The best thing about New York is not how it’s a treasure trove of new music but how that music can spring out of the most unlikely places and surprise you. Last week, during a short sojourn in the city that never sleeps, I was sitting on a bench outside the Gourmet Garage, a deli in SoHo, eating a relaxed breakfast (yummy roast-beef sandwich, hot split-pea soup and coffee) when a pick-up truck roared down the street I was facing and three guys jumped out. You’re not likely to have an impromptu music video shoot like that surprise you amidst the commercial bustle of mid-town Manhattan but go further uptown and there could be other delights waiting for your attention.
In East Harlem, in the streets off Lexington Avenue, the language suddenly changes from New York’s distinctively accented English to Spanish and you cannot miss the wafts of Latin music and Salsa drifting out of the elaborately graffiti-ed cafes, bars and even some of the brownstone residential buildings.
Still, my best discovery of a new music haven this time was tucked away in the innards of New York’s Lower East side. Make that the grittier side of the Lower East, not far from the Bowery. The spot I’m talking about is called Arlene’s Grocery. Don’t let the name fool you because at Arlene’s you won’t get your normal grocery unless in your lexicon that word means only cold beer or other alcoholic libations. With pints and glasses of those, Arlene’s serves up massive helpings of daily live sets by up and coming bands—local as well as from other parts of the States. On the two days that I hit Arlene’s, there were a total of seven bands playing—every one of them good.
One of the stand-out bands I heard at Arlene’s was New York city’s White Hot Spotlight. Unsigned and still readying their first EP, White Hot Spotlight offered slick, anthemic rock tunes. Vocalist and guitarist Conor Bennett adds a darkish tinge to the songs, while the afro-ed drummer Matty Amendola keeps the sound tight and fast-paced. I’d recommend listening to the four songs on the band’s Myspace page. You might then want to get their yet-to-be-issued EP after you do that.
A few years back, I’d heard a band called Drums & Tuba, which originally was a duo that played progressive rock using minimalist arrangements of, yes, drums and the tuba. That Texas band has now expanded to include more members and instruments but in their early days it was an audacious combination of just drums and tuba. So when The Upper Cuts went up on the stage, I was eager to see what the duo from Minneapolis would be doing with just two instruments—a drum set and a bass guitar. As it happened, the two brothers (Alex and Adam Cole) were excellent. Their ska and reggae influenced rock is infectious and I couldn’t help recalling the music of Sublime, the Californian ska band, and its late frontman, Brad Nowell.
I saw several other bands at Arlene’s. Jonny Chan and The New Dynasty Six are led by singer-guitarist John Ross Michaels and are Brooklyn based. They came on for the last set at midnight on one of the days that I was at Arlene’s and, it being a weekday most people had left by then. But the band blew away the lucky few who remained: think punk from the sixties and the seventies and high-energy sets that are designed to get you on your feet. For a sample try two of their songs on their Myspace page: Jonny Spent the Night in Jail and the anger and angst laden I Hate You Baby. You’ll probably get hooked.
Arlene’s is known as a live music joint where A&R representatives from (usually) indie record labels sniff around looking for new talent. But not all the bands that play are unsigned and new. Philadelphia’s Alright Junior have a couple of records, including a new EP, out. They play upbeat wild, unbridled rock accompanied by so much on-stage action that it is difficult not to get excited by them. I won’t be surprised if you hear more about their frontman and vocalist Steve Demeo whose excellent vocal range matches his ebullient showmanship. I could get addicted to Arlene’s and go there every night to see new bands. That, unfortunately, is not going to happen.