Jim Walsh reflects on the oversoul that ties together the music being made in cafés and bars all across this big, brawling country.
All photos by Tony Nelson.
In New York, they call Lenny Kaye “Doc Rock.” Kaye, of course, is the longtime guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, the assembler and liner-note writer of the seminal garage rock compilation Nuggets, and a rock critic/author/producer of the first order. He is, then, a living legend; an icon who has every right to kick back and bore the kids with his tales of punk pioneerdom, but who instead last Thursday delivered a stunning solo set of vulnerable originals and lithe electric guitar at a pub in the East Village in front of about 50 people.
By the time the Minneapolis duo The Pines took the stage at one o’clock, only seven people remained – including the owners of the club and Pierre Jelenc (a.k.a. the Gigometer, who obsessively chronicles the New York club scene) and Kaye and his wife, Stephanie. The night was young and Kaye, who celebrates his 62nd birthday this month, stayed for The Pines’ entire set, occasionally dancing and clapping and encouraging the young acoustic guitarsmiths, and ending the night by collaring them and saying how much he dug them.
“Generous” and “gracious” are two of the words that invariably get bandied about when the subject of Doc Rock comes up, and they are also the most oft-used adjectives folks use to describe the club’s late namesake, Jim Croce, alias Banjo Jim, who inspired the song “Banjo Jim Is Everywhere,” which fittingly goes uncredited at the club’s MySpace page , as if any us could have written or sung it:
You’re my brother
You’re my partner
No matter where you are
We’ll be traveling
We’ll be singing
In your hometown bar
“It’s in the walls,” is how one person described the atmosphere at Banjo Jim’s (9th and Avenue C), which celebrates its second anniversary on December 15th, and which a few years ago was the beloved dive known as 9C. The club was renamed Banjo Jim’s in homage to owner Lisa Zwier’s soul mate, which is only part of a love story for the ages:
Music lovers Jim and Lisa find each other after years of the club and romance wars. They fall in love and spend a few blissful years together and stay that way even after his death in a car accident, in a way that only music lovers stay together. Time and space and other people don’t get in the way, for – and I don’t know any of this for certain, only from what I’ve witnessed – theirs was a love that only happens in/through songs.
But to canonize Banjo Jim any further would be to do his memory a disservice, for he was obviously one of those expansive souls who put music first, and would undoubtedly blanch at any discussion of him beyond what he loved and championed. A poster-sized photo of him hangs behind the bar, and his smile infects the place — so much so that as I walked through Greenwich Village by myself after a gig last week, I felt his spirit and started mind-melding with the rats and the homeless and the other denizens of the morning, whispering to myself and the cosmos, “Banjo Jim is everywhere – pass it on.”
Crazy to be sure, but it is that kind of craziness that extraordinary music scenes have historically fomented around, and it says here that there is a scene happening at Banjo Jim’s that few in New York know about. The club has received occasional mentions in the local press, but during my visit to New York last week, I couldn’t stay away from the joint, thanks to the great music, love, and warmth in the room.
“I love this place,” Kaye said into the mic last Thursday night. “Every time I come here, I feel so good, the vibe is so good.”
“It’s a safe place,” said Zwier (affectionately known as Banjo Lisa) the next night, as she untangled mic cords and prepared to tend bar, stage manage, and run sound. As she did, it occurred to me that that’s all any of us want – a warm place in a world gone cold.
At the very least, that is the lure of Banjo Jim’s. But it’s not just the vibe; the music is uniformly excellent. Four of my six nights in New York last week were spent there listening. The highlights:
Alexandra and The Thieves: A Georgia-born singer who drips with positivity, heartache, soul, and fully-realized talent. Her songs are equal parts sunny and sad, and she’s backed by a drummer who pushes herself and her singer towards greatness. Straight up breathtaking.
Luther Wright and The Wrongs: A Canadian staple at Banjo Jim’s that showcases smart, sassy, downhome twang and so many good songs, hooks, and lyrics that ye olde “criminally ignored” lamentations applied to most everything I heard. Wright himself is a beacon of alt-country silliness and a serious songsmith who deserves iPod commercials and beaucoup opportunities to sell his wares to the highest corporate bidder.
The Cangelosi Cards: Last Monday in front of seven people (all musicians) in the city that apparently always sleeps, this ragtime-jazz-gutbucket-blues outfit made like the ‘20s-going-on-the-22nd-century. The singer is a true original; an anti-diva who lets her flapper flag fly and is almost shy with her delivery – hunched over sometimes as if in mid-wretch; tucked into the corner of the bar; purposefully not out in front of the band; slumping her shoulders and singing to the floor her New Orleans funeral keens borne of grief + joy = catharsis.
The band itself is expert, loose, and powered by a harmonica player and guitarist who exude laid-back cool and ferocious chops. They’ve been called “the hardest working band in New York,” and they play every Monday at Banjo Jim’s, which, if my one-time experience is any indication, they regularly transform into a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Go figure: America is doing everything backwards these days, so it only figures that an outfit from New York would be doling out post-war giddiness before the war (or world) ends – a premature V-J Day, just in case ours never comes.
On the wall above the piano at Banjo Jim’s is a poster that declares “CBGB Forever” – an acknowledgement that this ersatz anti-folk scene is baptized in the rich waters of punk rock. There is also a sense that the acoustic music found seven nights a week in that tiny room is a reaction to the technology-addicted world, and that part of its “safe place” charm is that it offers a respite from computers and communication. Truly, there were times last week when the listening was so sacred, I felt like a monk at morning vespers.
Which is not a phenomenon exclusive to Banjo Jim’s. Acoustic and old-timey music scenes are sprouting up and/or renewing themselves all over the country – from Minneapolis to San Francisco to Philadelphia to Austin, Texas and beyond. All are being led by young players and songwriters who are digging out from under the weight of their own historic scenes, and who are now forging new ones that fly by the seat of six strings and great songs and huge hearts.
In other words, something is happening.
In other words, there is music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.
In other words, Banjo Jim is everywhere.
Pass it on.