New Brunswick rock bands, driven underground, thrive in basement scene

PHOTOS BY BOB MAKIN

Hodera, performing in a New Brunswick basement.

[Editor’s note: This review — of Hodera, dollys, Green Knuckle Material, Secret Mountain and Offkey Lifestyle at a New Brunswick basement, April 14 — appears in Bob Makin’s Makin Waves column this week, but I felt it was important enough to deserve a post of its own as well. – Jay Lustig]

I am looking forward to the City of New Brunswick trying to bring “legitimate” all-ages venues to the town that has produced more national acts than Asbury Park and Hoboken combined. Many, such as Bouncing Souls, Lifetime, Deadguy, Thursday, Midtown, The Ergs!, The Gaslight Anthem and Screaming Females, came out of the city’s internationally influential basement scene, which exists because of a lack of all-ages venues and now, sadly, a lack of ANY consistent rock venues.

On April 14, in a basement space that can’t be named for fear of it being shut down, that history refreshingly was mingled with New Brunswick’s maligned and misunderstood hip-hop scene. Any other city in the country that had so much rock and rap, plus more than 30,000 undergraduates at a flagship state university, would embrace those scenes warmly, such as in Raleigh, N.C., and Boston.

In interviews, members of both Lifetime and Screaming Females have told me that they don’t think New Brunswick is an artist-friendly town. That’s an absurd thing to say about a city spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on a new performing arts center. But from the standpoint of art that appeals to cash-strapped students and starving artists, that observation is spot-on.

OFFKEY LIFESTYLE

If city and Rutgers leaders came to an amazing show like the one performed by Hodera, dollys, Green Knuckle Material, Secret Mountain and Offkey Lifestyle on April 14, they would have found an extremely well-designed and comfortable basement venue that even had a bathroom! More than 100 customers seemed thoroughly satisfied.

Customers! Isn’t that what New Brunswick businesses need? A city that prides itself on utilizing the arts as an economic driver should realize that even the smallest venue with the least affluent consumer base still can contribute to that mission. The New Brunswick basement scene has artistic value and financial viability that warrants bringing it above ground into “legitimate” venues that could remove the threat of liability that understandably has concerned the city and the university for a long time.

Well, the aforementioned show was more of a treat than a worry as it kicked off with the multi-racial, Latin-driven rap ‘n’ rock band Offkey Lifestyle in a set that must have made Curtis Mayfield smile in music heaven. Conga player Evelyn Da Costa’s rhythms are so strong, the band doesn’t bother to use a drum kit to propel its passionate rhymes and eclectic melodies. Co-fronted by rapper-vocalists Skip Thomas and PJ Allen (also a human beat-box), Offkey Lifestyle exudes fun and a love for music. Thomas needs to grow more comfortable on stage while guitarist Ian McDonald and keyboardist Ryan Rejaei solo, but Allen is a charming pro whose skills include impersonating a trombone. The heartbeat and centerpiece of this band is Da Costa, however, whose rock rhythms and Latin flourishes make Offkey Lifestyle a unique treat.

SECRET MOUNTAIN

Before this evening, I had seen Secret Mountain twice before, but this was my favorite set by them, so far. Everyone got a kick out of them roasting members’ former bandmate Matt Smith of Hodera with headbands and backlighting. Putting together an MC5-like mix of political concern and silly humor with a chunky squawk, Secret Mountain blast through two-minute songs that are absurdly clever and noisily fun. The dichotomies are dynamic.

Show organizers Green Knuckle Material were up next with a much stronger set of material than their mellow, acoustic-oriented debut EP, Back to Your Roots. While the record was a really interesting and unusual offering of acoustic rap, I was glad to see GMK rock out more, scratching a Rage Against the Machine itch at times. As on the record, the highlight was a guest appearance on “Rebels on the Run” by Jenna Rose, an aspiring musical theater talent who is the sister of bassist Dan Ravenda. It’s good to see this band come back from a personnel setback earlier in the year to take the bull by the horns not only with a heartier sound but sound concert booking and promotion.

All I can say about dollys is that they are phenomenal. Once again, they stole the show with their stirring mix of pretty pop and pained punk. Within the course of one song, such as “Doctor” from the debut EP, Oh Please, dollys can go from exquisitely high harmonies to bashing on their instruments to the point of nearly breaking them. Vocalist-drummer Natalie Newbold is without question one of the most exciting performers in music today. The way she can keep time, sing her guts out and lyrically convey strong emotions connected to loss and regret is a whirlwind of talent that needs to be recognized by a larger audience than 100 people crammed into a basement. And the way guitarist Jeff Lane and bassist Erik Kase Romero complement her with tasteful playing, exquisite harmonies is a joy to behold. Judging by the three new songs they played, especially the Latin-tinged “On the Mend,” dollys’ next LP, due in August, could be as strong as 2016’s best local release, low year.

Hodera also have a great new batch of songs that they finally will take a break from nonstop touring to record this summer as a follow-up to the acclaimed 2015 LP, United by Birdsongs. The amazing thing is that even though those songs haven’t been released yet, their fans already know all the words. The joy of watching and listening to them sing along with Smith, then mosh about as the band kicked into high gear is why I love to write about the awesomeness of the New Jersey music scene. I was so glad to catch up with Hodera’s exciting mix of folk-oriented stories and loud, aggressive alternative rock. And while everyone enjoyed Secret Mountain’s roast of their friends’ use of foot pedal-controlled backlighting, the effect does intensify Hodera’s stirring songs.    

I just wish a fantastic show like this didn’t have to stay hidden in New Brunswick’s underground. I long for the day when I can tell people exactly where to find this type of art and entertainment without the fear of it being shut down by a city that just hasn’t known any better. Not yet anyway.

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