At the monthly Sub Rosa sessions, music lovers experience an intimate venue with impeccable sound and no distractions.
Tas Cru, a sentimental bluesman with a goatee, ponytail, and an acoustic Gibson guitar, and Mary Ann Casale, a folk singer and lyricist, sauntered up the narrow aisle. They stopped along the way, waving to friendly faces and saying quick hellos as they took their positions at the front of the room. Cru and Casale glanced at each other. “Well Mary Ann, here we are. Back in the studio again,” Cru said to the diverse audience of 25. He and Casale have spent a lot of time together during the past two years, playing on one another’s albums and recording at SubCat Studios downtown, the evening’s venue.
Studio A, SubCat’s largest professional, industry standard recording studio, transforms at night into an intimate concert venue. On this night, fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, and individual fans strolled in for the opportunity to sit just a few feet away from the artists. The dimly lit room popped with blooming bouquets of red, white, and pink flowers. Positioned in front of the makeshift chiffon curtain backdrop were two stools, three guitars, and four mics. Cru and Casale tested their instruments.Finally, the 27 monthly Sub Rosa session was ready to begin.
The live-recorded music series started back in 2014 after Amanda Rogers, a national touring artist, realized the lack of sound-friendly venues in the Syracuse area. “There wasn’t a whole lot of support for original music. I’m kind of a nervous person as it is and I’ve played big stages and small stages. I know what makes me comfortable (as an artist) is a place that has good sound and a lot of hospitality — not stuff, but kindness, appreciation, and respect,” Rogers says.
Rogers has toured in major cities around the U.S. and in Europe, where she’s played large halls and smaller “living room” concerts. She came up with the concept of Sub Rosa by meshing all of her favorite personal experiences: small room, cozy setting, good sound, food and wine for the audience, and a hot meal backstage for the bands.
After Rogers sketched up the concept, she approached SubCat staff members, like studio manager Jon Lessels, to see if she could use their newly renovated space. The result was a match made in concert heaven.
“We sit 30 chairs in the studio. You-to-me with the artists. It’s a beautiful acoustically treated room, so it’s almost like having a pair of headphones on listening to a record, but you’re sitting there watching the concert with no distractions. Everybody is hanging on every single note. It’s a great musical experience,” says Lessels.
In addition to a fun night out, the $20 ticket provides a CD of the live-recorded session. During the performance, SubCat sound engineers are sitting in the control room just beyond the thick glass panes and recording the artists. When the show is over, the staff go downstairs to the duplication room and press the CDs while the guests drink wine and eat light snacks with the performers. Twenty minutes later and everyone leaves with their own copy of the show. Claire Wilcox, a recent Syracuse graduate, came to see Cru and Casale with her boyfriend Michael Ahearn. She heard about the sessions through Ahern, who used to intern for SubCat. “You get to be more a part of the experience because you are actually sitting there listening, you feel like you’re more active. Not to mention, we get a recording afterwards, which like never happens,” Wilcox says.
Rogers usually pairs one local band and one national touring band for the Sub Rosa series. Though sometimes, like Cru and Casale, she features two locals. She likes to support the city.
And she has. Since starting Sub Rosa, Rogers says she noticed a shift in the Syracuse music scene. Whereas before there were hardly any venues for local songwriters to play at, now places like Funk n’ Waffles and Otro Cinco follow the Sub Rosa format, hosting music sessions of mostly original artists nearly everyday. “There was a real need and want for a venue like this, but for a while nobody had the vision. Most people didn’t think the overall music scene was strong. Now, there is a paradigm shift going on in this city towards embracing all styles of music– not just cover bands at bars,” Lessels says.
Rogers credits the community support and positive feedback of Sub Rosa with inspiring other local venues to embrace the music series concept. “People realized: oh, yeah. There are talented artists in the area. We should support them and do more kinds of events for them,” she says. In the broader context, Sub Rosa sessions have changed the way the city of Syracuse is perceived on the national, even international, stage. As much as Rogers likes to support the local scene, she knows how important it is to keep it fresh. This can only happen by bringing in voices from all over the world. “We feed the artists, pay them, have them play in a beautiful venue, a clean, cool environment full of positivity and creativity–so they go back on the road and tell other artists about their amazing experience,” Lessels says.
Artists now see the advantage of stopping by Syracuse on their touring route. Rogers says she receives emails from interested musicians explaining that they’ve heard a lot about the sessions from their friends who played Sub Rosa. She’s already booked through the summer. “A lot of the artists I pick are not showy, flashy social media artists. They’re artists that I really love their sound and what they stand for. They’re good people. They’re songwriters and I think anything that can help them network to keep pursuing and going with their goals and passions helps a lot,” Rogers says.
A few artist collabs even generated from the sessions. Rogers introduced Hannah and Meghan Yates and the Reverie Machine. The two performers have played shows together since. When Good Kids came to Sub Rosa, they ended up staying to play on Rogers’ record because of how well the session went. “If you’re a musician and you didn’t know about SubCat Studios before today, glad that we could help you get to know it because this is a very cool place. It’s very happening,” Cru says wrapping up the performance. “If you’re a music fan, thank you for coming out and hanging here. This is where musicians do their work and it’s a great place, great facility. Everybody here is wonderful and treats you great.”
The music and emotions of the artists carry through the room, resonating with impeccable sound. Audience members hold their loved ones a little tighter, swaying with strums of the guitar. Cru turns the mic over to the crowd. “Sing with us, c’mon,” he says.
I see my light come shining.
From the West down to the East.
Any day now, any day now.
I shall be released.
Any day now, any day now.
I shall be released.