Monday nights at the LIC Bar have become something of an institution – music from 8pm, a free buffet (provided by Parnell’s restaurant (www.parnellsny.com/) and a friendly welcome from Steph behind the bar. Steph is one of those wonder women who can be serving one person, taking another’s money and taking your order at the same time. She always has a smile and will welcome you like a regular, even though you might have just been in once before.
Mondays offer a resident band each month, usually playing the last of three sets in the evening – the timing being 8:00, 9:00 or 10:00 (until late if you’re lucky). Once again Gustavo Rodriguez is the impresario.
One of my hobby horses (as some of you may know) is how an artist connects with an audience. I’m reminded of the Beatles story about their time in Hamburg when they were told to “Mach schau”, to put on a show, not just play music. I’ve heard great songs delivered by talented songwriters who may as well be performing to themselves in their bedrooms and I’ve heard mediocre songs delivered with overpowering energy. The lineup at this Monday’s show at LIC bar, Harrison Roach, Devyn Rush and Michele Riganese provided good examples of a range of approaches to performance.
Michele Riganese (www.micheleriganese.com) has been the resident at LIC bar this month, a rather short residency as she was ill for the first part of the month, so this gig was actually the first and penultimate residency gig. However, she is clearly at home in this environment, having been a regular performer at LIC Bar for some time and likely to be in the future.
There is a kind of clan, a coterie, of musicians around impresario Gus Rodriguez. Michele’s band epitomises this, with bassist Dan Ke’entaahal, Little Embers (husband and wife team of guitarist Anthony Rizzo and singer Theresa Hoffmann) and drummer Neil Nunziato. Tonight Gus himself offered stand in vocal harmonies on a few songs. You’ll catch these musicians in cooperative enterprises with other artists like Jeneen Terrana, Mieka Pauley and Rachel Swaner (a self-effacing wizz on the accordion and piano).
I must say that I have my preferences amongst the musicians who play here and that Michele Riganese’s mature, professional and totally authentic attitude is high on my list. She writes in a folk/country style with integrity and great musicality. She chooses her band well and connects with an audience through choices of song that mirror personal experiences with which most people who have tried to love another can easily identify. You feel as if she’s speaking to you personally, such is the strength of her songs.
Michele doesn’t have to show-off, her music stands tall. She is a total professional and can drift through the occasional changes of plan with great aplomb and an awareness that unforeseen changes can often produce creative opportunities.
Michele Riganese Band - LIC Bar Nov 21 2011
Harrison Roach, (harrisonroachmusic.com) a singer songwriter who played electric and acoustic guitars with an excellent bassist and drummer, started the evening. He writes thoughtful songs and presents them in a personal way that does not make much of a show to the audience. Whilst I can appreciate the craftsmanship a bar environment like this needs a musician to take charge of the space and present themselves as entertainer as well as songsmith. Harrison did, however have good support from an attentive audience. Check our some of his singing on his website.
Devyn Rush (www.devynrush.com) is the opposite end of the spectrum, she had been an “American Idol” contestant and I had checked her out her audition on YouTube prior to seeing her at this gig. She had impressed the judges with her powerful and soulful voice, coming from a relatively small frame dressed in everyday jeans and t-shirt. They had advised her to look and behave more like a star, to match her voice. I didn’t see any of her other Idol performances but saw how much she had taken on board the judges’ advice in her LIC bar show on Monday night. She played to the crowd from the word “go”, which was a bit of a shock after the introspective Harrison Roach. Devyn has a great voice and used an interesting band line-up that included a clarinetist and Devyn herself on occasional keyboard and guitar. Her show-biz, almost burlesque performance was, in my view, a bit over the top in this environment and detracted from her voice. As her set progressed the showbiz calmed down and we were treated to some powerful and soulful singing. A fair few songs were written by Devyn herself – I’d like to hear these again.
When I hear a lot of artists I wonder, does everybody have to be a singer songwriter? – sometimes good singers do well to use other people’s material – there is no shame in that, great careers have been built on other people’s songs. A good arrangement or adaptation isn’t so much a cover, more of an artistic contribution. See my next post………..
New York is a city of Music. On any night of the week you can catch live music being played anywhere from Carnegie Hall through subway stations to the many pubs and clubs that play host to musicians struggling to make a living from the dollar bills placed in a jug that is passed around. My first live music experience here in NY was a trip to a venue in Brooklyn called the Bell House. I know, this isn’t in Long Island City, it’s across the border into another of the five boros that make up New York City. However my excuse is that I wasn’t living in LIC at the time and was attracted by a chance to hear an artist who I hadn’t heard for over 40 years, Bert Jansch.
Jansch was part of a folk revival movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s. I had seen him in a club in London called Les Cousins. A friend of mine insisted on pronouncing it as if it was French, not the name of the guy who ran the club! At that time Jansch was famous as a solo artist for songs like “Needle of Death” and was a classic singer songwriter of the era, someone who’d hitch hiked around Europe and played guitar with a style that mixed the English folk tradition with that of American finger-style blues. I had been around a few folk clubs, most of which were rooms upstairs in pubs where the crowd drank cider and or beer and joined in with songs they knew, often in that rather pinched folk style that often required a finger in the ear to ensure pitch. Les Cousins was more like a London music club, still serving beer and more dimly lit. Jansch went on to join another guitarist, John Renbourn to create the first folk supergroup, Pentangle, along with bassist Danny Thompson, singer Jaqui McShee and drummer Terry Cox.
Bert Jansch at the Bell House, Brooklyn
This was my first chance to hear Jansch for many many years, and the first of two occasions in New York; and now he has passed away, from the lung cancer he would have been carrying as I listened to him, voice hardly changed and guitar playing still immaculate. He had fairly recently formed an friendship with Neil Young and was not surprising that on this occasion at the Bell House the support band was Pegi Young, Neil’s wife. The thrill was (and this is sooo New York) that husband Neil was playing rhythm guitar in the band. He did not play the star, just standing there in the background playing in his check jacket and his trademark white Gretsch, only once letting loose and taking the band to heights that it may not have anticipated.
So that was my first NY music experience, I since went on to hear Young and Jansch at a much more expensive venue a few months later. (more of that another time).
Back to LIC – it took a while after moving here to discover the LIC Bar. This is a real pub, over a hundred years old, with a wonderful ornate tin ceiling, wooden panels, alcoves and a really warm welcome. The story is that it was owned by two brothers, who one day argued and locked the place up – not to be opened for years, finding glasses still on the bar.
The place consists of a bar, narrower at one end than the other, a courtyard area (with dramatic lighting and a giant willow tree) and a room the other end of the courtyard which is known as “The Carriage House”. LIC bar (www.licbar.com) has music at least three times a week: always on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, sometimes late Saturday nights and occasionally other nights. On Thursday they have a quiz and comedy show. The music here is curated by Gustavo Rodriguez, a talented singer/guitarist/songwriter whose other talent as an impressario is spotting and connecting with talented musicians from the area. Another talented musician, Irishman Niall Connally, organises the Sunday evening show in the winter, a show that has a folk orientation, whereas other nights might be a mix of jazz, country, rock and blues.
The space at LIC bar is well used for music. In the summer the wall of the carriage house draws back to enable the space to be used as stage for music to be performed to an audience in the courtyard and through the open windows of the bar. In the winter an area of the bar provides accommodation for bands and singers.
Jefferson Thomas Band in the Carriage House – Gustavo Rodriguez on guitar at right
Enough of the location, what about the music? Well I’ve been here a while now and have heard a large number of musicians at the LIC Bar. Rarely have I gone and not been pleased with the quality of the artists. Some stand out, for various reasons, and it speaks volumes for the skills and taste of Gus Rodriguez that the standards are consistently high. Some of my favourites are Matt Sucich, Redwood Summer, Jefferson Thomas, Emily Mure, Michele Riganese, Sam Trapchak, Tammy Scheffer, Julie Kathryn and Mieka Pauley. Each deserve lengthy reviews, as do others that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and meeting. These will come as I balance recent gigs with those that are yet unblogged.
Matt Sucich is a singer songwriter in the tradition of Paul Simon and David Gray, with a light country/folk feel that shows allegiance to early rock and roll. He writes intelligent personal lyrics and moves with his music in a way that lets you know that these are his songs and say things about him as a man and a musician. Catch his latest album http://music.esmatteo.com/album/jubilation-jealousy; an album that emphasises Matt’s deeply personal approach to melody and lyrics. The songs are, to use an old fashioned word, “catchy”, with memorable choruses that stay with you from the very first hearing. The production has sweet, simply layered guitars, voices, keyboard and percussion that allow Matt’s understated, breathy voice to lay his heart in front of you. This is not soppy romantic stuff; there can be an edge to Matt’s songs such as in “Brake Lights” a classic rock metaphor with a strong mix of acoustic and electric guitars. I’ve heard Matt sing on a couple, of occasions now and appreciated his use of pedal steel player to augment some of the songs. This is only hinted on the album through his use of reverb and tremolo. On the album he plays most of the instruments and has engineered the album himself, with excellent post production and mastering from Devon C. Johnson.
Matt Sucich at LIC Bar Labor Weekend 2011
I like Matt’s sense of realism in his songs. “All Love” talks about the ups and downs of relationships, about staying for the long haul through light and dark times. The album is rooted in New York, not in a brash, show-biz sense but one that expresses the everyday life of subways, classic cars and emotions that are softly spoken, not screamed across the street.
What you don’t get from the album is the sight of the way that Matt moves with his music; yet you can actually sense it here. You know that his feel for the pace of his songs is embedded in each performance, he has that exquisite sense of timing that is the mark of a true artist.
This is an album that survives repeated listening and is deserving of wider exposure
Sometime in Long Island City
This is the beginning of a blog from a music loving kiwi nesting in Long Island City, New York. It will contain musings, history, meals and, above all, comments on a local music scene which is a joy.
This Kiwi lives 8 floors up (well actually 7 if you use kiwi storeys – in the US the first floor is the ground floor) in a small nest overlooking the East River. Most nests in New York are small, like most of the dogs (more of those later). The “River” to my over- imaginative and romantic brain, links me with Wellington harbour, the north shore beaches of my childhood and the cliffs of my Yorkshire fishing village birthplace in England. It also connects me to my ancestors, whose bones and ashes are washed by the waters that flow into the rivers and seas.
Now to get on with it:
The East River is not really a river, it’s a treacherous Sea Strait that channels tidal waters from Long Island Sound against river flows from that extension of the Hudson known as the Harlem River in a struggle with Atlantic tides and currents that squeeze up through the Verrazano Straits. Don’t even think of swimming, in fact the little groups of kayakers who venture out on weekends better keep their eyes on the tides. East River is what it’s called and don’t argue with that, just enjoy what it provides, a natural boundary between Manhattan and Long Island connected by two tunnels and four bridges; two each connecting Kings and Queens to that modern equivalent of the medieval city that is contained within the island of Manhattan. Queens kept it royal name but Kings reverted to a reminding remnant of Dutch colonialism and is now called Brooklyn.
Long Island really is long, 118 miles from east to west. With its population of 7.5 million it is the seventeenth most populous island in the world, ahead of Ireland, Jamaica and Hokkaido. It is served by its own railway (the Long Island Railroad, or LIRR) and, at the Western end by the New York Subway system, some of which runs underground with the rest riding overhead on aging and cadaverous structures of rusting steel.
It’s not surprising that the western end of Long Island is soaking up Manhattan overflow. The bridges, tunnels and subways enable easy movement onto the island of skyscrapers. Unlike Manhattan, the decline of industry has released riverside land for residential development, with tall glass towers looking out over towards the west, giving spectacular views of the skyline, especially at night.
New York is a city of neighbourhoods, villages that traditionally have housed concentrations of the various ethnic groups that have made up the immigrant population of New York for some two hundred years. As these groups prospered the housing changed ownership and new groups came; but some areas have retained their cultural allegiances. Some of the neighbourhoods also contained occupational specialisations, trading enclaves that benefit from their proximity to each other, like the medieval cities – with jewellery quarters, carpets, meatpacking etc. Across the water on Long Island these districts were more industrial than commercial, the access to water transport enabling mills and factories to share their products with the world and to receive the necessary raw materials for their trade.
Like their European equivalents, these industrial areas contained the housing for their workforce. Before mass transit and the motor car provided the foundations of commuting people needed to be able to walk to their work. The coastal area of Long Island thus contained a mix of house and factory, of workshop and tenement. Long Island City contains what is the largest public housing project in the United States.
Long Island City sits within that tradition. Technically west Queens, as a city it was short lived in managing its own affairs; being created in 1870 from a merger of Astoria and various villages, including Hunters Point and the oddly named Dutch Kills (“Kills being a word for creek); and in 1898 being absorbed into the City of New York. Industrially it was the home of many bakeries, the Pepsi Cola factory, oil refineries and steel works. Commerce still exists here, Long Island City is currently home to the largest fortune cookie factory in the United States, owned by Wonton Foods and producing four million fortune cookies a day. As times changed more artistic ventures emerged, Steinway Piano factory, the centre of what was known as the Steinway Village was an early foundation of what grew into film and artistic communities and, as heavier industry retreated, the use of former industrial premises as artist studios. Where a state park now sits amongst high rise gentrification was a series of wharfs and gantries that connected industry with shipping and, before the bridges, other cities in what is now know as the tri-state area (the three states being New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Where I live is an area that used to be called Dominies Hoek, which is now the name of one of the many bars, cafes and restaurants that line the main drag of Hunter’s Point, a road called Vernon Boulevard which is named after British admiral Edward Vernon (1684–1757), whose nickname was apparently “Old Grog” after the coat he wore and the drink he served his men. Given the number of licensed establishments “Old Grog” Boulevard could in fact be a more appropriate name.
Dominies Hoek, is not as the name might suggest, named after a dutch pirate but is in fact the original name of Hunters Point – before the English sea captain, George Hunter settled there with his family in the early 19th century. As a bar it exemplifies the artistic community that is Long Island City with local creations along the walls of what is a long thin bar with a small garden area at the back. Bars with outside areas lie at the mercy of their neighbours. Hunters Point has achieved rapid gentrification, with existing families finding the area changing around them at great speed, with consequent increases in property values. Whilst this may at first seem to be their advantage, a rise in value of a house is only of any use if you are moving to a cheaper house (in a cheaper area?) – and certainly a barrier to children buying locally, unless they are in high income occupations. Thus we see traditional extended family networks at risk of dispersal as a result of high rise condominiums housing middle and upper income young couples without children, only small dogs. So is it not surprising that some neighbours feel resentful, especially if they see, or hear, well heeled customers enjoying themselves in the bar next door, paying prices they could not afford. This not only challenges bars with gardens, but also the ability of these places to provide live music, a feature which makes Hunters Point an exciting and satisfying place to live. At the time of writing four venues along Vernon Boulevard offer live music: LIC bar (at least three times a week); Dominies Hoek; and Domaine a vins (mainly jazz, almost nightly) and Madera Cuban Grill. Another cafe (Cranky’s) has had to stop (relatively civilised and hardly-amplified) music after complaints from a neighbour, in the same way that Lounge 47 has had to close its garden area.
In November 2011 another three bars are opening, Alewife (on 51st St), Alo Bar on Vernon Boulevard and Skinny’s Cantina on Center Boulevard. A comedy club is due to open on Vernon and a Petey’s burger outlet. This makes Hunterspoint rich in a variety of bars, restaurants and cafes – from Dunkin Donuts through to Testaccio (high class Italian), Tournesol (French) and Shi (Asian fusion). As the area continues to grow with the Hunters Point South housing development we can expect more of this wide range of eating and drinking places.
Hunters Point is well served by transport. The subway (7 line, Vernon/Jackson stop) is within one stop of Grand Central station and offers easy access to Manhattan for work, entertainment and shopping. The LIRR has a terminus – providing access to the rest of Long Island. The 7 line runs through what is still known as the Steinway Tunnel, built originally as a trolley bus tunnel, with great difficulty and with still consequential demands for repair and renewal that close the line at regular intervals, usually at the weekend. It is a feature of the New York subway system that, unlike the London Underground, it runs 24 hours a day. Whilst this clearly serves the “city that never sleeps” well, it does mean that cleaning and maintenance often suffers, with dirty and broken tiles that betray the financial burden of the system on the city. Some stations are clearly well favoured, with bright clean walls and platforms whereas others are no better than open public toilets, smelling of urine, filthy and rat infested. (Actually I don’t mind the occasional rat, underground wildlife that clears some of the waste and provides entertainment for children as they wait for the next train.) Vernon/Jackson is about midway on the cleanliness scale – why it doesn’t have a thorough clean when the station is closed for repairs to the 7 line I don’t know.
I note that it is closed again this weekend, which is good for the local hostelries and taxi drivers. I’ll put this online now just to get this things started.