Choosing Tunes over Winter Blues: Reigniting the off-season music scene

Carolyn Doctorow plays the Wamponamon Masonic Music Series in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

In the dead of winter, there is a movement afoot — a fight against the frigid temperatures, bone-chilling winds and overwhelming urge to stay inside, curled up in front of the fireplace until spring.

And leading it are musicians.

From weekly jazz jams at the Southampton Publick House and the Wamponamon Masonic Music Series in Sag Harbor to the annual Cabin Fever Music Festival — which spans across the East End and beyond — local talent have sparked a burgeoning winter music scene that, while on the rise, can usually be found only  by those actively seeking it.

“I would say it’s sporadic,” said Donald Sullivan, owner of the Southampton Publick House. “While there are local festivals, the amount of places hosting live music regularly is very few — and with 230 Elm now closed, even less places. The idea of just walking into a place and finding live music is not realistic on the East End. You would think it would be more prevalent, but it’s not, as most places discontinue their programming once the off-season sets in.”

The live music scene on Long Island, as a whole, used to be a thing of the past — peaking in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then sharply falling off, according to musician Brendon Henry.

“It went dead,” he recalled. “There was nothing going on in the winter, ever. Every place was empty.”

Cabin Fever Music Festival organizers Brendon Henry, Steve Frankenbach, and John Holub.

Together with Seth Farrell and Paul Fallo, Henry conceived the idea for the Cabin Fever Music Festival, featuring a slew of live music during the coldest and shortest winter month — February — at restaurants across the East End, bolstering exposure and business for not only the bands, but also the venues themselves.

Over the last 13 years, what began as nine bands in three venues has grown to 30 bands in 11 venues, each playing 30- to 40-minute sets — from folk, hip-hop and rock to alternative, punk, rockabilly and bluegrass.

Now cultivated by Henry and his current partners, Steve Frankenbach and John Holub, the bands range from crowd favorites that have played every year — Project Vibe and Henry’s band, Haunted Hacienda, to name a couple — to fresh talent.

This year, 11 of the bands are new to Cabin Fever, including Mike Meehan and the Lucky Ones, The Pilot Program, Ellis Melillo, and The Ice Cold Killers.

“It’s a little bit hectic, but we’re very happy with the way it’s going,” Henry said of the festival with a laugh. “Cabin Fever’s older than my kids. I have a son who’s about to turn 8, and a son who’s 18 months, and it’s strange to me that I have a music festival older than my children.”

Project Vibe performing at Stephen Talkhouse.

To the founder’s knowledge, Cabin Fever reigns as the oldest and longest-running music festival now on the East End — and the $5 cover hasn’t changed since its inception.

“I’ve seen a rise, in the last five or six years, of live music. The East End of Long Island was so DJ-based for so long at restaurants and bars, and there’s really been a switch to live music. It’s come back into style,” Henry said. “We promote original music, so when we do these shows, we encourage artists to play original music, and the crowd wants to come see original music, rather than go see a tribute band or cover band. We want artists to be able to show their art.”

Also a champion of original music, one of the newer East End winter music series beats on for its third year above the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, from inside the Wamponamon Lodge — home of the Free and Accepted Masons, and chartered by the Grand Lodge of New York in 1858.

Before the Wamponamon Masonic Music Series — which presents singer-songwriters every weekend — the chance to enter the brotherhood’s sanctuary was a rarity, according to organizer Anthony Lombardo.

“We’ve had a lot of people come who are taken aback by the inside of the building,” he said. “In our main lodge room, where we have our meetings, there’s a beautiful mural over the one end of the room where the performers are, and you feel like you’re in a living room and they’re singing to you. It’s a small room. If we have a crowded show, it’s maybe 40, 50 people. Most shows, it’s a dozen to two dozen people, so you really have that intimate feeling that the person is singing to you.”

From one songwriter with a guitar to a band of six with electric instruments and fog machines, the music series aims to bring all talent to the fore — which was the ultimate goal of founder Bob Beres — though the festival has quadrupled in size since its first iteration.

“He unfortunately passed away a year ago,” Lombardo said. “And we’ve kept it going because it was something that we enjoy doing and people felt there was a need for it. After the second year, people started coming to us saying, ‘When can I play there?’ I was getting emails almost daily. Bob had a sense it would grow, but I don’t think he saw it the same way that it is now.”

Yoga Pants live at Swell Taco Patchogue.

Part of the budding scene is the Thursday Night Blues Jam at the Southampton Publick House, a jazz night dating back to 2018 that showcases some of the East End’s best players, including the house band, George Howard and the Moderators — which, after performing for about a half hour, welcomes vocalists, drummers, bassists, guitarists and more to sit in with them.

“Sometimes, we will have entire groups form on the spot, as many of the area musicians are well experienced to play with one another in various projects year-round,” Howard said. “It is always fresh, improvisational and performers are all playing at a high level. Even when unseasoned musicians sit in, there is a support system musically, which elevates the evening to a high level of musicianship.”

The act of performing, listening to and supporting music together creates a sense of community, the organizers agreed, as well as a connection between the musicians and the audiences. And while they may be smaller in size, they make up for it with enthusiasm, Lombardo said.

“I think the winter music scene is a lot more vibrant than people realize,” he said. “I think people think of the winter as this sleepy time where people stay in. And there’s all these great musicians playing all over, all the time.”