“Music scene’s crazy, bands start up, each and every day… I saw another one just the other day, a special new band…”Pavement, “Cut Your Hair,” 1994
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Pavement’s is a sentiment that applies to the music scene here in 2023. Bands are everywhere: old, new, reunited, broken-up, reforming, touring, debuting, mixing, mastering, scheming, working.
And, “Cut Your Hair” is not just a dubious hook-quote to begin an article with.
Sure enough, Pavement played a Court Tavern show in August 1990, en route to becoming one of the alt-rock decade’s seminal bands.
Even more directly, “Cut Your Hair” was covered this year, note-for-note and with an infusion of Hub City power by the rock band Midtown, formed right here in 1998.
Midtown’s is a great version, off their four-song EP of covers this year, so don’t miss it.
You won’t have to, if you listen to the playlist accompanying this project, where this reporter is tracking all of the 2023 releases (or as many as he can find on Spotify) from musicians in and around the New Brunswick music scene, both past and present.
For our mid-year review, we’ve got full interviews with nine of these acts.
Some have just started up in the past couple of years, working the city’s famous basement circuit, which currently features a rotation of about a dozen code-named showhouses.
Which means if you’re a show-goer in 2023 New Brunswick, you’re still doing okay, with shows happening pretty much every weekend.
It’s just that basements and backyards are pretty much the only gig in town these days. There are exceptions – frequent hardcore shows at the Cinco de Mayo restaurant on French Street, for one, and a few other places with one-offs, while Pino’s, across the river in Highland Park, hosts often.
Some of the bands featured here go back a few decades, to when aboveground venues proliferated the scene seven nights a week.
So for the purposes of this mid-year review, it’s not a requirement to have played a basement show in 2023—only to have music out this year.
Nevertheless a question of authenticity came up across the generations, in a few of these interviews: Can you really be a “New Brunswick band” if you don’t live within one of the city’s five wards, or if you don’t go to Rutgers?
To that we declare, of course! These are inclusive times, people. Showing up counts, adjacency counts.
And as one of our interviewees describes it, being adjacent is better than being nowhere.
Speaking of nowhere, it also may, or may not surprise some that most of the present music scene hasn’t heard of the Melody Bar, which closed down in 2001.
It would be wrong to fault our young comrades for that though. Today the Melody is just an anonymous patch of grass on French Street, between a parking garage and a school building. (The Roxy too, once across the street from the Melody, is now a hospital building.)
That’s otherwise known as progress, you know.
But it was difficult to see that whole area go corporate, said one interviewee. The Melody gets good play in a couple of these interviews.
Then for other newbies in the scene, the Court Tavern exists only as a cruel, stucco monument to the scene’s former glories.
Six of the nine mid-year interviewees can cite gigs at the Court Tavern, while three came of age after it turned over in 2012 after half a century with the Albert family, and missed out on all the fun.
Here we have an important thing to note on the Court Tavern: Although it’s been closed since 2019 (and many mark 2012 as its true end), it has not been demolished, despite a couple of published works insisting so this year.
As far as we know, there are no imminent plans for the Court Tavern to be sold or demolished or turned into a vegan restaurant.
Still, it’s no doubt in no-man’s land: parking garage to its left, another at its front, and that giant hole in the ground, the city’s blighted, everlasting, yet supposedly temporary mascot, The Hub, hovering across the street.
Anyway, back to what’s actually happening, the music.
All nine of these interviewed artists released new music in these first six months of 2023.
And everybody started somewhere. Each interviewee was asked: when and where was their first New Brunswick performance?
The Cynz guitarist Henry Seiz, formerly of Louie Louie & the Lost Hombres, played his first show at the Court.
Cynz singer/street poet Cyndi Dawson cites a spoken word poetry performance at the Roxy as her first.
She also bartended at the Golden Rail and the Scarlet Pub on Easton Avenue, and at Patrix, a notable music hub in the 80s that didn’t survive that booming decade. (Though the building is still there – at the corner of Throop and Handy, across from Feaster Park.)
“New Brunswick was so hot for live music” in the 80s, Cyndi said. “All the A&R people from the major labels, they could have been in any bar, any given night of the week to go see bands. It was such a fabulous time to be in New Brunswick if you were in a band.”
There was even one night, a Friday in January 1984, where Bruce Springsteen showed up at Patrix unannounced and sat in with the local yokels. Cyndi was behind the bar that night.
Cliff and Ivy
Cliff Livingston and Kara Thrasher-Livingston, who perform as the goth rock duo Cliff and Ivy, recall their first gig being at an anti-apartheid rally on College Avenue, outside of the student center in 1985.
And, exclusive to New Brunswick Today, we can break some major rock and roll news: Cliff and Ivy are collaborating with Jim Babjak of the legendary Smithereens for their next single, which was recorded in early June.
“That’s top secret news. You got it first, baby,” Cliff said. Score!
“It’s a really cool song,” he added. “It’s called ‘We Ignite.’ [Jim] is super awesome and just a great guitar player. He really does great leads, so it’ll be perfect for this song… I’m just not even going to describe it because it’s really cool, and it’s a sing-along.”
Listen to Cliff and Ivy’s 2023 single “Die Tonight” for a taste of what Babjak’s getting himself into. (It’s embedded atop their interview). One play of that, and ooh boy, can’t wait for “We Ignite.”
Also discussed with Cliff and Ivy was the couple’s wedding reception party, held at the Court Tavern on the significant date of August 8, 1988 (8/8/88).
“Legendary,” Ivy laughed, recounting the notable attendees and shenanigans that night.
Gary Kaplan, who scaled the heights of the national rock scene in the 90s with his bands Dandelion Fire and Rotator Cuff, and who now plays guitar in RGD in Highland Park, has seen a few things.
“I’ve been around the music scene in New Brunswick for a looong time,” he said, starting when the Melody Bar embraced the New Wave in the early 80s. That’s where his first gig was, with Dandelion Fire, approximately May of 1990.
“People used to actually come in from New York, believe it or not, and Philly, to go to the Melody. Because the music there was amazing. And because it was free and had a cool little dance floor,” he said.
That was back when bars in New Brunswick could stay open until 3, which helped. Or maybe hurt.
“People would go to work, go home, go to sleep, wake up at 11 at night, and go out for the evening,” he said. “I wasn’t the only one, people did it all the time. Because you could go out late and there’d still be something happening. It was like New York.”
We took our time with Gary. We even gave him a Sophie’s Choice: if he could spend one more night at either an in-its-prime Melody Bar, or an in-its-prime Court Tavern, which would he choose?
Frank Bridges of San Tropez cites the spring or summer of 1990 as his first Hub City performance, with his then band kiaro skuro, though the exact details have escaped. “Maybe somewhere at Rutgers?” he thought.
In some ways he hasn’t left the 90s, though. Musically at least.
Playing bass in his shoegaze band San Tropez is “Crazy because we all knew each other then… We could have been in this band in the early 90s, and we probably would have been making the same music, because we’re heavily influenced by Cure, New Order, Ride, Slowdive, you know, Pale Saints, Lush…
“There was just such a scene, and so many aspects of the scene,” Bridges said, about New Brunswick in the 90s. “Physically, things you could touch and go to, there was just so much more going on.”
San Tropez released its first full-length album, “Maybe Tomorrow,” in January on Mint 400 Records.
The Golden Rail was the site for Eric Harrison’s debut with his band Crash Chorus, also in the summer of 1990, a night that culminated in intra-band fisticuffs.
They later had another fight at the Roxy, which their mothers actually broke up.
They were just going through their Replacements phase, Harrison said, though he kept it pretty straight himself, on stage, in case one of those shadowy A&R reps were around.
Laughable, he says now. But these were high times in New Brunswick.
“Growing up around here, we had access to people,” he said, citing names like Matt Pinfield, who DJ’d his senior prom at East Brunswick High in ‘86, Glen Burtnik, and The Smithereens.
“Having direct interaction with local bands, and being steeped in a world where those bands came from, was really a blessing to anybody who loved the kind of power pop that I try to make,” he said.
“There was just so much great music going on in the 80s and 90s, and it really set my taste at an early age.”
Flashing forward a few years now, for our final four interviews. Dinosaur Eyelids lived two blocks from the Court Tavern, at the corners of Paterson and George, above Beauty Plus.
They played their first New Brunswick gig at the Court Tavern in 2009, and subsequently had many practice sessions there, catching the tail end of the Bobby Albert era before it turned over in 2012.
This year, Dinosaur Eyelids released a live album recorded in the Court Tavern basement, from 2016, an album filled with a healthy dose of crowd jiving.
“Funny about the Court Tavern is it is a really intimate place, and we had a lot of friends there that night,” said singer Evan Staats. “Which often we did, especially in those days… So at that time at a place like Court Tavern, I think that [crowd talk] was probably pretty typical, but maybe especially good that night.”
Staats also issues a sincere apology to the state government for the Dinosaur Eyelids stickers they’ve plastered all over creation. To the federal government, really, for going interstate and tagging Pennsylvania too.
Rock band Tula Vera played their first New Brunswick show at the Scarlet Pub, in the mid-2010’s when guitarist-vocalist Clay Parcells was merely 15 years old, somehow.
They didn’t tell anybody their ages, they said. “When I got there, they’re like, Where’s your ID? Yeah, um, I don’t have one. What do you mean you don’t have one?” Parcells said.
“They ended up letting us play, but they put X’s on our hands and told us we had to stand in the corner whenever we weren’t playing. Or not quite the corner, but just not the bar.”
Parcells said it then took a little bit of time after that first Scarlet Pub show to get into the New Brunswick scene.
God forbid, they were only 15! That’s hard to do at 15.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long for Tula Vera to become DIY favorites all over the northeast, with their self-ascribed brand of spooky blues.
The band is on the road at this very moment, in the midst of a 15-state tour throughout July.
Our final two guests are Pillowinde and Super Jack. They both started in the showhouse circuit post-Covid, in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
They even met each other in one of the basements, before going on to collaborate on production and performance elements.
There’s probably no band that’s played more showhouse gigs than Pillowinde in the past two years, with singer/guitarist Claire Ruiz counting it in the fifties.
Ruiz’s first gig was at the Ghoul Lagoon, a now-defunct showhouse on Baldwin Street, in August 2021.
In April of this year, Pillowinde released their full-length album “Jets to Brunswick.”
“All of a sudden, this was my life,” Ruiz said, describing the album’s lyrics. “Going to New Brunswick, and taking the train to it, or spending a week there with my friends. It just became my life.”
It’s not explicitly a concept album, as much as I tried to read into it, but its stories are all about the life.
In a tangent to the music scene’s starburst past, Ruiz appeared on WRSU’s Overnight Sensations this spring for an acoustic set and conversation.
And the last of the first nine, Super Jack says his inaugural New Brunswick gig was at the Grander Canyon showhouse in November 2022. It was on a bill with New Brunswick’s Gabba Ghoul, along with Jag One, Dicqbeats, and Meteor Police.
“Great bill. It was on Black Friday. And it was just so much fun,” Super Jack said. “I met a lot of cool people, and it was just nice to play for a crowd that had such energy like that.”
Super Jack brings a distinctive flavor of music to the guitar-centric New Brunswick basements, citing LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz and Lou Reed (drones!) among his production interests.
“I feel like my music doesn’t necessarily fit into the New Brunswick aesthetic, as it were,” he said. “But it’s nice to be playing in New Brunswick and get a nice reception… There’s a lot of room for weirdos like me.”
We spoke to Super Jack outside of Randy Now’s Man Cave in Hightstown on June 1st, where he was one of the openers for the headlining Cliff and Ivy.
So that’s what we’ve got. Nine interviews to kick off the mid-year review, with more to come the rest of this year.
Musicians, keep the hits coming. And send me your stuff.
And for dessert, here’s a rapid-fire roundup of some other happenings in the scene, all 2023 news, mostly chronological from when things began:
Rest in Peace Marc Lanzoff, the legendary Court Tavern doorman, who passed away in February at the age of 71… we’re glad to have interviewed him last summer for a feature article on his colorful life in New Brunswick… The Smithereens are touring nationally and have teased a possible new album by the end of the year… it would be the band’s first new album after frontman Pat DiNizio’s passing in 2017. That’s on the heels of The Smithereens’ December 2022 “The Lost Album,” recorded in the 90’s but never released… Industrial metal/punk band Transilivia has reformed and will be playing at Pino’s in August, possibly with a five-song EP in tow… Looks like Chris Pierce and School Drugs had a swell time in Europe at this month, and you can catch him at the Ale ‘n Wich when in need of refreshment… The Ale ’n Wich turns 50 in 2024… Matt Pinfield was inducted into WRSU’s inaugural Hall of Fame class during its 75th anniversary celebrations this year… Shawn Mars is either having the most prolific year since the 1963 Beatles, posting ten albums to Spotify since January, or is merely getting his streaming house in order… Mars’ “Hooked on Phonix and “Four Track Mind” are in the playlist… Doug Vizthum shared some music to SoundCloud from his new Florida home… Both the Bouncing Souls and Screaming Females released full albums this year and have toured broadly… Pete Horvath’s The Anderson Council has a full-length album out… Interviewees Cliff and Ivy, Eric Harrison, San Tropez, RGD and The Cynz all have new music out this year… Gaslight Anthem debuted their first new song since 2014 and are playing with The Misfits in Newark on July 8… Hair Magic posted an EP and play often in Highland Park… Newly-formed The Phensic features members of New Jersey/New Brunswick’s first ska band Bigger Thomas, and has posted two slick singles so far this year… Scienz of Life alums John Robinson and Eloh Kush are having productive years and Robinson is presently touring Europe… Ska punks Public Serpents have a full album out… Midtown’s EP “We’re Too Old to Write New Songs So Here’s Some Songs We Didn’t Write” covers Pavement, Elvis Costello, Hot Rod Circuit and Lagwagon… Thursday is back playing great venues and frontman Geoff Rickly is publishing a novel this year… King-F has released a batch of Hub City hip hop/hard rap… Interviewee Dinosaur Eyelids released a Live at the Court Tavern album this year and are back at John & Peter’s in October… The Clydes can be seen at Pino’s… Tom Kanach too, with a Kanak EP released to Spotify this past April… Hodera and Flycatcher are making the rounds on nationwide stages, both with albums/EPs out of their own… Shred Flintstone shook up its lineup and posted a quartet of bubbly singles over the winter, and a new rock EP on June 30 with its reformed lineup… Former Shred members have started new projects of their own called Blank Unit (Joey, drums) and Child Eater (Ed, bass)… Interviewee Tula Vera’s EP was released on June 23 and its EP release show in Brooklyn was also covered by yours truly… BYRH released a full-length album in January, recorded at Highland Park’s Mt. Moon Studios, which has since moved to Philadelphia… new home-recordings from BYRH are hotly anticipated for 2023… Nematode’s EP “Chum” is a jazz-rock hoot… Green Knuckle Material has released two slamma-jamma pop rock songs this year with more on the way, so good, so hot… GKM shares a drummer with Sonoa which dropped a shimmery rock song in April called “Haze”… Jag One are guitar-happy shredders in the basement scene, recommended is the scintillating “Godspeed!” from their April album… Steve Kelly (no relation) formerly of Mandancing has released a bunch of solo tracks… Emo rockers Ogbert the Nerd have a new single out and are touring… Radcliffe collaborated with Zoloft Zombie on a June single and is sharing more new music imminently… NJ goth daddy Eric Raven has a fearsome track out called “Fangs on the Fragile”… Heavy metal Toads have some chilling, roaring music out this year, including “Skinwalker” on June 30… Interviewee Super Jack’s “Eats The Mind!” is a genre-bending album like an LCD Soundsystem or Gorillaz… Psyche-rockers Heathmonger released their debut EP last month… Neo Cykedalik’s party rocker “Shangri La” is a summer hit for late nights… Interviewee Pillowinde’s full-length album “Jets to Brunswick” is the best thing music reporter Ben Kelly has heard this year… Dusters frontman Nishad Datta ran for New Brunswick Board of Education… the hardcore band is playing and hosting shows frequently at Cinco de Mayo on French Street… Punk rockers Freezeheads have a three-song EP that clocks in at a hold-your-breath 3 minutes 49 seconds… A Parallax View is crafting their experimental debut EP in a well-known rocker’s private studio… Pop-punk singles from The Promotion band this year have been a treat… The Thrill of Meandering rebranded as Horse Boy and continues in their music-for-dreaming style… Speakeasy released a hardcore New Brunswick live album which contains an explicit how-to on moshing that you don’t want to miss… Ernie Pulchny’s punk rock project Derailment released its debut single last month… Shalom has a confessional pop album out through Saddle Creek Records and filmed the music video for “Soccer Mommy” in a New Brunswick basement… Sierra Peaks likes putting on shows and has an epic-classic rock track of their own out called “Fall From Grace”… Five-piece Valentines Day dropped a single this year and is playing a series of summer shows in New York City… all that and probably many more that I missed, let me know, don’t be shy!
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.