photo by Michael Heller
Sag Harbor has long been known for its quaint Main Street, the yachts that line Long Wharf and the artist and writers who call the village home. But over the last five years, Sag Harbor has also become known for Thursday nights and a growing music scene. It’s a scene that has developed with musicians and restaurateurs working hand-in-hand to offer a diverse menu of musical genres — from serious jazz to folk, rock and reggae and seemingly everything in between.
This is one of the reasons that musician Bryan Downey, owner of the Noyac-based Bulldog Studios, launched the Hamptons Singer-Songwriters series two-years ago in the lobby of Bay Street Theatre. Over 30 almost sold-out shows later, Downey has brought the series to Phao Thai Restaurant on Thursday nights where all summer between 8:30 and 11:30 p.m. the original work of artists — both well known and emerging — can be heard in the intimate setting of the restaurant.
“There are not a lot of venues out there for singer songwriters,” said Downey in an interview on Tuesday. “There are plenty of venues for people who want to cover The Beatles or Jimmy Buffett, but there wasn’t a place where a singer songwriter could play three songs and put their guts out there on the table.”
The Hamptons Singer-Songwriters series developed organically, said Downey. Inspired by the number of musicians crafting original work on the East End, he and John Monteleone opened the series after musician Jim Turner was unable to make a gig at an open mic session at Blue Sky, now Page@63 Main.
“I called all the singers I knew to see if we could have a concert and it just came together,” said Downey. “It was a February and we had more than 100 people in that room. I thought maybe we could bring it to Bay Street Theatre and serendipitously [Bay Street Theatre creative director] Murphy Davis stopped on me on the street and it just grew from there.”
What separates Hamptons Singer-Songwriters from most live music is that while Downey will occasionally allow musicians to play covers, primarily it is a venue for original music. This gives artists a space and audience to develop work and allows patrons the opportunity to experience something unique.
In addition to local performers like mainstays Gene Casey and The Lone Sharks, Dick Johansson and Inda Eaton, the series also features artists like American Idol hopeful Leah Laurenti (a Patchogue native) and young artists from Sag Harbor eager to perform outside the classroom or Downey’s studio, where he helps young musicians develop their talents.
Tonight, in honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday, part of the session will feature Michael Michaels, a tribute performer to Dylan. It’s a rare allowance Downey admitted, but fitting in celebration of one of the greatest singer songwriters of all time.
Downey said Sag Harbor is the perfect fit for a series like this because of the community’s commitment to the arts.
“It is the center of music out here,” he said. “I feel like this all started off with Jim Turner, one of the great local musicians who plays everywhere, but a lot in Sag Harbor. He is a professional who has kept the music playing and I think most of us are riding on the coattails of Jim Turner.”
Turner traditionally hosted the Thursday night open mic at Blue Sky, now Page @63 Main. That restaurant continues to host live music events, but Turner can now be found on Sunday nights at Muse in the Harbor from 6 to 9 p.m.
Muse in the Harbor owner and chef Matthew Guiffrida has also joined the Thursday night music club, presenting guitarist and singer Steve Fredericks from 7 to 10 p.m. Guiffrida has worked with Fredericks, who performs covers as well as original tunes, since he opened Muse originally in Water Mill.
“No matter where I was, whether at The Patio or The Inn at Quogue — Sag Harbor was always the place I went on my night off because you can walk around and there is love of music,” said Guiffrida. “There is no village like it. It’s down to earth, laid back and there is always something to do.”
Downey credits the Jazz Jam Session at Bay Burger, also on Thursday nights, as creating a venue to celebrate jazz and expanding the growing tradition of music in the village. He even timed singer songwriters session to begin at 8:30 — a half hour before the 7 to 9 p.m. jam session at Bay Burger ends so musicians could experience both events.
Conceived by drummer Claes Brondal along with Bay Burger owners Joe and Liza Tremblay and John Landes, the jazz jam opened in the spring of 2009 and has developed a cult-like following among jazz enthusiasts.
Brondal said it was not only the crowds who fill Bay Burger each Thursday in the summer season that constantly humble him, but also the musicians who show up to sit in on sessions.
Saxophonist Morris Goldberg, recognized as an early pioneer of jazz out of Cape Town, South Africa, and a collaborator of Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon, has often graced the jam session stage. Backed ably by Brondal on drums, Peter Weiss on upright bass and Bryan Campbell on guitar, the jam session house band is coined The Thursday Night Live Band. Trumpet player Randy Brecker has also joined the group as has saxophonist Alex Picton.
There are evenings, said Brondal, where the concentration of world-class musicians gathered in a little burger joint on the Sag Harbor Turnpike is almost startling. He hopes with the proximity to New York that not just the jazz jam, but local music in general continues to grow.
Brondal has recently started working with Wölffer Estate Vineyards to coordinate live music Thursday through Saturdays, bringing different genres like Afro-Cuban jazz and reggae to the stage.
“Even before we had the jazz jam they hosted live music and they continue to draw huge crowds to this day,” said Brondal. “My idea originally with the jazz jam was to bring different styles to the session, but it got too complicated, so I am glad we can start to introduce some new styles at Wölffer. We want diversity and accessibility for everyone when it comes to live music out here.”