By LEONARD CRIST
About this package
Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator collaborate in a program called The NewsOutlet, a joint media venture by student and professional journalists.
The NewsOutlet students recently examined downtown nightlife — a slice of Youngstown that is a growing attraction and destination — and also unknown to many Valley residents.
More than one dozen students hit downtown on Feb. 26 and 27. The result is a two-part package featured today and Monday that looks at this micro-economy — from the business owners to the workers; from the artists who perform to the patrons who come from throughout the Valley and Northeast Ohio to be entertained.
Simon Kenneally is a local music scene veteran.
Since 1988, Kenneally, 40, of Youngstown, has performed, promoted shows and watched his fellow musicians play in bars throughout the city, from the long-closed Penguin Pub to downtown’s newest music venue, the Lemon Grove.
“The arts scene has always been very, very rich,” Kenneally said. “Every city has a local arts scene. But Youngstown has got a good vibrancy to it that a lot of the other ones seem to lack.”
Kenneally and other musicians said the city’s struggles provide a backdrop of inspiration and motivation.
“The surroundings here can be very bleak at times, and it kind of lets us go inside ourselves to find some sort of release, some sort of entertainment,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the art scene is so prevalent here, because we look to each other for entertainment in the bleaker times.”
Local musicians performing on downtown stages last weekend said Youngstown’s rust belt setting and low cost of living help foster creativity, but it’s sometimes difficult for original bands to draw a crowd or even find venues willing to book them.
Some artists, like Kenneally, are optimistic about the state of the scene. Others are less so.
Last Friday at the Lemon Grove, 122 West Federal St., Kenneally hosted the Bonfrog Hibernation Revival, a music festival that featured a DJ, a solo acoustic performance by Kenneally, three rock bands and an artist who, during the course of the festival, created a painting that was given away via raffle.
Despite a snowstorm, the Lemon Grove was packed with fans of local music.
Around the corner at Cedars Lounge, however, the crowd for a Johnny Cash-inspired jam session was less robust. And a block down West Federal Street, at Barley’s, the dance floor was practically empty for the synth-pop duo Foursquare Junkies.
“There is a revival [in downtown Youngstown],” said Chris Ochtyun, 27, of Howland, a member of the Foursquare Junkies. “But it’s not necessarily conducive to seeing live original music.”
His bandmate, Nick Miller, 31, of Youngstown, said the music scene was much stronger 10 years ago, with more fans at shows and more cooperation between bands. “Unfortunately, the scene is just not as supportive as it used to be,” Miller said. “People don’t seem like they’re coming out for original music anymore.”
Miller thinks the economy is partly to blame, with many patrons choosing to save their money and drink at home.
Bands can also run into financial difficulties.
“By the time you do the promotion and flyers and pass out CDs and try to do everything you need to do, you’ll be happy to break even,” Miller said. “You’ve got to work really hard at it anymore. It’s not ‘Field of Dreams.’ You can’t just go out there and play and think that people will show up anymore.”
Josh Good, 28, of Boardman, the bass player for the instrumental prog-rock trio Braille, said his band isn’t in it for the money, or even big crowds.
“We play to play,” Good said. “We just like music.”
Braille performed Friday at the Lemon Grove’s festival.
The members said their favorite place to play downtown is Cedars, 131 W. Commerce St., because it has the best sound system and the best soundman, Pete Drivere. But the last time they played at Cedars, only 10 people showed up. They all agreed that the newer bars are siphoning off patrons from more established ones.
“There’s only so many people going downtown,” said Braille’s guitarist, Anthony Cucitrone, 22, of Boardman.
Kenny Halvert III, whose band also played Friday at the Lemon Grove, recently bought a house on the city’s South Side for $3,000 so his band, Panzer Talk, could have a place to practice.
“I lived in San Francisco for years and it was hard to even find a place to play, much less keep a roof over your head,” said Halvert, 34, of Youngstown. “So it is nice being around here.”
The Robbie Jay Band, an alt-country group that performed last Saturday at Cedars, regularly plays Pittsburgh and Cleveland and has toured North Carolina and Tennessee.
“But we keep coming back [to Youngstown],” said guitarist and lead singer Robbie Jay McFarland, 30, of Hubbard.
McFarland said his band tends to do well in Youngstown, with good-sized crowds and decent paydays. His Saturday set at Cedars was no exception. The crowd, more women than men, danced and sang along to the Robbie Jay Band’s particular brand of gritty, Steve Earle-esque country rock.
“This town seems to get a bad rap,” McFarland said. “We kind of like it. We do OK, and we like the people here. I guess it’s kind of cool to play to your family and friends and watch it grow right in your back yard.”
“I think it’s better to be a big fish in small pond than a forgotten name in Nashville or Austin.”
(The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.)