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Picking a winner: (l-r) Steve Fry, Jonny Rosen, Annie Rosen, Betsy Fry.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

New Traditionals

Annie and the Hedonists honor their folk-music roots with a sense of humor, and a new CD

By Glenn Weiser

Several years ago at the Gottagetgon, a small annual folk festival held at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds on Memorial Day weekend, a knot of musicians had gathered by the snack bar for the evening picking session. As I walked up to them, I heard a blonde woman whom I’d never seen before singing Ernest Tubb’s 1965 country classic “Waltz Across Texas.”

She sounded like the young Bonnie Raitt, and her sweet, sultry vocals were so exquisite—dead-on pitch, free of strain, and full of yearning—that I was captivated. This had to be one of the performers, I figured, but as a lifelong fan and player of acoustic music, how come I didn’t know her name? I turned to someone I knew and asked who she was. He identified her as Annie Rosen, and no, she wasn’t on the bill, either.

It turned out that Annie and her guitarist husband Jon, the current director of safety and health for the New York State Public Employees Federation, had formed a rootsy acoustic quartet with Steve and Betsy Fry. (Disclosure: In the early 1980s I was in the short-lived Apocalypso String Band with Steve Fry, a mandolin-playing practical joker who named his daughter Amanda Lynn.) The four Baby Boomers called themselves Annie and the Hedonists after a time at a banquet when they ate Baked Alaska with their fingers, the silverware having by then been removed.

With their smorgasbord of early blues, bluegrass, country, Celtic, Tin Pan Alley tunes and contemporary acoustic music, they resist easy categorization. Critics are not faulting them for this, though: Writing about their second CD, Moonglow on the Midway (also reviewed in Metroland on Sept. 14, 2006), the folk journal Sing Out! said, “This Albany-area quartet swings their way through their sophomore release with style, energy and respect for these great old tunes.” Dirty Linen agreed in their February-March 2007 issue, saying, “Annie and the Hedonists have bottled an essence of bohemianism.”

On July 19, the group will mark the release of their third CD, Good Old Wagon, with a concert at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio.

The Rosens and the Frys all come from diverse musical backgrounds. Jon and Annie are from Milwaukee; she is of Yugoslavian descent, and both her parents sang and played the accordion. “Our household was always alive with music,” she says in an e-mail, adding, “I remember watching Lawrence Welk and the Ed Sullivan show. I knew from watching all those shows I wanted to become a singer.”

Jon’s father collected old 78s, and was a fan of jazzers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, bluesmen like Leadbelly, and also folk music. “He said if it makes your spine tingle, then it its good music,” says Jon in a recent phone call.

Another major influence on Jon’s tastes was Rosen’s uncle, Arnold Berman, now an 84-year old resident of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., who was part of the leftist collective of folksingers who wrote “Charlie on the M.T.A.” in support of Progressive Party candidate Walter O’Brien’s 1949 run for mayor of Boston (O’Brien came in last, but the song was immortalized by the Kingston Trio’s recording of it a decade later).

Steve Fry was born in Lawrence, Kansas, but grew up mostly here in the Capital Region. His mother was a coloratura soprano with various choral groups, and his father a trumpeter in various bands, playing everything from swing to oom-pah to, as incongruous as it may seem, square-dance music. At age 5, the smaller Fry began classical piano, and took up trumpet from 5th grade on. He also has perfect pitch, a genetic gift that cannot be taught and is shared by only 2 percent of the population. “I was, for the one year I was at University of Michigan, the ‘human pitch pipe’ with the world-famous Men’s Glee Club. It was all a capella, and before each song, I would give the key pitch from which the others located their notes.” he says.

Now retired, Fry worked as an administrative law judge for the State of New York, and in his spare time taught himself guitar and mandolin. With five instruments in his musical quiver, including his fine baritone voice, he is the Hedonists’ ace picker.

Betsy Fry, a registered nurse who plays electric bass in the group, and, like the other Hedonists, contributes harmony vocals, grew up near Utica and started singing at an early age before taking up clarinet (Years ago, Steve said that if he and Betsy had had a second daughter, he would have named her Claire Annette) and cello. She also took part in choral ensembles, and later, while at Swarthmore College, discovered folk music through the ukulele. That led to the guitar, and then the bass.

On an early June evening in the living room of the Rosens’ Schenectady home, the group took time out from rehearsing to answer a few questions about life as an eclectic folkie cover band.

One thing they don’t do is write original material. So, for a foursome with the chops to tackle almost any genre in the acoustic realm, why was this?

“We’re not that talented,” said Annie. That seemed far too self-effacing.

Steve explains that decades of listening to extraordinary music has humbled them, but he didn’t rule out the idea. “There are so many great songs out there already, that if, by happenstance, we came up with something that was good we would record it,” he said.

As for how they pick the diverse tunes that they perform, some are suggested by friends or relatives like Uncle Arnold, and others they choose themselves. But only what they see as the best will do.

“It’s got to be a great song, period,” says Steve.

“The strong emotion and the rhythm,” says Jon, asked what his criteria were.

That may sound vague, but it seems to be working for them, judging by their performance schedule (they played the Old Songs festival last weekend, for example), which is online at jonny/hedonist.

Looking back on past gigs, they recall amusedly how they were playing for a folk organization in New Jersey when, as their set was drawing to a close, one of the stage crew came out with a sign that said, simply, “10.” They failed to grasp that it meant they had only 10 minutes left onstage, and thought they had earned the top rating on a 1-to-10 scale. So they kept playing until the staff were forced to send a blunter message.

Annie and Hedonists resume their rehearsal with an a cappella version of the Caribbean song “Shut De Door,” marking a foray into yet another corner of the folk tradition. I leave, wondering what if any musical limits these four have.

Annie and the Hedonists will celebrate the release of Good Old Wagon with a concert at the Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio (339 Central Ave., Albany), on Saturday, July 19 at 8 PM. For more information, call 465-5233 ext. 4.


SOMETHING ABOUT A PHOENIX Clifton Park concert venue Northern Lights is expected to reopen tonight (Thursday, July 3), after being damaged by a small electrical fire just over three weeks ago, on June 11. The repairs took about 10 days longer than originally expected, which forced the rescheduling of additional shows, but promotions manager Crista Leigh says everything is a go for this evening’s eight-band bill. “All shows with the exception of two have been rescheduled,” says Leigh, adding that the club is planning a “grand reopening/10-year anniversary party” in the coming weeks. And, she says, the club “looks better than it has in years,” which makes me wonder just how minor that fire really was. Just kidding! I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

DON’T FIGHT, THE BLUES The Northeast Blues Society will host the annual Electric City Blues Fest at Schenectady’s Central Park next Saturday, July 12. In addition to headliner Kenny Neal, the festival will include the finalists in the Colossal Contenders Contest. The three bands competing—Blues Sanctuary, J.V. and the Cutters, and Joe Lowry and Second Mile—will have their grab at a first prize that includes more than $2,500, plus an invitation top perform at next February’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., one of the blues world’s biggest events. Lovers of the ol’ one-four-five should get on out to Schenectady next Saturday, because this is a fan-picked contest.

THE IRONY IS IN THE NAME One lucky regional high-school student will get a chance to rub elbows with some music-industry heavies next weekend, thanks in part to a company best known for making elevator music. Nicole Schneider, of Olivebridge, N.Y. (near Woodstock) is one of only 32 teens nationwide selected to attend this year’s Noise!, the Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation’s annual summer camp, July 13-25 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. There, the Onteora High School senior will work with producers, managers, music critics, and other professionals, and get a “glimpse into the lives and working environments of high-profile music industry representatives.” Schneider sings in her school’s choir and interns at radio station WDST in Woodstock, among other activities; additionally, she went through a rigorous application process, which required the submission of several essays, two letters of recommendations, and school transcripts. Congrats! (Of course I was being cheeky with the “elevator music” comment; read more about what Muzak is up to this millennium in our March 22, 2007 issue.)

EASY, SLEAZY Mark my words: When we all look back in 20 years or so, we’ll remember the Erotics as one of the Capital Region’s definitive bands. That is, if they don’t up and move to the U.K. first. On Sept. 1, the sleaze-rock champs will release their sixth CD, Rubbish, on the English label Trash Pit. Recorded at Scarlet East with producer John Delehanty, the eight-song EP reportedly reveals a darker side to the band’s punk-edged hard rock; for evidence, look no further than song titles like “Push Comes to Death” and “Get Away From Me (Motherfucker).” A release show is scheduled for Aug. 16 at Valentine’s; stay tuned for more details.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metro or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.

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