by Jake Brandenstein
Paint a picture in your head: you drive through a spacious stretch of concrete; no one is out and about, the streetlights appear to be the only sign of life. Suddenly, an unsuspecting building with a Guiness mural confronts your peripheral vision. Turn around. Pull over. Park. As you enter the large wooden door, your eyes are greeted with a plethora of sights: hips roll, shoulders sway and a loud band is playing — the frontman of the band hangs over the edge of the stage, screaming “I went to jail and I broke it” repeatedly at the top of his lungs. Welcome to Cedars, put the brush down.
A new week has begun and the music is sleeping for the time being. This evening is a tad cold to be hosting raucous, which to an extent I could agree. I park my car next to Alex Martz, a Cedars regular and part-time bartender at the venue. We exchange quick hellos and scuttle our way into the bar before we turn into human popsicles. When we walk in, we are greeted by Billy Danielson, the owner of the bar.
We make our way to the other side of the bar, accompanied by a wall of mirrors and a stylish cream colored couch. It’s been nearly two years since I paid Cedars a visit, so naturally we begin catching up about the past year, music and everything in between while a wooden conquistador’s head watches us from the top of the chest freezer. It was good to be back.
Danielson elaborates on the hiatus that Cedars had taken prior to reopening its doors on Oct. 1, 2021. With the unpredictable miasma that arose from the pandemic, Danielson feels that the temporary closing was the safe thing to do.
“I wasn’t going to facilitate danger to anybody I care about, number one. Like — and believe me — I need the money, but I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to use you as a sacrificial lamb to play in my place so I could pay my bills, and I didn’t do that. I’m still kind of backing off and doing light stuff — I’m trying to ease back into it because in my opinion, this is not over,” he says.
Cedars offers a cozy corner and a reflection or two. Photo by Jake Brandenstein/YO Magazine.
With the recent reopening, Danielson has been taking precautionary measures to ensure that events can carry on safely, such as requiring people to bring a vaccination card to the door prior to entering.
The conversation turns on a more positive note when we begin talking about some of the shows that have occured over the years. Martz begins to recount one of his favorite stories: the time that his old punk band Them Bastards played their first show at Cedars. According to Alex, it was quite the first show.
“I remember looking over at Billy, there was beer spilled, there was candles that got knocked over, there was wax that got spilled on the bar… it was insane,” Martz says. “But then I remember at the end of the night, I remember him looking around and being like, ‘That was a hell of a night.’ I could see his demeanor changing a little bit when everything was cleared out. And I remember at the end of the night, he goes, ‘I want you guys to sit down and have a shot with me.’”
According to Martz, Cedars became their home base from then on.
Originally located in downtown Youngstown, Cedars has served as a hangout for musicians, eccentrics, and curious cats alike for over four decades. After the downtown location closed in 2012, Danielson and his partner, Mara Simon, bought the business in 2013. The two went on to reopen and relocate to Steel Street on the west side of Youngstown, changing the full name from Cedars to Cedars West End. The venue continued to pick up right where it initially left off, hosting everything from concerts, bring-your-own record nights, swing nights and much more.
“It has been a fixture in the local music scene. It’s always been a place where musicians, artists, writers and actors could gather and share ideas” says art professor at YSU and local concert-goer Tony Armeni.
Since January 2018, Tony Armeni has hosted Jam Nights at Cedars West End. Jam nights at the West End operate in the same spirit as an open mic night, but with a dash of chaos and uncertainty. During these gatherings, musicians bring their instruments, hop up on stage and create music in the moment with one another, making for an event that is just as expressive as it is eclectic. Whether it becomes a funk freak-out in 5/4 time, free jazz or harsh noise — anything goes.
After attending a few of the Jam Nights since the recent reopening of Cedars, it appears that these events have been doing a good job at catching the attention of newcomers and regulars. I have a chat with Dave Tamulonis, a friend of Armeni and practitioner in the art of jamming, to see what these events are all about.
“Jam Night at Cedar’s was started by Dana Sperry at Suzie’s Downtown as the Silence is Golden event through the YSU art department. Students made video art, and a group of improv musicians played a live improvised soundtrack behind the videos. The group of musicians — our professor Tony Armeni, Chauncey Hay and me — decided to continue playing together. I played in a Pink Floyd cover band with Tony and it was then in 2016 that we decided to rebrand and start hosting events as Tony Armeni and Friends,” he says.
According to Tamulonis, Jam Nights were also meant to be an alternative to Suzie’s more traditional jam nights that took place on Thursdays, often showcasing more structured blues and rock jams, whereas Tony’s Jam Nights are more on the open-ended and experimental spectrum.
“I remember one night in particular where by the end of the night, every person in the bar was on stage playing together all at once long after the 2:00 closing of the bar. They’re really a powerful experience for those that enjoy improvising and connecting with others through music,” Tamulonis says.
Dave Tamulonis bangin’ out the tunes. Photo by Jake Brandenstein/YO Magazine.
Despite the unpredictable circumstances of 2021, the crew at Cedars is doing their best to stay optimistic. When I ask about what’s in store for the future of Cedars, Danielson says he’s currently focusing on what’s to come in 2022.
“There’s a couple of bigger things that I chose to cancel, and the performer and the agents, they felt comfortable with that as well. It’s not a great time right now for touring bands, you know? So I’m thinking, you’ll probably see some stuff this spring happening. Until then, I’ll book a few things here and there. And I think if I can just keep the business going, keep the lights on, do that little thing.”