Not too long ago, 340 3rd St. in Jersey City was home to a ramen shop called Union Republic. The noodles are gone, and in its place is FM, a burger bar with a stage in the back that has recently become the most reliable place in town to catch a local pop or rock show. For the past three weeks, FM has been that most elusive thing in Jersey City – a room with a full calendar of bands on its schedule. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, like clockwork, there’s been a gig. No cover charge, either.
On the mesmerizing “Willow, Echo”, a set highlight, Kiely was joined onstage by singer and guitarist Jeff Taylor, who, despite his Pittsburgh Penguins shirt, also calls Jersey City home.
FM has already hosted some of the most talented musicians in town: tireless jazz saxophonist Brian Beninghove, who brought his Hangmen to the room on the opening weekend, the reliably excellent throwback R&B band the One and Nines, aBIRD, the new semi-electro project from Adam Bird of Those Mockingbirds, the fearsome guitarist Debra Devi, and Universal Rebel, the reggae band recently featured at a local showcase at White Eagle Hall. I did wonder whether FM would accommodate a quieter performer – I worried that a singer-songwriter might get swallowed up by the space. Happily, on Friday night, Sean Kiely – a singer-songwriter of unusual grace – put me straight. Kiely demonstrated that a folk-rock guitarist could hush, and move, the crowd at FM (and crowded it’s been) just as well as any noisy rocker can.
Kiely, who lives a few blocks from the club, took the new stage with little fanfare but complete self-possession. He knows he’s got worthy material in his pocket, and he doesn’t oversell it. Instead, he lets his spare and spectral folk-rock – indebted to acts like Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes – speak for itself. Many of his songs are built around tricky, deceptively complicated acoustic guitar patterns, all of which he played flawlessly; his pleasantly proletarian singing, too, gives the audience the impression that he’s not laboring hard, but he never misses a note or flubs an inflection. On Friday, he was joined by a pair of sensitive accompanists: double-bassist Bobby McCullough, whose bowed sound imparted mystery to Kiely’s songs, and drummer David Heilman, who switched so seamlessly between brushes and mallets that each textural change felt like a genuine surprise.
Many of his songs are built around tricky, deceptively complicated acoustic guitar patterns, all of which he played flawlessly; his pleasantly proletarian singing, too, gives the audience the impression that he’s not laboring hard..
On the mesmerizing “Willow, Echo”, a set highlight, Kiely was joined onstage by singer and guitarist Jeff Taylor, who, despite his Pittsburgh Penguins shirt, also calls Jersey City home. Taylor followed Kiely with a set of his own impressionistic songs; Zac Colwell of night-closer Fancy Colors added flute to two of Kiely’s numbers. This kind of camaraderie – the hallmark of a healthy music scene – has always existed among musicians here, but there haven’t always been good places for audiences to access it. When Kiely and Taylor expressed their gratitude for FM, there was nothing automatic about their thanks. They know we’re on to something.
Those of us who live here have learned never to be too optimistic. But it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the most exciting time to be a music fan in Jersey City in living memory. Monty Hall and White Eagle Hall are pulling in national touring acts. There are regular performances at Fox & Crow and the Hutton in the Heights. There’s jazz at Madame Claude Bis every Tuesday and Thursday; the Pet Shop on Newark Ave. continues to pull from the same flush talent pool that’s been filling out the FM calendar. Tony Susco, who has been booking the room, has the surest pair of hands in town – for more than fifteen years, he’s been involved in almost every attempt to bring local rock to Jersey City. We’ve got our problems. But we’re on the verge of a breakthrough summer.
Now all we need is a good alternate nickname for that neighborhood in the shadow of the Turnpike Extension that contains FM, White Eagle Hall, Madame Claude, Iris Records, Lucky 7, and the new location of the Prato Bakery. Italian Village doesn’t really get at it – it’s a little too old-world for a proper rock zone. Harsimus Cove is too stiff, and, technically, that ends at Monmouth anyway. Way back when, they used to call this the Horseshoe, and I’m not sure that fits either, but at least it’s dramatic. Whatever we want to call it, it’s become the place to be.
Sean Kiely’s next outing is @ Rockwood Music Hall (Fri, Mar 30 @ 7:30PM) 196 Allen St., New York, New York.