First Night Binghamton was missing some things this year. Several of our favorite entertainment groups were absent, such as Bronzissimo! select handbell choir, Svitanya (an Eastern European women’s ensemble from Philadelphia) and — horrors! — Cobblestone Crossing wasn’t at the firehouse to give us our hootenanny fix. The number of classical music choices was less than half of last year. Then there was the parade, so desperately short of merry-makers (this, too, a sign of the economy?) that fewer than 50 of the 300 puppets in Southern Tier Celebrates!’ collection made the trip down Court Street. And is it a parade without a fire engine?
The turnout? We remember when you came early, so you didn’t have to stand six deep in the crowd to watch. No problem this year – no crowd, unless they were all at the starting point. The early snow had been cleared, and, though snow later in the evening made things slippery, the early evening was mercifully mild (compared with two years ago or the first First Night in 1996!).
Nevertheless, for those who came, there were a number of good artists and activities to enjoy, including plenty for the kids.
We watched a group called Iceography from Oneonta begin ice sculptures at the Broome County Courthouse. Ice chips and shavings flew from chain saws, Dremel tools and hand gouges; a propane torch put on a smooth transparent finish. We stopped back later to see the end result – some three-foot high fish, an eagle in flight and a harp.
We didn’t get to sing “Tom Dooley” or “The Man Who Never Returned” (the Boston MTA song) or “Goodnight Irene” this year, but the eventually-standing-room-only audience at the firehouse was well pleased with the Basin Street Dixieland Jazz Band. Apart from the keyboard and the harmonica, these guys could have (and should have) played unplugged. My ears hurt and were ringing when we left, and we had sat in the back. Now the firehouse is an unpredictable venue (yes, we all remember the safety instructions — “in case of fire …[chuckle], exit by the BIG OVERHEAD DOORS BEHIND YOU”), so when the alarm tone went off at the end of one song, I wasn’t sure if it was for a fire call or because of the absolutely smokin’ clarinet. My favorite instrument was the metal washboard, worn like an armor breastplate and played with soup spoons. A bouncing, ragtime honky-tonk piano solo certainly kept things hoppin’.
Several groups’ performances were marred by poor sound work by technicians who seemed to believe sound output should be measured not by the decibel scale but by the Richter scale. (We’re sure the Burns Sisters and One World Tribe had no problem, though, knowing their sound man.) Only about three dozen people came to hear the second set of Certified Soul, and we left soon after they began. Beneath the booming bass there might have been a nice duo (but leave the drumstick twirling to a high school marching band).
We made it to City Hall Gallery in time for the start of Binghamton High School’s Steel Drum Band. This is an amazingly talented bunch of kids, most of whom play at least one other instrument, some as many as FIVE others, and in different instrument families. Joel Smales started the group 10 years ago, and in 2003 the band released its first CD with original music composed by Smales and his students. Two more CDs have followed.
The steel drum concept came out of post-World War II Trinidad, where during a period of civil unrest, traditional drumming was outlawed. Not to be denied, resourceful people found junkyard parts (auto brake drums, etc.) to beat on. (Ah, yes, it brings back memories of my mid-’60s undergraduate years at SUNY Buffalo, where John Cage Associates played flower pots and automobile valve stems in the music room adjoining our radio station!) As old pans and lids became distorted by the pounding, people discovered the surfaces had different pitches in different places, depending on how they had been bent.
The Steel Drum Band members still refers to their instruments as “pans.” They call the bass drums “oil drums,” and when you see one, it actually is a 55-gallon drum. Except these tuned heads probably cost a lot more than $75 or $80 a barrel, Steel drums give Christmas and holiday songs quite a bit different sound … and “Auld Lang Syne” is a real trip with a Caribbean rhythm!
Back at City Hall , in the council chambers, SRO Productions performed to a nearly full gallery. It wasn’t drama scenes, as we expected from the photo in the program, but vocals from current Broadway musicals. Hampered by a befuddled sound technician and LED stage lights that flickered like old-fashioned carbon-arc spotlights (or was that an intended effect?), troupe members carried on with the show and offered a variety of solo, duet and ensemble pieces, some with choreography. It was a good revue showcasing many young talents.
One of the frustrations of First Night is not being able to clone yourself to be in several places at once, so there are always many good groups you miss seeing or hearing. We didn’t stay for the bonfire and fireworks, though people were arriving at the Collier Street ramp even as we were leaving.
In many parts of the United States, where it once was celebrated, First Night has disappeared. Some of our distant contacts are surprised to hear we still have one in Binghamton. It’s a wholesome, fun experience for all ages, and the police and security folks deserve credit for making it a safe and orderly event. First Night is a great time to sample lots of different entertainment. Though disappointed by this year’s turnout, we hope this local tradition, like so many others such as the Spiedie Fest, will not just survive but thrive.