2022: Joywave, Danielle Ponder and the year in interviews
Start with Joywave.
The Rochester indie rockers released two albums this year. Vocalist and main songwriter Daniel Armbruster, guitarist Joseph Morinelli and drummer Paul Brenner also toured throughout the United States and Europe.
And then turn to Danielle Ponder.
The soul and R&B singer’s debut album was lauded in “Rolling Stone” magazine and in an appearance on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Ponder’s tours through the United States and Europe earned her rave reviews.
How long has it been since Rochester has had such an impact on the national music scene? The best days of Lou Gramm and Renée Fleming?
Yes, 2022 was very good for Joywave and Ponder. So we caught up with the two in their natural environment: Ugly Duck Coffee on Charlotte Street, which both have frequented. They sat next to each other — Armbruster drinking coffee, Ponder a latte — discussing their year over the caffeinated chatter of a late-morning crowd.
“All the people that I know, in other bands, or music industry people,” Armbruster says, “for the duration of this year, were texting me, saying….”
And here he lowers his voice conspiratorially:
“‘Do you know who Danielle Ponder is?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I do.’ And they’re like, ‘She’s really good.’ And I’m like, ‘I know. She’s amazing.’”
Ponder starts giggling as Armbruster continues. “And they’re like, ‘She’s gonna win Grammys.’ And I’m like, ‘I know.’”
But this story is getting ahead of ourselves. Overnight success, as Armbruster and Ponder know, takes 10 or 15 years.
“It was really hard to break through for a long time for us,” Armbruster says. “I mean, from about 2010 to the end of 2013, we would drive to New York every six to eight weeks, play a show at, like, at Pianos or somewhere on the East Side, in Brooklyn. But not have money for a hotel and drive immediately home after the show. We would do like 20-hour days, 22-hour days, hoping that someone was actually going to show up and appreciate the band.
“And finally, they did.”
Just a few years ago, Ponder was thinking of moving to Europe.
“Because I felt like it was easier for me to tour in Europe than it was to work here,” she says.
“And I felt like I could always be employed in Germany, singing in jazz clubs, singing in blues clubs, whatever you want me to sing,” she adds with a laugh.
“It just felt like the U.S. was too hard to break into. We had a hard time getting gigs in Buffalo. Getting gigs, you know, in New York City. I just found it frustrating. And in Europe, we were always received very well.”
Armbruster finishes her story: “And watching the rest of the world, or I guess the rest of the United States, wake up to that was awesome,” he says. “Because I love Rochester and it is really hard to make it from here, right? It’s like, ‘Do I need to go to Germany, or do I need to go to New York, or do I need to go to LA?’ And to be able to stay here and do it is very rare. And, you know, Danielle is actively doing that. Which I think is amazing.”
Move to Germany? Move to New York City? No, Rochester’s two biggest popular-music acts of the moment are staying right here. Both Armbruster and Ponder have, over the last couple of years, bought houses just outside the city.
And in poking through the past year of Across the Universe column interviews, by some thankful miracle of persistence, we see that the arts in general has not abandoned us as well.
Jon Gary introduced us to 2022 by releasing his new album, “MMXXI.” Or, for those who aren’t up on Roman numerals, “2021.” Rochester music that reflected on that excruciating past year, as I wrote back then:
“It wasn’t the year we’d hope it be, right?” Gary says. “We had a new president, and we thought the pandemic was going to get better, and we had a vaccine, everybody was going to get vaccinated, and things would sort of, maybe, come back to what we thought of as normal.
“And that didn’t happen.”
Jeff Riales hadn’t released an album in 12 years until “Mama Waved at Elvis” came out in December. Is the retired carpenter the best songwriter in Rochester? He has my vote. The title track — based on a true story, then taking it many speculative steps further — is a gem. But all 15 tracks have a contemplative beauty. Here’s how I described it:
Unlike Neil Young, Riales hits the positive notes — and also the thoughtful, difficult notes — on what it is to be a Southern man. He’s always written about what that means; the night the Army rolled into Memphis to quell the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
There is a strong sense of place in this collection of songs. On “Log and a Chain,” Riales celebrates the sound of old-time country and the old-time work ethic of loggers, and the dangers of that work deep in the woods, out of our sight.
“Mississippi Dream” is a gentle reflection on his country heritage. Longing for things lost. Including getting lost himself: “I’m going back to Mississippi, hope there’s no one following me.”
Tav Falco was born in Arkansas, and now lives in Thailand. Here’s how he described his music before a show at Photo City Music Hall:
“I only sing one song in any media,” he says. “It’s the same one, it’s the song of unrequited love, brother against brother, burning mansions, lost causes. Unbridled emotional entanglements and all the consequences. Rekindling of romances when they should probably be left alone, that kind of thing. That’s what people want to hear about.”
Clifford Thompson, a writer and artist who was speaking at SUNY Brockport in November, described life as a Black man in America:
“I’ve been followed out of stores,” he says: suspected shoplifter. He’s been chased down the street by a police car: Black man running. “I have definitely been a recipient of biased behavior.”
Awadagin Pratt, a nationally renowned classical pianist who played with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in April, sounded a similar note. He recalled his time as a student at Johns Hopkins University when he was late for class. A cop chased him down:
“I was on the steps of the school, he was demanding identification,” Pratt says. “The security guards were telling him I was a student. He had assumed, I guess, I was running from a crime or something. I said, when my white friends are running down the street, do your colleagues ask if they’re OK? Not, like, what they’re doing.”
Then Pratt dropped the f-bomb on the cop. “For stopping me because I’m a Black guy running down the street.”
Pratt was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, and spent the night in jail. The next morning, he says, the charge was dropped for his promise to not sue for false arrest.
The Bat Sisters — Cammy Enaharo and Katie Morey — were on Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). An interview that spilled over from my own discussion with the Rochester musicians, their song “Our Road,” and the secrets of great songwriting:
Overthinking. It’s been the death of too many promising songs. During Regan’s interrogation session, Morey had been talking about “Our Road” and how, “Cammy had a really good idea a few days ago, to add some ‘oohs’ in the background.”
Regan, himself a songwriter, agreed. “Adding ‘oohs’ is a big deal.”
Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones revealed the band’s secrets as well:
What is the muse for their music? For Zaremba, it is sometimes the lawn at his home in Connecticut. He has a small lawnmower. And it’s a big yard. A two-hour job.
“When I’m mowing the lawn, very often the ideas for songs come together,” he says.
Dayna Kurtz, who splits her life between the seemingly incongruous points of Vermont and New Orleans, was in Rochester for a show at The Little Theatre. She sees popular American music as on the decline:
“The thing that I like so much about 1947 to 1962 musically is that, every American form of art, in my opinion, was kind of at its zenith,” she says. “Like, country music was best then. To me, you know? Jazz was at its best. Rock and roll was at its best. And there were much, much fewer lines between them. And radio stations. You listen to a radio show from that era, they’ll play Dinah Washington next to ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ It was before everything was so completely separated by genre.”
The Campbell Brothers, Rochester’s sacred steel gospel stars, have regularly performed the old gospel gem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A song that, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, became the national anthem for Black America. Phil Campbell recalls that their mother loved the song, but suggested caution:
It was music that the Campbells’ mother became familiar with when she was growing up in Florida. But she told her sons that her endorsement came with a warning.
“You had to be careful when you sung it,” Phil says, “because if you sung it in front of just — well, just to use the words — in front of white people, you could be reprimanded.”
Reprimanded is a generous word for the police turning fire hoses on a civil rights march.
“Because it represents freedom,” Phil says of the song. “And also, again, as a national anthem, as it was known as, it was our song of freedom, and our own personal anthem for saying who we were as a people and what we had gone through. And what we were emerging from, and looking onward to victory, which is the refrain of the song.”
The Bacon Brothers played the Rochester International Jazz Festival this summer. The band, the actor Kevin Bacon insisted, is not a manufactured celebrity tool. It was always organic. A creation by two brothers who loved music:
“Never was there a moment where we sat down and said, ‘You know what, let’s have the kid from 'Footloose' sing,’” Kevin says. “‘And let’s see if there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.’”
Roy McCurdy, the 85-year-old jazz icon who was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame this year, said change isn’t guaranteed to be a move forward:
“I think without a doubt, especially since Trump came in,” McCurdy says. “He tried to take everything backward anyway. It’s a shame, because things were going forward, and now it’s going backward. And the attitude that’s going around now since Trump came in, it’s a very dangerous attitude. It’s giving some people the right to do things that they probably never would have done before.”
Maria Schneider, the Grammy-winning composer and big-band jazz conductor, was here this spring to debut a new piece she’d written. The Eastman School of Music graduate warned against how corporations had created a dizzying onslaught of “file sharing and YouTube, this inundation of stuff and music, ‘Check this out’ and, ‘Check that out.’ Five billion things coming at you.”
“There was a certain point when I started to realize that those things weren’t there for us,” Schneider says. “That we were there, and enticed into being there, for big data companies. They needed to attract us to be there so they could siphon off our data. To sell it, to use it, to manipulate us further with it.”
Peter Bagrov is the George Eastman Museum’s curator in charge of its Moving Image Department. More than three years after he left Russia, Bagrov remains in contact with friends there and in Ukraine. He is on social media with friends who have recently fled both countries:
“I have this weird feeling, you know, like I…” Bagrov pauses for a second, searching for the proper historical context. And he finds it, in another country. In another century. He has this weird feeling, he says, “like any normal German would have during World War II, when you belonged to a country which started that pointless and cruel war.”
The weird feeling he gets through his communications with friends: We’ve been here before.
“These are the types of letters,” Bagrov says, “I am used to reading in archives, and in books, when I am reading about the 1940s.”
Nod is Joe Sorriero, Tim Poland and Brian Shafer. A Rochester band that’s created a ragged punk-rock nice for more than three decades. I caught up with the band in March in its rehearsal space, a repurposed warehouse hidden off East Main Street:
And Nod’s sound? “Sometimes people just don’t get it,” Shafer says. “And that’s OK. We’re kind of used to that.”
“People used to have to declare that they ‘got it’ or not,” Sorriero says. “What I don’t understand is, why you would have to ‘get it.’ You don’t have to ‘get it.’ It’s not a prerequisite for listening to music, or being into music.”
“I think the best Nod shows,” Shafer says, “are the ones where people said they didn’t know what was going to happen next. And they were OK with that.”
Jill Sobule played The Little Theater. Before the show, the singer-songwriter, who lives in California, mused over the gatekeepers who control the raw material of our thinking:
“I am intrigued by what we get as news, and what makes the headlines, and what doesn’t make the headlines,” she says. “What makes a person follow a cult or an extreme movement.”
These out-there beliefs pool into her brain as what she calls, “A weird jealousy. It must be comforting to have such a black-and-white view of the world.”
Bartlett Sher, the director of the Rochester Theatre League’s presentation of that old chestnut, “My Fair Lady,” defended his decision to have Eliza Doolittle walk out on Professor Henry Higgins at the end of the story, rather than settle for the traditional “happy ending” of the couple staying together:
“It’s an interactive art form,” Sher says, comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. “We don’t know exactly how Beethoven did it, nor do we have the responsibility to do it exactly as Beethoven suggested. That’s the whole nature of interactive art. Otherwise, what would we be doing but re-creating museum pieces? We’d all be obligated only to provide you the ‘My Fair Lady’ you saw from the movie, because that’s the one you want to see. And that makes no sense.”
Genesee Johnny concedes that as a white guy playing the blues, there may not be prejudice, or racism, in the intent. But perhaps, the Rochester musician says, those lines are already built into the machinery:
“It was never about that, ‘You can’t do it and be white,’” he says. “It was never about keeping anybody from doing it. It’s more about, just like all the other race-relations stuff in our country, you just kind of succumb to the whole white supremacy, white structure of things. And people don’t even realize it’s going on, or that they’re actively participating in it. They don’t mean it to be that way, and they don’t want it to come across that way. It’s just how it ends up being.”
Geoff Dale is the co-owner of Rochester’s Three Heads Brewery. His kids, the generation he says will be forced to deal with future outbreaks of COVID, or whatever comes afterward, are 16, 20 and 22 years old. He’s optimistic:
“I look at them, and how they’re approaching a lot of things in society, and they’re much more socially aware than I was at their age,” Dale says. “They’re much more, they’re much better global citizens than I was at their age. And I felt like I was a pretty decent guy. But I can’t hold a candle to them. And I see a lot of their friends and just the whole group, there’s a lot more awareness of how we all sort of work together, in the youth of this country, than when I was a kid.
“They’re not willing to just accept this, they are willing to fight for what they believe in. And I like that. It gives me hope, man.”
And for the better and a lot worse than we needed, that was our 2022. Let’s pat it on the belly with a spade, and move on.