This is a bit of a non-photography post, linked incredibly tentatively by a photo of a Banjo… Anyway, on Sunday we joined a friend at one of the last nights of Southpaw in Brooklyn before it closed down. Any music venue that has nights of Bluegrass, as well as a Photo booth is ok in my book!…
The bait… Sunday
$20 per ticket
We went to meet a friend at ‘Americana Pie 2′ which promised world-class bluegrass musicians. Kicking things off were the up-beat Birdhive Boys with a suitable amount of mustache-talk amongst the fast-fingered geniuses. Next up was Six Deadly Venoms (who we happened to have seen before in a completely random location in Brooklyn) before the main event – Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. Some great fast-paced bluegrass harmonies.
We tried to go to more bluegrass gigs a few years ago, but found that there weren’t a huge amount of options, so while we were chatting to Justin (of Birdhive-Boys-fame) our ears pricked up when he said that he thought we could easily find bluegrass in New York every night of the week. We decided to take him up on the challenge, and picked and tapped our way through the New York bluegrass scene for the rest of the week. So, without further faffing:
I’m not sure if we really committed fully last night on the 7 night thing, but today we had planned to see the ever-awesome Greg Tannen with friends at the Living Room (154 Ludlow, between Stanton and Rivington). We wandered out, and found ourselves near Mona (224 Ave B and 13th), so we decided to head over since google said there was bluegrass on the cards. Sure enough we turned up to a full jam in progress, with Rick Snell (of the Six Deadly Venoms) leading a weekly session. My first glimpse into a jam – everyone (there were probably up to 10 players at some points) dipping in and out of the limelight as they wanted. Banjos, violins, guitars and more got the whole bar stomping away to the beat.
Fantastic night of music, which wouldn’t have been complete without watching the man at the bar in the bowler hat (he later joined in the jam playing the violin) teaching someone how to play the bones. At least I think that’s what they call them. The fast clickety sound looked deceptively simple to make until the other person tried. Ah perspective.
Our natural instincts were kicking in at this point, telling us that we should be knitting at home tonight (literally, for one half of us). Instead, we spied Michael Daves‘ set happening at Rockwood (196 Allen St, between Houston and Stanton). On our way out, fate arranged for Morgan O’Kane to be playing banjo on the subway platform, with foot-operated tambourine and bass drum (which was actually an old fashioned suitcase. Fantastic). We paused for a while to listen along with a load of other normally-we-never-stop New Yorkers, and picked up one of his CDs.
Onto Rockwood, we edged our way into the packed ‘original’ stage area for Michael Daves. After hearing larger groups up to this point, it was great to hear a simpler set – just guitar, banjo and voice. Couple some great string work with an incredible voice that rips you out of Rockwood and plonks you on a porch in Appalachia.
Tonight’s plan was to head down to the Grisly Pear (107 Macdougal Street, between Minetta Lane and Bleecker Street) for the bluegrass jam night. We arrived a bit late, but still caught a number of songs, with the evening mc’d by ‘Sheriff Uncle Bob’. A dark long bar where you head back thinking that the whole evening is over, until you reach the sounds of bluegrass and steel guitar coming from the very back.
Another different take on the bluegrass scene, this one really made you feel like you were witnessing an impromptu jam. All the players circled round and played to, and for each other. There could have been no-one listening, and there could have been a thousand people listening – it wouldn’t have mattered – and the players nodded to each other to take over lead or change harmony.
Our longest trek of the week, this one took us to a corner of Brooklyn hosting the Jalopy Theatre (yep, it’s actually spelled like that) at 315 Columbia St, next to a bunch of toll booths off the interstate. The strings tonight were those of Frankenpine – at first made me wonder about those cell phone tower tree things – and sure enough, given their cover artwork, that’s probably where the name came from. If I were reclining on a couch I’d say there’s probably all kinds of parallelisms about the tree and the band. They definitely were rooted in bluegrass but at the same time had their own flavour (since this appears to be the British spelling paragraph) – there was more to them than first met the eye, and soon found ourselves loving our second row seats that we were jumping around in. Fantastic band… another email list signed-up-to!
Talking of which… the Jalopy itself is a great little venue. Feeling like something straight from the Moulin Rouge, the velvety red curtains and festive bare bulb lighting made the whole thing more fun, apart from creepy glances from the statue head on the stage. We were left feeling buzzed from the music, so decided to stay for a couple of songs from the next band – Jessy Carolina and The Hot Mess. We even moved to the back of the room, planning an early exit.
Best laid plans and all that. One song in, and we were hooked. Having no idea what they were going to be like, our interest was piqued at the sight of a washboard. Old-school-jazz-new-orleansish songs, with snappy tight presentation and a great live presence meant that we stayed right through to the second encore and walked out with their CD. Jessy’s voice really was incredible – sounding like it was being played fresh on vinyl. I could almost feel the slippy mosaic tiles under my feet and hear the clatter of oyster trays in the background.
Advice? Always stay for ‘just one’ song from the next band… just in case!
(Artwork to the left is one of the posters from Frankenpine – more on their facebook page. The banjo player is also a talented poster-maker).
$12 per ticket
Nearing the end of the run, tonight left us with hardly any options that we could find online. Maybe the five-strings go underground on Fridays, but it definitely felt like the Monday of Theater-land. We managed to find one band playing at Rockwood that looked on paper (or screen, I guess) like bluegrass. Banjo? Check. Steel guitar? Check. Vocals? Check. So we headed out to see Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad at Rockwood. Although it was probably pushing the boundaries of the definition of bluegrass, it was still a great night with tappable beats and harmonica. The range of songs was from definite bluegrass to different blends which felt like jamaican bluegrass. Just add steel drums to taste! A huge crowd packed the place with at least half dancing like there was no tomorrow!
Pushing the boundaries again – this time with the ‘night’ thing… we decided that the Bluegrass Brunch at Nolita House was too good a looking opportunity to miss. We weren’t disappointed. This one’s definitely going on the ‘repeat as needed’ list. Great Eggs Benedict (substituting crab cakes for the muffin. True fantastic-ness) and great bluegrass, with some familiar faces in the band from other nights of the week. We’re definitely beginning to feel like bluegrass stalkers at this point. The band was on break when we came in, but soon struck up the string mix with a number of lively songs. Perfect side to a sunny morning in New York.
In case anyone else is similarly bluegrass-obsessed, these are a couple of great sites that list up-coming shows, and venues that have bluegrass happenings: Blue Grass NYC website, and Jim’s Roots and Blues (you have to filter this one down a little to get the flavor of band you’re after, but it’s a great up-to-date list).
Ehm… yeah, there’s nothing else really related to Bluegrass in NYC on this blog, so instead, why not check out a few pics from my Travel Portfolio pages.