Keeping true to self and songs
In 1998, Brian Ayers released his first album, “The Two Feet Between Me and You.” Credited to Brian Ayers with Blue Jimmy — the country-rock band he fronted for many years — “The Two Feet” was one of Ayers’ most personal, most honest albums. It’s one where he called all the shots, and the songs were very much the unfiltered Ayers. It’s still his favorite of his releases, one of the few he’ll take out and listen to from time to time.
Some 22 years later — with several records, countless live shows and projects in various configurations down the road, not to mention those 22 years of living — Ayers sees himself as returning to that unvarnished, direct, personal approach to songwriting. One where he writes, and plays, for himself — hoping that the audience will come along, of course.
“It was a 22-year process,” the Bloomfield resident said, adding, “It was a great process, a wonderful process.”
It’s a process that’s been kicked into high gear by the novel coronavirus and the resulting isolation: He couldn’t do much gigging, other than a couple livestream shows, so he mostly set down the guitar and concentrated on lesson plans for his day job, as a teacher at Marcus Whitman — and had the time to write and reflect and reconsider what direction the music can take.
“You spend more time by yourself in seclusion or quarantine — that has to be good for creative work,” he said. “I’m able to go down in the studio with a clear head and figure things out — which I wouldn’t have had time to do before. … It gave me a hunger. I have to think many musicians have a hunger now they might not have had before.”
Ayers will return to the stage this weekend, as he brings back the music gathering he started 17 years ago, “Ayersfest,” set for July 17-18 at Lincoln Hill Farms in Gorham. Not only will be perform Saturday with brother Chad in the Ayers Brothers Band, but the brothers will join Mike and Steve Nelson and Greg Gefell on Friday for a Blue Jimmy reunion show.
Ayersfest will feature nine sets over the course of two days. Here’s the lineup:
Friday, 7-8 p.m.: Rob Smith & Mike Gladstone
Friday, 8-11 p.m.: Blue Jimmy (reunion show)
Saturday, 2-3 p.m.: Ayers Brothers Band
Saturday, 3:15-4:15 p.m.: Dady Trio (a group John Dady of longtime acoustic duo Dady Brothers founded with multi-instrumentalists John Ryan and Perry Cleaveland)
Saturday, 4:30-5:30 p.m.: Jeff Riales and the Silverstone Express
Saturday: 5:45-6:45 p.m.: The Pete Griffith Group
Saturday, 7-7:45 p.m.: Teagan and Lou (from Rochester rock/R&B band Teagan and the Tweeds)
Saturday, 8-9 p.m.: Mud Creek (Grateful Dead tribute band, with Chad Ayers on rhythm and lead guitars)
Saturday, 9:30-11 p.m.: Miller and the Other Sinners
Ayersfest admission — tickets at the gate only — will be $10 for Friday, $25 for Saturday and $30 for the full weekend. Lincoln Hill Farms, a working farm at 3792 Route 247, includes a food truck with a menu of locally sourced fare ranging from ribs to salad to tacos; and a full outdoor bar with wine, craft and local beers, nonalcoholic options and kombucha.
Ayersfest started in 2003 as, essentially, a modest, informal get-together at property Ayers had in Bloomfield. “It was kind of a backyard party, but a number of people came out,” he recalled. In subsequent years it moved to his parents’ Bloomfield property. “There was something so special about that location. … Something special gets captured every year,” he said. The fest has featured local acts from the Rochester area as well as from Buffalo, Syracuse and elsewhere.
It’s generally been a semi-private gathering, with admission by invitation, though this year it’s public, with admission at the gate. After all, helping out Lincoln Hill is a big reason the fest is happening.
“Last year we had just kind of decided it had run its course,” Ayers said. “We put a lot of work into it — the grounds and the booking.” But then, life changed. “Things being what they were with COVID, Lincoln Hill Farms has lost a lot of the artists that they were going to have; that’s a significant loss of revenue. This gave us a chance to keep them in the running and gave us the opportunity to have a semblance of normality.”
Lincoln Hill Farms is one of a handful of area venues that’s been able to start hosting live music again, due to its sizable outdoor space. Everything is outdoors, picnic tables are spaced apart; staff frequently cleans and sanitizes; and everyone is encouraged to socially distance (and wear masks when not seated). Over the past several weeks it’s hosted the likes of Big Blue House, Truth Serum, Bobby Henrie and Shackwater, as well as Ayers himself with his old Blue Jimmy compadre Steve Nelson.
“That venue somehow captures the mystique and the ambiance that we’ve always had at Ayersfest,” he said.
A five-piece band occupying that big-tent niche loosely called “Americana” — with elements of country, rock, folk and other genres — Blue Jimmy was the partnership of family and friends: Brian and his brother Chad, fellow Bloomfield High School alumni Mike and Steve Nelson and Greg Gefell. They recorded five albums together before more or less going their separate ways musically some seven or eight years ago without officially calling it quits; they’d done hiatuses before, but this one was the longest. But, says Ayers, “we always seem to come back together.” So when Lincoln Hill approached him about doing a Blue Jimmy reunion, Ayers ran it by the other members and they were all for it — but the coronavirus scuttled the original scheduled show.
Their Friday set will draw from the band’s entire discography — including some songs they very rarely played out back in the day, but they’re giving a fresh airing.
“We got together two nights ago for a rehearsal at my place — the first time the five of us played together in one place for years,” Ayers said. “I was shocked at how good we pulled off some of the songs. I had kind of doubted that we’d be playing that well.”
Some of that’s a factor of a couple decades of living, Ayers figures — they’re not the 20-something kids they were back in the “Two Feet” days. “We’re all more seasoned, we’ve all kind of grown — and we appreciated being back together,” he said. “We blew through the songs.”
All that living, playing and growing has brought with it some maturity and development, including a growing realization that the song is the important thing — not the adulation, not the crowd — and he needs to write songs that are true to himself and sing them in a way that’s true to the song.
“Once that microphone is in front of you, there is the feeling, this is the big show, you tend to oversing,” he said. Over the years, he’s learned to relax: “As far as performance-wise, just letting the song breathe.”
He’s also learned to be OK with not always necessarily being the crowd-pleaser who’ll always give an audience something familiar — with the hope and faith that if he presents his music in a genuine fashion, people will still respond.
“It’s being comfortable with performing the songs I like as an artist — and if I present it like I’m trusting in it, it’s going to be all right, no matter what the audience reaction. I guess it’s being true to myself, and being true to the song.”
He’ll take that approach into his next recording project, which will probably be released as a solo album, but with plenty of support from his musical compadres: brother Chad, his other Blue Jimmy partners, possibly John Dady and Greg Gilmore.
In these past few months, as the pandemic has closed venues doors and sent everyone inside, Ayers the musician largely took a back seat to Ayers the teacher; his studio became a “lesson generating factory” where he developed lesson plans and videos and such to use in remote-teaching.
But Ayers the musician was still there too, and using the isolation as a time for reflection.
“This has allowed me to stop playing — because I CAN’T play out. Luckily for me, my family’s security doesn’t depend on it. My heart goes out to so many people who have chosen music as a career,” he said. But without the pressure to be constantly gigging and booking shows has come the soul-searching that he thinks is necessary for any artist.
“... This is an opportunity to step back, look and what you do, analyze what you do,” he said. “If you’re going to make changes, this is the time to do it. We’re going to have better musicianship, better quality artists.” More people, he noted, who are true to the song.
Local live music
• July 16: Eric Carlin and Josh Pincus (acoustic Grateful Dead plus originals) — Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m. on the outside patio at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, Rochester.
• July 17: Maria Gillard (acoustic) — Friday, July 17, 5-7 p.m. at Abandon Brewing Co. (on wrap-around deck), 2994 Merritt Hill Road, Penn Yan.
• July 17: Midnight Whiskey — Friday, July 17, 9 p.m. to midnight at Nashvilles, 4553 West Henrietta Road, Henrietta.
• July 17: Old Souls Band (rock, jazz, funk, blues) — Friday, July 17, at 7 p.m. on the outside patio at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, Rochester.
• July 17: Big Eyed Phish (Dave Matthews tribute) — Friday, July 17, 6:30-9 p.m., Roseland Drive-In at Roseland Waterpark, 250 Eastern Boulevard, Canandaigua. Opening act: Mike Cosco and Julie Dellarie. Tickets are $45, $60 or $75 depending on tier. Buy tickets at roselanddrivein.com or call 585-396-2000.
• July 17: The Occasional Saints (New Orleans blues/swing) — Friday, July 17, at 5:30 p.m. on the outside patio at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, Rochester. (Happy-hour show)
• July 18: Brass Taxi — Saturday, July 18, 6:30-9 p.m. Roseland Drive-In at Roseland Waterpark, 250 Eastern Boulevard, Canandaigua. Tickets are $40, $50 or $65 depending on tier. Buy tickets at roselanddrivein.com or call 585-396-2000.
• July 18: Cinnamon Jones — Saturday, July 18, at 6 p.m., in the parking lot at Fanatics Pub & Pizza, 7281 W. Main St., Lima. Tickets: $50 per vehicle, 585-624-2080 or 315-473-2411.
• July 18: The Fakers — Saturday, July 18, 6-9 p.m. on patio of Sager Beer Works, 46 Sager Drive, Suite E, Rochester.
• July 18: Mason Tyler Band — Saturday, July 18, 3-4:30 p.m. in the outdoor stage at I-Square in Irondequoit, presented by House of Guitars.
• July 18: Riding Shotgun — Saturday, July 18, 9 p.m. to midnight at Nashvilles, 4553 West Henrietta Road, Henrietta.
• July 19: Nate Michaels — Sunday, July 19, 2-5 p.m. at an Open Barn concert at Muranda Cheese Company, 3075 State Route 96, Waterloo. (Featured food vendor is Lake Country Food Truck)
• July 21: Miller & the Other Sinners — Tuesday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m., in the parking lot at Fanatics Pub & Pizza, 7281 W. Main St., Lima. Tickets: $50 per vehicle, 585-624-2080 or 315-473-2411.
• July 22: Deborah Magone (blues rock) — Wednesday, July 22, 5:30-6:30 p.m. during I-Square car show at I-Square in Irondequoit, presented by House of Guitars.
• July 23: The Boyd Parker Ambush duo featuring Nick Young and Jeff Simpson, Thursday, July 23, at 6:30 p.m. on the outside patio at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, Rochester.
• July 23: Meyer & McGuire (acoustic duo), with Perry Cleaveland on mandolins and fiddle, 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 23, at Zugibe Vineyards, 4248 East Lake Road, Geneva.
• July 24: Luca Foresta and the Electro Kings (blues, swing, rock), Friday, July 24, at 6:30 p.m. on the outside patio at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, Rochester.
• July 24: BONFIRE (AC/DC tribute) — Friday, July 24, 6:30-9 p.m., Roseland Drive-In at Roseland Waterpark, 250 Eastern Boulevard, Canandaigua. Tickets are $45 or $60 depending on tier. Buy tickets at roselanddrivein.com or call 585-396-2000.
• July 24: Retrospect — Friday, July 24, 9 p.m. to midnight at Nashvilles, 4553 West Henrietta Road, Henrietta.
• July 25: Bach to Rock student performance — Saturday, July 25, at I-Square in Irondequoit, presented by House of Guitars.
• July 25: Gold Rush (Neil Young tribute) — Saturday, July 25, at 6 p.m., in the parking lot at Fanatics Pub & Pizza, 7281 W. Main St., Lima. Tickets: $75 per vehicle, 585-624-2080 or 315-473-2411.
• July 26: Meyer & McGuire (acoustic duo), with Perry Cleaveland on mandolins and fiddle, 4-7 p.m. Sunday, July 26, at José & Willy's, 20 Lakeshore Drive, Canandaigua.
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FRONT-ROW SEAT is a column that showcases the area’s art, music, theater, film and general all-around creative scene. If you’re a musician (or venue) with an upcoming live (or online) performance or album release, or if you have any information in the arts/entertainment sphere to report, please send your information to L. David Wheeler at email@example.com.