Jim Barrett at his River Street Beat Shop. Photo by Michael Hallisey/TheSpot518
TROY— Jim Barrett has a handshake like a Jeff Buckley song. It grabs a hold and pulls you in. He just might pull you over the front counter of the River Street Beat Shop if you let him.
Ask Barrett and he will tell you Buckley does the best cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And, people do ask for his thoughts. His record store in Troy is adorned by pillars, built at a time when the number of such signified wealth. The wealth is measured by the level of education people learn by walking in. On Saturdays, it’s like a barber’s shop. A hangout for the neighborhood to sit around to debate and compare. But, on Saturdays in Troy, it’s common to catch musicians from the local scene in the store. It’s not uncommon to catch them playing in front of the store either.
“I always tell them, buy a record,” said Barrett. “If you don’t like it, bring it back [and] we’ll give you something else. So they will try other stuff and that’s worked out well. And, it’s not just me. People come in here and music lovers take to these kids like crazy. Saturdays are fun here, because all the musicians come here and hang out. We usually have a performer. … They come in and they talk to everybody. All the musicians hang out, get together and then they decide to along with someone who’s recording. … This is kind of like a barber shop. It’s a boys club, but there’s a lot of women involved. Female musicians are very comfortable here. They know we all respect them, and there’s lots of laughs.” The conversation turns to Joanna Palladino of Off the Record, and Holly Taormina of Holly and Evan.
But, Barrett isn’t known simply as the owner of River Street Beat Shop. For longer than most of the musicians and customers who walk through his doors, he’s been a staple to local radio. Since 1967, Barrett has hosted Kaleidoscope — a radio show where he mixes classic rock tunes with contemporary and local music. This week, his show jumps up the dial from WVCR-FM 88.3 The Saint to WAIX-FM 106.1 The X.
“I had a phenomenal, wonderful experience where I was at Siena,” said Barrett. “They treated me like a million bucks. But, I was ready for a change. I needed a change. My only regret is that I’m not working with my dear friend Dean Charette. That was very hard to walk away from, because we’re very close. But, even he understood that I needed it. I’m 71. How much more do I have in the tank? I want to be with a bunch of young people who are fired up about music.
Barrett said he’s schizophrenic about his music. He bounces from one genre to the next because he can’t settle on just one, nor does he think he should. He said good music can be mixed and matched, treated like a good menu.
“I don’t know how anyone can stand to listen all day long to a hip hop station, or all day long to a country station, even all day long to a jazz station. Because, after awhile, you become jaded,” said Barrett.
That kind of philosophy should mix well at his new home with the Malta-based Empire Broadcasting Company station, since it flipped its format from news to a mixed bag of classic rock, alternative music, and local artists.
“To me, it’s like food,” said Barrett. “I don’t want to eat the same food everyday. I don’t want to eat hamburgers every day. I want to eat Italian one day, and Moroccan the next. … Music I treat like a great menu. I try something new all the time.”
“I’m a child of radio”
Ask Barrett to put a label on himself and he will call himself “a child of radio.” He writes and plays music — you’ve likely caught him on stage playing with the Lawn Sausages — but he won’t dare call himself a musician. That’s reserved for someone like Jeff Beck, to whom he considers to be the ultimate guitarist. The radio is where he first fell in love. The spark that cut through the quiet of a summer evening as it came to life. It would lead him to experience music history first hand as it came through town.
“The Strip [in downtown Troy] was the coolest thing I’ve ever been involved with,” said Barrett, describing a row of bars and clubs that all played live music from the early 60s to the late 70s in a scene he likened to New Orleans. He starts to name drop bands with national following that stopped to play in Troy — Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs, The Liverpool Set. “Music would start at eight at night, end at five in the morning, four in the morning. Bands were everywhere, and we worked all over the place. That was the Golden Era of music in Troy.”
That said, Barrett said Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady all had something to boast, leading to his opportunity to interview an up-and-coming band from overseas.
“They’d bring in some national bands. And, of course, J.B. Scotts which was ridiculously good. And, the Hullabaloo in Rensselaer. They had the Talking Heads as a three piece. That’s how early they got them. They had Joe Jackson and they had The Police as a three piece. The Aerodrome that was the Mecca of God to me. I, actually, for RPI interviewed Led Zeppelin at the Aerodrome.” It was Robert Plant’s 19th birthday.
Though Barrett said the days of The Strip in Troy may never come back, the local music scene is making a “remarkable” comeback. It’s evidenced in the records he sees coming into his shop. It’s played on his weekly radio station.
“I don’t have an ego about doing radio. I will say, I’m good at it, because I’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said. “But, nothing makes me happier than to tune into a radio and hear somebody at a college station, or somebody I’ve never heard before, or late at night spinning the dial and hear somebody who knows what they’re doing and playing great music. Man, I love that.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.