Come for a Listen Saturday Night

By Freddie Joseph

Thirty years is a long time to stick with anything … marriages, jobs, a home. In this modern era of short attention spans, we are sometimes overwhelmed with awe when 30 years “at” something is celebrated.

Loyalty, continuity, consistency are words used far less today than in the “old days” (my parent’s era). But they apply most certainly to our man of the hour, Joe Wagner, and his mid-week musical performance venue, the Gin Mill.

I’ve been searching the internet (Googling) to see who else besides Joe has been playing a steady gig for this long … at the same venue, on the same night of the week. I can’t even find this category on the Guinness Book of World Records website, but that’s OK … we’ll create our own.

Joe was born on May 28, 1953 in the Springville area, where still lives, and is the middle child of six. He comes from a musical family — both parents and grandparents. His dad played piano and trombone, but fed the family with a day job at the Erie County Highway Department. Joe’s maternal grandmother, Mabel Kestner, was his favorite musical mentor. His earliest gig was singing in the choir for a Latin mass back in the 60s.

After graduating high school in 1971, Joe followed his dad into the highway department for about 10 years until his music bug took him to full-time status. He recalled to me his first paid gig at 17 playing for a friend’s wedding, but he was also in a country rock band called Stetson through the end of the 70s, even going on the road with them to Texas, playing a grueling six nights a week.

Asked how he got the Gin Mill gig, Joe said a friend from East Otto, Rich Niles, suggested he stop in and talk to Tom Zerbian and his sister Janet. He did and set up the Wednesday weekly tie-in with discounted chicken wings, starting then at 9 p.m. Rich and Joe played together at first, then alternated until Rich bowed out, leaving Joe as a solo act for many years. New owners Jeanne and Ed Clarmo, who owned the Gin Mill from 1995 to 2007, kept the status quo (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

Joe’s collaboration with guitarist/vocalist John Winston has been steady for about a decade now, with roots going back to when John’s brother Andy and Joe’s sister Mary Jane became friends while attending SUNY Fredonia University. Having mutual folk music interests, the occasional jam session produced a mutual respect for each other’s talents, and soon John was sitting in more often with Joe. Not long after, Wagner & Winston was born.

Besides Wagner & Winston, Joe also has The Joe Wagner Band, consisting of a longtime trusted group of various talented sidemen that provide percussion and other instruments to flesh out Joe and John’s basic sound. In addition to playing occasional weekend nights at the Gin Mill, they also play around the area often for both bar gigs and private functions.

I’m fortunate to be one of Joe’s sidemen and sat in for John on percussion and vocals during the ski season on Wednesdays while John was on his “health sabbatical” in New Mexico.

Joe and his wife Jeannene, an administrator for the Pioneer School District in Arcade N.Y., have five children and five grandchildren between them, which makes for a very busy life. Both his family and professional life are very rewarding to him, and he plans to keep on playing.

The Gin Mill’s owners, Ed and Maribeth Rick, are big music fans themselves and hope to keep things just the way they are. This Saturday they’ll be celebrating Joe’s 30th anniversary, along with his band, friends, family, locals and fans from every corner of the globe to listen to his “acoustic comfort music” that has, for 30 years, made the Gin Mill and Ellicottville one of the best places for live music.

Good luck, Joe, and we hope for another 30!