In my experience the music industry is composed of one of the biggest collection of whiners, scapegoaters, thin-skinned, blame artists, and socially and emotionally dysfunctional megalomaniacs that you’re likely to find anywhere outside of a Sarah Palin-hosted teabaggers’ convention.
That being so, it’s always a pleasure to encounter one of the rare individuals, bands or labels who actually enjoy what they’re doing, do it well, and get on with task of making and/or distributing music without burdening the rest of us with angst-ridden commentaries about how “difficult” it is in today’s changing environment (as if there was a time when it always stayed the same). One such individual is New Jersey’s Joe Steinhardt, who, with his friend Zach Gajewski, runs New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records. In what seems like almost no time at all they’ve taken DGR from a tiny, completely unheard of hobby label to being, well, still kind of unheard of outside certain knowledgeable circles, but nonetheless a thriving and fast-growing concern.
Starting out in Jersey basements and back rooms, moving up to Hoboken’s ever-popular but still tiny Maxwell’s, Joe is now taking the rather large step of bringing his annual DGR showcase not just to some run-of-the mill Manhattan gin joint (where, it must be said, most of our musician friends are forced to ply their trade), but to the stately and, at least by underground/DIY standards, rather large Bowery Ballroom.
I’ve only been to the Bowery myself once before, and that was to see Green Day showcasing their new album last May. Pretty classy place for a tiny underground label, but something tells me that Don Giovanni is not destined to stay tiny, and this despite the greater part of its music being what – let’s be honest here – I once would have deemed slightly inaccessible.
Put it this way, although this analogy might make sense only to those of you who are inordinately familiar with the early history of Lookout Records. When David Hayes and I founded the label in 1987, we seemed to be more or less on the same page musically speaking, both of us being extremely fond of the stuff that was coming out of the then brand new Gilman Street Project. But over the next couple years it became clear that there was a considerable divergence in our tastes: I almost exclusively liked the catchy, poppy, radio-friendly stuff that was one big part of the Gilman scene, but David had a taste for the darker, noisier, more experimental end of things. A look at his output on Very Small Records after we went our separate ways will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Well, with that in mind, I think I can safely say that the basic aesthetic of Don Giovanni Records is decidedly more Hayes than Livermore. Which tends to be true in general about Jersey bands; I don’t know what it is about being on the other side of the Hudson that causes musicians to get all quirky and odd, but you need travel no further than Hoboken or Jersey City to notice the difference, and once you get down into the deeper, darker heart of Jersey (New Brunswick, I’m looking in your direction) it’s undeniable that some disorienting spirit must inhabit the water or air or perhaps the psychic atmosphere.
Sure, there are slightly more straight ahead pop-punk outfits like Full Of Fancy (though even they will never be confused with the Steinways or the Ramones), but that stretch of Jersey also gave us the Ergs, who while they had their pop-punk elements, were almost anything but straight ahead (they were also Jersey’s greatest export since… well, what other exports did Jersey have, and don’t tell me Bon Jovi or Jersey Shore)?*
Nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate some of DGR’s output even though it goes against my normal grain, and this Saturday’s (February 6) will give me an opportunity to appreciate (or not) several more bands I’ve not yet seen with the added benefit of a top-flight sound system and a large and enthusiastic crowd. In fact, the event is nearly sold out already, which is especially impressive for a tiny Jersey label making a foray into the semi-big time.
To be fair, not all the acts are from Jersey; Shellshag are very much a Brooklyn outfit, though plenty of Jersey-ness has attached itself to them. Blake Schwarzenbach’s post-Thorns Of Life project, forgetters (I write this under duress and out of respect for the wishes of the artist; I thought that whole lower-case thing was silly and pretentious when e.e. cummings did it, remained so when cub did it, and, well, my opinion hasn’t changed) is also Brooklyn-based, or at least Blake is.
The other hot ticket item on the bill is (are?) the Screaming Females, who seem to be making a big splash even in mainstream circles, garnering reviews in the likes of Spin and Rolling Stone, but I won’t hold that against them, and in fact quite enjoyed them last time I saw them. Yet another band to look forward to will be Jeff Schroek’s (né Erg) Black Wine, who you may already have read about on this very forum.
If you’re interested in attending, I recommend getting tickets ASAP. You can go the Ticketmaster (boo! hiss! much contempt and hatred!) if necessary, but apparently you can avoid their extortionate and immoral “convenience” charge if you go in person to the Bowery Ballroom box office (or any of its associated venues like the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Mercury Lounge, etc.). Not positive about that, but it’s what I’ve been told. Anyway, now you know where I’ll be Saturday night; maybe I’ll see you there!
*Yeah, yeah, I know, Bruce Springsteen, blah blah blah. I don’t care. I really, really don’t care.