November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Music: Katz in Oneonta

There’s Life in the Old Girl Yet:

Jon Weiss and The Resurgent Oneonta Theatre


By Jeff Katz
Music Editor

Jon Weiss sits with his back to the corner of Main and Chestnut Sts. in Oneonta, New York, an upstate college town on the western edge of the Catskill Mountains. Skinny, unshaven and gaunt, looking like a guy who’s spent a lot of time in clubs at night, Weiss is dressed in gray and black, his glasses spread open on his left knee. He’s working his phone, making things happen.

“I just want to make sure you’re happy with the contract,” he says to the other end of the phone as he sits at the newly made wrought iron table at the Common Ground Cafe. The marquee of the Oneonta Theatre, a half-block up Chestnut St., looms over Weiss’ shoulder.

In partnership with new owner Tom Cormier, Weiss is quickly making the Oneonta Theatre the cultural hub of Otsego County, bringing live music and movies to the freshly renovated venue. Down the hill sits the Foothills Performing Arts Center, a testament to state financial waste. Since its inception in 2000, Foothills has received millions in government funding and still struggles to find its way. On a relative shoestring, The Oneonta Theatre has beaten them to the punch, and Jon Weiss is at the center of the action.

Already, the old vaudeville and movie palace has presented two successful shows, Steve Earle and Jerry Jeff Walker. Walker, an Oneonta native, packed the 675 seat house and put on a beautiful solo concert, dropping names that had the crowd of ex-classmates, friends and teachers giggling.

“I was very happy with the first shows,” said Weiss. It was important to him that the shows came off without a hitch and were comfortable for the audience. “There’s nothing worse than a disgruntled ticket holder and, in these Internet days, bad p.r. can spread quickly.”

Weiss, a native of Queens, realizes the importance of connecting to Oneonta. It will take a while to gauge what works and what doesn’t, especially when the audience ranges from older natives to seasonal college students.

“I’m not from here,” admits Weiss.

Here’s how far from “here” Jon Weiss is. Back in the 1980’s Weiss was a key cog in the burgeoning garage rock scene that exploded in New York City. Garage rock, that mid-’60s’ sub-genre of fuzzy guitars, pumping organs and shaggy hair. It’s a world where The Sonics and The Standells are the two ruling bands; garage rockers have a fondness for the Beatles but that ends with Sgt. Pepper and the arting up of rock and roll. It’s The Fab Four of The Cavern Club that resonates with garage rockers.

As a high schooler in Queens, Weiss was a typical teen listening to FM radio and taking the train to see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. When punk hit, Weiss found his way to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to soak in the sounds of The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers and Blondie. Weiss liked what he heard, but dug in deeper to find the inspiration for the new sound.

Seeing The Fleshtones the first time blew Jon’s mind. No band combined the frenzied sounds and quick wit of Weiss’ fellow Queensmen. At The Mudd Club, the twang of Keith Streng’s Fender Mustang and front man Peter Zaremba’s wild singing and dancing won Weiss over.

“I’ll tell you how accessible it was back then. I knew a friend who knew the bassist of The Fleshtones. I asked them if I could join up if I learned to play tenor sax, and they said yes. I bought a tenor around 1978 or 1979 and was in the band months later.” Jon was good enough to be enshrined in the group’s virtual Hall of Fame.

After The Fleshtones came The Vipers and their classic Outta the Nest!, with Jon on vocals. Nest moved 20,000 copies, a monumental hit in the garage scene, but the band went the way of many, drugs and recriminations ending in destruction. Though illegal substances were not a big part of the overall garage rock scene, certain bands had certain problems. The Vipers, sadly, were one of them.

So how did Jon Weiss go from the orthodoxy and rigidity of garage rock, a purists’ delight where a non-Vox brand fuzz box would get you drummed out of the inner circle, to promoting a wide range of musical styles?

“I got into promoting to see bands I liked, or bands that no longer existed,” he explains. Starting in 1997, Weiss created Cavestomp!, an annual festival celebrating his garage rock heroes. Contemporary rockers like The Crawdaddies and The Tell-Tale Hearts were matched with the legends of the genre, like ? & The Mysterians, Barry & The Remains (who opened for The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966) and, the greatest triumph of all, the reunited Sonics.

Weiss is understandably proud of Cavestomp! “All original members, original instrumentation. The hardest part was convincing the older bands to play exactly as they did when they were teenagers.”

Thinking that extended jams and 20-minute bass solos would appeal to “the kids,” the bands of the ‘60’s were resistant to look completely backward. Asking a 45 year old to play like he did when he was 14,  though he has the chops to play a la Stevie Ray Vaughan, was daunting for the promoter, but when the groups found out what it entailed to garner a good payday, they understood. Major musical figures popped in: Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group, included. Kaye created the 1972 double album compilation of classic psychedelic era tracks, Nuggets, the holy text of the garage rock religion. Little Steven, a passionate follower of the music, appeared in the audience for the 1999 shows.

Could Cavestomp! work in the middle of rural Otsego County? “I’m sure if I began to market a May 2011 Cavestomp! now, I could sell 1,000 weekend passes worldwide.” Garage rock fetishists are as devoted to their brand of sound as the most effete opera fan is to theirs.

But you can’t book a huge theater with what you like alone and Weiss knows it. His hope is to have a live show every week featuring acts of national renown. The challenge is getting the renovated hall on the map for agents and artists. Jon Weiss can make it happen.

For years, the front of the marquee at The Oneonta Theatre was missing a letter: “One nta.”  The second “o” is back up, and people, that is “o”utstanding good news.

WEBSITES:

The Oneonta Theatre — http://www.oneontatheatre.com/

The Vipers — http://www.myspace.com/thevipersoutta39thenest

The Fleshtones — http://www.fleshtones.org/