Albany’s “student ghetto” is filled with everything one might expect a self-proclaimed “slum” to have: red plastic cups and cigarette butts littering the streets, jocks sporting oversized basketball shorts and lacrosse sticks, and the sound of the Dave Matthews Band frequently filling the air.
But growing underneath this rubble of American collegiate culture is a bustling music scene at the Hudson River Coffee House. The café’s Starving Artist Thursdays have become a local safe haven for bohemians, poets and musicians living in Pine Hills, who may have otherwise felt a little out of place in this section of Albany.
“My vision for open mic has always been where performers are going to bump into each other, and—in one way, shape, or form—collaborate,” says Anton Pasquill, owner of the cafe.
And collaborating is just what performers at the coffeehouse seem to be doing. On a recent summer night, an accomplished trumpet player named Tony Leonardi (61 years old), who once shared the stage with B.B. King, sat in and improvised with some younger players as they sang over chords to a few well-known pop songs.
“One of my idols always used to give back by showing up to high schools and middle schools and teaching kids,” says Leonardi. “This is kind of my way of doing what he did.”
On any given Thursday, the coffeehouse is usually packed. Passersby can peer into the windows facing Quail Street and see the large circle of occupied seats and excited customers nestled around players performing on the makeshift stage toward the back. And if that’s not enough, usually there are a few nervous musicians tuning their guitars on the steps outside to catch the attention of nearby foot traffic.
Leonardi says that he can remember one night when about 90 people showed up. However, Pasquill says that drawing a big turnout has not always been easy.
“When I first started the open mics, we were doing about three or four acts,” says Pasquill. “Now, I have a huge scene virtually every time.”
Pasquill attributes part of his success to consistency. One summer, the turnout on Thursdays was so low that people started suggesting he hold the event once a month instead of every week. Instead, Pasquill refused and stuck to his vision of holding weekly events.
Location is also key. Many patrons also say that the café is successful because it’s situated near area colleges and that makes it an easily accessible venue for students. Plus, the fact that no alcohol is served helps make the venue a 21-and-under-friendly audience.
“Being smack-dab in the middle of the student ghetto is definitely a boon. It’s easy to get to pretty much wherever you’re coming from,” says Christopher Weatherly, a local musician who plays euphonium for the Lucky Jukebox Brigade. “It’s also nice to have a real café outside of downtown.”
For Leonardi, student attraction to the cafe is what makes the open mic unique to Albany. “It’s a different atmosphere when you can get kids to come in here and play,” he says.
Pasquill’s idea of marrying music and coffee began in late 2009, more than 6,000 miles away. Pasquill was studying in China and met a well-known accordion player who owned a performance-based club in Beijing. After checking the place out, he knew he needed to incorporate some music into his career.
“To me, that was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Pasquill. “I thought when I came back to the states I wanted to do something that involves music.”
A few months later, when Hudson River Coffee House opened its doors for the first time, Pasquill had his chance to realize his dream.
People come to the open mic for different reasons. Some want to clean up their chops and learn their instrument. Others just want to chat with some friends and listen to music. Still, a common thread between many performers seems to be that they all have something they want to say or have heard.
“Today I’m going to sing a song about heartbreak and probably one about rights and wrongs,” says Sergio Morales Thompson, an aspiring songwriter who occasionally performs on Thursdays.
“I meet a lot of cool people here,” says Morales Thompson. “I’ve met a couple girlfriends, a couple bandmates.”
The coffeehouse, located at the corner of Quail and Hudson, has become a launching pad for all sorts of local bands as well. Bands such as the Sunny Side of the Street Band, the Knee Benders, and Ben Karis-Nix have all played shows there in the past. Last month, the café even hosted a growing music festival called Behemoth.
“Anton really helped us out a lot by allowing us to play pretty much whenever we wanted,” says Weatherly. “This was so helpful because it helped us get our music out to a lot of people.”
Shaine Frasier, the organizer behind the Behemoth Music Festival, couldn’t agree more. “It’s a good spot,” says Frasier. “I have a feeling it works for all genres.”
Although Pasquill admits that right now his business seems to be the epicenter for indie music, he knows that trends change and scenes move around. Greenwich Village in the ’60s had Café Wha? And, for now, Albany has the Hudson River Coffee House.
“I see myself as being a part of that cycle and always encouraging the scene,” says Pasquill.