Jersey City Spring – Friday, April 27 (White Eagle Hall and FM)
White Eagle Hall could use a nice bicycle rack out front. Besides that, they’re doing everything right. Bookings have been solid: a mix of party/jam bands, Jersey (and Jersey-ish) emo acts, and respectable, ruminative singer-songwriters like Alejandro Escovedo and Aimee Mann. Not much cheese, not much nostalgic nonsense. Not much hip-hop, either, but you can’t have everything.
But a mid-sized performance hall is only useful to a music scene if there’s a reasonable chance that local artists can participate; otherwise, it’s just a museum. On this score, White Eagle Hall has exceeded expectations. The Hall has invited popular regional acts to open shows for touring bands and sometimes they’ve even engaged them to headline. Crazy And The Brains – they of the Funhouse nights under the Turnpike extension and the punk rock xylophone – have a date coming up in support of the Slackers. On Cinco De Mayo, Rye Coalition is leading a slate of Jersey acts at the Hall’s first birthday party. Admission is free with an online RSVP. That ought to be a wild evening: a community-center night, a genuine scene-builder.
Tonight, White Eagle Hall has ceded partial control of the bill to The Latest Noise, a Hudson County production company with a podcast and a smart website. From all indications, this is a completely independent operation – a labor of love by a tight group of affiliated musicians and producers who’d like to call attention to the work they’re doing. I can respect that. This isn’t the first time The Latest Noise has taken over White Eagle Hall for an evening, and their success ought to give some encouragement to every promoter in Jersey. This big new theater is willing to work with enterprising locals. Tonight, Latest Noise is hosting a musical revue: short sets by acts affiliated with the Hoboken studio Silver Horse Sound.
My plan is to catch some of the event here. Then I’ll cross the street to FM for a set by Scarlet Sails, a new project from Brian Viglione, a drummer who is probably best known for his time with the Dresden Dolls but who has played with Nine Inch Nails and the Violent Femmes, too. My assumption is that the show at FM is free, but it occurs to me that I might be wrong. It’s a chilly night, and foolishly, I didn’t bother with a coat; I don’t want to have to bicycle to an ATM. For the White Eagle Hall showcase, I pre-paid: fifteen bucks, online. Not an expensive ticket, but not nothing, either. The Hall is pretty big. Would the promoters be able to sell enough tickets to fill it?
Well, yes; yes, they did. Doors open to people everywhere: people at the bar, people at the merch table, people with cameras at the front of the house waiting for their favorites to sing. Once again, attendance has exceeded my expectations. This has been a recurring theme of my Jersey City music nights in 2018 – the crowd is always bigger than I think it’s going to be. Folks are showing up. Something is prodding them, getting them out, compelling them participate. I’m reminded of Williamsburg in 2000, and then I kick myself for making comparisons. Nobody needs that; we’re not Brooklyn, and we don’t want to be. An imitative scene is no scene at all. Perhaps expecting a smaller turnout, White Eagle Hall has cordoned off the balcony. They didn’t have to. There’s room to move, but the floor is full.
As advertised, the show is brisk and neatly stage-managed, a proper showcase for the studio and its clients. Many acts share backing musicians; one frizzy-headed bongo player who must be a producer at Silver Horse keeps turning up in various roles, including background-vocal shouter, hype man, and all-purpose enthusiast. I recognize Gerry Rosenthal, guitar player, songwriter, and longtime local-culture supporter, backing a few of these performers. The musicians introduce each other – they do seem to constitute a mini-scene, or, at the very least, a genuine, mutually supportive group of friends. Mike Kuzan, the hat-wearing honcho behind The Latest Noise, is a part of the camaraderie, and the music, too: he adds piano and vocals to a few sets, and performs a pair of his own songs with an act called Kirk and Kuz. He dedicates the night to a sick family member. In his plainspoken earnestness and his goodwill, he’s giving me flashbacks to Andy Gesner’s Artist Amplification.
Though the bands are varied – there’s rock here, and Americana, and some Irish pub music, and a pinch of reggae, too – a prevailing Silver Horse aesthetic is evident. These are roots musicians, not pop artists; they’re traditionalists, not envelope-pushers. They’re relaxed – they trust their songs and don’t oversell the hooks. I see more mandolins than synthesizers. Nobody uses canned beats. Some of these acts would probably fit in fine on the jam-band circuit, particularly Liam Brown and the Pounds, who dropped a bit of the Banana Boat song into one extended number and namechecked Christy Moore in another (I sure smiled). Brendan Hartnett, an acoustic guitarist, performs his whiskey-soaked songs with minimum accompaniment. He states his intention to mellow White Eagle Hall out. He succeeds, but the crowd still claps at the solos. I’m overwhelmed by the sense that everybody in the house knows each other – that I’m among a group of friends here, and that the people on the floor are just as excited to see their pals on the big stage as the club musicians are to sing through a top-notch, professional-grade sound system.
I enjoy everything, but one act stands out. Brian Lawrey, a modest-looking twenty-something guy in specs, delivers his country-rock material with vigor, clarity, and some welcome belligerence. In his songs I hear urgency, and bitterness, and frustration and moral complexity, and as a bad actor myself, I appreciate all of it. Like the young Jim Atkins, he’s got a voice like a firm handshake. No tricks, no melismatic deviations from the melodies, everything cut to the chase. I feel taken by the elbow and led through his verses – he’s got something he’s desperate to communicate, and I’m pretty sure I’m getting it. Just as I’m thinking to myself that his was the rare Jersey act that would play in Nashville, he drops a song about going to Nashville. Or is it Asheville? Either way; they’d appreciate him in the storytelling cities of the South.
The crowd is nicely boisterous, but I notice that most faces in the audience are turned toward the stage. People have been paying attention all night. A very large crowd has come out to hear local independent music, and for no other reason. I’m impressed by what the promoters have pulled off, but I also feel like those who’ve been making the argument for years that an enormous appetite for live music exists in Hudson County ought to feel vindicated. Yet I also can’t help wondering if the performers made optimal use of the stage they’d been provided. Almost no one was dressed for the occasion: with their pullovers and their Brian Johnson-style newsboy caps, these musicians looked like ordinary fellows you might encounter at a bar on Washington Street. Showmanship was kept to a polite minimum; there were none of those sudden eruptions of ungovernable, dangerous charisma that a space like White Eagle Hall ought to encourage. I recognize this as part of the democratic aesthetic of the night – and maybe of contemporary Hudson County, too. But this is showbiz, and I do like to be shown something.
I have ambivalent feelings about the Dresden Dolls, but I’d never doubt Amanda Palmer’s commitment to spectacle. Scarlet Sails was wrangled over to FM by Shayfer James, the mover behind some of the more theatrical pop-rock shows held in Hudson County over the past few years. With James curating the night, I expect some flash, and I’m not disappointed. The band is fronted by a blonde-hair-whipping Russian woman with glitter on her cheeks. She’s got pink sunglasses, a studded belt, and pants so tight they appear to have been welded to her legs. I approve. The Scarlet Sails set is pleasantly all over the place: some mindless hard rock thump, some sleazy, debauched punk, some pure sugar-coated power pop, and, then, out of nowhere, a treacly love song that could have scored a slow dance at a mid-‘80s prom. It’s all flamboyant, but more than a little unfocused. Nevertheless, it’s always better to have ideas to burn than it is to settle into a comfortable groove. And if these globetrotting musicians are underwhelmed to be playing a free show (no cover after all!) at small spot on a corner of Newark Avenue, they don’t show it a bit.
From behind the drum-kit, Viglione pays the FM crowd a compliment. This is a new club, he tells us; we should be proud that we’re opening rooms when so many other concert venues across the country are shutting down. He’s right. What’s occurring here in 2018 isn’t happening in too many other places in America. Those of us who love local music always knew that it was possible, but our optimism never counted for all that much at the turnstiles. For years, promoters saw Jersey City, not unreasonably, as a risky investment. But tonight, I walked two blocks and caught two shows – something that would have been unthinkable five years ago is now rather routine. I’d say we’ve got a powerful case to make to club owners and national tastemakers. I expect more from The Latest Noise at the Downtown’s premier stage. And I’d love to see Shayfer James get a crack at White Eagle Hall, too.
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.
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