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October 2014

Hobofest

Saranac Lake's roots music celebration

Photograph by Shaun Ondak

It’s high noon on Sunday under clear blue skies. The temperature is nearing 80 degrees, but a slight breeze makes the heat more than bearable—it’s what some might justifiably call a perfect Adirondack day. Saranac Lake’s historic Union Depot is buzzing with activity. Couples in lawn chairs seek refuge from the sun’s rays under a big white tent, while young children weave between them, dancing and playing to a live soundtrack of bluegrass, folk and Americana.

On the sidewalk next to the tent a short, stout man—dressed from head to toe in a flowing, tie-dyed getup—saunters by with a bindle resting gently on his shoulder. “Saranac Lake is my second home,” says the man, who identifies himself only as Louie. He hails from Ogdensburg and works as a tie-dye artist and a musician. “I’m sort of a hippied-out hobo,” Louie explains, noting his colorful garb. Then he motions to the stage and the crowd and continues. “The community supports this. The community is here for this. This is what life is all about.”

This is Hobofest.

 

Six years ago Saranac Lake artist Peter Seward told his friend Todd Smith, then owner of the 7444 Gallery, that he wanted to host a music festival. “When people say things like that to me, they have to be careful,” Smith says. “At the time, I looked at Peter and said, ‘Come on. You want to host a music festival? Let’s do it.’ And the rest is history.”

The duo got to work. As fate would have it, their résumés made them a good match for putting on a music festival—Smith’s entrepreneurial savvy helped with the organizational side, while Seward, the artist, flexed his creative muscles to put together a dynamic group of performers. The two most immediate hurdles—location and cost—were cleared relatively quickly. Smith offered up the loading dock of his art gallery, housed in the old Railway Express Agency next door to Saranac Lake’s Union Depot, as a stage, and Seward asked his musician friends if they would be willing to play for free. “We had an open grill, people brought their own food and drink,” Smith recalls. “It was about as grassroots as you can get.”

 

It’s a little before 2 p.m. and the crowd is gravitating toward the stage. James Ford, of the Blind Owl Band, is hunched over the microphone, his long brown hair jumping and swaying with each strum of his guitar. To his right, Jane Hayley, of Hayley Jane and the Primates, leans in to add her vocals as she keeps time on a faded washboard. At the edge of the crowd is Clyde Rabideau, Saranac Lake’s mayor. He bobs his head to the music, turning his gaze away every few seconds to say hello to a passerby. “It’s a grand tradition, and it’s growing,” he says, beaming. “I was here at the first Hobofest. There was no tent, there was a little stage. Now it’s huge. It’s something that people look forward to all year long. The talent Pete and Todd bring in is incredible.

“There’s college kids here—families, retired couples, tourists,” the mayor adds. “It’s a great way to help put Saranac Lake on the map.”

Naming it Hobofest “aligns the event with the economically disenfranchised, and underlines its grassroots origins,” says Seward. “There have been other ‘hobofests’ in the states, even one in the Czech Republic. The name rolls off the tongue easily.”

Five years in, the backbone of the free music festival is still intact, although the size of the crowd has ballooned. The stage, too, is bigger; in 2010 Hobofest traded the loading dock for a 12-foot-by-24-foot platform, adjacent to the depot.

“Each year it’s grown almost 70 percent in the numbers that we’ve seen, both in income from merchandise [bandannas, hats, T-shirts, buttons, screen-printed posters]—which supports the whole festival—and what we perceive as daily attendance,” Smith says. “We went from a couple hundred that first year, to between 400 and 500 in the next couple years, to more than 1,000.”

One question looms as Hobofest prepares for its sixth anniversary: How big can this get? “I think there’s some el­bow room,” Seward says. He adds, quickly, that he and Smith are attached to the Union Depot as a venue. “It’s a good arena for a festival. I do think there’s an opportunity to partner with businesses in town and turn this into a big attraction. We could have this magnetic pull and really own Labor Day weekend.”

 

There’s still plenty of sunlight left when, at about 7 p.m., Toronto artist Annabelle Chvostek takes to the stage with her band. Only she’s not alone—backing her up on vocals is a trio of well-known Adirondack musicians: Theresa Hartford, Shamim Allen and Sarah Curtis. This is one of Hobofest’s hallmarks. Over the years, Seward has striven to take mainstays of the Adirondack music scene—Lucid, Steve Langdon, the Blind Owl Band—and group them with new faces, often musicians from big cities.

“It’s a tall ask to say to performers, ‘Hey, I want you to do something unique for the event,’” Seward says. “Sometimes folks are receptive to it and sometimes they’re not. But it makes the program special—you’re not likely to see these people performing together anywhere else.”

And right on cue, just moments after Chvostek wraps things up, a tall, dark-haired Brooklynite named Mamie Minch walks onstage with a guitar, joined by Chris Shacklett and Kyle Murray, of Lucid. Their set is gritty, a bluesy affair with a hint of vulgarity. But Minch understands her audience, and she never crosses the line. Afterward, she sits on the sidewalk and recalls her trip north.

“I took the train from Penn Station to Albany-Rensselaer, and I get this text from Kyle Murray, Lucid’s drummer, that says, ‘We’ll just be in the big, silly bus,’” Minch says. “And sure enough, here’s this big, giant bus with all these bearded dudes happy to see me. Total strangers who made me feel welcome. We rehearsed for 15 minutes on the drive up. Everyone knows that bus, so they’re honking constantly.

“This is so fun,” she says. “I don’t know what it is about Saranac Lake, but I’ve always gotten a really positive response.”

By dinnertime, the temperature has cooled some. Spectators line up at Eat ‘n’ Meet’s food tent for burgers and sausages; others duck inside the train station for a beer from Saranac Lake’s Blue Line Brewery. John and Alison Flanigan, of Lake Placid, relax on a grassy spot near the stage, soaking up the sun’s rays.“It’s our first Hobofest,” John says. “It’s a very mellow scene. We’re just people watching.”

“We love live music,” Alison adds. “It’s nice to see people out like this.”

Not far from where they’re sitting, two Hobofest veterans are chatting away. “We never miss it,” declares Sarah Reynolds. “This is one of the best events of the year.”
Her friend Michelle Brown agrees. “We get so busy sometimes,” she says, “so we’ve always reserved this as a day to catch up and cut loose.”

By 10 p.m., the sky has darkened and the median age is closer to 25 than it was just a few hours ago. The Biscuit Rollers have stirred up an impromptu dance party.
Steve Langdon, a blues guitarist from Saranac Lake, is front and center. Rick Weber, drums, and Dan Spada, bass, of local band Le Groove, provide a rhythm section, while Ned and Liz Rauch, of Tall County, lend their voices—and strings—to the effort. It’s another mashup of local artists and musicians from afar—Ned, a former Saranac Laker, and his wife, Liz, traveled from the New York City area to play.

The Biscuit Rollers are performing Bo Diddley’s rock standard “Who Do You Love?” Ned and Langdon are trading guitar solos, and the song has morphed into an extended jam session. Bearded college students romp around, while some of the older attendees pack up their lawn chairs and disappear into the night.

Langdon exchanges glances with the rest of the band and suddenly, they’re back at the chorus—as if they’ve been playing together for years. Weber plays a quick drum lick, and the song ends. It’s a great performance, and the crowd knows it. Adirondack Daily Enterprise managing editor Peter Crowley looks around for someone to enjoy the moment with and nearly collides with Alex Marklund, a carpenter and local musician.

No words are exchanged between the two—just a joyous high-five.

For this year’s schedule, see www.hobofest.com.

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