is more present, more tuned-in and more considerate,” explained Sacred Root co-owner, Paul Galgoczy who founded the place with his wife, Judy. “The whole history of the use of kava is around people coming together as a community because of how that enhances the connection.”
Music has been at Scared Root since the beginning in the form of a variety of bands and genres ranging from electronic music, to folk to punk. The venue also welcomes art and dance as one of its many creative mediums.
The fact that Sacred Root is a non-alcoholic establishment also gives it the advantage of hosting all-ages shows, a market that is often underserved. When it comes to accessibility, not selling alcohol makes it easier for younger audiences to enjoy live music in Ithaca.
Sacred Root is aided in its all-ages endeavors by Ithaca Underground, a local non-profit formed in 2007, works with young local artists and venues to put on these types of shows.
Bubba Crumrine, interim board chair for Ithaca Underground stressed the importance of hosting all ages shows to continue the tradition of live music in ithaca for many years to come.
“If there’s no place for young people to see music, get inspired, and perform - why should they stay in town or be involved?,” Crumrine asked. “Being able to perform, learn about the music industry and how shows work and have a safe environment to make mistakes in when you’re young gives any musician a leg up for when you’re ready to tour and perform on larger events.”
Like the name suggests, perhaps the Haunt isn’t completely dead yet. Dan Smalls of DSP Shows, acquired the rights to the name and brand of the Haunt when it originally closed. The pandemic has put much of his plans for the Haunt on hold for the time being, but talking with Smalls a few weeks back, he maintains that the search for the Haunt’s new home continues.
“I’m waiting for the right opportunity and the right partner to come along that really wants to dive in and take control of making it a special artist experience,” Smalls said. “For me to do it, we’re not going to do something where we have to apologize for anything. It’s gonna have the best sound system and the best layout and backstage.”
An interesting side effect of the increase in venues is what Charles Chatman, logistics comittee coordinator Ithaca Underground, describes as the decentralization of live music.
“No one person or organization represents a majority of underground music in town and no one place is the default location,” Chatman explained. “That variety of organizers is met by the variety of spaces where these shows can take place. Things aren’t the same as they were before but that isn’t all bad.”
Indeed, while promoters and bookers like Kevin Black, and Dan Smalls seemed to be in charge of most shows pre-pandemic, now many of the venues like Deep Dive have taken booking matters into their own hands. Ithaca Underground also reports decreased memberships when it comes to venues reaching out to them to book all-ages shows.
Schaper says he sees the increase in venues as a way to encourage a higher standard to host musical events at a new level.
“It’s been cool to see each venue influencing each other to get shows and promote shows,” he said. There’s a fire lit to make Ithaca what it could be. As a community member it's an awesome thing to see.”
Angry Mom Records
Looking to the future, as the music scene blossoms, it is no surprise an increasing number of venues want to get in on the action. Angry Mom Records, the longtime record store on the Commons, has joined the procession.
Angry Mom is currently in the process of moving from the basement of Autumn Leaves to the floor above the bookstore, which will essentially double it’s existing physical footprint. While the venue used to host monthly shows pre-pandemic, come springtime the record shop plans to ramp up events, using the larger space to create a stage and host local bands providing another all-ages setting. George Johann, owner of Angry Mom Records, is also a member of Ithaca Underground.
“We jumped on the opportunity to expand our physical footprint and also have the possibility of doing more in the music scene in the Ithaca area,” Johann explained
And The Show Goes On
Despite the smattering of new venues in Ithaca, all of the local owners and promoters admitted they still see continued hesitancy on the part of the public to come out to shows, whether it be true to the lingering effect of Covid or rising costs of inflation.
“....”You’re still seeing that a certain portion of the population is reluctant to gather socially, but that said the rising tide generally helps all boats,” Smalls said referring to the increase in venues.
“This year’s been a bit better but it's definitely not back where it used to be where we would meet new people and get connected,” Galgoczy added.
In the larger picture, Schaper of Deep Dive, acknowledges the scene is changing in Ithaca, but he said he mainly sees opportunity.
“As far as Ithaca being what it once was, it’s never going to be the same, and I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing,” Schaper said, “We're not trying to make it what it was, we’re trying to make it relevant.”