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Breaking Down Silos

Julie Byrne at the filming of her Silo Sessions performance. (photos by Sarah Barry)

Silo Sessions launch party June 14

Dense fog rolls in over Lake Erie swallowing the flying, snake-like skyway and hovering over the Buffalo River. On this glum April afternoon the tops of the grain silos along the Buffalo River disappear into the mist.

It was supposed to be one of the first pleasant days of spring after an unusually harsh winter in Buffalo, but the meteorological fortune tellers must have misread the signs on this day. As I pull up to Silo City—rolling through the rusty gate and over the gravelly road—a light rain covers my windshield. We’re at Silo City today to cover a video shoot. Video shoots at silo city aren’t unusual; photographers, videographers, and graffiti artists—from Buffalo and beyond—flock to silo city to capture its decomposing beauty on a regular basis. Some have permission to be on the premises, some don’t. This day, a camera crew is shooting Silo Sessions, a weekly online video blog of Silo City concerts by local and national bands.

“This project is a tree with many branches,” says Jeff Mace the director of photography, who helps lead each shoot. Hundreds of Buffalo artists have been involved, from musicians, videographers, sound engineers, promoters and organizers.

Silo Sessions will launch its website on June 14th. They’ll release a new video each week featuring various local and national acts including Nat Baldwin of Brooklyn experimental rock band Dirty Projectors; soundscape artist and Squeaky Wheel executive director Jax Deluca; singer songwriter Sonny Baker; folkies the Observers; electronic musicians UVB 76; and indie-rock band Aircraft.

Full schedule of performers:

River Stage

5pm: Difficult Night

5:45pm: Alex Berkely and the Atlanta Falcons

6:30pm: Wooden Cities

7:15pm: Sam Goodwill

8pm: Viking Moses

8:45pm: Aircraft

9:30pm: Landlady

10:15pm: Mallwalkers

11pm: Johns

Perot Grain Elevator

5:15pm: Coca Cola Death Squad

6pm: Charles Gordon

6:45pm: VWLS

7:30pm: Kristachuwan

8:15pm: Lesion Read

9pm: Ay Fast

9:45pm: Little Cake and Jack Toft

10:30pm: UVB76

Marine A (Quiet Zone)

5pm: Shasti O’Leary Soudant

5:30pm: Jon Rutzmoser

5:45pm: The Observers

6:30pm: Andrew Biggie

7pm: Aaron Lowinger

7:15pm: Jax Deluca

7:45pm: Pat Kewley

8pm: Spenking

8:45pm: Matthew Baker Thompson

9pm: Sonny Baker

9:45pm: Phil Metres

10pm: Nat Baldwin

For more information or tickets, visit the Silo Sessions Launch Party Facebook event page.

At 5pm Saturday, June 14 at Silo City (120 Childs St.) these acts and more will perform at a launch celebration of the Silo Sessions project.

Fans and performers alike are excited to convene at this incomparable site for this celebration of music. “It’s the best line-up of Buffalo bands I’ve ever seen,” says Ian Be, drummer of Aircraft. The Silo City Reading Series, a summer art party featuring poetry, music, and visual art will also launch in conjunction with the Silo Sessions. Poet Noah Falck, education director at Just Buffalo Literary Center, organized this aspect of the event. “I have poet friends from all over the country and I wanted a place to bring them. To me the Silos are the coolest place in Buffalo.” The organic, raw space that is Silo City is not only the perfect backdrop for such a poetry series, says Falck, but also an inspiration in itself.

What has now become a heavy rain is visible through the open glassless windows of the immense concrete silo and the sound of rainfall echoes in the cavernous space. A few cracks in the concrete are wide enough to let a slow drip of dirty water run down brown walls and accumulate in muddy puddles. The camera crew is setting up a domino line of tripods, microphone stands, and lighting equipment. Pop singer Julie Byrne, the day’s star, arrives in a polka dotted red cape.

After a 45-day tour, Byrne drove six hours from Ohio to her home in East Aurora before heading over to the silos for the first time. The young singer, who now resides in Seattle, is starting to break out. Her album, Rooms With Walls and Windows, was released earlier this year by Orindal records and is generating buzz from national media outlets. The record, full of quiet, gentle chamber pop songs with titles like “Butter Lamb,” “Young Wife,” and “Prism Song,” at times barely rises above the sound of a whisper or finger plucked guitar. Today her songs will be amplified by the architecture of the room.

Silo Sessions evolved over time, Mace tells me. Director and organizer Kevin Cain started the project with borrowed equipment and an idea to experiment with sound in an usual space. After a few recordings, it became obvious that this could be an ongoing series.

Byrne is not the first artist to record a session for Silo Sessions. So far 20 musicians have recorded audio and video in the various rooms of the silos. What started out as a way to create some unique recordings for a handful of local bands fully took shape when Nat Baldwin agreed to shoot a video for the project. Baldwin is known for his free form, double bass mastery and dreamlike vocals. His inclusion in the series has opened up the door to include more out-of-town acts, says Mace.

“He listened to the echo, he listened to the reverb and he just played,” says Mace. “I don’t think he stripped down his sound, he may have slowed it down, but I think his sound is the way it was. What you get is just him and his instrument.”

Marine A is an enormous building with several separate silos contained within—each silo has a number. It’s nosier than usual in the silos today and Ben Jura, a professional sound engineer, is testing microphones. As Byrne tunes her Yamaha guitar with an iPhone tuner app, Jura clips a condenser mic to a slab of jagged steel jutting down from the ceiling of silo 53 in Marine A. Right around the corner, silo 10 has been converted into a rock-climbing wall. Graffiti tags “city of ghosts,” “great idea!,” and “if you can yell you can hear an echo,” snake around the rubber footholds.

The way these iconic grain elevators transformed into fantastic art venues is not a mystery. The transformation began in 2006 when entrepreneur and president of nearby Rigidized Metals, Rick Smith, bought the silos from ConAgra, including Marine A, which had been inactive since 1964.

Smith’s original vision was an ethanol production facility, which for various reasons was halted. In 2010, after a preservation conference with UB, he decided to go in a different direction.

“The feedback from the architects and others was that this is too grand of a site to let go back to an industrial use,” Smith says.

Instead Smith created a versatile artist space that has hosted events like City of Night, a now annual celebration of art, history, culture, and sustainability; and American Grain, a one-off, site-specific theater performance. Later in June, City of Night will commence for the third year in a row. Earlier this year, the Lake and Rail silo north of Marine A went back online as a working grain silo and is now the only silo functioning as it was built to function. What once took 25 men to operate, now only takes six.

Back in silo 53, Julie Byrne seems comfortable around the multiple cameras and piles of sound equipment. My occasional questions interrupt her tuning. “The sound carries so far in this room. It has a nice natural reverb,” she says as Mace positions her in front of a narrow, seven-foot high window. She is not the first artist to appreciate the magnificent sound produced here. Guitarist and singer Sonny Baker recorded a session a few weeks prior to Byrne. “I felt like I barely had to touch my guitar,” says Baker. “The atmosphere alone made me play and sing slightly differently, in a good way. I can’t wait to play there again.”

As Byrne begins her set, Mace tells her she can look wherever she’s comfortable— maybe between the cameras that are set up a few feet apart—but she chooses to stare at the strings of her acoustic guitar or to simply close her eyes as she delivers a couple of her delicate folk songs. Although the silos naturally amplify her guitar, the tones remain subtle and soft. The echoing of the long halls and tall towers don’t throw her off, in fact she barely seems to have to adapt at all. The occasional blare of passing trains on the nearby tracks add to the industrial atmosphere of the silos.

We have to keep as still as possible because the movement of every pebble and each drop of water is easily heard. We can’t even shoot photos during Byrne’s performance because the shutter click of the camera is too loud in the concrete space. Camera operator Shannon Madden claps her clapboard together to sync the audio and video. The sound takes a good six to eight seconds to dissipate, which is typical for a silo like the one we’re standing in; one that is missing the gigantic metal grain hopper previously used to store grains. Sound can reverberate for up to 30 seconds in a silo with the hopper still intact.

As the clapping sound fades away, Byrne begins to sing the gentle folk-pop of “Prism Song” from Rooms With Walls and Windows. In a review for her album on the popular indie website Pitchfork , author Jayson Greene called the song one of the “most memorable and indelible moments on her album,” due to her exquisitely hummed melodies. Today, her humming mixes with the sound of the breeze that blows through this space, which exists between indoors and outdoors, between lost and found again by the artists of Buffalo. Byrne’s hair moves with the wind as she strums the final notes of the song.

Her performance has a natural ease and the challenge is to properly capture the audio and video in this semi-hostile environment. The sky grows still grayer and the rain falls harder as she prepares to do a second take.

“We should probably make this happen before it gets any worse,” announces Mace the moment before a gust of wind tears through the long hall, strewing about some equipment that isn’t quite heavy enough to stay fastened to the ground. That ended it. The shoot is over. The crew probably captured enough video footage to make a nice piece and they’re hoping the audio is satisfactory.

After the shoot, Mace tells me more about the unplanned organic process that this whole project has been. It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill he says. With every shoot they pick up more momentum. Though the crew has about 20 videos in the bucket, ready for release when the website launches, they are by no means done shooting videos. They’d like to attract more national acts by raising money through Kickstarter to pay for basic amenities like hotels and flights. They will also continue to record local acts on a regular basis.

“We want this to be a time capsule,” says Mace. “We want this to capture a moment in history for this community.”

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