October 24, 2010

The Waterhole turns 40

Contributing Writer

SARANAC LAKE — Chilled bodies light shaky cigarettes. Mouths mumble in unison over the recent arrival of the fall foliage season.

The Adirondacks can be a cold and isolated place, especially during this time of year. But, with the right kind of music, and maybe a shot of bourbon, one can get rejuvenated quite easily in the unparalleled beauty of the north woods.

Halfway finishing their tobacco fix, several musty characters meander back into The Waterhole — a well-known Upstate New York music venue equipped with rowdy locals and agreeable drink prices in downtown Saranac Lake.

And tonight, the raucous crowd came together in celebration of the establishment's 40th anniversary "Waterhoe.down," which showcased three mainstays of the venue — bluegrass rebels Hot Day at the Zoo, blues rockers Lucid and Tim Herron Corporation.

It seems "40" is by far more than just a number to those who inhabit these hallowed grounds. It's a testament to a unique place to all, a special place to many and a sacred place to a lucky few.

"It's unlike any other bar, it's got an old soul. Some consider it a way of life," said Manager Brandon Devito. "It's where locals, tourists, bikers, music lovers, artists, outdoor enthusiasts and politicians can all meet and can coexist peacefully.

"It's one of the few places a complete stranger can get a hearty welcome and have a good night. Someone can come to town, find a job and an apartment over a beer. Even before I worked here, I felt this place was special."

The scent of cigarettes, spilled beer and bratwurst (from the nearby hot-dog cart) wafts throughout the cathedral-shaped room. Jovial arms flail into the sky. Sweat drips from foreheads. Endless smiles are greeted by other friendly grins and smirks.

"I knew you'd be here, I just knew it," overzealous individuals shout as they embrace other comrades throughout the evening. "Let me buy you a drink. How have you been, brother—"

Clocking in around 12 hours worth of music, the stage never went empty. The people never stopped dancing.

A string-fling of sorts, Hot Day at the Zoo (who recorded their acclaimed live album "Zoograss" at The Waterhole in 2009) interpreted The Rolling Stones ("No Expectations") and Jimi Hendrix ("Foxy Lady") among innumerable originals, in their own backwoods hootenanny fashion.

"I did an interview once about a show we played here, and I ended up telling the guy that 'Phish had Nectar's (in Burlington, Vt.), we got The Waterhole,'" said Jon Cumming, banjoist for Hot Day at the Zoo. "This place has been our home away from home, literally and figuratively. Brenda (Stringer, owner), Brandon and the rest of the staff treat us like family. The audience is one of the most appreciative, fun crowds to play for.

"When we recorded our live album here, it was not because of the quality of our performance that night, it was because of what the crowd that night was putting out. I'll never forget the level of sincere enthusiasm they were throwing at us. We always look forward to returning."

Soon, it was past midnight. Lucid was well-immersed in their set, which continued until last call at 2:20 a.m. Collaborations ("Bad Habit") surfaced between the Plattsburgh sextet and their road-warrior counterparts in Hot Day at the Zoo (guitarist Michael Dion and mandolinist J.T. Lawrence).

The moment was pure, one that seamlessly swirls throughout the building, remaining well after car engines have been started and people scatter into the crisp, North Country night.

"To me, it's one of the last 'real' venues left. It's where we feel at home," said Lowell Wurster, percussionist for Lucid. "At the end of the night, no matter how cold it is up in the mountains, it's going to feel like a steam room in there, and the floor is going to be covered in beer.

"It's just the way life is lived up here, and we love it."

The musical heart of the Adirondacks, The Waterhole continues to beat loudly and proudly as the melodies echo off the ancient rock that the souls of people here peacefully reside upon — show after show, season after season.