Kingston Son: Adam Snyder Gets His Due

In most small cities across America, the opening of a new franchised coffee bar would be greeted by caffeine-stifled yawns of over-familiarity. But then most small cities across America aren’t struggling to the extent that a local singer-songwriter need name his new album This Town Will Get Its Due. Welcome then, to Kingston, New York, where last Friday saw a sizeable crowd – apparently starved for such regular entertainment – celebrate the opening of Muddy Cup café on Broadway with a three-act bill headlined by the city’s musical booster, Adam Snyder.

Kingston’s a conflicted city. It is known as the “breadbasket of the Revolution” for its support of George Washington’s troops. John Jay and other leading patriots met there to declare New York a sovereign state and Kingston its capital in 1777, prompting the British, in true janjaweed style, to burn down the entire city. (They spared one house, presumably to prove a point.) The residents moved back in the wake of Britain’s subsequent defeats and rebuilt their homes with local stone; many still stand, as some of the USA’s oldest and most attractive landmark houses. Clearly, then, Kingston has history to rival anywhere in America.

Kingston was the first capital of New York State. Its importance during the Revolution is firmly stated in the Historical District.

It also has natural beauty. The city of 30,000 overlooks the Catskill Mountains, but weekend traffic has a habit of turning due west at the roundabout on Exit 19, rarely coming closer to the town itself than the miles of strip malls that run up Route 9W – from which, it must be said, the view of the nearby mountains makes the drudgery of big box shopping eminently bearable.

The town of Woodstock, packed with musical and artistic celebrities, is less than ten miles away but, the occasional concert at the lovely UPAC and the permanent presence of adopted sons Mercury Rev aside, Kingston lacks the thriving music scene one would associate with its location. Its school district also borders Woodstock, with at least one of its elementary schools in an upscale rural neighborhood, but the high school makes headlines primarily for gang problems and violence. The races don’t mix as they do these days in big cities like my former home of Brooklyn; the only black face I saw inside the Muddy Cup’s opening night crowd of several hundred was that of DJ Lemar Soulflower.

Kingston’s median income is far below the national average, and during our house-hunting phase in 2005, a call to the School District elicited absolute surprise that anyone would consider moving from New York City to join its rolls. (We didn’t.) The Stockade District shops include such unique outlets as blues-and-hats store Blue-Byrds and the music, theater and dance venue Backstage Studio Productions, and hosts a Saturday farmers market, but I’ve never seen it bustling like it should be. And though Kingston takes part in the Art Along The Hudson walks that rotate with down-river neighbors Beacon, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, Muddy Cup opened branches in two of those cities, plus the towns of Hudson, Catskill and even Staten Island, before bringing a caffeine injection to Kingston itself.

Uptown Kingston old and new. The city has been teetering on the brink of revival for a decade or more.

Just about all these points are addressed by Adam Snyder on the briskly-paced blues of his new album’s opening song. ‘Ghost Town’ – an unfortunate choice of title for Specials fans – references Kingston’s burning, its 19th Century canals, its Irish laborers and German breweries, the boom days when IBM made Kingston its home and its subsequent demise when the company shed 6000 jobs and moved south, and concludes with the city elders’ current excitement at a regeneration “like their pictures in their magazines.” It does all this without ever actually naming its subjects, a feat it shares with ‘My City Of Ruins,’ Bruce Springsteen’s ode to his own hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey. The best songs are always universal.

Watching Snyder conclude his disarmingly brief and confidently conducted one-man show on Friday with ‘Ghost Town,’ it was impossible to ignore the presence of Springsteen and a rich tapestry of topical American singer-songwriters that runs back through Dylan, Guthrie and Seeger. It was also hard not to think of Billy Bragg, though Snyder has by far the better voice: there are moments on This Town Will Get Its Due where he sounds closer to Aaron Neville than to any working-class punk bard.

Snyder lived in Kingston from the age of 12, and has returned to the city after stints in Syracuse and Memphis; he spent five years in Mercury Rev, contributing to the 1998 classic Deserters Songs, and has toured in both the Waterboys and New Order. His first solo album Across The Pond was released on David Gray’s HTI Records in 2002 and apparently scored a top 40 hit in the UK. (This Town Will Get Its Due, despite its subject matter, was recorded in Chelsea, London.) It’s an impressive CV, but as a singer-songwriter the far side of his 40th birthday, it’s hard to imagine global fame and fortune suddenly descending his way.

Adam Snyder performing at the Muddy Cup cafe, Kingston, February 9.

Not that he should care: Snyder seems content with acting local, anyway. He founded the ambitiously-named Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art, and a glowing profile in the latest Chronogram magazine lauds him as “a tireless crusader for the former state capital, especially on issues related to sensible development and sustainability.” During his set at the Muddy Cup, he praised the preservation of the café’s master space, the Millard Building, pointing across the Broadway intersection to where once stood other old buildings that were either knocked or burned down to make way for gas stations and fast food restaurants.

A man of reason as well as action, Snyder sings not about answers blowing in the wind, but about how the winds of change affect the average Joe. The superbly haunting ‘Down The River’ finds him singing of a wasted barfly’s life spent on “thirty-dollar whores,” while on ‘Snake Hill,’ he considers 21st Century residential development from the perspective of a 19th Century Irish kid. Other songs are less successful. ‘Trickle Down’ finds him adopting the (admittedly soulful) voice of the minimum-wage immigrant to clichés of continued slavery, though the heavy handedness is offset by a final line about how “the wealth of nations always trickles up.” And the singalong chorus and arrangements of the title track are too much like ‘Kum Ba Yah’ – or Springsteen’s recently cloying cover of ‘We Shall Overcome’ – for comfort.

But thanks in large part to ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Down The River,’ This Town Will Get Its Due is a far better album than you might think it has right to be. It may well come to be remembered as a landmark of its own, defining Kinston’s last moment of communal despondency before the city’s inevitable launch onto the Hudson River Valley regeneration train. And Snyder? He’s part and parcel of the city’s past, present and future, its musical laureate. Kingston is fortunate to have him.

This Town Will Get Its Due is about Kingston but it’s also about every town of its type. Snyder avoids naming Kingston specifically. The painting on the cover, deliberately anonymous in its locale, is by Lynn Woods.

Hear songs, view a video interview, and read the Chronogram profile on Adam Snyder here
Adam Snyder myspace here
Buy This Town Will Get Its Due here

BEER? He may own an art gallery, and the Hudson Valley is home to several decent vineyards, but Adam Snyder sings of barflys and breweries, not wine bars and fancy restaurants. Keegan Ales provide the obvious companion. The Kingston brewery is a good local citizen, at least to runners like me, for whom it often supplies free post-race beer; it was no surprise to see a keg or two of the stuff prying attention away from Muddy Cup’s coffee last Friday. The Mother’s Milk stout is Keegan’s most celebrated beer, and though I generally lean towards their Hurricane Kitty IPA, Old Capital Lager – named for Kingston’s former glory – seems the most appropriate under the circumstances.

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