Back in the Day : The Ithaca Scene c.1973-1985

Ithaca, NY is the quintessential college town, hosting some 30,000 students each school year at Cornell University and Ithaca College. In 1974, I entered Ithaca College as a philosophy major(?!). The drinking age was 18, and the local clubs were fertile ground for dozens of bands made up of college kids, locals, ex-students and people attracted to Ithaca's funky/hip ambience and beautiful setting in the Finger Lakes region. The club scene in town was busy enough to keep bands alive for years, even if they'd never make the Billboard sales charts.

The Zobo Funn Band and the Peabody band had both set up camp in Ithaca in 1973. They lived in communal houses out in the countryside, surviving on minimal income in order to pursue their art: creation of all original music. The crowds at their concerts came from the legions of long-haired hippies, politically conscious feminists, gays and other fringe types who defined an "alternative" scene long before the term came into vogue in Seattle.

I became a fan of the Zobo Funn Band when they played a gig on the IC campus. At ZFB shows, when not swirling with the dervishes on the dance floor, I'd stand hypnotized by their adventurous writing and awesome instrumental chops. Guitarist David Torn and saxophonist Jim Campagnola would run rings around the simpler rock tunes, then go deep into one of the band's free-floating improvisational "jazz" pieces. Songwriter Jeremy Werbin cranked out an astoundingly eclectic catalog of songs. One tune might be a conventional rock blues about the perils of alcohol ("Red Eye Rock") while the next would use changing meters and tonalities and existential lyrics to create epic and cinematic feelings in the music ("Land Of The Floods").

The Peabody Band's music drew on string band music, country, and R&B models: Dan Hicks meets the Grateful Dead meets Little Feat meets The Band... When they'd go to their acoustic sound using violin and cello, the Peabody Band could also evoke medieval Troubadors. Their songs often felt like short stories or films, populated with characters like Tammy Vermont and the Rodeo Man. While Zobo may have pushed the envelope musically, the Peabs had one great advantage in their superior vocals. Songwriters Danny Speer, Robbie and Eric Aceto, and Chris Broadwell all had strong voices; vocalist Jill Ganon added a very effective dose of wit and worldliness to the festivities.

In 1977, 20 years old, I was in the middle of what was supposed to be a year off from college working in a Top-40 band when Campagnola, Werbin and drummer Mike Wellen "scouted" me as a replacement keyboardist for the Zobo band. Life was never the same as I became immersed in the music and the community. Between the ZFB and the Peabody band there were 14 excellent musicians, and the extended family was a true counter-cultural tribe. The Zobo Funn Band played its last show at Ithaca's Strand Theater (RIP) in February, 1980, and a reunion show a year and a half later. The Peabody Band metamorphosed into Sinbad, then Pirates, before the core members went their separate ways in the mid- 1980s.