Jersey City Spring – Wednesday, May 16 (Groove On Grove, Off Grove)
EDITOR: On June 1st, our intrepid artist and writer will offer all of us a live show with his band @ FM Jersey City. ‘Tris McCall & The Cellphone Thieves will produce some unique music from his long term project “McCall’s Almanac” – an album of story telling from around the continental United States, with the flare of Tris’ lyrical flare. Join CHF to celebrate his show!
I reckon I’m not the only person in town willing to get a little wet on a Wednesday night. But nobody likes to be drenched. The weather simply won’t cooperate, and the Groove On Grove show – scheduled, as it is each Wednesday during its summer season, for 6 p.m. – has been moved from the pedestrian plaza outside the PATH station to FM, the new rock club on 3rd Street.
This would not have been possible a few years ago. There wouldn’t have been any refuge for Groove On Grove in a storm. The gig would have to happen, if it happened at all, under a tent. Now, we’ve got options. That’s a positive development, but… it also has got to be disappointing for tonight’s musicians to miss the opportunity to play for passersby. Every local rocker dreams of winning over a large walk-in crowd – people who may not necessarily have come for the show, or to enjoy music at all, but who are enchanted enough by what they hear to stick around and applaud. Groove On Grove guarantees a singer that many people she doesn’t know will hear her voice. I’m not sure that’s the way new fans are made or new scenes are built: if an act is challenging or interesting, listeners usually have to be prepared to receive the message. Still, today’s rainstorm has foreclosed the conversion fantasy.
It’s also a little jarring to see an indoor rock show at 6 p.m. But the clouds are cooperating – it’s so gloomy on Newark Avenue that it feels as if the sun went down hours ago. Also, the kids performing at FM are young: they don’t look like the sort of specters who haunt the stages of rock clubs. They seem like students. Which, it turns out, is exactly what they are – Jim Testa from Jersey Beat, who has put the night together, explains that this is the quartet’s official debut.
They’re playing the sort of music I don’t associate with Jersey Beat, a magazine that has always championed straight-ahead punk, serrated-edge indie, and hardcore. Instead, Elevator Pitch makes smart, sophisticated jazz-rock: Steely Dan chords on the guitars, tricky rhythms, and an electric piano player pounding out leads. Two of their four songs are instrumentals with basketfuls of changes. They don’t nail everything they try, but that’s to be expected given their youth and the complexity of the material. The instrumentals have heady titles: one is called “Vladimir Putin Has A Weather Machine”. This is subtly tough stuff they’re doing, but it’s breezy, too, and it would have sounded appropriate under a blue sky by the train station. A listener could probably enjoy this while waiting on line at the taco truck – sun and wind have a way of smoothing out the bumps. Jim tells me the pianist is the son of the respected Hoboken singer-songwriter Kate Jacobs, which makes a lot of sense: the children of the Hudson County pop-rock royalty of the ‘80s and early ‘90s are now old enough to learn instruments and hit the clubs. They’ll have heard the stories about How It Was. They’ll want to make something of their own.
For example, James Mastro’s talented daughter Lily Mastrodimos was originally supposed to play this date. (Mastro, veteran of the Bongos and pop producer, runs the Guitar Bar in Hoboken). Mastrodimos fronts a Jersey City rock band called Long Neck that put out a sinewy, clear-eyed, plain-talking album in the rough style of Waxahatchee earlier this year called Will This Do?; I was looking forward to hearing some of those songs in concert. Instead, her place has been filled by a guitar and drum duo called (tee hee) The Famous Few. Now this is more of what I’ve come to expect from Jersey Beat: overdriven blues-rock riffs from the frontman, floor and rack tom fills from the drummer, catchy choruses, a strategically placed Kanye verse in the middle of a rock stomper, a well-intentioned conjuration of bad attitude, everything in the name of fun. The singer, I notice, has a good voice for material like this: unaffected, clear, resonant. He compensates for the absence of bass guitar by running his signal through an octaver-type effect that periodically deepens and thickens the sound. It always works, and it does grant the material some extra heft, but as is always the case with acts like this, it all makes me wish there was somebody manning the bottom end.
No such problem for The Skullers, a trio fronted by Jack Skuller, a still-budding singer and songwiter from Weehawken who has been impressing audiences around here (and elsewhere) since he was in his early teens. Luigi Sardi, his bass player, is an ideal sideman – his tone is nicely abrasive, his technique is just dexterous enough to add some complexity to the country-rock songs without overwhelming them with busy-ness, and his growly parts manage to simultaneously evoke British Invasion pop and elbow-throwing punk. He’s also good at harmony vox and various stage poses; he looks ready for the arenas. That might be exactly where Skuller is heading. His numbers are immediate and crowd-pleasing enough for Nashville – particularly his Beatlefied version of Richard Hell’s scruffball “I’m Your Man”, and a new original called “She Denies The Things She Loves”. If an amphitheater-touring country roughneck plucked these guys from Hudson County tomorrow and stuck them in a support slot, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
FM has made a few alterations since the last time I was here: some of the barriers between the bar and the performance area have been removed, tables have been retired, and there’s more room on the dance floor. I wish only that there were more people in the room to dance to Fascinations Grand Chorus – an excellent group that demands the attention of local music listeners. Their show is so watchable that it could play almost anywhere; I feel like a promoter could tuck it in the corner of a Dunkin Donuts and it’d still work. (But please don’t; Jersey City has been through too much of that kind of thing in the past.) The obvious comparison is to Mates Of State, another duo featuring a drummer and a singing combo organist. But while the Mates’s tone is ecstatic and their songs an amalgam of fragments glued together at funny angles, Fascinations Grand Chorus is oddly poised, even when they’re freaking out, and their writing style foregrounds both its cohesion and its sixties pop influence. Imagine a tune from the 1966 hit parade re-arranged for organ, analog synthesizer, drums, and nothing else, and you’ve got a pretty good approximation of the Fascinations Grand Chorus style. Actually, you don’t even have to imagine: all you have to do is listen to their cover of Gary Lewis & The Playboys’s “She’s Just My Style”. Instead of giddy backing vocals, the frontwoman plays the countermelody on a Korg MS20 – and she makes sure to twist the knobs and mischievously modulate the sound whenever she can.
Outside on Third Street, the rain is still falling. The forecast is for more precipitation – days of it, I’m afraid, washing out much of the tail end of May. The annual Pushing Up The Daisies Festival, scheduled for the Harsimus Cove Historic Cemetery on Saturday, May 19, might meet the same fate as this Jersey Beat Groove On Grove did. FM is a logical home for the festival if it pours – music could run here all day, just as it was scheduled to do among the tombstones, and it’d sound great, too. But people would, no doubt, miss the experience of rock under the Jersey sky. It’s almost Memorial Day; it’s time for the flowers to bloom. If Vladimir Putin really does have that weather machine, he might consider turning it on. Yeah, I know – that jerk never cooperates with anybody.
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.