By Danielle Modica & Teresa Pavia | March 27, 2023
From cleaning up Albany basements, to enlisting friends as security guards, most underground venue organizers have similar experiences getting started and fizzling out once graduating or outgrowing the city. With Albany in dire need of a new basement to fill the music gap, Caesars Palace, led by Zeke and seven other housemates, came to the rescue. Caesars came in with a bang, providing an outlet for college students and local bands alike. Less than a year later, Caesars left the Albany venue list with an even bigger bang.
Band performing at Caesars Palace, featuring a mural of Caesar the cat
Photo Credit: Niomi Slingerland
Like many of the previous founders of underground basement venues across the city, Zeke became involved with the Albany music scene by attending other local shows.
“I started going to shows probably at the end of my freshman year and stayed pretty quiet in the scene, just kind of watching and observing,” Zeke said. “And once I moved into a space that I felt was like the right spot, I connected with some other heads in the scene and said, ‘hey we should throw shows out of this basement.’”
Zeke holding a Caesars Palace T-Shirt
Photo Credit: Owen Payne
Named after their cat, Caesar, and as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Las Vegas casino, Caesars Palace emerged as a new venue in March of 2022.
The Caesars team worked together to build their basement into something that could sustain live bands and large crowds of music-watchers.
“At first the basement was a shitshow. It needed to be gutted. So we had to clean out the whole basement, we got a mural painted, a soundboard set up and some furniture down there, but really it came down to contacting bands,” Zeke said. “We wanted a place so we could book stuff outside of the generic punk genre, even though I do like booking punk bands. We tried to keep it as broad as possible. Towards the end of it we were doing 100 to 200 person shows every weekend, every other weekend.”
Caesars Palace emphasized the community effort of organizing a safe environment for people to enjoy music.
“I tried to be a friendly face, I tried to go up and introduce myself to everybody who came to Caesars which definitely didn’t happen,” Zeke said. “But there's people that see me around that will be like: ‘oh hey the Caesars guy, I don't know you but good to meet you again,’ you know?”
In addition to being a friendly face, the Caesars team ensured there were enough “staff members” at each show as an extra level of security for guests.
“We had ten people working every single Caesars show,” Zeke said. “We had somebody in every part of the house, making sure everything was safe and functional, even if it’s like yeah, it’s still an Albany college basement.”
Guests gathered around a band performing in Caesars Palace
Photo Credit: Owen Payne
According to Zeke, the main goal of Caesars Palace was to re-emphasize the point of underground basement shows: the music.
“To no fault of the organizers of the venues, people would come to these venues as a sort of pregame. Shows start at eight, most frat parties don’t start ‘til 11, so people would just come to these shows, pregame, then go to the party afterwards,” Zeke said. “I didn’t want people coming to Caesars just to get drunk. I wanted people to come to Caesars to see music.”
Music often started later than advertised on posters to give watchers the opportunity to enjoy the shows in full.
“[Advertising early start times] allowed for people to come to Caesars as the event for the night or the weekend,” Zeke said. “It allowed people to be in this cultural music space with artists, vendors, and positive stuff going on that isn’t just the degeneracy of a frat party. I want to try to continue that motion.”
Clarifying the Palace’s stance on fraternities, Zeke said, “that doesn't mean I don't think bands should be playing frat parties, because I definitely want to see that… like I want to see E-Block play the rugby house.”
Frequently spotted in the Palace backyard was Brutus, the 160-pound mountain dog that kept a calm demeanor around the pumping of bass and guitar amplifiers.
“Brutus is just a gentle giant…he kind of grew up with the shows,” Zeke said. “Caesars is actually named after our cat, but he’s so shy so Brutus sort of became the mascot.”
Caesar & Brutus, the house pets
Photo Credit: Zeke
Caesar the cat was often a feature of Caesars Palace promotional posters, through cute home photos and artist renderings. CZR Entertainment, the booking agency that came out of the now-defunct Caesars Palace, has a logo of a digitized, matrix-y looking outline of Caesars likeness.
A crop of one poster, featuring a creative drawing of Caesar and Brutus together.
Poster Art Credit: Henry Fernau @henryfernau_art
Caesars continued throwing shows throughout the summer, collaborating with other venues and independent booking agencies in the Albany area, as well as connecting with local bands.
Constantly looking for new acts to book, the Caesars team came across attempted-presidential-assassin turned singer-songwriter John Hinckley Jr. in Fall 2022.
Previously scheduled for a show at New York City venue Arlene’s Grocery, which was canceled by the venue due to safety concerns, Caesars Palace reached out to book him for a December show.
“We were definitely doing it for the spectacle…the whole point of [booking] John Hinckley was to bring eyes to the scene,” Zeke said. “I was like, well I’m an underground venue, I can kind of like step around these things. Let’s email John Hinckley.”
“It started as somewhat of a joke,” Zeke said. “But eventually he got back to us.”
The Caesars team planned to hire increased security for the event, and kept the Hinckley appearance under wraps on all promotional posters and advertisements. Weeks before the show was scheduled to occur, Hinckley announced on Twitter that the Albany show had been canceled.
“We hadn’t had him announce the venue for the show due to the backlash that Arlene’s had gotten, and I wanted to [show] the people who are following [the] story about all these venues canceling on [Hinkley] that Caesars didn’t cancel,” Zeke said. “So I tweeted back at him like, ‘hey, we didn’t cancel the show and you didn’t tell me you were canceling the show until right now.’”
The Twitter conversation eventually caught the eye of a reporter at the Times Union. Within 24 hours an article had been published on the Times Union website detailing the planned and canceled show, as well as the Caesars Palace address and Zeke’s full name.
“I open the article, I read it, I was like, that’s not funny,” Zeke said. “It had my name and address in the article. I start emailing Steve Barnes [the reporter] like, hey, you need to take this article down. He posted my address in it, I live here. He sent [my concerns] up through the editors and I got on a call with the Editor-in-Chief of Times Union, and he’s cussing me out, telling me that it was irresponsible to try to book an act like this. About ten minutes after I get off the phone with him my roommate sends me a picture of the cease and desist that was on our door.”
“I’m sure as soon as the city saw that address [in the article], they looked it up and said ‘oh, this is a residential zone and you're operating a commercial business,’” Zeke continued. “Which, sure, you can call Caesars a commercial business all you want, but we didn't make any money.”
“It was sustainable, but it wasn’t a profit motive at all,” Zeke said. “It was definitely about the music, the community and building local culture back up after COVID.”
Caesars Palace posted an announcement of their closure to their Instagram. Their last ever venue-hosted show took place the night before, a special event for the live recording album of local band, The E-Block.
Caesars Palace Closure Announcement Post
Photo Credit: CZR Entertainment Instagram
With bands booked for shows scheduled out until April, Zeke and the Caesars team decided to reschedule and re-market their brand. Zeke created CZR Entertainment in collaboration with Ben, the creator of a booking agency called Two Dead Hummingbirds and The Rat Den, a new Albany underground venue that opened in July 2022.
“Right now we have nine bands as a part of our CZR network that we're working on actively booking local shows and booking tours for,” Zeke said. “We plan on building these local shows to continue growing the Albany scene. All it takes is one of these bands to blow up, we've seen it happen before with Prince Daddy and the Hyena, hopefully we’re continuing that sort of pattern.”
Since Caesars Palace’s birth and death, the Albany underground music scene has only expanded, with three more prominent venues popping up in the downtown area within the last year.
“When Caesars first started we were the only venue in the area actively booking and promoting our shows aggressively to the college crowd, ” Zeke said. “Then within three months of that, The Rat Den, The Dojo [Beyond Time and Space] and Hudson Station all opened up within a mile of us, which is awesome.”
CZR Entertainment has hosted multiple shows in collaboration with The Rat Den, The Dojo Beyond Time and Space, and Hudson Station. According to Zeke, CZR intends on more collaborations in the future.
“There’s over 500 active bands in the Albany area,” Zeke said. “Which is insane. I think this city is growing culturally for sure, and the underground scene is a big part of that.”
Writers’ Note: “It Sounds Better in the Basement” is a developing series playing off of punk band The Devil is Electric’s 2001 release of the same name. The song represents the soul of basement shows and its importance in providing a platform for local bands. As Albany college students, we strongly believe in sedimenting the student culture of the Capital Region for generations to look back on. As UAlbany’s independent student newspaper, it is our mission to tell stories while protecting those who live them - which is why we have chosen to refer to sources on a first-name basis (unless receiving permission otherwise). This series will continue with features of other local venues, bands, and notable figures. Next up, Hudson Station.