Where the Winds Hit Heavy on the Borderline: A Life of Music in the North Country
By Garret K. Woodward
Turning onto Protection Avenue, a narrow one-way street in downtown Plattsburgh, I could see a group of folks milling about in front of a dimly-lit two-story brick building. The sign on the side of the century-old structure stated, “Monopole.”
I was careful to watch my step on the uneven ice of the sacred alleyway. Meandering through the small crowd — smoking and laughing, voices drifting into the cold night air — I reached the entrance. The glass in the door was vibrating from a thundering bass, guitar licks, and vocal harmonies spilling down the rickety stairwell leading to the small stage upstairs.
It was New Year’s Eve and the air in the venue was steamy, where the moisture of humanity and midnight shenanigans hung heavy. Faces — known and unknown — disappeared and reappeared to and from the darkness of the stage area, in search of a drink - perhaps even some clarity amid the fog of the evening - underneath the few dusty lights illuminating the bar.
Pushing through the sardine-can audience, I stood in front of North Country powerhouse jam act, Lucid. The sextet was headlong into another rollicking year-end performance at the ‘Pole. The whirlwind nature of the band was already stuff of legend in these parts. And there I was, part of it — completely immersed in a sincerely blissful, collective moment in time — witnessing first-hand the genuine, authentic talent of those who were born and raised in the heart of the Champlain Valley and greater Adirondack Mountains.
Somewhere around 5 a.m. I stumbled out of the ‘Pole, with Lucid still chugging along, the melodic chaos eventually giving way to not only daylight, but also a new year. It was one of unknown hopes and dreams, regardless of what the now-expired calendar crossed off in your heart and soul.
I was twenty-one years old then, thirty-three now. But this wasn’t my first venture into the depths of what it means to be part of the North Country music scene … Far from.
As a kid growing up in the small Canadian border town of Rouses Point, the only live music I was exposed to early on usually was a (very) mediocre classic rock tribute band at the 4th of July celebration. Or it was some high school friends messing around on their cheap instruments in my parent’s barn. It was the only place they could be as loud as they wanted because those within earshot were millions of ears of corn in the fields surrounding the 19th century stone farmhouse.
It’s not that we didn’t have taste or weren’t aware of quality music. We were. We heard it all the time on the radio, with 99.9 The BUZZ being such an eye-opening station back then in terms of pure rock, grunge, alternative, and whatever indie rock slid through the cracks of their song rotation.
And there was music from all sorts of genres being played wherever people would congregate…
There were those wild and rowdy bluegrass and country acts during some “Town Day,” or whatever it was called way up in the middle-of-nowhere in the tiny hamlet of Jericho. Vehicles slammed the brakes on the nearby Rand Hill Road after hearing music waft through the open car windows, eager to hear more.
There was the gazebo performances in Jay where we’d cheer on our friends’ rock band or string ensemble while the sunshine of another lazy afternoon in our North County paradise radiating down upon the unassuming, yet beloved Town Square. Roads to unknown destinations zoomed out from it in seemingly every direction.
There were numerous high school auditoriums around the region — whether it be Chateauguay or AuSable Valley — that played host to The Gibson Brothers, a bluegrass act from “up the road” in Ellenburg Depot. Their blend of songbird harmonies and a keen awareness of “the traditional sound” has led to numerous accolades, including the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA); “Entertainer of the Year” (2012, 2013); and “Song of the Year” (2010, 2013).
There were the summer band shell shows in downtown Lake Placid that brought regional and national bands into our backyard, which opened our eyes to the endless spectrum of world music at our doorstep. All the while we held steady to the prime blanket real estate on the small grassy knoll overlooking Mirror Lake.
There were the random once-popular radio acts rolling through the Clinton County Fair in Morrisonville, the Franklin County Fair in Malone, or the Essex County Fair in Westport. A cheap $2 domestic beer poured in haste because you “just have to hear that one song and then we can leave and go home.”
Things started to change for myself and my peers when we got our driver’s license. Now we ventured to shows just outside our comfort zone — Burlington, Montreal, Saratoga. The massive stage performances and arena-sized crowds were impressive, and most importantly memorable.
But, nothing could (and still doesn’t) replace the feeling of a good time with good music amid good people in the depths of the North Country.
Somewhere around 10th grade, I started finding myself tagging along to the annual “Happy Pike” celebration in the small lakeside town of Chazy. Held annually on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, it’s a town-wide day to party that’s disguised as a three-day fishing derby on Lake Champlain.
Yes, there is plenty of fish caught and fried up to eat, plenty of beach volleyball and catching-up with your neighbors and friends atop rusty tailgates and frozen coolers filled to the brim with Labatt Blue or Molson Canadian, (nowadays Magic Hat, Heady Topper or whatever craft beer one may fancy). But, the beauty of the whole thing - now in its 33rd year - is the music.
Following the fish fry, the whole town gathered at The Weathercock, a North Country institution where the label “dive bar” is worn with as much pride on the arm of the locals as their hearts. For a bar with a capacity around 60 people, I can vouch for at least double that number crammed inside the building, with the sounds of perennial favorites Mr. Charlie & Blues for Breakfast echoing from the back room. Bodies flailed and fell over each other in a euphoric feeling of time and place, surrounded by the people that knew you the best and loved you the most.
But it wasn’t until I was brought on as the road manager for Lucid in my mid-20s when I truly understood the magnitude of love and gratitude North Country folks have for music, especially when performed live.
Sometime around the spring of 2010 — in the midst of a tumultuous breakup — I found myself at a crossroads, which serendipitously occurred at the same time Lucid was looking for a road manager. I needed to “get away from it all,” back to the basics simply hitting the road in search of myself in the grand scheme of things. I was ready to trek into the far corners and backwoods of the North Country.
For the better part of the next two years I found myself jumping on the Lucid bus every weekend. We’d leave downtown Plattsburgh on Thursday afternoon bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to return late Sunday night or early Monday morning bleary-eyed and shell-shocked. But it was all worth it.
What I learned in those weeks and months roaming the backroads and highways of the North Country was the true nature and honest beauty of what live music means to the people who inhabit these ancient mountains and valleys that we call home.
They say the weather and geography of a place is what ultimately determines the attitudes of those who reside within a certain region. For the North Country it’s an attitude of survival, whether it be at the hands of a merciless, never-ending winter or the ongoing troubles of a socioeconomic system either gone with the times or left behind by those who were once trusted to carry the torch into tomorrow.
The people of the North Country are full of grit, hard work, and an undying determination to make it through hell or high water. And with that also comes the idea of the “we,” where “we will make it, together.” Friends, family members, and neighbors are always looked out for, something that resonates at the core of this region’s music scene.
Who you see and interact with at a live show ‘round here are either dear friends or soon-to-be-friends after a song or two. All friends were strangers at one time, which is a notion held tightly within our melodic circles.
And you would see that cultivated sense of community in the presence of live music, whether it was at venues like 20 Main Bar in AuSable Folks, The Waterhole in Saranac Lake, or Olive Ridley’s in Plattsburgh. Festivals like the Winter Carnival in Saranac Lake, Backwoods Pondfest in Peru, The Battle of Plattsburgh and most recently, the North Country River Jam in Champlain all cultivate that same sense of community.
All of those faces, spaces, and places is what North Volume will represent. It’s an independent voice that will collect the important stories, captivating images, and wide-range of emotions of what it means to be part of something bigger than you, me, or any of us reading this: the power of live music - of real and tangible change - happening right in our own backyard.