Surrounded by friends and strangers in a huge field under the stars, with a cold Belgian-style ale in your hand and sweet harmonies emanating from the stage before you — a summer concert at Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown can feel almost otherworldly.
In reality, though, it takes a whole lot of time and energy to formulate and finalize the lineup, logistics and atmosphere that make Ommegang's Summer Concert Series what it is. That work is done, in large part, by three people: Ommegang event coordinators John Tuchowski and Steve Hamilton, and Dan Smalls, of Dan Smalls Presents, the driving force behind many Upstate rock shows.
The men have already secured Cake, Old Crow Medicine Show, Elvis Costello and The Avett Brothers for this summer and, with the announcement Tuesday morning of a Foster the People concert June 10, the 2017 Summer Series is shaping up to be one of the best yet.
Both graduates of SUNY Oneonta's music industry program, Tuchowski and Hamilton are tasked with ensuring that Ommegang is a desirable destination for concert-goers and music lovers, who come from far and wide to experience the venue's "music-festival-in-a-day" experience, they said.
"Ommegang's biggest shows were probably The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers," Tuchowski told The Scene recently. "People come from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, a lot of different places. We had someone come from Washington state once. ... Our job is to promote the shows and work with the vendors to make the audience and the artists feel that small-town homey vibe. I think one perk for the bands that play here is that, instead of a small green room, they have a whole brewery at their fingertips."
"This is a very unique venue," Hamilton added. "It has an energy all its own. We have a high-quality staff and attendees are enthusiastic and energetic. The more energy, the better the band will feel and perform, and the better the crowd will feel. It's a cycle.”
THE "BEST-POSSIBLE EXPERIENCE"
Even if Hamilton and Tuchowski weren't Ommegang employees, they would be fans of the venue, they said.
"Aside from our natural zeal for this venue, we're part of this consumer base," Hamilton said.
"We're avid concert attendees,” Tuchowski agreed. “So we're constantly trying to improve and make Ommegang somewhere we'd want to come see a show. How can we make this the destination. We take lessons from our favorite venues and draw inspiration from them. We're in a position where we have this beautiful blank canvas here, so we can pick and choose elements we like and enact them here.”
One improvement visitors will notice this summer is increased parking, Tuchowski said. In other years, guests have had to park in a separate field and take a shuttle over to the stage area. This year, Ommegang has rented more parking space nearby, so visitors will remain on-site.
There'll also be new drinks to try, including “Fruition,” a tropical-tasting beer that should be perfect for summer.
Of course, there are always challenges, Tuchowski said. But preparing for those challenges is “about controlling what you can control and having measures in place for what you can't control, such as weather.”
"We had The Avett Brothers and it down-poured,” Tuchowski recalled. “But we had people tell us that was their favorite show. It's all about making sure we're putting on the best show no matter what and making sure live music continues to be an experience — the best-possible experience.”
Part of what makes the Ommegang experience special is the campground, Tuchowski said. Members of Old Crow Medicine Show have walked through the campground late at night and interacted with “whoever was still awake” after shows, he said, laughing.
Tuchowski and Hamilton agreed that the concert they're most looking forward to this summer is Ween.
The craft beer and live music scenes are both multi-sensory experiences, Hamilton mused.
"With the brewery, you're smelling the malted barley and taking a tour,” he said. “With live music, you feel connected to the artist, and it connects on a much deeper level than going to a bar and hearing what's on the jukebox.”
"A REALLY GOOD PARTNERSHIP" AND "A GREAT SEASON"
A big part of Ommegang's magic is Dan Smalls, a concert promoter from Ithaca, Tuchowski and Hamilton agreed. Ommegang first partnered with Smalls in 2011 for a concert series that included Levon Helm and Lyle Lovett and made Cooperstown a recognizable stop for touring bands.
Since then, Smalls said, the Ommegang organizers have collaborated with him to improve the experience every year.
“We're always looking at the next things,” Smalls told The Scene. “Can we expand camping? Better parking? We try to tackle one or two things each year and make it a little better. We have a lot of people coming to visit, and we want them to leave wanting to come back.”
Smalls said he started his company in 2008 after more than two decades of putting together concerts in the area. He also worked for a company in Boston that did the first five or six Phish festivals, he recalled.
Since the inception of Dan Smalls Presents, getting hot acts on-board for venues such as Ommegang has been about hard work and history, Smalls said.
“It's the relationships you build with artists and their agents,” he said. “I've been doing this for 28 years, so I've developed a lot of strong ties within the music industry. It helps when you have a venue like Ommegang that artists really want to play and you focus on giving artists the best experience. For me, it's never motivated by money, which is a little different than most promoters, I think.”
Smalls said he's excited for each of this summer's acts “or I wouldn't have booked them.”
“This is going to be a great season,” he said. “The Avett Brothers are good friends of mine. I met them back when nobody cared who they were. And Elvis Costello is my youth, so I can't wait to see him again. I've never worked with The Shins before, but I’ve been a fan forever, so that's another I'm excited for.”
Working with Ommegang has been “a really good partnership,” Smalls said. Things grew “slowly and organically” and are now at the point where bands are already talking about wanting to play the venue next summer.
“There are a lot of fields in upstate New York, but there's something special about this one and what we've built here,” Smalls said. “People can gather under the starts and drink and eat together and hear great music. It's an intimate experience, and there's a special vibe to it.”
2017 Ommegang Summer Concert Series:
May 26 — Cake
May 28 — Old Crow Medicine Show
June 2 — The Avett Brothers
June 9 — Ween
June 10 — Foster the People
June 17 — The Shins
July 21 — Elvis Costello
July 29 — Glass Animals