There were other bands, too; lots of them. Yo La Tengo cast a long shadow over adventurous music in the Garden State and beyond. The Cucumbers were quirky, The Wygals were powerful, and The Bongos filled the Mile Square with glam rock color. But the story of the Hudson County rock renaissance of the 1980s begins — and maybe ends, too — with The Feelies.
Which is funny, because the Feelies aren’t from Hudson County. They come to us from quiet Haledon, right across the Passaic from Downtown Paterson. But their shows at Maxwell’s on Washington Street in Hoboken were, and still are, the stuff of legend, and the music they made in that back room was delirious, manic, brittle, and danceable, even at anxious tempos that would make a speed metal drummer pant for breath. The Feelies were North Jersey suburban oddballs, boys and girls next door who startled the underground with a peculiar minimalist aesthetic that is still theirs alone, no matter how often it’s been imitated. Famously, during the making of their debut Crazy Rhythms, they plugged their guitars directly into the mixing board, thereby preserving a super-dry, unadorned sound that made every frantic six-string scrape and every percussion shake distinct. Perpetual nervousness: that’s how they diagnosed it on the very first track on the set. Suburban paranoia never sounded so sensational.
Since Crazy Rhythms, they’ve shuffled personnel and refined the sound. There was a long hiatus that — and I really don’t think I’m being hyperbolic here — depressed every indie rocker in New Jersey. But nobody ever stepped into their shoes. Now they’re back, as beloved and as laconic as ever, and on November 18, we’ve got them at White Eagle Hall. Expect to rattle, and twirl, and thrum, and ride that crazy undertow well into the night.
‘Course, they won’t be the only ones singing and strumming in Jersey City in November. There’s also:
Gypsy Tears @ Pet Shop (Nov. 3)
The JC-based Look At My Records! podcast is now on its two hundred and eighteenth episode. That’s dedication. Not everybody championed by Look At My Records! is from Hudson County or even from the Garden State, but the aficionados who run that site have been tireless about shining the spotlight on local talent. They’ve got compelling shows on their calendar, including a date (Nov. 10) at Finnegan’s in Hoboken headlined by the reliably tuneful CR and the Nones, and a basement gig by Desir Decir in Bergen-Lafayette that they’re not giving away the address to (ask a punk, the website advises.) But I’m most interested in the trio they’ve attracted to Pet Shop on Thursday night. Gypsy Tears plays nicely sleazy, grungy pop-rock with big hooks and up-yours attitude. They’re fronted by a singing bass player with a great voice — and a great look — for this sort of thing. Look At My Records! has flanked Gypsy Tears with a couple of other worthy groups: the winning Brewster, who play slacker-style storytelling country-rock, and Quality Living, the harmony-singing Jersey ruffians responsible for the earworm “These Days.” (Pet Shop, 193 Newark Ave., 7 p.m., free, visit lookatmyrecords.com/events or petshopjc.com.)
Tom Barrett, Sean Kiely & James Calleo @ The Brennan Courthouse (Nov. 3)
Generally, it’s a bad sign when a Jersey City show organizer puts a mobile sound system in a space that doesn’t usually accommodate musicians. The Brennan Courthouse is a notable exception. The rotunda is a beautiful place to hang out, and the marble walls and the high dome create unique acoustics. It’d probably be too much for a band, but it provides acoustic singer-songwriters a lovely, if highly litigious, reverb unit. The County Executive is a not-so-secret fan of folk music — he’s got all the ‘60s Greenwich Village classics in his collection — and he’s always been serious about making the Brennan sound and feel like a speakeasy. On Thursday, three very different songwriters will extend that legacy. There’s the smart, compositionally adventurous Sean Kiely, whose performances showcase his knack for unusual melody and his wicked sense of irony. There’s James Calleo of the dreamy Widely Grown, possessor of a powerful, woodsy voice and a conjurer of lovely guitar textures. Then there’s Tom Barrett, whose current music is hushed and mysterious, but whose tenure in a few loud, and influential, Jersey City rock bands continues to influence his approach. They all complement each other neatly, and they’ll make music that suits the mood of the county’s stateliest and most beautiful building. (The Historic William J. Brennan Court House, 583 Newark Ave., doors at 6 p.m., $20 advance tickets, $25 at the door, visit liveatbrennans.eventbrite.com.)
Larry Crack @ MONIRA Fridays (Nov. 4)
“Are You There?,” Benedicto Figueroa’s poetry installation, opens at SMUSH Gallery (340 Summit Ave.) on Friday. Ten minutes to the west, there’s a spoken word competitor: Jersey City Reads Poems, an ongoing literary showcase series, is holding its latest event at MANA Contemporary. That might seem like a lot of verse all at once, but the tradition of public poetry reading in Jersey City is a long one. Those who recall the Waterbug Hotel open mic nights at the Keyhole know that the line between a spoken word performance and a rap set is awfully permeable one. After the poetry set, the Monira Foundation at MANA will be handing the microphone over to a trio of musicians, including rapper Larry Crack, who could probably slide right over to the spoken word segment of the evening if he wanted to. He’s the sort of forceful rhymer who makes sure that you understand all the words — no matter how murky the music gets. On “Layers,” his most recent single, he raps energetically over the sort of concise, artfully gloomy beat that’s been in vogue since Earl Sweatshirt shook up the hip-hop underground with Some Rap Songs. It’s very good. Even better is “Fritz,” his lightning-flash collaboration with the frighteningly smooth Kyle Blvd. Without a doubt, this is a local emcee to watch. (Monira Fridays Emerge Artist Showcase @ MANA, 888 Newark Ave., doors at 6 p.m., deejay showcase at 6:30 p.m., poetry showcase at 7:45 p.m., music at 9 p.m.; $10; visit monirafoundation.org.)
El Prodigio @ The Factory (Nov. 6) and Amenazzy @ The Factory (Nov. 18)
What on earth is going on at The Factory? Over the past few months, bookings have been outrageously good: excellent practitioners of reggaeton, merengue, salsa, bachata, and other forms of Latin urban music have found a home at the restaurant and club on Communipaw just north of Berry Lane Park. Dominican artist El Prodigio, famous for his dexterous accordion leads, has long been one of the foremost artists bridging merengue
and Latin jazz. He’s also known for mischievous Spanish interpretations of famous English-language songs. A week and change after his brunch appearance, The Factory welcomes a younger Dominican (this time at night): budding star José Betances, who records as Amenazzy. Although his version of reggaeton is pop and R&B-inflected, that hasn’t stopped him from collaborating with some of the most uncompromising acts in the genre, including Don Omar, De La Ghetto, and Yandel. “Baby,” his single with Nicky Jam and Farruko, is double-platinum certified; more to the point, it was all over the Internet in 2018. Oh, and while I’m writing about Dominican American vocalists, I’ll draw your attention to the small Bandolera Bar in Union City (418 43rd St.), where the seminal merengue singer Rubby Perez will take the stage with his orchestra on November 12. Call it a good month for balmy Quisqueya in chilly Hudson County. (The Factory Bar & Lounge, 451 Communipaw Ave., 9 p.m. for the Amenazzy appearance; $50, visit boletosexpress.com, visit facebook.com/factory451.)
The Porchistas @ Fox & Crow (Nov. 12)
It’s a bit too easy to call The Porchistas the Feelies of Montclair. For one thing, the Feelies are almost motorik in their rhythmic precision, and The Porchistas… well, let’s just say they can be a bit more laid back about things. Their commitment to the expressive power of electric rhythm guitar might seem familiar to Feelies fans, though. The sonic recipe — an amalgam of frantic folk, bruising garage music, and more than a little classic rock, too — isn’t all that different. Like the Feelies, the Porchistas will travel far and wide if they must, but their music makes the most sense if you hear it on Jersey soil. Their concerts are joyous and danceable in a manner that alternative rock music rarely is. Most of all, the Porchistas, like the Feelies, have become deeply associated with underdog Garden State music through perseverance, love, and a dogged refusal to let commercial considerations get in the way of artistry, or expression, or anybody’s good time. Lately, main Porchista Alan Smith has taken to the airwaves on that bastion of independence: WFMU. It’s a perfect fit. (Live in the Parlor at Fox & Crow, 594 Palisade Ave., 8 p.m., visit foxandcrowjc.com.)
The Feelies @ White Eagle Hall (Nov. 18)
Was their reputation as Garden State homebodies always overblown? The members of The Feelies were notoriously reluctant to bang it out on the college rock circuit and play the industry game, but even at the height of their most hermetic period, they did leave town to perform. Since reuniting, many of their legendary shows have happened on the other side of the Hudson. Wherever they’ve gone, the profound identification with New Jersey has added mightily to their mystique: here was the rare band that demanded that wasn’t going to chase your approval or even your attention. You were going to have to come to them. That means stepping into the Feelies musical universe — one with a bewildering array of overlapping outfits, all of whom shared members, and intentions, and gigs. For instance, there’s Yung Wu, which is essentially the Feelies with percussionist Dave Weckerman writing the songs and handling lead vocals. There’s the Trypes, which featured members of the Feelies alongside musicians who’d eventually form the excellent folk rock band Speed The Plough. The Willies, who are on the undercard at White Eagle Hall, are the Feelies in covers mode*, and many Feelies covers have been in the repertoire since the 1980s. Yes, that does mean The Feelies are opening for themselves. Daft?, maybe. But it all makes sense when they plug in, and start to strum, and shake, and clatter, and everybody in the house loses themselves to that inimitable crazy rhythm. Long may it go unbroken. (White Eagle Hall, 337 Newark Ave., 8 p.m.; $30; visit whiteeaglehalljc.com.)
*Jim Testa, dean of Jersey rock writers and a man who was certainly there at the time, writes to say that the Willies did do original material, including a couple of songs that ended up on the 1986 Feelies album The Good Earth, and another unrecorded one called “The Obedient Atom” that he describes as “the holy grail of the Maxwell’s scene.” Will traces of this history show up in the Willies set at White Eagle Hall? Guess we’ll have to wait to find out.