Last September, I opened up Facebook Messenger to find some saratoga living fan mail. Caffè Lena’s Chairman of The Board of Directors, Jim Mastrianni, whom I’d never met before but whose last name rang a bell, wrote me this note: “Hi Will, I really enjoyed your article about The Weepies…I’ll be at the show, perhaps I’ll see you there.” A little backstory: I’d been a fan of the band for years—and had reported a rather heavy story on their lead singer, Deb Talan, back in 2015. So we had a history. So the second I found out that the band would be performing at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, I snapped up tickets and pitched a story on the band, which ended up publishing in the September/October 2018 issue of saratoga living. Hence, Mastrianni’s note.
We didn’t end up connecting the night of The Weepies show—and after a babysitting snafu, we missed each other again at Caffè Lena, the night I first discovered Girl Blue. Mastrianni and I finally had a second to meet up and chat earlier this year at the venue’s Sean Kelly solo show—it turned out we were both fans of Kelly’s longtime band, The Samples—and then he invited me over to his home studio in Saratoga Springs to listen in on a session he was producing for up-and-coming local artist Angelina Valente (her debut album, You And Me, dropped in April). That evening, it took only a few seconds to realize that: (a) Mastrianni has the single greatest music-lovers’ man cave in Saratoga; and (b) Mastrianni and I are cut from the same cloth: We’re both Brobdingnagian music nerds. But whereas I spin a few yarns about music here and there for the local ’zine, Mastrianni’s made a second career out of it.
Growing up in Niskayuna and attending Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Mastrianni, who got a dual degree in sociology and music, left college with his sights set on a career in rock music in Atlanta (he’s primarily a keyboardist but also plays guitar). But that dream quickly got shelved when he cofounded HAPPY Software, with his journalist brother, Joe (a saratoga living contributor, who worked on our “Boys of Mechanicville” article, hence their shared last name ringing a bell). Jim eventually left the company, got his MBA at Cornell University and then, in 2007, took over his father’s company, a for-profit firm that administers affordable housing programs. He’s been its president ever since.
All along, Mastrianni had continued making music, but he was tiring of the part-time local rocker lifestyle. Plus, when he and his wife had their daughter, his ability to go out on, say, a Tuesday night to play a gig greatly diminished. There had to be another way to make music work. So, for one, Mastrianni took his music production chops to the next level, working with a number of local acts. Aside from the aforementioned Valente, Mastrianni’s been recording local acts such as Annie & The Hedonists, the Seth Warden Trio and a new folk trio from the Troy area, Turnover Mule (full disclosure: That’s my band). And then he fell into the Saratoga music gig of the century. Having just completed the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Saratoga program, Mastrianni was searching for a volunteer opportunity in town, and he soon found himself on Caffè Lena’s board. Then the top seat on the board became available—and he took it. “There are these two worlds in my life,” he says. “There’s this music world and this business world. They’re two parallel paths.”
Stepping in as Chairman of the Board last year, Jim has helped usher in one of the most exciting and successful chapters in Caffè Lena’s history—one that’s seen tremendous growth, the kind that allows it to coax in artists such as Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John Sebastian, who’ll be playing a sold-out show there on June 29. And if it isn’t already obvious, Jim digs the gig. “I love everything about Caffè Lena. I love the size of the venue, and that it really is a music-lover’s place. People who love to listen—that’s what Caffè Lena’s about.” If only I could invent some guitar-and-amp-with-hearts-fluttering-around-it emoji to attach to the end of this story, I’d be all over it.