The Critical Mass

Bassist Brian Williams tries to interpret a lyrics sheet as drummer Marty York looks for his drink during rehearsals for “How Did We Get Here?”

“How Did We Get Here?” gets to the big stage

What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song? It’s gone from an amusing, backroom challenge among a handful of local singer-songwriters at the Flipside Bar and Grill’s open mic night to sold-out shows at the Fringe Festival to, this Saturday, the big stage at Hochstein Performance Hall. Eighteen local musicians presenting their versions of this year’s challenge title: “How Did We Get Here?”

Two years ago the challenge was “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart,” a Fringe Fest sell-out at Bernunzio Uptown Music. Last year’s song, “You’ll Thank Me Later,” sold out two nights at Bernunzio. As Dick Storms closed out the second of those shows, his fellow performers stormed the aisle and danced to his gospel shouts. At that point, as much as everyone loved the intimacy of the Bernunzio shows, it seemed the next step was to try a larger venue.

I’ve heard about eight of this year’s songs. They’re wildly diverse and – not unexpected for a city stocked with talent – stunningly executed. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal, a few of the musicians were running through their creations one last time. Storms’ Eastern European apocalyptic warning. The Cole Porter stylings of Paul Nunes, amusing musings from Kerry Regan, the austere imagery of Lisa Winter. Scott Regan, the host of “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5) is one of a handful of musicians returning for the third time, with perhaps the most-stylistically surprising effort: A rumination on vehicles that is part Beat Generation spoken word, part high school driver-education film.

This thing started in the basement of Jeff Riales, who’s probably the best songwriter in the city. Scott Regan was nosing around down there when he spotted a line in one of Riales’ notebooks. Riales said he’d never finished the song, and told Regan he could have “Don’t go drinkin’ on an empty heart.” So Regan wrote the first one, which he presented one night at the Flipside. After nearly two-dozen local songwriters had picked up the challenge, Sarah Long Hendershot took notice. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, her band The Jane Mutiny has a show Friday at The Little Café and a guest-filled, post-Thanksgiving Black Friday there on Nov. 24. She correctly figured there were enough strong versions of “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart” for a show; She’s now organized three of these annual events. They sometimes include her own version of the challenge song (Riales even finished his “Don’t Go Drinking on an Empty Heart” for that first one), and a running storyline throughout the show, with this year’s host local comedian/actor Michael Kolden. Who I’m told was once in a play about eating underwear, so he’s perfect.

Saturday’s list of performers features familiar faces such as Connie Deming, Kraszman & Fishwife, Anonymous Willpower, Fred Vine, Maria Gillard and Greg Hassett, who was a part of last year’s house band, but is stepping to the front of the stage with his own song. The house band this year includes the scene-omnipresent Brian Williams on bass. The band is also drummer Marty York and guitarist Steve Piper, part of the night’s clean sweep of members of Watkins & the Rapiers: The two Regans, Rick McRae backing a couple of songs on trombone and accordion and Tom Whitmore, yet another singer-songwriter who’s taken on the challenge for the third time.

Along with the WIEIRWTSS veterans, I heard new voices at Tuesday’s rehearsal. Chris Bond – Scott Regan compared his song to Tony Joe White. Kevin Reed – a 17-year-old guitarist whose version was like a lost Wilco track. And Madeleine McQueen, a mere 21 years old, but with the biggest voice in the room. Like a few of the songwriters, she interpreted “How Did We Get Here?” as an invitation to comment on today’s political atmosphere: “The only light in the house is from the TV,” a metaphor for an isolated president whose only connection to the world is watching Fox News.

And there are a few musicians I have yet to hear: Phil Broikos, Mike Muscarella and Bob Bunce and Rural Delivery.

Another three-time performer is Martha O’Connor. Once again O’Connor’s much-needed, untethered spirit will join me onstage. An odd place for a guy who has never performed until well past mid-life crisis, but I’ve managed to crawl under the chicken wire and get into this event each time. My songwriting career now spans 3½ songs, although they’re not really songs. They’re spoken-word pieces. Stories. And this year, my goal was simple: I was going to write one where none of the characters gets killed.

That was harder than I expected.

The show starts at 7 p.m. and is $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, tickets available at Record Archive, Bop Shop and brownpapertickets.com.

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