Give the Rochester Music Hall of Fame props for an out-of-this-world opening at Sunday’s induction ceremony and concert. Austin Giorgio, a Webster native and competitor on “The Voice,” crooning “Fly Me to the Moon” behind a backdrop of images from Apollo 11.
What the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon has to do with Rochester music is anyone’s guess. Let’s call it artistic license. This eighth year of the Hall may not have had the big-name buzz of past years, but it still drew about 1,700 people, who saw three high-school seniors steal the second half of the show from some paint-by-numbers performances by the pros. But the evening does get bonus points for coming in at about a half-hour shorter than previous butt-numbing, 4½-hour events.
Let’s not debate the worthiness of this year’s inductees. But a season of reckoning may have arrived for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
This year’s inductees were Beach Boy Al Jardine, television-theme composer Jack Allocco, folk singer Christine Lavin, longtime area promoter Jeff Springut and his club Red Creek, and the 50th anniversary – maybe there’s your moon landing connection – of WCMF-FM (96.5), with a special merit award to its longtime DJ, Dave Kane. In one respect or another, it was a lineup of the now-familiar mix of on-stage performers and behind-the-scenes operators.
Here is where the Rochester Music Hall of Fame finds itself: The once-deep bench of familiar, no-doubt inductees has been depleted. World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming is still out there, with the Hall eagerly awaiting her schedule to clear so that she can be inducted. But don’t expect another miracle like 2018, when two of the biggest pop, rock and jazz players at their instruments, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Steve Gadd, two guys with a long history of performing together, miraculously had an open weekend. And they brought along one of their old cohorts, Paul Simon, to sing a few songs.
The Hall can’t count on that kind of networking and fortuitous timing. It may be time to shift the focus from an induction spectacular to something that more closely reflects the area’s music scene, and not a sense of urgency to fill 2,300 seats in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Jardin and the Beach Boys have very little to do with Rochester, beyond Jardin living for three years in Irondequoit as a kid, trying to learn how to play the clarinet.
The five new inductees join the 44 already enshrined in the Hall of Fame’s first seven years. First up was Christine Lavin, a College of Brockport graduate – “I changed my major six times!” she exclaimed – who lived in Geneva for many years. She got the evening off to a provocative start, opening with a metaphor-laden song that was a clear repudiation of President Trump, and a call to turn this country around. Then “Grandad & the Empire State Building,” Lavin’s remembrance of her grandfather, and how most of the people who built the Empire State Building were immigrants. Again, a shot at a current divisive issue in America.
Allocco, born and raised in Rochester, has won 11 Emmys. He is the composer for the daytime soaps The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, and has also worked in theater, as a musical director for Robert Goulet and Peter Allen, and performed in Carnegie Hall, Buckingham Palace, The Grand Ole Opry and the White House. He was joined by a musical mob: the outstanding house band, Prime Time Funk, backing vocalists, a string section of student musicians from Nazareth College, and Allocco’s longtime friend Gary Wright, performing shimmering Allocco arrangements of Wright’s ’70s hits “Dream Weaver” and “Love is Alive.”
Springut’s induction opened with a film clip from 1977 of Steve Gadd going berserk on the drums at Red Creek. Springut and Red Creek were key players on the local scene from 1970 until 1997, where he brought acts such as Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt and The Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Henrietta club. He even had Dr. Timothy Leary, talking about LSD. Springut still remains active as a promoter for the Lilac Festival and Park Avenue Festival. His acceptance speech was perhaps the most touching of the evening, when he choked up when thanking his son Gavi, who was 24 when he passed away from a brain tumor in 2013. Springut was serenaded into the Hall with “Dance With Me” and “Still the One” by John Hall, former lead singer of the band Orleans, which played Red Creek a few times.
The second half of the show opened with the Douglas Lowry Award, named for the late dean at the Eastman School of Music. It generally goes to two area high-school seniors who are going on to study music in college, but this year the award went to three seniors: Raymond Feng and Natalie Leclair of Pittsford Sutherland and Robert Varon, who studies guitar with Bob Sneider, the Eastman professor who holds down some of the late-night sessions at the jazz fest. Feng’s dynamic classical piano drew a standing ovation, while Leclair’s sassy vocals on the mid-1950s jazz standard “Devil May Care” and Varon’s take on Chick Corea’s “Spain” left the audience equally awed.
Earlier in the day, Jardine visited the Summerville house where his family moved to when he was 6 years old; his father worked at Eastman Kodak and taught photography at RIT. They stayed here just a few years, and Jardin explained his opening number, “Postcard From California,” was about the family’s move from Rochester to San Francisco. Accompanied by his son Matt Jardine on vocals and Jeff Alan Ross on keyboards, Jardine moved on to “In My Room,” before Prime Time Funk joined for “Surfin’ USA” and “Help Me Rhonda.”
It was oddly flat, and even a couple of guys running down the aisles, tossing beach balls to the audience, didn’t amp up the energy. It was the same for the closing WCMF segment, celebrated in predictable fashion by a seemingly fine hard-rock band assembled from drummer Carmine Appice (who has played with dozens of bands, including Vanilla Fudge, Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart), bassist Tony Franklin (The Firm and Whitesnake), guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns N’ Roses) and singer and Rochester native Phil Naro (Talas). They howled their way through Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” while the audience just kinda nodded their heads.
Dave Kane, in accepting his special merit award, as well as the WCMF induction on the station’s behalf, had perhaps the finest line of the night, noting that his 38 years with the station demonstrated “an astounding lack of ambition.” But the closing number “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” with most of the night’s musicians returning to the stage, looked like a hastily-called pick-up game, with Lavin and her acoustic guitar and Allocco in his nice suit wandering around the rockers in their ripped-up bluejeans.
Perhaps it was just an off night. Perhaps it’s a sign that placing a priority on the big show conflicts with the Hall of Fame board’s frequent admirable attempts at genre, gender and racial diversity. It’s a format that does not accommodate some of the most significant players, and moments, in Rochester’s music history. That includes musicians with both long and short lives here: The Colorblind James Experience and The Dady Brothers and The Chesterfield Kings, among the leaders of the garage-band revival. The spoken-word provocateur Lydia Lunch. Metallica, which recorded its first album, “Kill ’em All” at Rochester’s Music America studio, which is now Blackdog Recording Studio, a little doorway off Swan Street by Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.
How about a place in the Hall for the workmanlike bassist Brian Williams? His career spans time with blues icon Son House to playing house concerts this past week.
Maybe we need to induct eras: The ’70s and Bahama Mama, who became The Majestics, who spent time backing reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry. The ’90s, when bands like Lethargy played the Bug Jar. Two of its members, Brann Dailer and Bill Kelliher, went on to become half of the Grammy-winning heavy metal band Mastodon.
Now that the Hall has an actual home – 26 Gibbs Street, a short block from Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre – perhaps the board can find room on a wall for Elvis Costello getting thrown out of Scorgie’s, U2 getting thrown out of Red Creek, the police shutting down a Rolling Stones concert after a few songs and David Bowie and Iggy Pop getting busted for possession of pot after a 1974 show at the War Memorial. We don’t have to celebrate someone else’s accomplishments. We’ve had our own rock and roll moments.
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.