Ben Folds brings his brand of pop to UPAC

Ben Folds seems right at home in the quirkier territories of pop music. He has described his music as “punk rock for sissies,” collaborated with partners as diverse as William Shatner, Regina Spektor and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and recorded a melodic, piano-driven cover of a profanity-laced Dr. Dre rap.

“I don’t like to take myself too seriously,” said Folds, who is known for piano-driven rock music with ironic, introspective and occasionally foul-mouthed lyrics. “If something’s kind of funny and informal, I’ll just go with it.”

Folds will perform a solo show at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston tonight, part of a lengthy tour promoting his latest album “Way to Normal,” which was released last September. During some performances on the tour, Folds, who is a classically trained percussionist, will perform with the backing of a full orchestra, including the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. Sandwiching his solo show in Kingston, for instance, Folds was set to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Thursday and will perform with the Rhode Island Philharmonic on Saturday.

“What I really like about this current tour is going back and forth between the orchestra and solo shows,” Folds said. “That’s a real brain expander, because you couldn’t get any further apart.”
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When performing with the orchestras, Folds said he’ll play the same songs as he would if he were performing alone. “It’s a solo show, add 90 people. They’re acting as the rock band.”

Folds came up with the “punk rock for sissies” description when he was trying to get his trio, Ben Folds Five, booked for shows in 1994.

“It really wasn’t very cool to be a piano rock band in the middle of the grunge era,” he said. “We were playing a lot of punk rock clubs, or clubs that had punk rocks bands playing … so we called it ‘punk rock for sissies’ and I think that made it easier for us to get booked. And I think it showed that we didn’t take ourselves too damn seriously.”

Even though he’s playing the same material in dozens of shows this year, he said that each performance is a unique experience for him.

“Music is repetitive, but it doesn’t have to feel repetitive. As Gertrude Stein pointed out, there’s really no such thing as repetition. Because once you’ve done something once, the next time you do it it’s different because you did it once before,” he said.

“There are musical moments that happened and you think, ‘That was amazing; that was unique.’ It’s a combination of the audience, the vibe of the place, the night, just the way it felt.”

Originally more known for lyrics that mixed melancholy and self-reflection with sarcastic humor, Folds said he’s recently become known as “the ‘bitch’ guy” after recording a melodic version of “Bitches Ain’t S–t,” from Dr. Dre’s 1992 album “Chronic.” He also sang the word in “Song for the Dumped” on Ben Folds Five’s 1997 album, “Whatever and Ever Amen,” and his latest album includes an exuberantly upbeat song called “The Bitch Went Nuts.”

Although he wrote the melody and music for his version of Dr. Dre’s song, Folds said he considered his version to be a cover of the original. “I’ve never seen a cent for it because I didn’t ask for it,” he said. The song has generally been retired from live performances, but he said he might perform it in cities where he hasn’t played in a while.

Folds became friends with William Shatner after Shatner recorded vocals for a song from Folds’ experimental solo act, “Fear of Pop,” in 1998. He then produced Shatner’s 2004 spoken-word album, “Has Been,” writing music for Shatner’s monologues.

Folds called “Has Been” “one of the best records I’ve ever had anything to do with.”

“(Shatner) was completely professional, and exciting and excitable and naïve and experienced and just perfect to work with. Every take was different. He would do something absolutely f—ed up and different each time. And his voice is so good,” Folds said.

Folds seemed irked by criticism of Shatner’s singing.

“I mean, he’s not singing. We never pretended he sang. He doesn’t think he sings,” Folds said. “There’s no singing on the f—ing record. It’s like a book on tape or something.”

After the release of “Has Been,” Folds and Shatner collaborated again for the 2006 animated film “Over the Hedge.” Shatner co-starred as the voice of Ozzie the opossum, and Folds wrote much of the film’s soundtrack, including a version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the title track from his 2001 solo album, with vocals by Shatner.

“Rockin’ the Suburbs” was Folds’ first solo record after the breakup of Ben Folds Five. For the album, Folds played all the parts and instruments himself and mixed them into a finished album.

“When you’re going back and forth between those instruments …. you’re literally putting the energy into the band that five people do, so at the end of the day you’ve been five people,” Folds said. “At the end of the day I’m just f—ing wiped out.”

That album was the first time Folds worked with the parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic, who directed and appeared in the “Rockin’ the Suburbs” video. Folds, in turn, played piano on Yankovic’s 2003 album, “Poodle Hat.”

“He’s a very thoughtful man,” Folds said. “I just got a birthday card from him.”

When asked for any last words or advice for readers, Folds said “Just tell everyone to floss. You’ll keep your teeth longer that way.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Paintball pioneers

By Dietrich Knauth

They work with paint and wood and reused materials, and they get a kick out of showing off their creative ingenuity. They also won’t hesitate to lead you out into the woods and shoot you in the neck.

The people at Paintball Sports NY in Plattekill may not be artists in the traditional sense, but they’re in creative overdrive working on stories, missions and new paint-spraying weapons as they gear up for their big scenario game, the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge on Oct. 24 and 25.

“It’s the Woodstock for paintball,” Chris Masi, the field manager and co-owner of Paintball Sports NY, said of the event. Masi, who has played paintball since he was 9 years old, said the sport has grown in popularity despite the challenges of marketing the sport to parents who might consider it dangerous or promoting belligerent behavior.

“People don’t want to see their kids running around the woods with camo gear and weapons,” Masi said. At the Plattekill field, Masi emphasizes the fact that people of all shapes, sizes and skills levels play paintball, including men, women, old and young. He downplays the more jingoistic aspects of the game, disapproving of paintball guns that look like real weapons, and referring to the airguns as “markers” instead of “guns.” He also emphasizes safety, enforcing a masks-on policy in areas where the markers may be fired.

“These things get hot, they get sweaty, they get nasty,” Masi said of the masks, “but this is what keeps you safe for the day.”

The Paintball Sports NY field is 300 acres, and includes 20 courses, Masi said.

“It’s probably the oldest existing paintball field in the world,” said Jerry Braun, the co-owner of the Plattekill property. “A lot of firsts happened on that field.”

Braun, who Masi called the “grandfather of the sport,” is in a position to know.

“I think I played the third game (of paintball) ever,” in the woods of New Hampshire, Braun said. He and his friends wore shop goggles and used oil-based paint guns that were designed for marking cattle and trees that were slated to be felled. They had to use paint thinner to get the paint out of their clothes, a problem that was solved after the introduction of water-soluble paintball ammo in the 1980s.

Shortly after his first game, in 1982, Braun opened the field in Plattekill and organized the first paintball tournament, with $25,000 in prizes, in 1987. Braun also organized the first paintball magazine and the first annual Paintball World Cup, which was held in Plattekill. This year, the World Cup will begin today and will be played in Orlando, Fla.

“We basically developed tournament paintball as it now exists,” said Braun, who sold his stake in the World Cup games in 2005. “The sport grew from being operated out of the back of a van to a multi-million dollar industry. It went from its embryonic stage to maturity in less than a generation.”

Although traditional, informal “pickup” or “woodsball” games are still the mainstay of the game, paintball has evolved into two separate directions, Braun said.

“There’s a difference between the sport and the game,” he said. Competitive tournament paintball, like the World Cup competitions, is a fast-paced game played on a smaller field with smaller teams and less cover. On the other end of the spectrum, are large-scale scenario games, like the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge, with hundreds of participants, lots of different missions and scenarios and some roleplaying.

“It’s almost like Dungeons and Dragons in the woods,” Braun said. “Chris and the group at the field are very adept at those kinds of games.”

“I like the scenario games for the roleplaying parts of it,” said Frank Coppola, who works at the field and goes by the nickname “Colonel Ernie” during the games. It’s almost like two games, he said, one focused on roleplaying and intelligence-gathering and the other on tactical and physical competition.

“You’ve got a lot of different things going on at the same time, so nobody’s bored,” he said. “We keep everyone involved.”

Coppola said he often plays the role of a spy.

“You get to go out and play tricks on people. It’s fun,” he said.

The informal rules of competition also let players try out new weapons and booby traps, like a “flamethrower” that spews yellow ink at a short range and variations on land mines, and mortars. Masi and his team are working on a tank for the big October battle, based on a truck with turret-mounted paintball guns. Masi, who has a degree in computer science and used to work for IBM, is making an interface using a laptop and a wireless Xbox controller that allows the front seat passenger to rotate and fire the weapons.

The event will also feature “celebrity mercenaries,” current and former professional players who can be hired to help one side or the other. Paintball fans might recognize former pro player Greg Hastings, who has released two paintball video games.

Besides running the on-field operations, Masi also coaches the local amateur team that will participate in Division Two of the Paintball World Cup. At 30, Masi said he’s not as physically able to compete, but he hopes to help some of his team move on to become salaried players for a professional paintball team. Paintball Sports Promotions (PSP), which grew out of Braun’s initial efforts and now manages the World Cup and sometimes is featured on the television station ESPN2, has 11 professional teams across the U.S. There are several other pro and semi-pro leagues. A salaried player on a PSP team makes $25,000 to $100,000 annually, Masi said.

“It’s a dream for these kids,” Masi said.

His team, the New York Diesel, practices every weekend in Plattekill. The team includes Bobby Choniuk, 27, of Hopewell Junction; Anderson German, 32, of Middletown; A.J. Bowen, 21, of New Paltz; Kyle Smith, 18, of Monroe; and Anthony Bishop, 18, of New Paltz. Bishop doesn’t compete in matches, but acts as the “pit team,” maintaining equipment and helping players reload their markers during games.

Smith, who got hooked on the game after a birthday party at Paintball Sports NY, said that the team practices as often as they can. “Our weekends are pretty much paintball,” he said.

During a tournament like the World Cup, Bowen said that each player will go through three or four cases of paint. Each case contains 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

“That’s enough to paint a house,” he said.

“It’s a mental game. It’s almost like chess.” Choniuk said. “You have to think fast.”

Communication and coordination are among the persistent challenges, the team said. They’ve developed personal codes to communicate during a match.

“Our team bonds well, on and off the field,” Bowen said.

Keeping teammates motivated and picking each other up is also important.

“You push yourself for your brothers on the team,” said German, who called himself the “old man” of the group.

Competitive paintball is on the rise and is bidding to become an Olympic sport, Masi said. One of the chief obstacles remains visibility for spectators, adapting the game so that it can be enjoyably watched on a television screen. Moving the games out of the woods and onto more open fields was a necessary step in that evolution.

Despite Olympic ambitions, Masi said that less formal games are still the bulk of his business. On weekends, the field is open for walk-in competitions, in which the staff organizes visitors into teams and referees the games. Prices for admission vary depending on how much equipment is rented and how much ammunition is purchased. A day at the field that includes rental of a protective vest, mask, marker, free air refills and 1,000 rounds of ammunition will cost $69.99. The field also opens for private events during weekdays, provided that at least 10 participants show up.

Some celebrities who have showed up to try their hands at paintball include Conan O’Brien, Harrison Ford and Ron Howard, Masi said. The field also hosts corporate and training events, and frequently runs leadership and team-building games for sports teams, including several National Hockey League teams, among them, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve also had football teams, including the New York Giants, but the hockey players seemed to be more into it, Masi said.

“Compared with the football players, these guys enjoy it and get dirty.”

Masi said that paintball can be fun for people of all careers and ages.

“The lawyer to the guy who flips burgers at McDonald’s, they all come here. It’s kind of a neutral ground.”

“There’s not a lot of sports you can play with your kids,” Masi said, “the first time the son saves his dad, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome going strong at 50

A plane built in 1909 is still taking to the skies every Saturday and Sunday at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

The century-old Blériot XI — the oldest still-flying airplane in the U.S — is named after Louis Blériot, who became the first person to fly the English Channel in a Blériot XI monoplane in 1909, six years after Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered heavier-than-air flight, taking a 605-pound contraption in the air.

Hugh Schoelzel, a retired pilot and former vice president of TWA (and American Airlines, after they purchased TWA) who is now the president of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s airshow, has moved back in time, from flying Boeing 747s to flying the Blériot in weekend shows. “I step on a 747, and this is what they started with, this is what they came from,” Schoelzel said. “It’s got so much history, it just gives me tremendous respect for the people who flew it back in the day.”

“It’s exciting for me to fly it,” Schoelzel said. “It’s an awesome experience for me.”

At the airfield, visitors can hear the roar of the antique engines, smell the burning castor oil, and see pilots and actors in period costumes. The “living museum” envisioned by Aerodrome founder Cole Palen is very much alive.

“You’ll be pretty sure that it’s 1915,” Schoelzel said. You’ll even get a discount on admission if you show up dressed in period costume, he added.

The Aerodrome — which is celebrating its 50th year — has 16 flying airplanes, including replicas and originals like the Blériot, and more than 40 others in the museum just up the hill from the airfield. The Aerodrome focuses its attention on the three earliest periods of aviation history – the pioneering era with the earliest gossamer-winged planes, the planes of World War I, and the “barnstorming” or “Charles Lindbergh” era just after the war.

“There’s nothing like it in the world,” Schoelzel said. “We have the largest collection of regularly flown [antique] planes.”

The term “barnstorming” comes from a stunt that debuted in the earliest days of aviation: flying a plane through a barn that had been opened up on both ends, said Don Fleming, the Aerodrome’s vice president.

“A lot of these airshows were on farms,” Fleming said. There was a daredevil aspect to most early flights, from the constant pursuit of new world records and the prevalence of stunts like “wing-walking,” where a person stands on the wing of a flying plane. One relatively safe stunt that finds its way into the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s airshows is “ribbon cutting,” in which a pilot drops a long roll of ribbon from the aircraft, and crosses the plane back and forth across the line, cutting it with the plane’s wing or propeller. In Aerodrome shows, they use toilet paper because it’s cheap and biodegradable, Fleming said. They also do “balloon busts,” in which groups of balloons are send aloft and two or more pilots compete to see who can burst more by hitting them with their propellers.

The airshows haven’t changed much since Cole Palen’s day, Schoelzel, from the aerial acrobatics to the melodrama that accompanies the pilots’ performances.

“Every time we try to change something, people say ‘no, no, no, we like it the old way!'” Schoelzel said.

The ground show, featuring characters named Sir Percy Goodfellow, Trudy Truelove and the dastardly Black Baron of Rhinebeck. Palen himself portrayed the Black Baron for several years, and played up the drama with a cape and a sneer, and lots of makeup. He had “more and more scars every week,” Fleming said. And to top it all off, his plane was a replica of the dreaded 1917 Fokker DR-1 triplane made famous by the German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the “Red Baron.”

Besides admission to airshows ($20) and the museum, the Aerodrome offers biplane rides for $65. This year, both of the passenger planes — 1929 New Standard D-25s — have been out of service some time. For five weeks, almost a third of the season, there has been no plane available. The first plane was damaged in a “fender-bender,” as Schoelzel called it, when it went off the airway while still grounded. There were passengers aboard, but the plane was going slow enough that no one was injured. Still, the plane’s fragile body was damaged and it will be out of service until full repairs are made over the winter.

The second passenger plane went down in July, when chief pilot Bill Gordon noticed that the oil pressure was erratic during a maintenance flight. The engine was shipped to a specialist in Oklahoma City, and the repairs dragged on longer than expected.

“We were hoping it would be there for two weeks,” Schoelzel said. “It turned out to be more like two months.”

The engine is due back this week, and the plane should be back in the air soon, Schoelzel said. Despite the substantial revenue loss that the lack of passenger flights represented, Schoelzel said safety comes first.

“We operate to the same standard as an airline,” Schoelzel said. “We’re not happy about it. If it costs us revenue that’s too bad. I know we’re doing the right thing.”

He said he’s sent his grandchildren up in the plane, and won’t put it back in the air until he’d feel comfortable sending them back up in it.

The old planes require meticulous maintenance to stay aloft even under good circumstances. “Each one takes about takes about 13 hours of maintenance for each hour spent in the air,” Fleming said.

Herb Gregory, 70, is a volunteer who has helped maintain the planes for the last three years.

“I stared mowing lawns, fixing lawnmowers, and fixing tractors,” he said. A retired airline captain and former naval aviator in the U.S. military, he sometimes flies a replica of a 1911 Honriot at the Aerodrome.

“It’s like nothing else in the world,” Gregory said. He almost had to re-learn how to fly, because the controls for such old planes are very different than modern planes, like 767 and MD11 that he flew in his career as a commercial pilot. This is his first year flying, and he’s limited to “baby flying” in the plane, he said, “just down the field.”

Because the controls are not as responsive as modern planes, “you have to think about every maneuver,” he said. “They crashed a lot of them in the 1900s.”

Schoelzel said that learning how to fly one antique plane won’t necessarily

“They were experimenters,” he said, so even two planes built in the same year could have totally different controls.

The Aerodrome’s museum is open seven days a week during the season and has plenty to see, even on days with no air show. Many exhibits pay tribute to the Aerodrome founder, who died in 1993 – Palen’s gap-toothed smile is instantly recognizable in photographs taken at the airfield throughout the years. Besides airplanes, the museum also has plenty of other artifacts, from old cars and motorcycles to World War I bayonets and machine guns. Modern flyers who complain on legroom on jumbo jets can put things in perspective by seeing an original “passenger compartment” from a 1929 Ford Trimotor, which looks an awful lot like a high-backed wicker chair.

Tributes to pioneering aviator Harriet Quimby also highlight the unique situation of an ambitious woman in the early days of flight. An actress, journalist and screenwriter who was the first woman in the Unites States to get her pilot’s license and the first woman to fly the English Channel, Quimby died eight years before the passage of the 20th Amendment, granting female citizens in the United States the right to vote.

A photograph of Quimby flying a 1909 Bleriot XI is captioned: “her stiff upright posture may be partially explained by the wearing of a corset.”

One of the planes was built for a 1966 movie called “The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-ling” that was never made, set to star Gregory Peck and Ian McKellan but scrapped after five weeks of filming. The title comes from a World War I soldier’s song.

Weather and bad luck, more than the economy, is to blame for a down season. Last year the Aerodrome had about 22,000 attendance over the course of the season. But the constant rain has dampened attendance this season, like it has for so many outdoor events.

“You just never know about the rain,” Schoelzel said. “We depend on the weather gods to look down on us.”

He said this year’s attendance is shaping up to be “no better than average” because of weather, but remained hopeful. “We can always have a fabulous fall.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Renaissance love

Men in tights loudly hawking pickles and tavern wenches in revealing blouses are common sights at the New York Renaissance Faire, which delights in campy tributes to Renaissance culture.

In a festival that juxtaposes a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with a chainsaw-juggling acrobat, historical purity often takes a back seat to putting on a good show. About 150,000 people come to the Tuxedo grounds in a typical summer, for a day of staged jousts and brawls, bawdy ballads, fake accents, shopping and giant turkey legs. Ongoing stories, centered on the exploits of Robin Hood and the many of Queen Elizabeth, crop up throughout the day, with sideshows and variety acts between.

While most visitors show up in shorts and a T-shirt, some dress the part, braving the August heat in chainmail armor or butterfly wings. For these fairgoers, and the merchants and performers who make the whole exercise work, the fair is more than just a job or a day of fun, its a passion that justifies the dedication of time and energy for whatever pittance they might be paid.

Jay Reeder of Kingston, a tailor who owns the Knightly Endeavors clothing store on Wall Street, has spent the last 13 summers traveling to the fairgrounds for love and for money.

“Mostly love at this point,” he said. Still, he expects about 80 percent of his annual sales to be made at the fair, which is open weekends (and Labor Day) through Sept. 20. Knightly Endeavors has a full-time booth at the fair, but Reeder himself only plans to spend a few weekends there, since his day job as a salesman for Verizon is taking up more and more of his time. He needs the job to get health benefits for his family, including a five-year-old daughter and two stepdaughters.

“The notion that you’re going to be transported for a little while to another place,” is what gives Renaissance fairs their appeal,” Reeder said. “It’s the fantasy that you can be someone else.”

A nerdy introvert can don a doublet and become a rascally pirate, or a shy girl can spend the day as a saucy wench or a fairy princess.

“For some guys, it’s the weekend to see the young ladies dressed a little more provocatively,” Reeder said. “And for some of the girls, it’s the songs, the music and the spectacle. And of course, shopping.”

Also, there’s plenty of chances for flirting amidst the pageantry.

“A pretty pickle to please your palate, princess?” a pickle purveyor asked a female customer one recent Saturday. Once he got her attention, his wordplay turned from alliteration to more suggesting punning, inquiring whether she would prefer length or girth in her gherkin. As he handed over the $2.50 pickle she’d picked from his barrel, the vendor wrapped it in a napkin and announced, with mock gravitas, “I shall even wrap my pickle for thy protection!”

Reeder said he started his business with since-departed partners who shared his love of Renaissance fairs.

“We were looking for a way to justify being at the fair every weekend,” Reeder said. They got an opportunity in 1996, after another vendor dropped out. But before the fair opened, they found themselves far behind schedule in making the clothes, and Reeder, a self-professed “retail geek” who was working at Radio Shack at the time, was pressed into last-minute sewing service.

“I like engineering, and this is just engineering in a different format,” said Reeder, who said he wanted to be an astronaut when he was a child. Now he’s the only one of the original partners still left at Knightly Endeavors. He and one employee make all of the clothing they sell.

Emma Servant of Wallkill — who plays an oft-drunk villager in the fair between singing with an a capella group, The Singing Sirens of Sterling, assisting the joust team and other roles — said that the camaraderie that grows between cast members and the chance to learn unique skills are two of the big perks of working there. Servant has learned singing, acting, improvisation, accents, horseback riding, stage combat and miming at the fair.

“This is one of the most fun jobs I’ve had in my life,” she said.

“It’s different than any other acting job,” said Pearce Larson, a second-year cast member who plays Friar Tuck. “You get to do things like fight with a longspear.”

Most of the cast are from the New York metro area, so they camp near the fairgrounds each weekend. Because weekend rehearsals start about a month before the Ren Fair opens, cast members end up camping together for much of July, August and September. Everyone brings their own tent and air mattress, and there are showers and running water but no electricity. For dinner, the cast divides around a few campfires and has a potluck-style cookout. Returning cast members get first dibs on keeping their tent site from the previous year, and the rest have to fight it out for spaces.

“It’s sort of like adult summer camp,” said Greg Powell, who’s in his fifth year in the cast.

Servant often organizes themed parties to encourage bonding between cast members and to bring up morale after a long, exhausting day. As an example, she mentioned an “anything but clothes” party in which people must come dressed in improvised materials other than articles of clothing, such as a garbage bag.

“I made an outfit out of a pillow case, but I’m really small, so I could do that,” Servant said.

The full-immersion of spending the whole weekend in the woods makes it easy to stay in character for nine or 10 hours a day. Powell said he sometimes had the opposite problem, because he got too used to greeting people by tipping his feathered cap.

“Occasionally, I’d pass people in New York, I’d reach up to tip my hat and realize I wasn’t wearing my hat,” he said. “It turned into a sort of awkward wave.”

Romances often bloom between cast members who spend so much time together. The two improv directors are married, for example, and dating is common.

Powell has dated three fellow cast members over the past five years. He met his girlfriend, SUNY New Paltz grad Polly Solomon, at the fair. This year, Solomon has an aerial silks show based on the tales of Scherezade. Powell said he knew four cast members who proposed marriage during the fair.

“It’s very hard not to fall for the people you’re working with,” said Stacey Jeungling, a 21-year-old college student from Middletown who’s spent the last six summers at the fair. She sold clothing for three years at M’Lady’s Panties, then joined the cast. Besides playing the Mayor’s daughter, she helped make costumes before the fair began and works at the costume shop cleaning the outfits after performances. She said she’s not dating someone from the fair, but has in the past.

“It takes a certain kind of person to strap yourself into the most ridiculous costumes and sleep in the woods for weeks on end,” she said. “This year I went to two weddings between cast members.”

Besides weddings between the cast, the New York Renaissance Faire hosts weddings, too. There’s been one wedding there so far in 2009. Reeder said it’s less of a focus recently, but sometimes it brings in money. He said his store made close to $11,000 making 12 outfits for one wedding party in 2006.

Reeder’s own wedding six years ago was a “fantasy, gothic kind of thing.” He said he worked tirelessly for 10 days sewing costumes, sleeping little and working until the very last minute. Because he made most of the outfits himself, he was able to have more elaborate costumes than if he’d bought them. He estimated the retail cost of the clothing at $20,000, which he said is probably too much for a reasonable person to spend.

“To me, it seems like a waste of money,” he said.

And money, although it’s not the whole reason Reeder does what he does, can’t be ignored. This year, he canceled his shop’s booth at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair because he calculated that he would probably lose money. A typical women’s outfit from his booth costs $140 to $200 and a men’s outfit costs $110 to $185, numbers that are hard to ask in the current economic climate. The fair charges a 10 percent commision on items sold there.

And even though fair season would seem like a good time for Reeder to enjoy his hobby, he said he’s often working too hard to participate. “The horrible reality of it is that … during season you’re working like a demon to get things done,” he said.

For the performers, it’s not exactly all play and no work either. Servant said she’s paid $65 for a 10-hour day, and a good number of the cast are unpaid volunteers. Stage fighters get slightly more, but only the jousters, who put themselves in harm’s way by fighting on horseback, and the full-time managers and creative directors make decent money.

It’s also physically demanding, with performers fighting and acting in several shows in high heat and uncomfortable costumes — corsets are practically a requirement for the women. Larson, who played a one of Robin Hood’s yeomen last year, said he was glad to trade his thong and tights for the more comfortable robe of Friar Tuck.

And a lot of work goes into keeping those costumes clean. The more elaborate the costumes, the dirtier it will get as the Fair wears on.

“You can’t really wash velvet and brocade in a washing machine,” Jeungling said. “It’s a lot of Febreze and beating it with a stick when they get dusty.”

At least their undergarments are relatively clean – there are backups to be worn while the first pair are thrown in the washer.

But Servant said its easy to keep the troubles in perspective when she sees regular patrons going all out for a day at the fair. “They pay hundreds of dollars for costumes and hundreds of dollars in passes,” to do what she gets paid to do.

“As grueling as the day can be … you keep coming back,” Servant said. “There’s a deep-seated love you just can’t shake.”

“It’s not something you do for the pay,” Powell said. “Everyone who’s there is there for the whole love affair.”

And then there are the smaller perks, too. “I’ve got a Facebook (page) full of kickass pictures,” Powell said.

Published by the Daily Freeman

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger fuses music traditions

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)

If you were performing with a bluegrass banjo legend known for his “jaw-dropping solos,” you might be understandably dismayed if you glanced over during your own banjo solo and saw him covering his ears with his hands.

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger had a different reaction.

“I thought, ‘I got him!'” he said, with mischievous glee.

As Pete Seeger’s grandson, Rodriguez-Seeger is in a good position to subvert music traditions, fusing folk with rock, tradition with experimentation. He will show off his unique blend of new and old at a free concert in Hudson Saturday night, part of the city’s Quadricentennial celebration.

“I like AC/DC as much as I like Tommy Jarrell” Rodriguez-Seeger said, referring to the rock band and the folk fiddler and banjo player born in North Carolina in 1901. “I’ve always tried to marry the two styles.”

The heresy that unnerved banjo maestro Tony Trischka was a combination of distortion, delay and a phase-shifter to create a feedback effect, like Jimmy Page on a banjo. Trischka, who was a teacher of Bela Fleck, and Rodriguez-Seeger’s band, the Mammals, were performing at a Februrary 2005 benefit concert headlined by Railroad Earth in Teaneck, N.J., when the younger musician pulled off the electric solo during a performance of the Mammals’ “Railroad Boy.”

After telling the story, Rodriguez-Seeger said he didn’t think he actually upset Trischka, who he has known since he was a teen. “Pushing the sonic boundaries of an instrument is just good fun and Tony knows that,” he said.

The technique isn’t as much of a stretch as it may seem — the banjo’s hollow body acts like an amplifier and “wants to feed back,” if plugged into an electric amp.

Tao said he doesn’t usually try to use electric banjo tricks around Grandpa Pete, but did get some positive feedback from the elder Seeger, who lives in Beacon, about a month ago at the Clearwater Revival festival.

“Half way through [a] song I started singing and yelling into the back of the banjo with some effect pedals switched on,” Rodriguez-Seeger recalled. “He said it sounded like Bach and whale songs. I’m pretty pleased by that.”

Rodriguez-Seeger, 37, was born in Poughkeepsie and spent part of his early childhood in Nicaragua, where his Puerto Rican father made documentaries about the Sandinista revolution. After nine years of speaking Spanish in Nicaragua, he returned to the U.S. and moved in with his maternal grandparents.

“I became a little annoyed at this gringo grandfather of mine singing songs in Spanish pretty badly and I told him so,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. Seeger responded by inviting Rodriguez-Seeger to help him out by singing with him. Their first performance together was in Japan in 1986, for an audience of more than half a million people. They’ve performed together many times since, and Rodgriguez-Seeger is now a full partner in his grandfather’s concerts.

He has performed two big-ticket events with the elder Seeger this year, Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and a celebration of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s 40th anniversary on May 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York City — an event that doubled as a 90th birthday party for Pete.

Performing as part of the Quadricentennial celebration has a special meaning for Rodriguez-Seeger because of his family’s long history of activism on the river.

“My family’s been involved since before I was born in the struggle to clean up this river,” he said. “I’ve been sailing on the Hudson since I was a little kid.”

Despite an enthusiasm for touring that led him to average over 150 gigs a year in a few years with the Mammals, Rodriguez-Seeger, who now lives in Highland, said the concert in Hudson will be a sort of homecoming.

“It’s my home, the Hudson Valley. I’ve moved away, but I always come back.”

When asked if being Pete Seeger’s grandson came with any extra pressure to live up to his family’s legacy, Tao said “No. If anything it makes me feel a little mischievous.”

His grandfather’s musical and life lessons included a philosophy of going his own way, and learning from him gave was the equivalent of a first-rate education. “It’s sort of like going to Harvard,” he said.

Rodriguez-Seeger described his music as “rootsy” and “psychedelic” – “fiddle and banjo tunes in an amped-up, rock ‘n’ roll way.” His free-spirited attitude extends to his plan, or lack of one, for Saturday’s performance. He knows what he’ll open with, and what he’ll close with, but, he said “the middle is a muddle.”

At the inauguration, the cold weather caused Rodriguez-Seeger’s guitar to crack, which he noticed just before the performance. “U2 is playing ‘In the Name of Love,’ and I’m [telling myself], ‘don’t think too much about it.'” After the performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, the new President met the musicians, and signed the cracked guitar: “This land is your land. Barack Obama.”

Rodriguez-Seeger doesn’t have a lot of faith in politicians, calling them “just a bunch of greedy bums, like the rest of us.” But he saw in Obama a more recognizably “human” leader, and it inspired him to try to be a better citizen.

Politics is not a focus of his music, he says, but at the same time, people and politics are linked.

“When you sing about people and their stories, you’re essentially singing about politics.”

He once asked his grandfather how many political songs to include in a concert. Pete Seeger answered “One, as long as its the right one.” Rodriguez-Seeger took that advice to heart. “You can get people thinking,” he said, but “you don’t want to hit people over the head with rhetoric.” His aim, he said, is “party music with a conscience.”

For his grandfather’s birthday, Rodriguez-Seeger said that they managed to achieve a sense of intimacy despite the size of the venue by lowering their volume and encouraging the audience to sing along. “You should hear how loud 18,000 people singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ sounds,” he said.

The weekend after the Hudson show, Rodriguez-Seeger will perform, solo and with his grandfather, at the Newport Folk Festival, where Pete Seeger famously clashed with Bob Dylan in 1965, when Dylan “went electric” during a performance of “Maggie’s Farm.” In interviews since, Pete Seeger has said that he didn’t object to the use of electric amps, but rather the fact that the sound mixing and volume drowned out the song’s lyrics. Rodriguez-Seeger, who called the incident “overblown,” said that he agrees that lyrics are important and that there is such a thing as “too loud,” although his tolerance for loudness is higher than his grandfather’s.

“I think there is and always will be some sort of divide between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘experimentalists’. Maybe the line has become broader and grayer than it’s been in the past,” he said. “I don’t pay much mind if and when I get the occasional complaint. I’m just interested in playing music from the heart and being true to my ear.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Sculpture show has nature on its mind

He stands 10 feet tall, with a body of iron beams and welded scrap metal. His face is a bicycle wheel, with nuts and bolts are riveted to his hat and various water-faucet handles serving as shirt-buttons.

“I think he’s cute,” said Meagan Gallagher, referring to “Henry Hudson and the Half Moon,” a sculpture that looms at the water’s edge in Kingston’s Rotary Park.

Gallagher, 25, is the curator of the 2009 Kingston Sculpture Biennial exhibition, and she called the sculpture, created by miChelle Vara, “powerful yet whimsical.”

“With the quadricentennial, it’s such a great centerpiece,” Gallagher said, referring to the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river that bears his name.

The theme of this year’s biennial, the ninth, is “Go Green and Keep the Hudson Clean.” It focuses on work that pays homage to the Hudson River’s impact and uses natural or recycled materials. Because of the river-centric theme, almost all of the sculptures in the city are located at Kingston Point, Rotary Park and Hasbrouck Park, with four sculptures in and around the Arts Society of Kingston headquarters at 97 Broadway. Previous biennials have included works scattered throughout the city, on public and private lawns and indoors.

But not everyone wholeheartedly supports the river-and-parks location. Alderman Thomas Hoffay (D-Ward 2), who represents Uptown Kingston, said that the Biennial had “lost something” by neglecting parts of the city where people work and go about their daily business. Although he understood the decision to focus on the river, he said previous biennials “had more of a visual impact, because people saw them every day.”

Nevertheless, Gallagher said that early word-of-mouth has been positive. “I’ve been told it’s a lot more fun than shows in the past.”

One of ASK’s goals was to create an exhibition that that fits the city and its history and getting people to rediscover the parks. “A lot of people have said, ‘I hadn’t been to Hasbrouck park in years, and it’s so beautiful’,”Gallagher said.

There are 50 sculptures in the exhibit, although one of them has surely melted by now — over a dozen ice boats carved by Itty Neuhas were launched at the July 4 opening ceremony, their waters joining the Hudson on its way toward the Atlantic. The title plaque, “Ice Boats Melt into the Hudson,” remains near the water’s edge in Rotary Park, long outlasting the work itself.

Gallagher and Vindora Wixom, ASK’s executive director, said that their goals this year were to create an exhibition that was accessible, fun and “kid-friendly.”

The kid-friendly theme extended to the official opening reception on July 4, which featured children’s activities — including boat-making and face-painting — guided tours, live music and hors d’ouvres.

“We tried to, rather than provoke the people here in Kingston, to attract them,” said Wixom, who has a sculpture of her own in the biennial, “Tear of the Clouds.” She added that no designs were turned down because they might be controversial.

In part because of the theme, this year’s exhibition will likely be less controversial than some past biennials. Two of the more controversial pieces in the event’s history were Tom Gottslieben’s “Spiral Construction” and Rita Dee’s “Atticus,” both of which were displayed on the lawn of the Ulster County Courthouse on Wall Street. “Spiral Construction,” from the 1999 biennial, resembled a blue screw made from bluestone, stainless steel and crystal, and some observers interpreted it as a commentary on fairness in the justice system. “Atticus,” a wooden horse sculpture with the Ten Commandments and other biblical passages inscribed on its wooden framework, was moved in 2005 after it was opposed by mayor James Sottile and others, who said it was promoting religion on government property. It was moved to the lawn of the Old Dutch Church, across the street.

Despite the emphasis on nature and whimsy, “you never know what will offend some people,” Wixom said, whether for political or aesthetic reasons.

But Wixom said that the nature of the exhibit will reward repeat visitors to the parks. There are “a lot of nooks and crannies,” and some of the work is not immediately noticeable.

Visitors to Rotary Park seemed to have positive reactions to the art that sprouted up there recently.

On a warm Thursday afternoon, two visitors to the park relaxed at a hilltop gazebo, listening to Mark Bernard’s entry, “The Tree Whispers Hudson,” a radio installation with motion sensors that greets passersby and then gives lectures on the history of the city and the river.

“Would you come over here?” the voice from the bushes asked. “I’m the tree over here. I’m this fallen log.”

“This is great,” said Katie Panchack, 23, of Saugerties, as the log continued with a speech about the Lenape tribe that settled the area before Hudson’s arrival. “I’ve been here all my life and didn’t know half of this stuff.”

Panchak said the biennial was “awesome.” “There’s so much stuff to look at.”

Her friend, Juan Valdez, a visitor from West Palm Beach, Fla., agreed. “This is very beautiful.”

Rick Van Dusen, a retired builder and Kingston resident since 1997, said that he liked the way the art fit with the natural surroundings. “It’s all about nature,” he said.

“Some of it I like, and some of it I don’t,” he said, appearing unimpressed with some of the abstract metal statues. His favorite is “The Dancer,” by Kathy Bruce, a tall bamboo and moss figure rising out of a bush that spreads around her waist like a skirt. “It’s the nicest one I’ve seen so far.”

Van Dusen, a frequent visitor to Rotary Park, made the trip with his dog, Mina, a 2-year-old Shitzu-Maltese mix, who also approved of the exhibition. “She likes the art,” Van Dusen said.

“I like the walkway at the entrance,” Panchak said. “It’s very bright and colorful. It’s not an eyesore.”

The pathway, entitled “Alive! A Path of Renewal,” is made from bluestones and planters hand-painted by residents of the Northeast Center for Special Care as part of their rehabilitation from brain injuries.

MiChelle Vara, the sculptor of “Henry Hudson,” said that she is happy with her statue’s central location. She pieced him together over the course of a year, with the quadricentennial in mind.

“He is very happy in the park, and he appears to be quite happy next to the Indian,” she said, referring to Dave Channon’s “Diana Lenape,” a large metal sculpture made with discarded garden tools including shovel heads and a rake, in the likeness of a Native American woman aiming a bow and arrow.

The art will remain on display until October. Later in the summer, ASK plans to sell catalogs commemorating the exhibit, which will have photographs of the art in its outdoor setting, an opening comment, artist statements and photos from the July 4 reception. Funding for the event normally comes from city coffers, but this year ASK carried the costs of promotion and is waiting to be reimbursed by funds from a state grant for the Hudson Fulton Champlain Quadricentennial. They have asked for $10,000, the same amount as in past years.

Other artists featured in the biennial include Melita Greenleaf, Scarlett Colsen, Michael Ciccone, Anne Dushanko Dobek, Robin M. Glassman, Karen Pignataro, Gary Pluschau, Randy Polumbo, the Student Art Alliance at SUNY New Paltz, Matthew Zappala, Casey Schwartz, Susan Togut, Anne Stanner, Cristina Ungureanu, Emily Puthoff, Bill Brovold, Pieter and Abby Heijnen, Bennett Wine, Terry L.H. Slade, Ze’ev Wily Neumann, Kelly McGrath, Patrick Sweeney, Stephen Reynolds, Pamela Wallace, Robert Giordano, Lucjan Nowinski, Franc Palaia, James Hixson, Sandra Schaller and Oreen Cohen.

Published by the Daily Freeman

Mystery of missing urn angers family, ends happily

“I kept thinking, ‘It’s gotta be here.’ And sure enough, we found it,” Harkins said this week.

The Harkins family buried the ashes of 26-year-old Aileen Harkers in Mt. Marion Cemetery last September. Aileen was deaf, and did not hear neighbors who were trying to alert her to the fire on Sept. 10, 2007. She was declared dead after the blaze was put out.

This week, family members requested that the urn containing Aileen’s ashes be moved from her grandfather’s plot to an adjacent plot that they’d purchased for her. But on Wednesday morning, Harkins said, someone from the cemetery called his terminally ill wife, Linda, from whom he is separated, and told her their daughter’s urn was missing and must have been stolen.

A family panic ensued.

“It was an awful day for everyone involved,” said Aileen’s sister, Alicia McIntosh, 24. “I thought everyone was going to have a heart attack.”

Harkins said he reported the apparent theft to the town of Saugerties Police Department, at the cemetery’s suggestion, but also went to the grave site himself because he couldn’t believe someone would steal his daughter’s ashes.

Seeing that the grave didn’t seem completely dug up, Harkins and his son Joseph, 23, started to dig with their hands while Aileen’s sister and mother, who has cancer, looked around the cemetery to see if the urn was nearby.

“Myself and my son got down on our hands and knees, started digging with our hands,” Harkins said.

Harkins said they were approached by the cemetery director, who questioned them but didn’t stop them.

“He had no clue what was going on,” Harkins said. “He never apologized. He never said nothing.”

Harkins said he and his son discovered the urn in the grave just as an officer from the Saugerties town police showed up to investigate.

Harkins said even though the urn hadn’t been stolen, the mix-up left the family upset and confused.

“It’s crazy. We’re all in shock,” he said.

McIntosh, Aileen’s sister, said the cemetery director called the family a couple hours later, apologized and said there would be no charge for moving Aileen’s urn to the new grave.

“They really should have checked better,” McIntosh said. “You’d better have dug six feet in every direction before you call and say, ‘Your family member is missing.'”

The family said the timing of the mix-up was especially painful because it happened just a week before the first anniversary of Aileen’s death.

Harkins said he is considering bringing a lawsuit against the cemetery.

A reporter’s phone call to the cemetery office was not immediately returned.

After Aileen’s death, a scholarship fund in her memory was established at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains.

Originally published by the Daily Freeman.