A Weekend in Jersey

In the game room of a bar in north Jersey, I watched as three people casually discussed the merits of astrology on a couch in the corner, four friends exchanged playful barbs and wagers as they undertook an epic game of foosball, and one tall guy in a tight fitting white t-shirt double-fisted neon pistols in an intense play-through of arcade classic Area 51, much to the delight of the small crowd that had gathered to watch him. It would have been easy at that moment to assume that I was watching nothing more than a gathering of friends on a Saturday night, a much needed escape from the stress of the work week at a local bar. And in some respects that would be accurate: these people are friends and I knew that more than a few of them had endured stressful weeks. But they weren’t escaping from work. They were getting ready for it. Everyone in that room (save yours truly) would be heading up on stage later that night to perform in either Owel, Vasudeva, or Gates. All around me, in various states of leisure, were three of the bands at the heart of New Jersey’s burgeoning post-rock scene.

Somewhat miraculously, Gates managed to get free from BBQ duty for the night.

For the second time in as many nights, GatesOwel, and Vasudeva were about to take the stage together (the previous night’s excellent show – in rainy Asbury Park – had been a vinyl release party for Owel and scenemates Athletics, whose album Who You Are Is Not Enough was recorded by Gates’s Kevin Dye). Given their geographic proximity and the interrelated elements of each of these bands’ respective sounds, I was surprised to learn how rarely this lineup played together.

“I don’t really know why we don’t play together more often,” said Gates’ lead vocalist Kevin Dye, “I guess a lot of the show promoters who set things up want to get different kinds of bands on shows to try and get more kids to come. And I get that. We definitely want to be playing for more people.”

The point that Dye raises is an interesting one because of its delicacy. Both the show promoter and the bands themselves benefit from a larger crowd; that much has always been obvious – more kids equates to more tickets sold, more ears to hear you and more chances to move merch. The difficulty comes in finding a band lineup that offers a balance between the type of diversity that will reach a wider swath of showgoers and the type of compatibility that will actually be strong enough to get those showgoers to step away from their computers and into a dingy bar. A diverse ticket is often a watered down one, the kind of bill that will leave fans (outside of diehards, of course) thinking, “Meh, I don’t really like any of the other bands. I’ll see them next time.” On the other hand, too homogenous of a lineup will only appeal to a small subset of fans and showgoers, keeping those bands from being able to expand their fanbases. There is no right or wrong solution to this quandary.

“Much as how there’s no right or wrong reason to have a giant shadow of your bass player looming over your band.” – Owel

On this night, though, none of the economics mattered. All three bands were thrilled to be playing together at the beloved Court Tavern in New Brunswick – a venue primarily run by the genial Rocky Catanese (I believe it’s pronounced ‘kuh-TAN-zee’, no?) who, as the lead singer of New Jersey’s own Let Me Run, is himself a member of this scene. As it is, the Court has become something of a ‘home field’ for these bands – a venue that they’ve played many times and love coming back to – and so, despite the fact that these bands rarely all play together, there was something of a homecoming feel about the whole affair. Or maybe it’s just that if you do anything passionately enough, the people who share in that experience will become like family – which has certainly happened with this scene, wherein bands that could easily be crosstown rivals embrace with hugs like long lost brothers…after being apart for less than 24 hours.

That sense of community, of belonging, among these bands is palpable. When they’re not playing an inter-band foosball tournament they’re standing in a circle outside of the bar, debating deep topics like an extended-cast version of Clerks (a sample musing from Gates’s Dan King: “I bet like 90% of people who eat Cliff bars aren’t climbing cliffs. We’re in New Jersey. Where the cliffs at?”), or they’re helping each other out on the stage. Case in point: Dye, who performed guest vocals on Owel’s recording of ‘Death In the Snow,’ joined the band on stage during that song’s performance each night. But things don’t stop there. With Vasudeva bassist Chris Ratay stranded in Boston due to the week’s horrifying events (the concert at the Court Tavern took place on the night of April 20th), Dye – guitar player and lead vocalist of Gates – acted as a last minute fill-in on bass for Vasudeva both nights. That this impressive act was even possible is yet another sign of how tightly knit this scene is: Dye has been recording the new Vasudeva record and knew the tracks so well that he was able to pull together the bass lines on short notice.

Yup. I’m sure learning whatever these kids wrote for bass was a breeze.

That sense of community was on full display all throughout the night. Members of Gates and Owel stood front and center during Vasudeva’s set, bobbing and weaving to the dance-inspiring rhythms of the band’s brilliantly energetic take on instrumental post-rock (“They basically figured out how to play electronic dance music on real instruments,” noted Dye). The crowd tightened in for the push and pull of Owel’s dynamic set and those nearest the stage could hear Owel vocalist Jay Sakong’s repeated thanking of Gates’s Ethan Koozer who had lent Sakong a fresh axe as remedy for a broken string. And by the time Gates took the stage, members of Owel and Vasudeva were lining the stage, singing along and air-drumming their way through Gates’s cathartically powerful set, hooting and hollering as drummer Dan Crapanzano stripped off his coral t-shirt three songs in (he’s single, ladies!), and losing their collective minds when show organizer Rocky Catanese leapt up from the crowd to scream out to the conclusion of show-closer ‘…And To Those Who Carry On‘ with Dye.

It was an amazing night. It’s one thing to hear the lip service that musicians are somewhat obligated to pay to their peers and their community, but it’s another thing entirely to see this type of passion and brotherhood in action – to hear bands talk lovingly not just of one another’s music but of their skill, drive, and character. That these bands so emphatically support one another is wonderful, but it is not enough. These bands need our help. And they’ve earned it. Each member of every band that I’ve discussed is, in addition to writing/recording/organizing/touring for their band, either working or going to school full-time. Through the entire long weekend that I spent with Gates and Co. the single and only topic of discussion, save a few moments lamenting the terrible situation that was unfolding at the time in Boston, was music. Music, music, music. Only music. The days of the full-time mid-size band may be ending, but we can at least give the artists that we love a chance to continue doing what they do better than anyone else: making music. We want their music in our lives but they need our support in theirs. And though I’ve said it before, it bears repeating: when we love a band and want them to keep being a band – especially an up and coming band like Gates, Owel, or Vasudeva – we need to go to their shows and tell them how much we love them (they really do care!), buy their albums or merch, and just support them in any way we can. To paraphrase the screaming of Kevin Dye in ‘The Sound of Letting Go‘: to do this is everything that they deserve.


Banner image received from indie101.com


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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