Editor’s Note: Mike Powell is a singer-songwriter from Central New York. In addition to his work as a solo artist, he also leads the soulful rock band The Black River. Powell and fellow CNY singer-songwriter Chris Merkley are embarking on a four-show Original Gravity mini-tour of microbreweries across the state searching for the connection between songwriting and brewing.
This is the first of a four-part NYS Music series contributed by Powell. Additional photos contributed by NYS Music staff.
There are few relationships more felicitous than the one that exists between beer and music. My love for songs and storytelling began in the late ’80s when I was just a kid laying on a shag carpet underneath our Formica kitchen table. My father would regularly invite his work buddies over to our house after the whistle blew at the paper mill and they would sit around banging away on old guitars, breathing into harmonicas and drinking cases of Genny Light. I would hide quietly, listen closely and watch as their oil-stained work boots tapped along to the beat of songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Desperados Waiting For A Train” and “On The Road Again”.
At the conclusion of just about every song, one of the men at the table would take the floor and share an often hilarious story with the others. These stories and these songs from hardworking men in greasy blue uniforms in many ways became the backbone of what I’ve spent the past ten years of my life doing. Above the sound of the human voice, the wailing tone of a harp and the thump of a dreadnought I so vividly remember the signature snap of that blue aluminum can popping open – beer was just part of the ceremony.
The genesis of the Original Gravity MicroTour was a simple phone conversation I had in August with my friend and fellow songwriter Chris Merkley. He and I became fast friends last year while doing a run that included stops at some of the best little theaters in Central New York like Nelson Odeon, Borodino Hall, Earlville Opera House and the Auburn Public Theater. His ability as a performer is undeniable but what I find most admirable is his strong sense of community and ability to inject creativity into all that he does. Take a trip out to Cortland for one of his Seedstock Music Festivals and you’ll see exactly what I am talking about.
This particular conversation centered around playing shows together again but we didn’t want it to be standard boilerplate. We both needed to do it differently and find a way to shine a light on other like-minded folks doing amazing things in their own arenas. Our talk quickly spun out of control, per usual, and our minds started collectively racing towards the topic of a small craft brewery tour.
We talked about how craft breweries have created a whole new stage for original musicians like us and how grateful we are that they exist. We started asking each other deep psychological questions like, “Do people that prefer a craft beer experience have something in their make-up that makes them more apt to digest original music?” “Are there similarities between songwriters and brewers?” “Why make your own beer when there’s plenty of great beer being made all around the world?” “Why write songs when there are millions of amazing songs already written?” The aim of the Original Gravity MicroTour is to take a four-night deep-dive exploration into the analogous union between original songwriters and craft brewers.
After I hung up with Chris I immediately put in an excited call to my dear friend Mike Kohli who happens to be one of the biggest music supporters I know, a lover of craft beer and the editor of this here media outlet. I told Mike our plans and I asked if he would perhaps allow me to be a guest content provider during the MicroTour and he graciously agreed. He told me that he has had a very similar idea kicking around in his brain for quite some time and has been waiting for the right moment to tell the story. And since I had him on the phone already I decided to push the envelope and take it one step further. I said, “How about we kick the thing off on your home turf, Copper City Brewing Company?” And he said, “HELL YEAH…I mean, let me check with the owners Dan and Lori.”
For over 80 years, the city of Rome has lacked the presence of a local microbrewery. Prohibition effectively shut down the last of them in the 1930s and the void remained until the visionary couples Dan and Lori Colasanti Frieden and Eric and Erica Sheible Daniels spoke up in 2015 and announced their ambitious plans to bring brewing back to Rome. After looking all over town for the right property they landed on a renovation project at 1111 Oneida Street on Rome’s east side.
When you push through the doors of CCBC you’ll most certainly be greeted with a big smile from behind the bar as your eyes scan around the modern industrial motif. The fresh grainy smell will hit your senses, your mouth will water and your palette will prepare. As a musician, the first thing I noticed walking in was an elegant nook off to the left with comfortable seating, board games and a guitar on a stand that is welcome to be played by any and all patrons. The room itself is an interesting juxtaposition because although it has several rigid metal touches it somehow gives off a thoughtful warmth. I’ve played shows at Copper City three or four times now and I’ve come to realize that the warmth comes from the people inside it.
Chris and I had an awesome time on night number one. Perhaps my favorite part of the night was our attempt at doing on-demand poetry. During Chris’ set, he asked the crowd to throw out a couple of words and I would be tasked with writing a poem related to them in real-time and present it by the time I took the stage. Well, the audience gave me “Camel Unicorn” and I thought I wrote a pretty good poem under pressure. But after my reading, I asked for the audience to now give me a couple of words for Chris to work with and I selected “Asbestos Shed”. I thought he was going to struggle. But in true Merkley fashion, he won the night and got the biggest eruption from the crowd with his incredible tale of smashing his face after falling not so gracefully from a shed as a kid.
Big thanks to Copper City for the incredible hospitality, wonderful beer and all that came out to hear us. This train rolls on to Abandon Brewing tonight in Penn Yan where I plan to dethrone Merkley as the top on-demand poet on this tour.
Below is a video documenting the first night of the tour. Featured are Copper City Brewing Company co-owner Dan Frieden and the brewery’s talent buyer and NYS Music Editor-in-Chief Mike Kohli.
Powell and Merkley continue their tour on Friday, Oct. 11 at Abandon Brewing Company overlooking Keuka Lake in Penn Yan. Tickets for the 8:00 p.m. show are available at the door. Additional dates on the tour include Heritage Hill Brewhouse in Pompey on Saturday, Oct. 12 and Local 315 Brewing Company in Warners on Sunday, Oct. 13.