Swing Low Sweet Chariot
It was with great sadness that the Capital Region music community learned of the death of bluesman Ernie Williams last Wednesday (March 21). The 87-year-old suffered a heart attack only days after playing his last gig at Northville Methodist Church. A memorial service was held on Sunday (March 25) at the Light of the World Christian Church in Latham.
For the past few years, an annual highlight for local blues fans had been Williams’ birthday celebration at the Linda Norris Auditorium (and a number of other venues in prior years), the last of which was held back in February. Spry as ever, dressed to the nines in his trademark wide-brimmed hat and beaming his infectious grin, Williams seemed like he’d never slow down, playing every gig he could get right up until the end. Over the past several decades, he’d shared the stage with many blues legends and toured the country with his bands Ernie Williams and the Wildcats and the Ernie Williams Band, which featured some of the area’s top players.
Williams’ biography reads like a blues fable. Born in Virginia, he grew up in a shack on a tobacco plantation, first picking up the guitar at 13. He cut his teeth at a Saturday night fish fry in Halifax County before moving north to Harlem at 19 with $9 in his pocket. Through the ’50s, he performed all over New York City, including amateur nights at the Apollo Theater, finally moving to Albany in the ’60s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that Williams began to be recognized for his talent, but along the way he’d picked up a tireless work ethic that kept him playing shows at bars, churches and theaters with the same mojo he had as a young man, establishing himself as the Capital Region’s authority on the blues.
Yes, yes, yes, Ernie Williams will be missed.
On to Other Spheres
More sad news came earlier this month when recording engineer Art Snay was found dead from apparent heart failure in the living quarters of the Arabellum Studios on Sand Creek Road, where he had been recording Capital Region bands since 1976.
A synthesizer enthusiast and electronic musician in his own right, the 60-year-old was best known as the area’s go-to independent producer of the late ’70s and ’80s. He is remembered as a warm, approachable and enthusiastic collaborator, and Snay’s touch could be heard on records by the likes of Blotto, Clay People, Mambo-X, Johnny Raab, Mechanical Servants, the Dronez, the Units, the Lustre Kings, New Shiny Things, the Morons, the Tom Healey Band and countless others in genres ranging from pop to punk, metal to oddball experimental. The fact that friends referred to him as R2 (the droid from Star Wars), and that one of his first major projects was a rock opera called Spheres with his prog-oriented band Od, should speak to some of his proclivities. Through this era, Arabellum was a scene hub and the site of arts community parties that are still talked about today.
But the music goes on.
In more cheerful Capital Region music news, Metroland Best Rock Band of 2010 and Best New Band of 2007, Alta Mira, have announced the release of a new record, I Am the Salt, as well as a release party Saturday night. Engineered by Frank Moscowitz and Seamus McNulty, the project bridged the duo’s transition from Collar City Sound to Black Dog Recording Studio (the subject of my Listen Here profile on March 15) and marks a major step forward in production value for the band’s progressive pop sensibilities.
Alta Mira will celebrate Saturday (March 31) with a show at Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany) along with Ben KN and Matt Durfee. Show starts at 8 PM. Tickets are $8.
The Capital Region is full of secret genius, and RPI administrator Eddie Ade Knowles is another name worth knowing. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Knowles played congas with Gil Scott-Heron, “the god-pop of hip-hop,” infusing the spoken-word artist’s work with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Even after his life turned toward the academic, becoming dean in charge of minority students at RPI in 1977, Knowles continued to drum, and has offered an “Introduction to Afro-Cuban Percussion” class at the university since 2004.
It was from this class that Ensemble Congeros was born. The group, consisting of members of the RPI community, have become a well-oiled polyrhythm machine, performing traditional patterns and original tunes throughout the area. On Saturday, the group will celebrate the release of a DVD, Chasing the Rhythms, with a performance at the Arts Center of the Capital Region (265 River St., Troy). The show starts at 8 PM and the $15 admission will get you a copy of the DVD.
Vinyl Killed the MP3 Star
Sweet Jesus, can it be? A new record store on Lark Street?
I found out about this old-school enterprise the old-school way—by picking up a flyer at a coffee shop—and couldn’t be more thrilled. Slated to open in early April, Fuzz Records will be occupying the street-level corner space at 209 Lark St., right next to Seasons Skate Shop. Conscious of how hard the prospect of running a record store in the digital age can be, the shop will specialize in new vinyl, “focusing on most genres of independent music.” Check out fuzzrecordshop.com for updates on the inventory and opening date.