Student band woos crowd at Westcott Theater


CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Max Newland’s and Grennan Milliken’s academic years were misstated. Newland is a senior and Milliken is an SU alumnus. The Daily Orange regrets this error. 

The Vanderbuilts’ website classifies the band as a “folk-tinged indie rock outfit.” But the band doesn’t want listeners even thinking about classifying its sound as folk rock.

“We’re a rock and roll band with eclectic influences,” said lead singer and guitarist Sam Kogon.

Bassist Max Newland takes it a step further.

“We are a unique collection of five very different people and musicians,” Newland said. “We didn’t get together because we all liked Led Zeppelin or any one genre. Our sound is a synergistic sum of all its parts.”

That synergistic sum features a quintet of diverse musicians, including Kogon, Newland, Aya Yamamoto on violin, Dave Riddell on keyboard, guitar and backup vocals, and Grennan Milliken on drums.

Tuesday night at the Westcott Theater, their rock ‘n’ roll sound was on display in the Vanderbuilts’ most high-profile act to date: an opening set for country stalwart Leon Russell.

After an unassuming start at the Westcott, Kogon and company ignited a standing ovation from the seated section of 200-plus paying customers at the conclusion of their 12-song, 42-minute opening act. The set concluded with the Vanderbuilts’ two most popular songs: the violin-heavy “I’m Coming Home” and the keyboard-centric “Far From Here.”

The band, who is made of four State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry seniors and an alumnus, came together in the fall of 2010, a year after Kogon and Riddell bonded over their musical passions as freshmen dorm neighbors.

“One day early in the semester, I was playing a ditty on my guitar and I heard harmonizing sounds coming through the walls. We jammed an entire song that way and then I knocked on his door and we continued to play,” Kogon said.

Before long, Yamamoto, another floor mate and senior at ESF, joined in on the action. The trio would play Klezmer, a jazzy folk style of Yiddish music that emerged in Russian ghettos, and various folk tunes during their dorm jam sessions. Milliken was a friend of Kogon’s who lived in another dorm and Newland arrived via a recommendation from one of Kogon’s old bandmates from a prior group.

In the spring of 2011, the Vanderbuilts won ESF’sBattleof the Bands competition and have been playing small venues in the Syracuse area ever since.

At Westcott on Tuesday, the five 20-somethings won over a packed house of late middle-aged country bluebloods with Willie Nelson beards. The crowd was mostly there to see country veteran headliner Leon Russell.

But as Kogon explained, even as an opening act, the Vanderbuilts welcome the challenge of playing to an unfamiliar demographic.

“The place doesn’t matter nearly as much as who you play for. We have turned the grungiest of basements into packed rock clubs filled with the best energy,” he said.

As an up-and-coming band, the Vanderbuilts have a special appreciation for performing in those grungy basements, Newland said.

“They’re the most intimate venues to play. You can feel it when it gets packed because you can really tell if people are into your music,” Newland said.

The lyrics of the songs on the band’s set list, like their sound, brought together diverse themes.

“’I’m Coming Home’ is a story about a solider writing to his love back home, promising he’ll be there soon. He does come home sooner than expected, in a coffin,” Kogon said.

While it represents the fragility of life, the finality of death and the end of a journey, “Far From Here” represents a fresh start.

“It’s pretty raw and gritty because it’s based on my aunt running away from home as a child,” Kogon said. “It’s about how sometimes, the best way to fix everything is to burn it down and start anew.”

In two-plus years together, the group has already put together two albums.  “Miguel’s Orchard” is a 10-song compilation of the group’s first few years together. “Far From Here” is a five-song EP that Kogon calls the group’s “interpretation of where we are headed as a country, society, world.”

David Kahne, a Grammy award-winning producer for Paul McCartney and The Strokes, among others, praised “Miguel’s Orchard” in an email to Kogon back in April.

“I like the vibe of ‘Miguel’s Orchard.’ Fun music, but with a darkness on the inside of it,” he said.

That’s exactly what Kogon and the Vanderbuilts are going for.


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