In the final days at Castaways, a look at the era of music on Ithaca's waterfront

April 20, 2012 by Mark H. Anbinder

A few weeks shy of 41 years ago, the Salty Dog opened its doors on Taughannock Boulevard, on the Cayuga Lake Inlet. Calling it the "waterfront" then would've been too generous, but over the last several years of development, spots on the water have become increasingly attractive. It's on the waterfront that Castaways will close its doors at the end of April.

On March 28th, the Castaways management announced on the club's Facebook page that after years of battling and negotiating with their landlord, and accumulating maintenance problems, "the Castaways are getting off the island." The announcement referred to "years of rotting pipes, a leaky roof, insufficient fixes, and all the mold up in the ceiling that resulted." Castaways co-owner Phil Aubin tells us, "We will have our eyes peeled for a new spot."

"We Serve Good Grog" was the motto at the Salty Dog, and each successive incarnation has offered a variety of legal beverages, and sometimes food, to customers. The Salty Dog gave way to Captain Joe's and Captain Joe's Reef, Max's, and Key West -- known not only for frequent music shows but for a $5 all-you-can-eat islands-style buffet on Friday evenings. Castaways has flirted with an assortment of food offerings, including chaotic wing nights and sell-out summer evenings serving food prepared by Ralph Moss of Ralph's Ribs fame.

Merl Saunders concert poster courtesy of Mickie Quinn Boggs.Merl Saunders concert poster courtesy of Mickie Quinn Boggs.The late, great Merl Saunders, an incomparable keyboardist and performer who played with the likes of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, played sold-out shows at Key West and, briefly, Castaways, into his 70s, before passing away in 2008. Asked once why he came back again and again to a small venue in a small town, Saunders smiled his wide trademark smile, and said, "You love music here. Music belongs here."

"Key West was a special place," says Mickie Quinn Boggs, a longtime music promoter for several area venues and bands who now lives and works in New York City. "So many great shows from Merl Saunders to all the jam bands who were just getting started like Schleigho and Strangefolk."

Mickie credits the venue itself for some of the music that evolved in Ithaca. "The musical camaraderie that was alive and electric in that place gave birth to bands like Wingnut. After I left Ithaca, I was glad to hear that Castaways opened in that space and continued the tradition of showcasing and celebrating Ithaca's vast pool of local talent."

Mike Brindisi and the New York Rock at Castaways. 14850 Photo.Mike Brindisi and the New York Rock at Castaways. 14850 Photo.Aubin says he and his crew are proud of fundraising concerts they've held for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, Doctors Without Borders, the Waterfront Trail, countless family benefits, and many art events. Concerts at Castaways have included countless debuts and grand finales, and CD release parties for acts from Alan Rose and the Restless Elements to Mike Brindisi and the New York Rock.

"I grew up on classic rock, so there were a few moments that almost brought me to tears they were so awesome." Aubin says. "Eric McFadden and Bermie Worrell of Parliament Funkadelic covering Hey Jude. Hearing Devon Allman cover his father and the Allman Brothers' No Way Out. Ayurveda covering Dark Side of the Moon. Each one was religious."

Local music found a home at Castaways, recalls Aubin. "The Gunpoets always crush it for me and their I-Town Remixes project is one of the most ambitious and awesome I have seen in our seven years. They connected Hip-Hop to every scene in town and with such huge respect and admiration of the Ithaca music community they grew up in."

Shows from May onward will be relocated, such as a May 2nd Dar Williams show that's been moved to the Haunt, north of the Ithaca Farmers Market on Willow Avenue. Promoters like Dan Smalls, who books shows at the Haunt and the State Theatre in addition to Castaways, says the venue's closing leaves a gap for mid-sized shows. In the meantime, though, Castaways will close out its final days on Ithaca's waterfront in style.

The Jeff Love Band at Castaways. 14850 Photo.The Jeff Love Band at Castaways. 14850 Photo.The Jeff Love Band, which played on Thursday evening, April 19th, is an 11-piece funk/soul band that's played at Castaways several times. Brooklyn-based Dub is a Weapon returns for "a special 4/20 show" on Friday evening, and Jimkata and Revision will co-headline a show this Saturday night.

The final week at Castaways will include the Spampinato Brothers on Wednesday the 25th of April and Dopapod on Thursday the 26th. Go Gone plays an early Free Music Friday show on Friday the 27th, followed by the Sutras. Castaways will host its last benefit on Saturday, April 28th, a show for the Ithaca Free Clinic billed as an evening of one-hit wonders, featuring performances by The GunPoets, The Blind Spots, Suitcase (members of The Horse Flies and Thousands Of One), Those Particular Individuals, and The Cheating Intention.

For a grand finale, Castaways promised "one final last call on the waterfront," and that show, on Sunday, April 29th, brings together two of the venue's most popular acts. "John Brown's Body and the Sim Redmond Band have been part of the Castaways family since day one," says the Castaways announcement for the show. 

"We have had the opportunity to meet a lot of really nice people over the years," Aubin reflects. "The people that work with us, the people that play music for us, and so many of the people that just come to enjoy themselves. We wish we could just keep on doing what we have been."

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