I spent most of my weekends in the 1990s with my lipstick red Fender Stratocaster Squier plugged into my 10-watt Marshall amplifier, jamming with friends. One session stands out, because it was the first and only time I ever jammed with the guy. That was Jimmy Huntley, who invited me over to his house one night to play with his band, and I remember fumbling embarrassedly through The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm,” not being able to figure out a single lick or chord change. Back then, Jimmy was sort of a big deal: He was the first kid in my high school class who got serious about a genre of music other than classical or jazz and decided to make a go at a career in it. I’m pretty sure the first time I ever went to Caffè Lena was to see Jimmy play there, and I sat through the entire show jealous as hell. The guy was living my dream. And he was doing it at one of Saratoga Springs’—and arguably, the world’s—greatest folk clubs. And he was good. Damn.
Saratogians have long been blessed with innumerable choices when it comes to enjoying their culture, whether it be Caffè Lena, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), Proctors in nearby Schenectady or the acoustical wonder that is Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Below, find a dozen of the area’s top arts venues (in no particular order)—and what you can expect from each of them.
SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (SPAC)
Location: Saratoga Springs
Capacity: 25,000 (with 5200 sheltered seats), 20,000 on lawn
Need To Know: Think of SPAC as a cross between Central Park, Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden—without all the ride-sharing nightmares getting there. (It actually has a real parking lot.) At SPAC, you can get your high-society fix with The Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet, while its Live Nation lineups of pop, country, hip hop and classic rock acts offer more than a few opportunities to do your best Auto-Tune impression or work on your air guitar skills.
The Inside Scoop: “Our incredible, best-in-class venue, perfectly situated among towering pines, healing waters and exquisite, historic architecture, provides a unique and transformative experience that keeps both artists and audiences wanting to come back for more. Top artists from all genres—from Kendrick Lamar to The Philadelphia Orchestra, Dave Matthews to New York City Ballet, Zac Brown Band to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center—love the Saratoga experience: a perfect confluence of man-made and natural beauty, adjacent to an exceptional, culturally vibrant Downtown.” —Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO, Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Location: Saratoga Springs
Need To Know: Everyone from Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris to Don McLean and Ani DiFranco have played early gigs at Caffè Lena, the oldest continuously operating folk venue of its kind in the US. While it’s always been an intimate affair inside, the nonprofit arts venue got a $2 million boost in 2016 to renovate and expand its existing space. So now even more of the local hipsterati can snap their fingers in applause and shout “Dig it, Daddy-o!”
The Inside Scoop: Caffè Lena takes a three-pronged approach to artist bookings, says Executive Director Sarah Craig. First is catching the artists on the rise early on in their career—the ones who’re “probably going to be the festival and concert hall headliners in the coming few years,” she says. Next is landing the folks that have already made it and pitching them on performing at the historic venue. (They almost always say yes, she says.) Lastly, they bring in artists who’ve had “a tremendous amount of history with the venue,” such as Bill Staines, who’s been playing at Lena since the ’60s. Catch him there on July 6.
UNIVERSAL PRESERVATION HALL (UPH)
Location: Saratoga Springs
Capacity: 200 (balcony), 50-150 (additional seating)
Need To Know: Erected in 1871 in Downtown Saratoga, complete with stained-glass windows and a 3000-pound bell cast in nearby Troy, the Hall was a fixture before falling into disrepair and being condemned in 2000. (It was arguably one of the better-looking edifices in need of repair in town, though.) UPH is now undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, that will no doubt transform it into one of the Spa City’s next great arts venues. It’ll rain live music and feed hungrily from the partnership it has with Proctors. It’s set to open to the public in 2019.
The Inside Scoop: “UPH is going to be a year-round cultural anchor in the heart of Saratoga, and we’ll be filling the room with great live music of all stripes on every night we can. We’ll also offer Broadway, cabaret and some live theater and children’s programming. And the School of the Performing Arts at Proctors will have a presence here as well. We can’t wait to open the doors!” —Teddy Foster, Campaign Director, UPH
Need To Know: First opening in 1926 as a vaudeville venue, Proctors, a grand old theater built in the Italian Baroque style, changed hands a number of times throughout its history, switching from a live venue to a movie theater. (That’s how my mom remembers it from her childhood.) Eventually, it was reborn as the multi-genre event space we know today. Patrons can now catch a range of shows at Proctors, including on-tour Broadway musicals (sizzling-hot shows, such as The Book Of Mormon and Hamilton, are coming in 2019), dance concerts and movies.
The Inside Scoop: Is Proctors still in reinvention mode? Not so much, says CEO Philip Morris. “We’re applying our dreams to current circumstances, which, I feel, is a different thing, a different approach. We have a very specific mission and we apply it to today’s environment.”
HOME MADE THEATER (HMT)
Location: Saratoga Springs
Capacity: 496 (at the Spa Little Theater)
Need To Know: Founded in 1985, HMT got its start on the tiny stage at the pre-renovation Caffè Lena. It’s since become the resident theater company at the Spa Little Theater—near SPAC in the Saratoga Spa State Park—upping the seat-age to just under 500. (HMT’s in season from roughly September to May.) Over the years, HMT has staged productions of everything from Dial “M” For Murder and Hair to The Wizard Of Oz and Charlotte’s Web. Famous Saratogian David Hyde Pierce has even leant a hand raising funds for it over the years. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Dr. Niles Crane, it should be good enough for you).
The Inside Scoop: “Home Made Theater is a community-based theater company that uniquely fits between the worlds of true community theater and a semi-professional company. We try to provide people who want to be involved in theater with a professional and positive experience. And, hopefully, we’re bringing quality theater to this community.” —Stacie Mayette Barnes, Producing Manager, Home Made Theater
THE PALACE THEATRE
Need To Know: You get a similar sense of awe walking into the Palace for the first time as you do Proctors. It’s a gorgeous auditorium—one that makes you feel like you’re in the presence of something great or powerful. First opening its doors in 1931, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Seinfeld have all played there. It’s also hosted ballet, Broadway plays and movies. It’s not to be missed.
The Inside Scoop: “We certainly cast a wide net in respect to who we’d love to see perform here, but do so keeping in mind the size of the theater and what artists and genres tend to perform best in this market.” —Sean Allen, Director of Marketing, The Palace Theatre
Capacity: 982 (Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre), 450 (Lewis A. Swyer Theatre)
Need To Know: If you’ve ever driven by Albany, you’ve probably had a tough time wrapping your head around the oddly shaped building on the city skyline. That’s the one-of-kind structure known as The Egg, completed in 1978, which was designed by Wallace Harrison, who had a hand in planning NYC’s Rockefeller Center. Nowadays, it serves as one of Albany’s top event spaces, luring in everyone from jazz-rock acts the Squirrel Nut Zippers to the Ajkun Ballet Theatre, which does a three-week residency there annually. It’s the only venue in town that’s as entertaining on the outside as it is on the inside.
The Inside Scoop: “It’s harder for us to get noticed in the summer, but we still have two wonderful, beautifully air-conditioned theaters here, which some people enjoy a little bit more than the big outdoor spaces. The majority of the programming that we do is roots, rock and jazz, with a little comedy thrown in, which people have come to expect from us.” —Peter Lesser, Executive Director, The Egg
TIMES UNION CENTER
Need To Know: Whereas Saratogians are most likely to catch mainstream music acts in the summer months at SPAC, the Times Union Center in Albany has us covered for the rest of the year. As a sports arena, it hosts college basketball games (it’s Siena Men’s Basketball’s home court) and doubles as an Arena League football stadium (it’s the Albany Empire’s home field). As far as music is concerned, in the coming months, fans will be able to catch jam-band powerhouse Phish; he who brought sexy back, Justin Timberlake; and longtime heavy metal gods, Metallica.
The Inside Scoop: “The reality is most tours either decide that they want to play the outdoor amphitheaters in the summer, or they’ll play arenas instead. It’s not that the TU Center is a better play than SPAC. It all depends on the size of the production going out on tour and where the artists feel comfortable performing.” —Bob Belber, General Manager, SMG/Times Union Center
TROY SAVINGS BANK MUSIC HALL
Need To Know: Built in 1875, the Music Hall is renowned in the area for its incredible acoustics—which sort of appeared there by accident, the result of the space being upgraded with a gigantic concert organ. Because of its sonic wonders, the Music Hall is able to book a wide variety of artists, the majority of whom favor hollow- over solid-bodied instruments (i.e., classical, folk and Americana performers). Recent shows have included everyone from Black Violin and Ray LaMontagne to Randy Newman.
The Inside Scoop: “There’s a connection that happens between the performers on stage and the audience that is deeper than in other halls. The Music Hall is one of the best preserved 19th-century concert halls in the country. Even the seats are original—including racks for gentlemen to place their top hats and ladies to hang their shawls on. You just don’t find those sorts of details in many other theaters.” —Jon Elbaum, Executive Director, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
COHOES MUSIC HALL
Need To Know: The Cohoes Music Hall first swung open its doors in 1874 and hosted what can only be described as a circus-sideshow-act’s worth of talent, which included Buffalo Bill Cody, one of P.T. Barnum’s prized elephants and John Philip Sousa (it’s the fourth oldest operating music hall in the US). These days, it hosts solo artists, theater troupes, jazz acts and tribute bands. The venue—and its town—have got a bit of that little-train-that-could going for it, too, and I can’t help but respect that.
The Inside Scoop: “While it’s important to book headliners, it’s as important to support up-and-coming acts as well as our local and regional artists by bringing them to the stage. I’ve always felt that it’s necessary for venues to be a community resource, and to actively support the needs of the community. Downtown Cohoes is seeing the opening of new restaurants, residential projects and improvements that are making it more livable and beautiful. It’s an exciting time to be in business here.” —Holly Brown, Executive Director, Cohoes Music Hall
ARTHUR ZANKEL MUSIC CENTER
Location: Saratoga Springs
Need To Know: I grew up going to Skidmore College orchestra concerts at Filene Recital Hall. Capacity was 235, and it always felt like it was on the verge of bursting at the seams. Students got a huge upgrade when the college built the Arthur Zankel Music Center, which seats more than twice as many patrons and has the big-boy look the college’s arts program long deserved. While its lineup shades more toward the highbrow, with its list of Who’s Who in the classical and jazz worlds, it’s hosted the occasional mainstream heavyweight: Paul Simon, father to Skidmore alum Lulu Belle Simon, taught a master class there last year.
The Inside Scoop: “Summer concerts at Skidmore College are designed to inspire Skidmore students and engage and entertain audiences from throughout the greater Capital Region. Most of the artists we present also teach in our summer music institutes, which gives our students the unique opportunity to study with internationally known musicians.” —Maria McColl, Associate Director for Summer Institutes, Skidmore College
Location: Saratoga Springs
Need To Know: When I was growing up, the local pool hall, where everybody went after high school let out, was this place called Putnam Den. It was a little rough around the edges, but it certainly had character. It’d later morph into a full-blown event space, and I remember seeing Saratoga band, The Figgs, play there at least once. Just this past winter, though, the venue got an extreme makeover, with upgrades hither and yon—including an epic (and huge) LED wall high atop the back of the stage. It’s now a classy music venue, nightclub and event space—its new bar is truly a thing of beauty. (saratoga living had its relaunch and recent 20th Anniversary parties there.) Hey, you might not be able to play pool there anymore, but it’s about as close to a banging pool party as you’ll get in land-locked Downtown Saratoga.
The Inside Scoop: “Unlike a lot of the spots in Saratoga, we’ve successfully become a year-round location. Our goal is to be a welcoming spot for all and not alienate anyone. It’s my hope to foster a sense of inclusion while elevating the nightlife and music scene in our great city. When fans tell me they can’t believe they just saw members of Phish or Blues Traveler or Wyclef Jean in their backyard, at a beautiful, intimate venue, I feel a sense of pride and gratitude.” —Tiffany Albert, Co-owner, Putnam Place