Jersey City Spring – Saturday, June 28 (Fox & Crow)
Of the many things that recommended Maxwell’s, there was one perk that really impressed New York City musicians: they fed the band. Not just the band; sometimes the band’s friends, too. Fans who came out could sit in the restaurant and have a nice dinner before the show. Everybody ate in the same room, which was democratizing. Look, there’s Steve Shelley, having a snack. Rock was the focus, but eating was part of the experience, too.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, this was unusual. If you were hungry at CBGB, too bad; go hunting around the Bowery for a bodega. Luna Lounge, Coney Island High, Brownies, the original Knitting Factory: not places to grab a meal. Those were, in many ways, leaner times. The garage-rock explosion of the turn of the millennium did not come with a side of fries. More saliently, food culture hadn’t yet taken over the collective consciousness. There wasn’t a nonstop barrage of cooking programs on the television and chefs ascending to positions previously occupied by poets and singers. In 2018, we’re endlessly fascinated by the edible. That’s where we are. People want dinner.
Jersey City has adapted. Our new music rooms follow the Maxwell’s model and carry it further. Every place I’ve visited this week takes its kitchen seriously. The Pet Shop serves a vegetarian menu; FM, for the meat-eaters, makes an array of burgers. White Eagle Hall has fitted two restaurants into its ground floor, including one – Madame Claude Café – that was, in its old location, an anchor of local culture for years. The Hutton’s menu is somewhat haute and influenced by culinary trends: prosciutto-wrapped salmon, coffee-rubbed duck breast, apple guacamole. To some degree this is bet-hedging: if the music doesn’t work out, there are always patties to sling. But it’s also an acknowledgement of changed expectations. When people go out, they want something to eat – something impressive, Instagrammable.
Fox & Crow in the Heights understands this as well as any institution in town. Their menu isn’t expansive, but everything that comes out of the kitchen is well made and nicely presented. It’s pub food – crab patties, fries, nachos, grilled cheese – but it all fits neatly in the frame of an iPhone camera and elicits FOMO on the feeds of fools who failed to come out to the show. The Fox & Crow back room is pretty: tin ceilings and chandeliers and a long velvet drape in the back of the performance area. It’s also small. When we arrive, all the seats are full and nearly everybody is eating. We stand in the back and watch the performance, and do our best not to get in the way of the waitresses.
And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this, but I recognize some of the same faces I saw at White Eagle Hall on Friday night. Brian Lawrey, the young country-rock singer songwriter who impressed me at the Silver Horse Sound showcase, is sitting right in front of the ten o’clock performer and singing along to her songs. Her guitarist, too – didn’t he play in half of the mini-sets the prior evening, or are my eyes deceiving me?
Any doubt is banished when the singer speaks to the crowd. She thanks The Latest Noise and tells the audience that she’ll be appearing at FM on Thursday with a few artists whose names I’ve learned over the past forty-eight hours. This appears to be a genuine, mutually-supportive collective: not only aren’t they exhausted from the big show the prior evening, they’re back for more in a new neighborhood to the northwest. A square flier with a download link to a song of hers is passed around the tables, and people put down their fries to help circulate them. Her name is Jaime Rose, and she shuffles some Tom Petty and Zombies covers in with her folk-rock originals. It can be challenging to sing to people who are eating – attention is divided by necessity, otherwise, there’s a mess – but listeners are following her stories and applauding enthusiastically after every song.
I’m here to see Debra Devi, a local musician I’ve never caught live, which feels like a terrible omission that a Hudson County rock kangaroo court ought to fine me for. Every time I’ve encountered her recordings, I’ve always been impressed: they’re polished and pro-sounding, and they always foreground her musical intelligence. Devi’s records are direct in a manner that I don’t tend to encounter when I hear other ambitious Hudson County independent acts, most of whom apply masking agents to their sound: digital reverb, or big, distorted midrange electric guitar, or tape murk or other pleasant nonsense. In keeping with the explanatory aesthetic I believe I get from her songs, Devi has actually written a book about the music that inspires her. It’s called The Language of the Blues from Alcorub to Zuzu, and I’ve read it. She sent a copy to the newspaper when it was released, and I never got an opportunity to review it in print. So I’m telling you right now: it’s absolutely worthwhile. Devi talks blues terminology with some legendary practitioners (Hubert Sumlin and Jimmie Vaughan are in there), and she’s just as insightful and funny as they are. Nat Hentoff liked it, and that, right there, ought to be more than enough for you, music fan.
Devi’s performance carries the same playfulness and transparency I remember from her book. She neither overplays nor oversings: everything she does is in the service of whatever discrete musical idea she’s currently determined to express. Nor is she particularly deliberate – she’s just certain, sure of herself, and modest in her presentation. She’s like one of those miners with a lantern on her helmet, tunneling through her solid songs, illuminating the few feet in front of her and not bothering with whatever is lurking down the shaft. She plays her first few numbers on acoustic guitar, but the show really comes alive when she switches to electric. This gives her an opportunity to solo, which she does often, and with tonal and melodic sensitivity that reminds me quite a bit of David Gilmour. That’s probably not what she’s going for – I gather she’s more committed to authentic blues – but after years of nonstop growth and cold numbers on the ledger, I believe Hudson County demands a little abstraction.
She shares several musicians with Jaime Rose, who she refers to as a friend. I believe it. Devi doesn’t seem quite as ensconced in the Latest Noisecrew as Rose did, but her artistic concerns seem contiguous with theirs, and they’re familiar with her music. Last night I was amazed at how the promoters were able to make a venue as big as White Eagle Hall feel as clubby, and chummy, as college dormitory. Fox & Crow was built for intimacy, but it’s still a welcome thing to watch some of that same warmth transfer to a room in a different part of town. And I am reminded again that a local pop scene only looks daunting and confusing from the outside. Once you start to pay attention, you learn the players pretty quickly. All you have to do is hold your breath, and dive in.
Okay, that’s all for now. Thank you for reading along with me. This story isn’t over: I may do some more of these. It’s still spring.
Tris McCall is a stalwart of Jersey City music, it’s scene and the artistic culture. In this new series, he’ll be covering the emotions and, more importantly, the journey to certain exciting venues around town. We’re happy to have him traverse around town, helping all of us feel a bit more connected to the JC music scene; which has always existed and now, deserving even more highlighting.
This series is dedicated to all you Rockers, Musicians, Artists, and of course, JC fans.