Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Previewing ‘If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song’ 2023

Musicians perform at an earlier "If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song."
Julie Gelfand
Musicians perform at an earlier "If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song."

Maybe a dozen years ago, Scott Regan was — in the most positive definition imaginable of the word — snooping around in the basement of fellow singer-songwriter Jeff Riales.

Regan is the host of the weekday morning show “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5), so he pretty much knows what a song looks like. He found a notebook Riales kept of song lyrics and ideas. And one line in particular stood out: “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart.”

It was nothing, Riales said. Just a title for a song yet to be written.

Regan asked if he could give it a try.

Slowly, others joined in, leading Rochester singer-songwriter Sarah Long Hendershot to organize the first “If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song.” A challenge — not a competition! — for local songwriters to create something prompted by a stray line discovered by chance in one of Riales’ songwriting notebooks.

Even Riales was inspired, contributing a version of “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart.” And there were just enough entries, 26, to fill out that first show, a sold-out gig in 2015 at Bernunzio Uptown Music.

They kept it going. The next year, the song title was “You’ll Thank Me Later.” It drew enough entries for two sold-out nights at Bernunzio.

By 2017, “If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song” had outgrown Bernunzio Uptown Music. For the next three years, the show moved to Hochstein Performance Hall. The songwriting challenges were “How Did We Get Here?” Then, “I’m a Fool for This Town.” And in 2019, “No One Will Ever Know.”

Only one thing could stop this momentum. And it did. COVID.

But now, COVID having somewhat receded, “If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song” is back at a 4 p.m. Sunday show at JCC Centerstage. The new song title: “What Did I Miss?”

We’ve missed a few things. Hendershot now lives in Spain. Three local singer-songwriters, all of whom had been a part of past shows, are now running the event: Steve Piper, Kelly Izzo Shapiro and Sarah De Vallière.

For Piper, one question lingered over the resurrection. “After the time off,” he says, “I wondered if we’re going to get 10 or 12 people submitting things.”

This year’s challenge drew 80 song entries.

Piper was one of the five judges who listened to every entry. And there were plenty of new faces. Of the 17 songs that made the final cut, Piper guesses he had heard of maybe seven of the songwriters. Songwriters of different minds, reaching to what Piper calls “different corners of the scene.”

“The cool thing was,” Piper says, “there really is the biggest variety in styles and stuff, since they’ve been doing it.”

Here’s who wrote the songs: Jeffrey Goodrich, Levi Gangi, Natalie Pang, Don Christiano, Phil Broikos, Bernie Heveron, Dylaina Young, Tom Whitmore, Greg Woodsbie, Taurus Savant, Amanda Chow, Kip Alexander, Avery Stadler, Chris Groenendyke, Miriam Morelli, Don Anonymous, Jerry Falzone and Lou Sweigman.

The show’s host is Cinnamon Jones; she’s a fine soul singer in this town. In the house band are guitarist Bret Levick, drummer Dave Goebel, bassist Kyle Vock, keyboardist De Vallière, vocalist Izzo Shapiro and guitarist Piper.

You’ll recognize some of those names. But most, maybe not. “If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song” is back, with a bigger tent.

“There’s really not that much, you can say, ‘Oh that’s like that other song,’” Piper says.

Indeed, some used the title “What Did I Miss?” as a main theme in the chorus. Others just slipped it into a convenient spot. “These all feel pretty organic,” Piper says. “And I think that’s the good thing about the prompt, it goes in so many directions.”

Among his favorites (and this has to be pulled out of Piper), is one written by Tom Whitmore, one of Piper’s bandmates in Watkins & the Rapiers. Whitmore is the guy in that quirky songwriter-driven band who writes the quirkiest of the band’s songs. For this show, his setting is the International Space Station.

“Tom comes up with these songs that are like… ‘Wow, that’s unusual.’ ‘Wow, it’s quirky,’” Piper says. “But somehow it has this stream of heart in it that’s really amazing.”

Eastman students have crept into the picture, further raising the bar. “The demos are, like, really fleshed out,” Piper says. “There are a number of people who obviously do this pretty seriously.”

If past is prologue for these shows, “In looking back over the whole wash of things, I don’t recall anything that really fell flat, that didn’t get a response,” Piper says.

OK, he concedes, there have been maybe one or two disasters. And yet, “People were kind of encouraging,” Piper says.

“It’s a curious sort of audience. It’s not people who walked off the street and have all your albums.”

The vibe, and perhaps the subtitle-like title, he says, arises from old monster flicks. “It Came From the Flipside,’” Piper says, recalling the days when mostly Piper, Riales and Jed Curran played host to a weekly open mic at the Flipside bar on East Main Street.

“That’s the lab, you could say; it was an outgrowth of that scene,” Piper says.

And the lab is increasingly a working petri dish of Rochester sound. Folk, rock, pop. Blues, reggae African music. “There’s people who play that stuff all around town, but we all don’t know each other,” Piper says. “So I think they made a pretty good effort to spread out. And I think that’s the way to go with this thing, to make it a big quilt.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.