Cover Story

Home, Sweet Odeon

Eclectic programming lures music fans to the down-home charms of the Nelson Odeon

Jeff Schoenfeld laughs when I tell him I got lost on the way to the Nelson Odeon, the venue he runs with his wife, Linda. “Everyone gets lost,” he says. Then he laughs harder when he reveals that he scares everyone who comes there by reassuring they’ll get even more lost on the way home.

That smile and gritty laugh never leave the conversation once I step through the red doors of the Odeon, an old, classic-looking building with wood everything, from its ceiling to its floors, walls and stage. A white star rests in the middle of that ceiling and the walls are lined with framed posters of the acts that have filled the hall with their sounds. Many I recognize. Many I don’t.

(Michael Davis Photo)

(Michael Davis Photo)

As an excited Schoenfeld shows me around, I notice the Nelson Odeon T-shirt that says, “Life’s too short for shitty music.” He takes me to the stage and opens the curtain, which was closed to conserve heat. Linda walks in with their dog and they begin talking about the drum set on the stage.

This wasn’t here the other day,” Jeff says. “Ralph must have been here.

Their sound engineer is Ralph Meitz, a Berklee graduate; the Schoenfelds both wish they could pay more to do what he does. At the very least, they’re happy he feels comfortable enough to come to the venue, set up his kit and practice in the magnificent-sounding space.

When we first bought the space we had people come in and listen,” Linda says. “Our daughter plays the cello and she played on the stage and the sound. . .

Her voice tapers off and Jeff picks up the conversation: “Not even amplified, the sound was really great.

The venue was formerly the Nelson Grange, followed by an antique shop. It sat vacant until four years ago when the Schoenfelds, who lived in a house two doors down, contemplated buying the building.

Despite being married since 1978, the couple’s paths had rarely crossed paths because of their jobs, with Jeff working days and Linda on night shifts.

Nelson Odeon

The Nelson Odeon. (Michael Davis Photo)

We were home one evening and he said, ‘I think we should buy that place,’” Linda recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ So, we talked about it a little and bought it with no intentions of what to actually do with it. We just bought it. It was on sale for a long time. We live here and we want to be part of the community and keep it going, so that’s really what happened.

When the Schoenfelds closed on the building in December 2009, Jeff immediately recognized the potential of the stage. He works in commercial printing and deals with many colleges, universities and art departments, so he asked those connections about what they thought of the venue. After they came and listened, a music hall made perfect sense.

Mark and Ellen Wahl, representing the Oswego Music Hall, and Mary Avrakotos from Artswego at SUNY Oswego were the biggest proponents of encouragement. The Wahls even offered to share their billings. “They said, ‘Listen, we only book on Saturday nights. If you like any of these groups that we’re presenting, feel free to contact them, or we will, and you can pick up a Friday show,’” Jeff explains. “It makes tons of sense for touring musicians. The venues are only 60 miles apart. It’s a far enough radius that you won’t draw from the same {customer base}, but close enough. That’s how we started.

One of those shared billings will take place this weekend. Sultans of String will take the Nelson Odeon stage on Friday, Nov. 15, then travel north for the Oswego Music Hall gig on Saturday, Nov. 16.

Book Beat

The Nelson Odeon has booked a variety of high-caliber music. Jeff was pressured at one time to label the venue as an Americana or folk-bent place, but now that they’ve hosted everything from French gypsy jazz to Latin percussion jazz to Tuvan throat singers, it’s hard to pigeon-hole all the genres they have presented.

Nelson Odeon

Jeff and Linda Schoenfeld (Michael Davis Photo)

They’re also unburdened by a board of directors or grant restrictions because of their business model. The Schoenfelds make all the booking decisions. Jeff says with a smirk, “There are no rules.

The only people that get paid are Ralph and the artists,” Linda continues.

We run the operation on a zero-debt philosophy,” Jeff explains. “It’s too volatile to go into debt with. We own the building. We just need to make enough money to pay for advertising, to pay the taxes, to pay the insurance fees, legal fees, accounting fees. It may not sound like we’re really good business people, but you gotta keep all that in check. Make sure that everything is working out financially. If it’s not, what fun would that be?

It’s not that we expect to make money from doing this,” Linda chimes in with a laugh. “We hope to make enough to keep the building in good shape and not die paupers.

The Schoenfelds operate with the intention that they can provide touring acts with the absolute best experience. That comes through in their impeccable hospitality, in which Linda lodges up to nine people in their house, cooks full dinners for bands and doing whatever is necessary to make the artists comfortable. It also means going above and beyond financially whenever possible.

Nelson Odeon

In the kitchen. (Michael Davis Photo)

When the house is full and I can pay the musicians twice their guarantee, that’s what makes you feel good,” Jeff says, as my jaw drops to the floor. “That means that people came, they liked it and when I can pay above the guarantee, that means that we made money, too. It means we’re not losing money. Making money doesn’t mean that you’re really making it; it all goes to the bills. But that’s the best thing when you can pay the artist above their guarantee.

It’s rare to find a venue owner who can say those words–and actually mean it. Many who come through the Odeon’s doors are road-weary touring musicians. When life consists of hopping in and out of a van, catching highways and eating on the go, it’s unusual to find a place that an artist will remember with enough fondness that they’ll count the days until their return to Nelson.

Nelson Odeon

The Wiyos. (Michael Davis Photo)

The Wiyos’ Michael Farkas, whose band played the Odeon for the third time on Nov. 9, names the Nelson hall as one of those precious touring stops. “I’ve been on the road for more than 10 years now,” he says. “There are only a handful of venues that I really remember–and remember the food; we had a stew last time. Only a few places do it right. The audience and the bands are treated right {at the Odeon}.

Musicians can be grumpy because the life is difficult,” Farkas continues. “But when someone offers you coffee, tea, a hot meal and great home cooking, it’s a great climate. From a musician’s standpoint, when we see a return gig there, it’s a place where all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted. It’s a good feel: good food, good place to sleep, tucked into the country. It’s one of those rare birds out there that just kinda does everything right.

Christine Ohlman, longtime vocalist for the Saturday Night Live Band, and a singer, songwriter and guitarist often called “the queen of blue-eyed rock and soul,” is another annual Odeon performer. “I’m always very impressed that anyone can do what Jeff and Linda have done, to make a venue where live original music can be played,” Ohlman says. “They work very hard. It’s a charming, lovely place with great sound, the people are wonderful and it’s the future of American music. It depends on them. They’re not part of some chain. Individual venues like this are the future and more are cropping up all the time. I have the greatest love and respect for the Odeon.

Local Spotlight

The Odeon has also become a magnet for local musicians to shine. Instead of a band being taken for granted at weekly no-cover bar gigs where the music is secondary to the brews, the Odeon provides a showcase for talented groups in a room where people intensely care about the music.

Nelson Odeon

The Nelson Odeon. (Michael Davis Photo)

Claire {Byrne, fiddle player} of Driftwood was spooked,” Jeff recalls with a laugh. “I remember saying to her after the first set, ‘You can’t have any lulls between these songs. If you’re tuning, you gotta be talking to these people because they’re listening. They just totally pay attention.’

Bands in the area often play to loud rooms of bar orders and clinking drinks, yet the Odeon’s space allows groups to perform songs from their original catalogs, not just the dance tunes or the crowd-pleasing covers. The Schoenfelds were also surprised by the initial questions they received regarding the booking of a popular local outfit with a devoted following.

Dave {Katleski, founder of Empire Brewing} said that you’ve got to book Los Blancos,” Jeff says. “Dave’s been a supporter and we trust people who recommend acts to us, so I said, ‘Well, if Dave feels strongly about it, I’ll contact Colin {Aberdeen}.’ He {Aberdeen} said, ‘Oh, super, we can play some material we’re not used to playing,’ but then, OK, admission is $20 and we got phone calls from people saying, ‘What do we get for $20?’ I said, ‘Well, you get to watch this wonderful performance.’

I just couldn’t believe the questions,” Linda says. “People were asking if dinner was included. They’re {Los Blancos} amazing!

Nevertheless, the Odeon filled up for Los Blancos and has for other local acts such as Grupo Pagan, while artists like Dusty Pas’cal have also been placed on bills.

The Schoenfelds both express their satisfaction with their decision not to serve alcohol regularly at the venue, instead opting for baked goods. “We waffled with that a whole lot,” Linda says. “But to be honest, it would disrupt.

When they do serve alcohol, they get temporary liquor licenses and enlist the services of Empire Brewing’s Katleski. “I love music and I think that any time there’s a little gem like that in a rural environment, it has to be supported,” Katleski says. “They have impeccable taste and choice in music and I like to support live music whenever possible.”

Katleski also notes that with the construction of the new Empire Brewery in Cazenovia, the synergy of music, beer and other surrounding agri-tourism sites such as distilleries, apple farms and wineries, Madison County has potential to become a major hot spot for Central New York.

Music plays right into all of that,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I share their musical taste, but every show I’ve been to, and I’ve been to something in the 20s, I’ve been impressed by their choices. I go sight unseen at times. Personally, I like going to concerts where I can sing along and know what the music is about, but I go there with an open palette.

Nelson Odeon

(Michael Davis Photo)

The Schoenfelds realize that they program an eclectic slate. “A lot of people will say to me, ‘Who do you have famous coming that I’d know?’” Linda says. “I say, ‘Just ’cause they aren’t famous doesn’t mean they aren’t really, really talented. You have to open up people’s minds to that. It’s a hard sell. But we do have a core group of people that are very supportive of us. And the best thing is they’ll come and they’ll hear these people and buy the CD and then they’ll say, ‘This means so much more to me now because I sat here and listened to them live.’ The artists appreciate it, too. It’s a wonderful thing.

Denise Butler has seen that firsthand. She and her husband, David, came across the venue when he was running a race past the building and stopped there for a water break, where he recognized an artist on the Odeon’s wall. The couple has been attending and volunteering there ever since.

I’d say since we started going, we’ve only missed three or four,” Denise Butler says. She notes that of those many concerts, she has not only become a fan of new artists, but also become friends with them. “A great energy develops between the artists and musicians. It’s an intimate vibe. The music seems to flow around and through you. You come and listen and become involved. An artist will be talking to us {from the stage} and we’ll talk back. They can hear, too.

Jeff Schoenfeld emphasizes that volunteers like the Butlers are the people who should be recognized for the Nelson Odeon’s success.

The most important thing is that it’s not about us,” he says. “It’s about everyone involved.

The Schoenfelds have many stories to share regarding their business venture. They have brought an artist to the liquor store in a shiny purple mariachi suit and baked cookies until 3 a.m. to help with a Kickstarter campaign. They’ve traded their own couches for trundle beds and have seen their yard appear in CD artwork. They’ve taken sweaty performers to swimming holes and housed bands for weeks at a time. At the end of it all, they hope to continue providing for the artists and the audience: their community.

Although Ohlman leaves sparkles in her wake and performs in the bright lights and big city of Manhattan, her affection for the Odeon is most telling. It’s not about the flash: It’s about the family.

We love it,” she concludes. “Long may it rock.

Nelson Odeon

Michael Davis Photo

Upcoming shows at the Nelson Odeon, 4035 Nelson Road, Nelson, will feature Sultans of Swing on Friday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m.; Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman on Saturday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m.; Jeffrey Foucault and Roosevelt Dime on Saturday, Dec. 7, 8 p.m.; and Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen on Saturday, Jan. 4; 8 p.m.

For details and ticket prices, dial 655-9193 or visit


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