hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

News & Issues September 2019

 

Exploring vinyl’s greatest grooves

Listening parties revisit classic works from the LP era

 

 

Chuck Vosganian cues up a vinyl copy of Billy Joel’s 1977 album “The Stranger” at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Vosganian’s monthly “listening parties” each focus on a different classic recording from the 1960s to the ‘80s, putting each work into its musical and cultural context. Joan K. Lentini photo

 

Chuck Vosganian cues up a vinyl copy of Billy Joel’s 1977 album “The Stranger” at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Vosganian’s monthly “listening parties” each focus on a different classic recording from the 1960s to the ‘80s, putting each work into its musical and cultural context. Joan K. Lentini photo

 

By STACEY MORRIS
Contributing writer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.


When Chuck Vosganian was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, vinyl was an ever-present part of his life.


It was the conduit to what his mother says he loved more than anything else: music.
Like many teenagers in the golden age of the LP, Vosganian spent hours in his formative years sitting between the stereo speakers in his parents’ living room, poring over album covers and listening to every note of the classic rock recordings of the era. He became an avid record collector.


And for the past three years, Vosganian has been rekindling the magic of that era for local audiences. His monthly “listening parties,” each focused on different album from the 1960s to the ‘80s, now regularly draw more than 100 people.


Vosganian, whom Caffe Lena describes as a “music savant,” sets the musical and cultural context for each featured album with photos, anecdotes and biographical information about the artists, as well as technical details about the recordings. And then everyone listens to the music.
The gatherings, organized under the name of Vosganian’s Rochmon Record Club, so far have covered works ranging from Carole King’s “Tapestry” to Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.”

 

Learning to listen
Though he now lives in Saratoga Springs, Vosganian grew up on Long Island. He was the born into a family of classical musicians. His mother was an opera singer, and his parents routinely attended concerts with their son in tow, even before he was born.


“My mother is fond of telling me that I would kick in rhythm to the music,” he recalled.
Vosganian didn’t follow his parents in pursuing a formal career in music, but his interest in it was far more than casual. He played percussion and guitar in the school band and later in a rock band. And he listened intensely.


He says he felt a stronger connection to music of the ’60s and ‘70s than did most of his peers, mainly because of the influence of his parents.


“They taught me how to listen to music,” Vosganian said. “I remember my mother sat me down at age 6 with the ‘Peter and the Wolf’ album. She explained the story, then said, ‘Now you’re going to hear the story.’”


It was an a-ha moment that cemented the depth of Vosganian’s relationship with music permanently. Listening intently to Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairytale, the young Vosganian discerned the sounds of each instrument, realizing how the tone and resonance of the oboe was different from the French horn -- and how each character had a different musical theme.
“Peter had a theme; the hunter had a theme,” he recalled. “I could hear the story through the instruments. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it fascinated me.”

 

A record club is born
Vosganian likes to joke that, contrary to his parents’ best intentions, he opted for a career in sales and marketing. But after his children Brad, Alyssa and Mateo were grown, Vosganian remarried, and his wife, Karen Garner, encouraged him to reconnect with his passion.
His original idea was to do a podcast that involved playing a record album from start to finish, interspersed with liberal amounts of nostalgia and trivia. When complications related to the requirement for royalty payments ensued, Vosganian decided to form an in-person listening club instead.


He was already familiar with Universal Preservation Hall, the former church turned performance space on Washington Street, from doing sound engineering for some of the hall’s events. So he asked Teddy Foster, the hall’s campaign director, if he could hold a small gathering there on a weeknight.


“Chuck’s a great guy, and I told him, ‘Absolutely,’” Foster recalled, adding that she didn’t charge him for use of the hall’s community room.


“About eight people showed that first night in the fall of 2016,” Foster said. “There was no admission, but there was a drum near the door for donations.”


And so began the inaugural evening of what became known as the Rochmon Record Club Listening Party, named after Vosganian’s old AOL handle.


The subject that evening was Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which Vosganian considers “one of the best records ever recorded.” The evening included a preamble with some history (the album’s title came from an English barroom song), followed by a power-point slide presentation and the playing of the album.


“It was a real grassroots effort,” Vosganian recalled. “I brought coffee from Uncommon Grounds and cookies that were on sale at Price Chopper. Turnout was small, but I had a blast.”
That intense feeling of satisfaction fueled Vosganian’s vision of making the listening party an ongoing event, held on the third Tuesday of every month.


“In the beginning I thought there would be mostly men, but from the start, it was a mix, and of all ages, who attended the listening party,” Foster said. “Each month there were more people showing up.”


The listening party continued with monthly gatherings at the Universal Preservation Hall for eight months, until renovations to the building began. By that time, a loyal following had solidified, and Vosganian was in need of a temporary venue.


“Sarah Craig of Caffe Lena heard about it and offered their space on Tuesday evenings when the cafe is dark,” Foster said. “So it became a presentation of the Universal Preservation Hall at Caffe Lena.”


The Rochmon Record Club will return to Universal Preservation Hall after the hall’s $10 million restoration project is completed in February. Until then, Vosganian holds court at Caffe Lena on the third Tuesday of the month.

 

Setting the stage for music
Last month’s listening party featured Billy Joel’s 1977 album “The Stranger.” Though the doors were scheduled to open at 6:30 p.m., there was already a crowd gathered outside Caffe Lena’s Phila Street entrance at 6:15 p.m.


“We usually sell out completely at Caffe Lena,” Vosganian said.
The venue holds 110 people. By the 7 p.m. start time, the room was filled to capacity, with a sheet of trivia questions, for the contest held at intermission, on each table.


As the lights dimmed, Vosganian sat captain-like at the front of the room, seated at his “command central,” with two laptops, an iPad and a printed script. At his side was his daughter Alyssa, who helped throughout the show. After rolling the club’s introductory theme song, he welcomed the audience to the listening party and began by recalling his whereabouts in the fall of 1977 -- working at a deli and playing in a band in East Moriches on Long Island -- when “The Stranger” was released.


Accompanying his description of the album was image after image from an exhaustively curated slide show -- of Joel, previous album covers, his musicians, producer Phil Ramone, and even a boa-wearing Elton John, to whom Joel was often compared in the early stages of his career.
Before playing “The Stranger,” Vosganian set the album in the context of Joel’s life, describing Joel’s frustration with producers wanting to mold him into the American version of Elton John. He recounted how Joel was slated to record “The Stranger” in London, under the direction of Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin, but rebelled against the industry’s wishes and went with Phil Ramone as the producer instead.


A New Yorker to the core, Joel went on to collaborate with the famed producer at Ramone’s A&R Studios in Manhattan on four more albums, including “Glass Houses” and “An Innocent Man.”
To make the immersion into 1977 complete, Vosganian ended the preamble with a montage of Reggie Jackson hitting three home runs at the World Series that year. When the slugger emerged from the dugout to take a final bow for the cheering crowd at Yankee Stadium, the audience at Caffe Lena burst into enthusiastic applause as well.


“I learned over a period of time how to dial a show in a particular way, the rhythm of it, which elements should be included,” Vosganian said. “And I listen to ideas. Someone suggested I put lyrics up on the screen, so I did. Another suggestion was to focus more on album covers, so I did that too.”


He credits the influence of his formative years as well for the depth and breadth of his presentation of classic albums at his listening parties.


“My parents taught me that a record is a complete work of art,” Vosganian said. “If you take everything out of the Mona Lisa but the smile, the smile alone is terrible. The album needs to be viewed and listened to as a whole.”


But it’s while the album is actually playing, he said, that the magic happens. Audience members sit in silence, some tapping fingers on the table, others slightly swaying their heads to melodies they may not have heard in years.


“The audience is extremely respectful during the listening portion,” he said. “They’re really there to listen and have the experience.


“But singing along is inevitable,” he added with a laugh. “My catchphrase is: We listen to the album together for the first time. It takes people back. Everybody goes to that place where they were when they first heard the album. For me it was that sweet spot on my parents’ couch right between the stereo speakers, staring at the album cover while listening.”

 

Shared experience
Before each song begins, Vosganian offers a bit of production trivia. So before playing “Just the Way You Are,” he explained that in spite of the intricate layering of samba rhythms by percussionist and arranger Ralph MacDonald, Joel felt the song wasn’t a fit with the rest of the album.


“He thought it was destined to be a sappy wedding song and didn’t want it on the album,” Vosganian said.


Sensing a smash hit on his hands, a quick-thinking Ramone summoned Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, who both were working on albums in nearby rooms at the recording studio. The two singers took one listen and told Joel he’d be crazy to omit it.


As his presentation of “The Stranger” progressed, it was clear Vosganian was enjoying the experience as much as his audience, nodding to the rhythms and smiling at certain lyrical passages.


“I never do an album I don’t love,” he said. “There’s a lot of laughter throughout a listening party, but sometimes people cry. Music is not doing its job if it’s not evoking an emotional response.”
Vosganian points to other intangibles he feels are responsible for the success of the listening parties, including the concrete reality of sharing an experience in the same room, something he discovered music lovers crave.


“Music used to be a physical thing, and now it’s in the ethers, much like newspapers,” he said. “People come up to me afterward and say it’s the first time in decades they’ve listened to an album in its entirety.”


He focuses mostly on albums from the 1960s through the ‘80s.
“I stay away from new music simply because it’s so base-heavy,” Vosganian explained. “Vinyl albums are not base-heavy for a very practical reason: too much base would cause the needle to literally jump out of the groove.”

 

‘A labor of love’
The Rochmon Record Club Listening Party has become so popular that Vosganian has added a second event at WAMC’s performance space, The Linda, in Albany, usually on the final Thursday of the month. (Because of Halloween and Thanksgiving, these listening parties will be held on the third Thursday in October and November.) He also offers listening parties every four months at Proctors’ GE Theater in Schenectady.


In recent months, Alyssa has become a major collaborator with her father, helping before and during the shows.


“I love getting to do this with her,” Vosganian said. “Alyssa grew up listening to this music. She’s my official button-pusher during the shows and also helps with lyrics.”


This month, Alyssa will do her first solo Rochmon Record Club Listening Party, on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at Caffe Lena, showcasing Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill.”


Part of the reason for Alyssa’s taking the reins this month is that Chuck and Karen will be in London for research on the October presentation of “Abbey Road,” the Beatles’ 11th studio album and the last one they recorded together. (This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the album’s release.)


“It’s really become a family thing,” Vosganian said. “Karen is a great sounding board and keeps me on task. She always gives me feedback after a show.”


Though traveling abroad may seem like overkill for research for a record-listening club, Vosganian said it’s all interwoven into the passion that drives each monthly event.
“I spend 80 to 100 hours of preparation for a show,” he said. “I like to make the listening parties entertaining to myself. As a musician, I had to work very, very hard to be moderately good. I love the aspect of practice, and that’s what I bring to Rochmon; I practice each show to make better, and it’s an absolute pleasure.


“I dearly love that people come out to participate, but the truth is, it’s a labor of love,” he added. “When I tell the audience that it’s going to be a great show, it’s because I have so much fun doing it.”


The Rochmon Record Club currently has more than 500 followers on Facebook and the number of new listeners continues to grow.


“The hours Chuck puts into each show is mind-blowing,” Foster said. “He does it because he loves it, and he grooves on how the audience reacts to it. The listening parties have become a phenomenon.”

 

Admission to Rochmon Record Club Listening Parties is $10. Visit www.facebook.com/RochmonRecordClub/ for more information.