Jersey City Spring — Wednesday, April 25 (Pet Shop)
Not too long ago, the Pet Shop (193 Newark Ave.) used to be an actual pet shop. And it bothered me, honestly, the way that pet shops always do: there were birds in the window, caged and forlorn, and I wanted to set them free. What was the life of a bird like, I wondered, in a pet store at on a heavily trafficked corner in Jersey City? It must be consumed with longing, or whatever version of longing a bird can feel.
Those birds are all gone now. So is any trace of the of that old store, although the architects have made good use of the big plate glass windows where the cages used to hang. The Pet Shop is sharply appointed with filament lightbulbs and a photo booth, open brick, neon and nifty furniture, and although the building isn’t exactly spacious, its top floor has been designed to comfortably accommodate a crowd. They’ve caught the spirit of Jersey City under renovation – nothing here is cramped, no shelves of tumbling kibble, no residue of stunted animal lives, art on the walls, every line clean, everything promising a break from the business that was. Because they’re worried about ghosts – well, I would be, anyway – the menu is vegan.
Tonight the music is downstairs. This is a NYC model we haven’t seen much of in Hudson County – classy bar on the ground floor, rock stashed in a slightly grungier basement. That’s how it was at Cake Shop, and how it still is at Union Hall, which, in its post-industrial polish, the Pet Shop resembles a bit (no indoor bocce courts, though). Me, I always want a sharp delineation between the performing space and the drinking zone; I’m no damn fun like that.
Burying the rock is a fine idea in a town that has always been deviled by noise complaints. But there’s a good reason most of the live music in Downtown Jersey City happens at street level: just like Hoboken, you can’t dig very far without getting wet. To compensate for the low ceiling – or, to be accurate, the high floor – the PS Wine Bar has chosen to foreground its intimacy. There are candles on the small tables, local bottles on the list, and the bands are stashed in a cellar alcove at the far end of the bar. No elevated stage, very little lighting besides the lanterns on the wall, a couple of columns dividing the performance area from the rest of the floor. There are maybe thirty people in here, and it feels crowded. I like that a lot. I like the shadows, too. It’s all forgiving.
The Big Swim benefits from the conditions. It’s their first show ever, they explain, a little bashfully, although it’s pretty clear that all four members of the group are familiar with stage presentation. Two electric guitars – the frontwoman plays rhythm, her songwriting partner plays lead – a bass player, a drummer adding backing vocals, nothing too unusual. Despite the electric instruments, they’re all mercifully quiet. The emphasis is on intelligibility, and the songs here, all of which have been built with care, are worth handling with respect. Tentative at first, the singer warms to the room and to the occasion, and when the rhythm section takes a break and she’s got less to compete with, she shows off a vocal range that the prior numbers don’t hint at. Stripped down to a two-piece, The Big Swim play in a style I associate with the prior Soccer Mommy EPs: strummed chords, but not too hard, countrified lead guitar playing in counterpoint with the melody, but not too busily, forthright, personal lyrics, but never grotesquely confessional. All debut jitters aside, this is a band that likes to maintain its reserve. They stop after five numbers. The crowd calls for an encore, but they insist that they’re out of material. The frontwoman, we’re told, has a stockpile of songs, but when asked to play one, she demurs. They’ve said what they have to say for tonight. I believe they’ve made an impression.
Changeover between sets is pretty quick. I talk to an old pal who is a fan of the space and the band about to play. I haven’t seen him in awhile. He’s left Jersey City and resettled in Rutherford, which is less expensive and less hectic. He isn’t the only one. Rents in the Hamilton Park neighborhood where he used to live are no joke. In the 1980s, when it was possible for broke guitar-slingers to grab apartments on Washington Street, a rock scene was easy to sustain in Hoboken. That hasn’t been true for awhile.
Secretary Legs is, and I am not being hyperbolic here, a good ten times louder than The Big Swim. Maybe twenty times. Heavy volume suits the material – theirs is a power trio, blunt and direct, and the bassist and frontwoman is the only one who bothers with a microphone. I can hear her over the roar of the instruments, but just barely; in time-honored basement punk rock tradition, they’re pushing this small sound system to its limits. I wish I could get more of the words, because the ones I do are pretty clever, and I appreciate the insouciance with which she delivers them. But because the band’s grooves and the sheer effrontery of the sound are entertaining enough to carry the show, it doesn’t really matter all that much. She’s fighting off a cold, but you’d only know it in the few seconds of downtime between blasts of music. The drummer has ideas to burn – I dig the way he switches between his toms and his snare in unexpected places in the middle of his fills. It’s all pleasantly thunderous, especially when all three musicians lock in and apply muscle to a riff, and I manage to survive the entire show in the cone of the guitar amplifier. Though there were a few moments when I thought I might topple over. Sound waves are a physical thing; that’s why there’s no substitute for standing on the dance floor, getting slapped silly by them.
There’s also no substitute for the camaraderie of tiny punk rock clubs. These bands cheer each other on; if they weren’t friends before tonight (I’m sure they were), they all are now. C.R., frontman of the Degenerates, has been the most visible person at the club since the moment I arrived: he’s been all over the room, shaking hands with the other bands, greeting friends, spreading warmth. He’s not the only person on the bill with charisma, but he’s got the best idea about how to apply it to a rock context – he’s got the crisp stage moves of a performer accustomed to attention. The Degenerates are a little more classic Americana than their punk rock name implies; C.R.’s songs are dramatic and likely drafted in the principal’s head before they’re blown up to concert size. This is a bigger combo than the others, too. They’ve brought along a synthesist who provides color and sweep to the songs via the kind of pads I always associate with Danny Federici in Heartland mode. My sense is that C.R. is inhabiting perspectives and not merely bloodletting the way so many punk rock bands do, but here I begin to bang up against the limits of the sound system. I don’t catch as much of the verses as I want to, or that I bet C.R. would like me to. A small room applies natural compression to everything: sound, storytelling, emotional range, conceptual latitude, all of it gets squeezed into a box for quick consumption.
Back out on Newark Avenue, fog and mist mute the shoplights. It’s warm enough for early spring, but tonight’s weather is, nonetheless, a reminder that April is just February’s dumb cousin. With its large windows festooned with band posters, the Pet Shop looks great from the outside. Right at a busy pedestrian intersection but far enough removed from the crazy luau around the PATH station to feel cool, it’s a natural focus for local musicians. Yet it occurs to me that few of the musicians I saw tonight were actually from Jersey City. A renovation like the Pet Shop requires more than will to see punk rock flourish again on the Hudson – it also demands a lot of money. Our new rock spots are refurbished: they’re expressions of the same desire to give Jersey City a makeover that’s been animating public culture Downtown for several decades. Perhaps we’re still rough enough to provide rock and roll degenerates some cracks in the façade to hide in. Or maybe we’re about to discover what kind of music scene a boomtown can produce.
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.
Find out where and when Tris’ journey will take him this Spring around town, through comeherefloyd’s site or Social Media. You can follow Tris’ journey on Twitter [HERE], as well.