The Varnish Cooks
Gig Seeker Pro

The Varnish Cooks


Band Americana Folk


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"Modern to them is 100 years old"

Modern to them is 100 years old

Jeff Spevak
Staff music critic

(November 1, 2007) — A decade ago, Ben Proctor was a teenage kid in Connecticut, playing trumpet in an unlikely band called The Afro-Semitic Experience, when he absorbed what might be the driving lesson of his life.

"The communal value of music, and the cultural value of music, definitely still affects how I play my kind of music now," he says.

With an ethnomusicology degree on the wall, and working toward a music-education degree at the Eastman School of Music, the 29-year-old Proctor has moved on from trumpet and a band that blended Jewish music with African-American hymns. Now he plays a handful of stringed instruments, particularly banjo, in the highly polished Varnish Cooks.

Saturday at Boulder Coffee, Proctor is joined by mandolin player Greg Fair, guitarist Greg Paul and bassist Ryan Griffith, who, as a Civil War re-enactor, is a fine fit for a band that sticks to 150-year-old songs.

"A lot of research is being done in parts of the world where traditions are being extinguished," says Proctor, wearing his ethnomusicologist lid. He thinks of Myanmar, the former Burma, where the government is accused of atrocities against its people. His own research includes Irish music in Rochester, and a nearly forgotten minister's influence on hymns in western New York, poring over "Methodist meeting notes and old hymnals, diaries that are 150 years old with half the pages missing.

"With music traditions, we think of them as this organic process that just happens, when actually it's people exerting their will onto music that they really love."

That's where the Varnish Cooks find their songs, from like-minded archeologists of Appalachian twang.

Proctor then becomes, according to our research, the first banjo picker to compare his music to Ron Paul, the only Republican presidential candidate speaking against George Bush's invasion of Iraq. Paul, Proctor says, is "a candidate of substance and intellectual consistency," concepts that leave him polling at 2 percent. "His ideas aren't new," Proctor says. "As a band, we sort of think that integrity and recalling things pure and true is really relevant in post-modern times. This music is definitely relevant."

For more, go to - Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

"Roots: The Varnish Cooks"

While not exactly recognized as a bluegrass hotbed, our region abounds with the kind of hazy rural folklore that fits that music. The members of the Varnish Cooks, now a four-piece with the addition of increasingly tradition-fascinated singer-songwriter Gregory Paul, began exploring "old-time" music as young adults, but continue to approach it with the convincing zeal of lifelong devotees. The Varnish Cooks aren't looking to present the music as frozen in time. Instead, they're intent on keeping it alive by allowing for improvisation - an element which they insist was essential to its original vitality. Ironically, this only makes the music more convincing, as does its subtle but strong suggestions of human moral frailty. - Rochester City Newspaper

"Varnish isn't all that Cooks..."

Excuse the lame title, but the point I’m getting at is if you haven’t made it out to see the Varnish Cooks yet - get out there now!

The Varnish Cooks are an old time String band based right here in Rochester, NY. For more info on them and to learn a bit more check out their web sites: Varnish Cooks or the site every band is nuts to not have since they’re free: Varnish Cook’s Myspace page.

After a pretty decent burger at Red Robin I took the family up to House of Hamez to see the Cooks along with the Powder Kegs, who I bet were awesome - but having a 5 year old meant I didn’t get to stay for the whole show… I did manage to use my son to get us some seats though!

First of all, House of Hamez is in fact, one of the best small rooms to play an acoustic show in Rochester. Formerly known as Daily Perks, It’s barely 4 months into it’s run as a new business. It’s a place a lot of us musicians feel has a lot of potential, even as Perks.

They hired a sound guy who although he’s a bit quirky and out there, does an amazing job. He told us he custom built the PA speakers and really has put some thought into making that room sound good. He also - get this - stays at the sound board while there is music being made, taking his headphones on and off all night and monitoring everything with the visual aid of some computer sound recording program. I know from personal experience, he’ll do that same thing even when you’re playing to an empty room.

But last night was no empty room at all - something I’m sure the owner, James Rowe took notice of… Hamez was so packed that they had to turn people away! And get this… some people were waiting outside so that when a few people would leave they could get in! I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’m guessing a lot of the draw was for the Powder Kegs, as they’ve been blessed with some exposure since they won a contest on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” I saw a lot of people in attendance that were probably in their 60’s or older - people who were amazed out loud at the talent of the opening act - The Varnish Cooks.

But there was also a good amount of young faces in the place, besides my wife and I. I hear that most Cooks shows have a very good turn out. Probably because there aren’t a lot of people playing this kind of music - playing it well anyway. It’s a niche that seems forgotten most of the time.

“John,” you might ask, “where did you hear about the Varnish Cooks?”

Well, I have this love for the music and respect for the life boldly led by one of Rochester’s Gems, Gregory Paul. Greg is a local musician, artist, poet - a renaissance man in the truest form. This is what he does. Constantly playing gigs with different musical projects or having his artwork in one of the local galleries, he doesn’t go to work in some factory every day to keep up the appearance of a normal life. He’s free of all that - a blessing and a curse, but none the less, people like him are essential to the artistic side of the City of Rochester.

GP recently joined the Cooks and was very excitedly talking about the band to my friend one night at the Lux Lounge. Great name, cool posters, old timey string band, and Greg is in the band now? I’m f****n’ there man! And I’m so glad we went because they killed it up there. My wife liked it too, which just completes the experience for me.

The thing about the cooks is that they oozed realness from the stage. None of them were mind blowing or shredding up their on banjos or whatever. I saw Ricky Scaggs open for Wille Nelson this summer and it was great - but that band is made up of people who are recognized as the best players - period. They were jaw dropping, but it was almost too good.

The Varnish Cooks were just some real, local dudes playing with feeling and they were still amazing to anyone who’s ever tried to play any of the instruments up there. Ben Proctor the Banjo player was pulling out some great stuff, picking with a fever and pulling some bluesy bend offs. Greg Fair on mandolin was chunking away at his side and providing a little background info before each tune. Ryan Griffith, the bass player was entertaining as hell for me anyway. He was huffing and puffing and rocking back and forth - playing the stand up with his whole being. And there’s no frets, so that already makes you good in my book.

The vocals were great although mic placement might have been better if centered more - but that’s me being picky, and the band looked like you’d want a group like this to look. No flashy suits, no bare feet, overalls and straw hats, they just looked like real guys.

But the neatest thing to see was Greg Paul taking a supporting role. In his solo music, Gregory Paul is up there, pushing sonic boundaries, creating all this sound as one man and a guitar or banjo and creating a very surreal and often reflective mood while his voice floats high in the air, tackling lyrics which are often comprised of poetry and prose. The guy is deep - weblog

"The Varnish Cooks: Old Time Music For The New Age"

Review by J.P.

Good help is hard to find or so the saying goes, the same can be said about music. In this age of sampling and digital loops it is extremely rare to find original music that is just about the music, nothing more and far from less. I had the distinct pleasure of taking in an afternoon concert by the band The Varnish Cooks. The band made up of Aaron Maras, Ben Proctor, Greg Fair and Ryan Griffith play a style of music that is not found too often these days and certainly not often by young men of their age group. The style the band performs is old-time stringband traditional American music. Each song, whether it be original or a cover is crafted and played so meticulously well, you would think you are listening to a recording if you looked away from the live display. The blended sounds of the slide guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright bass accent each other in a beautiful stylistic arrangement. The vocal harmony plays to the senses, telling stories of old while recreating the new. This is what music is all about, down to the nitty gritty of it all. No special effects or smoke and mirrors, just raw talent playing songs from the roots of the American musical family tree. The audience was intoxicated with the swirls of old time music or according to the band's website, they absolutely achieved their goal of "yearn(ing) with their audience for transcendent simplicity." Everyone from young kids to seniors raved about the music and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. If you want to treat yourself to a truly amazing musical journey visit their website at or at MySpace at and purchase their new album Father, Get Ready When He Calls You.Too often in music we look for something different and cool to throw money at and never quite achieve what The Varnish Cooks make look so easy which is the complicated and simple task of going back to the basics. - One World Planet Weblog


"Elzic's Farewell," their latest self-produced album, was released in late January 2008. It features thirteen songs recorded in the spirit of Americana music, including four live tracks from a late 2007 show.

Their first self-produced album, "Father, Get Ready When He Calls You," pays homage to nine select old-time tunes. Each song is performed with an abiding love for the tradition yet woven with the band's signature style as well.



The Varnish Cooks are musicians who pursue the old-time stringband tradition with intensity and emotional clarity. Based in Rochester, New York, they perform both original and old-time songs according to the impetuous and poetic spirit of American music. The Varnish Cooks do not let dust settle on old-time music. They are committed to the passion, improvisation, and mystery at the heart of the old-time tradition. The music is not pure; it is stained with clay and the blood of peoples, and stubbornly holds onto an integrity that could only grow from the celebrated and dark American story.

In this post-modern age, media distracts us incessantly with fleeting information and entertainment. The Varnish Cooks yearn with their audience for transcendent simplicity. They retell the ancient songs without altering them, joining their voices with the musical ancestry that has passed down the music for hundreds of years. All music emerges from the vernacular, and a return to our roots is a crucial response to the fractured escapism of our day. Although the context for old-time music has changed, its relevance to the longing and joy of the heart has not.

Since their birth in the spring of 2007, The Varnish Cooks have stormed onto the Rochester, NY music scene. During the summer of 2007, they have played coffee houses, street and art festivals, folk festivals, and string band festivals, and were featured live on WRUR-FM. In March, 2008 the band won the Juried Music Competition of the International Arts Movement, and performed at the IAM conference in Manhattan. They have shared the stage with the likes of The Powder Kegs, Mac Benford, and Bob Carlin.