A River Too Far

Every time there’s a show or event in New Jersey, even if it’s mere hop, skip and jump across the river to Hoboken or Jersey City, I piss and moan about it so much that in the rare event when I actually do show up, I have to spend the first half of the night fending off variations of, “OMG, you made it to Jersey, this must be a really important occasion.”

I’ve learned not to pursue the discussion much further than that, because otherwise it will quickly degenerate into an Astoria-type misunderstanding, where they tell me in abundant detail how “easy” and “quick” it is to get there, how in fact it’s closer than some parts of Manhattan.

Well, yes indeed, as the crow flies that is certainly true. However, as you may have noticed, I am not a crow. Those of us dwelling in the New York archipelago (geologists among you will no doubt quickly inform me as to whether the New York islands are indeed an archipelago, i.e., formed tectonically; I suspect they are not, but I like the sound of it) are frequently confronted with the necessity of crossing bodies of water both large and small to get where we want to go (even Manhattanites are having to come to the outer boroughs, aka Brooklyn, these days), but to journey from my lovely Brooklyn home to the wilds of Hoboken requires the crossing of not one, but two rivers, and that, my friends, is one river too far.

But two of my favorite people, Chelsea Lacatena and Joe Steinhardt, collectively known as Modern Hut (don’t ask; I didn’t), were performing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and I wasn’t about to miss that. So with a heavy heart I packed a bag lunch and a change of clothing and set out for the first stage of my journey, the usually reliable L train.

If you’re a regular user of New York City transit, you can sign up for email alerts that tell you when a given train line is experiencing delays or difficulties, which is great if you happen to be one of those modern people who get email on their Blackberry or iPhone, but not quite so much use to me. This time, however, just as I was about to shut my computer down and head out the door, a message alert flashed across my screen: the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan was completely shut down due to the ever-popular “signal failures.”

I understand why signals are important on most train lines, but on the L it seems like an exception could be made: from Bedford Avenue to 8th Avenue (i.e., the stretch affected by said signal failures) it travels in a straight line, so that anyone could see a train coming from a mile away. In a pinch, couldn’t they get someone to walk along in front of the train waving a red flag and a lantern on the off chance that another train might somehow be coming in the wrong direction? Sure, it would be slow, but better than just stopping train traffic altogether while they change a light bulb or do whatever else they need to do to get the signals working again.

Be that as it may, I took the MTA’s email alert at its word and sat there wondering how I was supposed to get to Hoboken for the advertised 8 pm kickoff time of this show, and savoring the irony that after all my griping about the inadequacies about the PATH trains to Jersey, I’d been stonewalled by the L line that I’m usually singing the praises of. Being reasonably transit-savvy, I devised another option, of course: I could always take the G to the E and then catch a bus from the Port Authority. If that sounds like gibberish to non-New Yorkers, suffice it to say that it’s what Brits would call “going round the houses” and what I would call a pain in the ass.

Chelsea and Joe = Modern Hut at Maxwell's.

But I was prepared to do it for the sake of my friends and modern culture, albeit sighing mournfully all the way. I turned up at the Lorimer Street/Union Avenue station, where the L and the G intersect, to find that the MTA had either misinformed me or were just plain lying: the L was running just fine. Or would have been, had I been on the train that pulled out of the station just as I got there (I was, remember, operating on the premise that there would be no trains at all, so why hurry?). A mere 10 minutes or so later I was on my way to the PATH station at 6th Avenue, never a happy place (at least for me), even in the best of times, and I don’t know which irritated me more, having to wait 20 minutes for a train or there not being any trash cans in the entire station, which meant I had to transport the empty coffee cup I was carrying all the way to Hoboken.

From the PATH station on The Other Side (and indeed, it does feel like a parallel universe, despite Hoboken’s superficial similarity to New York) to Maxwell’s is about a mile, traversed of course on foot, and by the time I grumpily walked in the door about two hours had elapsed, one more than should have if I were to get there on time. But, miracle of miracles (and the first time this has ever happened to me on my visits there), the show hadn’t started yet. Better yet, it was just about to start, which meant I didn’t have to spend time milling about wondering and/or explaining to people what I was doing in New Jersey.

I already knew Chelsea had a great voice, both from her “work” in Short Attention and from her tendency to burst out with various pop songs of the day at random moments (it’s how I first learned of both “So What, I’m Still A Rock Star” and “Hot and Cold”), but seeing her on stage was a revelation. This woman can sing, and awesomely so. Gave me chills at a couple points. She and Joe trade off on lead vocals and harmonize on most of the songs, which are sort of folky, I guess, but not wimpy-folky, totally cool folky. Joe’s voice is a little bit less of a finely honed instrument than Chelsea’s; it’s got kind of a flat, matter-of-fact affect that variously reminded me of Calvin Johnson and, strangely enough, Spoonboy (acoustic version). They work well together, these two, and I can’t wait to see them again.

Remember how a few (okay, more than a few) years ago, there was that wave of bands, mostly emanating from the Olympia/Riot grrrrl axis, who felt it was a good idea to dispense with bass players? If we’re not careful, an equally annoying trend could emerge with respect to guitar players: last night featured two bands whose entire instrumentation consisted of just bass and drums. Both were from Baltimore (a friend who grew up there and will remain anonymous here said, “See what I had to contend with? Baltimore does things like that to you”) and both had worshiped extensively at the altar of that emo-screamo Dischord sound that I never particularly cared for, admire as I might the ethics and principles of the label. The first was Dope Body, who I’ll admit I didn’t give a fair chance to; middle of the second song and I was like, “Art damage, I’m out of here.” The latter was the much-praised Double Dagger, and I did give them a chance, but when their hyperactive singer, aided by what seemed like an extraordinarily long mic chord, started circulating through the crowd to sing at and hector insufficiently enthusiastic members of the audience, I started moving toward the exit.

Both bands had outstanding musical abilities – you’ve got to if you’re going to pull off a rhythm section two-piece. But the only band I’ve ever seen completely pull off that format were No Means No, who my band played with right about the time they finally decided to add a guitar player. DB and DD are good, really good from a technical standpoint, but neither of them are quite in NMN’s league yet.

Brian Gorsegner makes sure I remember what was so great about SoCal hardcore in 1979.

In between the two bassoholic Baltimore bands came Jersey’s own Night Birds and Black Wine, both of which, as many locals will know, sprung up after the implosion of the Ergs last year. Both are astounding, as you’d expect from any band containing an Erg, but for me at least, Night Birds takes the biscuit (Britticism there; you can no doubt deduce from context). In fact, they just may be the most sensational new band I’ve seen in a couple years, and beyond a doubt the most exciting thing going around these parts nowadays.

I suspect Joe Erg (I guess we’ve sooner or later got to start calling him by his real name, but not just yet) may be the greatest bass player in the world, and I’m not only talking about punk rock. The man is simply astounding, and it’s as much for his timing and presence as it is for dexterity (all the night’s bassists had the latter in spades). But he’s found some musicians who, if they don’t completely match his talents, are at least in the same league, and boy, can they produce some crazy good sounds.

Night Birds may not be for everyone – if you’re hosting a tea party for the vicar and your grandmother, for example, you probably wouldn’t want to invite them to provide the background music -but they were just the ticket for me and almost everyone else in the audience. What do they play? Hardcore, OG (and OC) hardcore, from when it was really good, before it got all boring, blustery and testosterone-ridden. Think Southern California 1979, bands like the Circle Jerks, Adolescents, (very) early Black Flag.

Hardcore bands in those days weren’t afraid they’d compromise their masculinity by having incredibly catchy melodies in their songs, and the same holds true for Night Birds. The weakest – or as I should say, the only thing that came remotely close to being weak – part of their set came on a couple tunes that lacked that infectious edge and sounded more like hardcore filler, but I’m sure they’ll remedy that soon, given the obvious songwriting skills in evidence here.

Vocalist Brian Gorsegner used to play drums for the popular local outfit For Science, who seemed more interested in reviving the psychedelic end of the 70s, but you’d never know it from the apoplectic spleen with which he rages across the stage; I seriously wondered on a couple occasions if his head was going to explode right there in front of me. Having been lucky (i.e., old) enough to have seen some of the SoCal bands in their heyday, I can confidently say that Night Birds not only channel that energy and spirit in a way I’ve never seen done before, they’re also about ten zillion times better musicians than most of those old school bands. You heard it here first (well, probably more like second or third): this is a band, make that the band to watch.

World's greatest bass player? Very possibly. Joe Keller (né Erg) with Night Birds.
World's greatest bass player? Very possibly. Joe Keller (né Erg) with Night Birds.

Black Wine, featuring the guitar Erg, Jeff Schroek (who everyone still calls Jeff Erg anyway) had a tough act to follow. On any other night, with almost any other lineup, they would have stolen the show, but I’m afraid it was already safely in Night Birds’ pocket before Black Wine even took the stage. Brian Night Birds had advertised his loyalties by way of a 1987 War Zone tour shirt; Jeff let you know where his heart was by way of an early-70s tie-dye (people typically associate tie-dyes with the 60s, but the fact is that they were rarely seen before the early to mid-70s).

As you’d expect, there was a strong 60s/early 70s feel (often as re-interpreted by early 90s alt bands) to the music, at least on the guitar end of things; the bass, wielded by Jay Hunchback provided a loud and almost brutal counterpoint. In other words, despite some of the surface manifestations, it was not wimpy hippie music. And any stereotypes or expectations that drummer Miranda Taylor would hit like a girl (um, because she is one) quickly evaporated; the woman was banging, matching Jay beat for beat, an odd contrast to her much gentler and prettier vocals.

All three members shared vocal duties, and all were more than up to the chore with one notable exception: a cover of Jethro Tull’s (tells you all you need to know right there, doesn’t it?) “Locomotive Breath” from the Aqualung album. Great song (hey, don’t laugh; I’ll have you know I bought that album when it came out in 1971), and the music was simply stunning, but Jay, I’m sorry to say, just didn’t have the vocal chops to pull it off. If it’s any consolation, I can’t imagine that anybody apart from Ian Anderson would.

Black Wine also played a little longer than I would have preferred; whereas Night Birds were on and off in a hardcore flash, Black Wine seemed to linger like a hippie in hopes you’ll give him another hit off his bong. Not obnoxiously so, and they didn’t play a single song that didn’t have some merit; it’s just I’m generally in favor of new-ish bands playing short sets and leaving the audience wanting more.

Chelsea Hut and Carla Monoxide (of SUCIDIE!) share a moment of mutual regard.

That brings us back to bass-ics, i.e., Double Dagger,the last Baltimore band, already mentioned, and while I did sincerely try to give them a chance – quite a few people I know had raved about them, but then consider that most of them are from Baltimore or its similarly orientated cousin, Washington DC. It ended up being more fun to knock about with my friends for a while and then to head back to the city before the PATH trains turned into a pumpkin wagon full of drunken Jersey oiks.

That required, however, navigating the length of Washington Street, Hoboken’s main drag, and home, or at least prime stomping grounds, for large numbers of the aforementioned oiks. By day, it’s quite a lovely and picturesque avenue, almost postcard-perfect in the way it evokes city life of a century or so ago, but by night, especially a weekend night… think the frat boy-ridden sector of 3rd Avenue crossed with, oh, I don’t know, Ohio?

Luckily I was accompanied by Kelly Marshmallow, not the sort of girl to allow her path to be impeded by random or rampant doucheness, and we made it to the station unmolested and unbowed. The earth must have shifted on its axis since earlier in the evening, because both of our trains, hers to Jersey City, mine back to civilization, arrived after no more than a ten minute wait. No, of course there were no seats, but on the other hand, nobody puked on me, either.

So, another journey to Jersey survived, some great music seen, and I’m left having to reluctantly conclude that, given the fact that at least for now Jersey seems to be producing more and better bands than the New York-Brooklyn-Queens nexus, I’m probably going to have to be traveling back that way again. At least now I can feel reasonably confident that I can do it and return with body and soul intact. Hey, you know, what the heck: Jersey’s not so bad after all.

One thought on “A River Too Far

  • November 11, 2009 at 1:43 am

    I just saw No Means No on Friday night! They were supremely awesome! Just before them was a great band called ‘The Fucking Eagles’ – their guitarist had the same violent looking strum as Billie Joe, it cracked me up.

    I’m a total wiener about having to travel, so I totally get why you’d piss and moan about the trip to Jersey. I live about 40 miles south of Seattle and get all bent out of shape about having to go there – and that trip sounds MUCH easier than from Brooklyn to NJ.


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