Lillian Bustle, a burlesque performer, was scheduled to appear at FM on Thursday night. Then she wasn’t. The municipal government decided Bustle was in violation of an obscenity law that could apply equally to just about any live performer in town, and threatened to slap the new club with thousands of dollars in fines and a possible revocation of its license. Lillian Bustle got some publicity out of it. The rest of us just got sick to our stomachs. Again.
Nobody was shocked by this. We are all painfully familiar with the hammer that the municipal administration holds over the heads of artists and arts venues alike. Its presence has been the primary inhibiting factor on local music, and no matter how much activity happens here or how much money Jersey City spends on destination marketing, the scene is never going to flourish until City Hall learns to relax.
Censorship is always rotten, but it’s particularly chilling when its application is arbitrary. Lillian Bustle has been performing around Jersey City for at least five years. Why did this particular show – which did not promise to be different in tone from other shows she’s done — offend the sensibilities of the morality police in City Hall? Your guess is as good as mine. Because there’s never any consistency in enforcement, nobody in town knows when the government is going to decide that a line has been crossed. The vague, awful obscenity ordinance, which is written in brutal legalese, doesn’t clarify anything. It ought to have been stricken from the municipal code. That it hasn’t is an affront to artists and an indictment of everybody in office who claims to care about local culture.
According to Terrence McDonald of the Jersey Journal, Jeremy Farrell, the town’s attorney, argues that burlesque is obscene by contemporary community standards. Mr. Farrell, I’m from the community: I live a block from FM. I’m confident that most of my neighbors wouldn’t have a problem with Lillian Bustle’s act. Moreover, I doubt that any of the people who… er… bustled on over to FM on Friday night require government protection from anybody’s seductive wiles. Some in that crowd — the biggest I’ve seen at the venue so far — may have shown up because of the attention that the controversy has attracted. But I’d wager most came for local acts Miss Ohio, Forget The Whale, and the Foxfires, and to support an exciting new space that, after a month of shows, already feels like an mainstay.
It is meaningful that the organizers can slap three bands as different as The Foxfires, Miss Ohio and Forget The Whale together back to back to back without causing much dissonance. Headliners The Foxfires is a shoegaze indie-rock groups of lads who play as tightly as they are from New York City; Miss Ohio plays muscular, ragged country-rock with single-minded intent and emotional coherence foregrounded; Forget The Whale is glammed-up, restless, showy, gleefully scrambling elements from punk, pop-metal, classic rock, and maybe Broadway, too. Miss Ohio frontman David Wilson is genial and self-effacing, and his songs are suffused with melancholy. Lead singer and guitarist Christian Diana more than pumps it up on the stage with very cool and dominating presence, correctly representing what his band and bandmates are all about. Alishia Taiping of Forget The Whale leads with her exuberance and charisma and comports herself like a rock star. As a side note, she and bassist Dan Pieraccini appeared in matching tight leather pants. I don’t remember what the members of Miss Ohio were wearing, and I get the strong sense that they’d prefer it that way.
With exception to The Foxfires, Miss Ohio and Forget The Whale, both nodded vigorously, to the early ‘90s. That was the heyday of the heavy rhythm guitar attack, and Miss Ohio had that in spades – sometimes both Wilson and guitarist Jim Kaznosky strummed the same distorted chords in unison. At other times, they played harmony leads over fuzz bass (one song referenced Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, in case you needed to know where they were coming from). Kaznosky, also of Manouche Bag, is a dexterous guitar player, and some of the slow-simmering numbers erupted when he took his leads. Better still, he added subtle color and shading to the Wilco-like songs – gentle whammy bar, volume pedal washes, slow note bends, anything to assist the feeling of weary grandeur.
Miss Ohio hung back and let the audience come to the songs. Forget The Whale was far more assertive, which suited the material. This is a band with attitude to burn: they make pro showbiz moves and they don’t apologize for any of them. Pieraccini, for instance, wanted to make sure the audience knew that Taiping was hot. (Announcement unnecessary, pal.) The four musicians rocked hard, but they also put a premium on the sort of casual theatricality that works well in a small rock club – their songs have built-in twists and turns, breakdowns and stylistic pivots, opportunities for a bit of badass posturing. They want to generate dramatic moments; more than that, they want to keep you on your toes. They also were more than happy to throw red meat to the crowd. An impressive cover of the Cranberries’ 1994 hit “Zombie”, dedicated to the late Dolores O’Riordan, gave Taiping a chance to show off her vocal chops — which are considerable. O’Riordan, ham that she was, would surely have appreciated.
The Foxfires lit up the stage with their characteristic New York City indie-rock and combination folk rock, which on stage transforms strongly to alt-rock sensibilities. Their tight and regimented playing was slightly unexpected. However the surprise, was very welcome and was an emphatic stamp on their live excitement. We’d stated when we reviewed their single ‘Don’t Give Up’ in February: “The band features a healthy dose of encouraging messaging wrapped in a beautifully bouncy melody and an overall positive vibe. There is also a certain laid-backness to it which only adds to the appeal”. This assumption carried through live: loud, clear, and effectively.
The groups, in short, were opposites: one polite, earnest, and committed to straightforward song presentation, the other bursting at the seams and determined to entertain, and one folksy, vibrant, and focused attitudes deliciously encased in positivity. Any club that can accommodate these approaches – and FM, as it turns out, is a club like that – is a keeper. I’d like very much to stop worrying about whether we’ll be able to hold on to FM, especially since the crowds are coming out, and from the bands to the bookers to the people who’ve just wandered in to get a burger, everybody seems to be having a really good time. Unfortunately, City Hall won’t let me, and that’s a downright shame. Fingers crossed, friends.
Report by: Tris McCall and CHF Staff.