“These are some of the best songwriters in the area,” said James Mastro, curator of a spirited evening at Jersey City’s Fox & Crow on Jan. 4, as he announced his featured artists, Julia Greenberg, Megan Reilly, Edward Rogers and Eddie Skuller.
In his show titled “Jimmie’s Angels Live at the Parlour” — a play on the ’70s television show, “Charlie’s Angel” — Mastro rang in the New Year on a high note by creating an emotionally engaging show with musically diverse sounds in the cozy back room of this restaurant/bar. He also created, for the evening, a signature cocktail with tequila, lime, agave and pomegranate juice that elevated the mood.
Owner of three Guitar Bar stores in Hoboken and Jersey City that sell and repair instruments and offer music lessons, Mastro is a member of Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter’s Rant Band and has toured with Mott the Hoople as well. He also plays with the dynamic, Hoboken-based The Karyn Kuhl Band and is a member of The Bongos, who helped create the ’80s Hoboken alt-rock scene. The Bongos, who disbanded in 1985, reunite on occasion and have two New Jersey shows currently scheduled, at House of Independents in Asbury Park, Jan. 17 (the show, which also features Dramarama and The Grip Weeds, is part of the Light of Day festival); and at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, March 20.
Mastro has recorded with all the featured artists and has produced albums for Skuller (The Morphine Berry Story) and Greenberg (Greenland and Past Your Eyes). He hasn’t played a solo show for some time, and said by email, “I figure if I’m going down, I’m taking my friends with me!” Mastro accompanied all four artists for this two-hour show; Bob Perry (guitar) and Stephanie Seymour (vocals and percussion) also performed with some, at times.
While Mastro successfully showcased his colleagues’ original music, one of the most stirring moments occured during Greenberg’s cover of Mastro’s evocative song about awakening and loss titled “Some Stay Broke” from the album Sad and Sexy, by Mastro’s Health & Happiness Show band. The haunting lyrics and melodic sound made the pain and beauty palpable.
“This was an unpainted town until you came around/Then nothing seemed so dull/You shined a different light/Turned darkness into bright/Showed me things I should have known … Some things sink, some things float/Some hearts mend, some stay broke,” she sang while Mastro accompanied her with his soulful guitar playing and gentle harmonica.
Mastro made all of his friends’ songs sound richer and more nuanced with his guitar playing and easy rapport. He is, indeed, Hunter’s secret weapon in Mott the Hoople and performed the same role at Fox and Crow. He wrings every ounce of emotion out of his guitar, giving each performer what he or she needs, making each word sound fuller.
He is currently “finishing up a (solo) record that will hopefully see the light of day sometime by summer,” he said. “The Bongos are also working on some new material and looking at recording soon.”
Greenberg rocked out with her spectacular song “Stars” from Past Your Eyes and a heartfelt rendition of Dory Previn’s “Lemon Haired Ladies.” Her voice was strong and her stories compelling.
She felt the concert came just at the right moment. “Performing last night in the early days of what feels like a bleak New Year in this world reminded me how you need to hang on to community and music to get through these days,” she said. “James (Mastro) is such a unique booster of independent musicians and music and also such a soulful and beautiful player. It was just a total pleasure to play with him.”
In addition to releasing rock albums, Greenberg has worked in musical theater, co-writing the off-Broadway rock opera “People Are Wrong!” with Robin Goldwasser and the music of the off-Broadway play “Cavedweller” with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” composer Stephen Trask. When she’s not playing music, her commitment to social justice has found a home first at American Jewish World Service and, now at the Open Society Foundation.
Reilly and Mastro played as a duo, complementing each other so organically you’d think they had been playing together forever. Reilly’s sound is emotive and ethereal; her expressive eyes and lilting, quiet voice compelled us to listen carefully.
She sang some of her captivating songs from her latest well-received album, The Well, which Mastro played on, including “The Lady of Leitrim” and “Throw It Out” which both have hypnotic guitar and vocals. She also sang the tranquil love song “With You,” from The Well, lulling listeners to a dreamy place.
Skuller’s blues songs created a moody moment in this dark bistro setting. In “How Do You Know (I’m Sad),” he asked a simple but profound question: “The land is fertile, the trees are in bloom” but still “how do you know I’m sad?”
Mastro added bluesy rock guitar to the sexy, confessional “Your Perfume.” “I was in the mood to be alone, but I followed you home,” Skuller sang. His delivery made me want to know what happens next.
“I was thrilled that James (Mastro) invited me to revisit songs we recorded together about 12 years ago,” said Skuller. “I love the venue … I think our music connected with the people and that’s what it’s always been about for me: connecting.”
Skuller said he hopes to perform more shows this year, returning to the stage after a 10-year hiatus. He has devoted himself to managing and promoting his son Jack Skuller’s band, The Skullers, over the past decade, “including a brief stint with Radio Disney where Jack toured 15 cities and ended up receiving recognition from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
British-born, New York-based Edward Rogers paints beautiful pictures through his stories of places we pass though as we age. He opened his set by explaining that he would take us to his home in Birmingham, England, with “My Street,” written about the street he grew up on. Then he brought us to London with “Denmark Street,” a dramatic song about the British equivalent of Tin Pan Alley that used to be a spot for “dreamers like me.” In “Blackpool Nights” he took us to the seaside resort of Blackpool where he spent his winter holidays.
“Passing the Sunshine” poetically depicted New York’s changing landscape. “These streets once had poetry/Time changed its point of view/From smile to aged tears/What are we supposed to do?” he sang.
Rogers sang about “the golden days of my youth” in “The Biba Crowd,” written after the 2009 Mott the Hoople reunion concert in London at the Hammersmith Apollo. The song brought many smiles from Mott fans in the audience and on the stage.
He gave us a peek of the upcoming album by Rogers & Butler (also featuring Steve Butler of Smash Palace) — Poets and Sinners, which will be released late Spring on Zip Records — with the song “Roll the Stone.” He is an elegant and powerful performer, bringing us into his world with ease. He will also release his eighth solo album, Catch a Cloud, this fall, on Zip.
Jimmie’s Angels projected a lot more substance and intelligence than “Charlie’s Angels” and contained fewer wardrobe changes than the television show, but I was still hoping that they’d solve a crime together. But at least they succeeded in bringing us together to forget our personal and national concerns.
We listen to music while we live our lives — on our way to work, while we walk the dog, fold the laundry, make love, cry over the loss of a loved one. Unlike poetry, it’s usually not experienced as a solitary act. It is meant to be shared and to make us connect. We want to talk about what we’ve heard and discuss how and why a particular song resonates.
Building community connections through music strikes me as a noble goal. It’s one that Mastro achieved with his understated warmth on this otherwise chilly January night.
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