The Feelies, The Bongos and Karyn Kuhl — all mainstays of the Hoboken rock scene that coalesced around the nightclub Maxwell’s in the ’80s — came together on Oct. 1 for the Mile Square City’s Fall Arts & Music Festival. They were joined by Lenny Kaye and an all-star band paying tribute to Kaye’s seminal compilation of garage rock singles, Nuggets, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
But for all the joy and music and memories on that stage and in the audience, it was a bittersweet day as well, since this marked the last festival under the auspices of Hoboken’s Director of Cultural Affairs Geri Fallo, who announced that she will retire at the end of the year after a remarkable 30-year career.
“This is the Maxwell’s diaspora come home,” commented Andy Peters, longtime soundman for the Feelies. You could feel it throughout the crowd as old friends and acquaintances reconnected, often after years apart. Maxwell’s was the glue that cemented this disparate crowd and these musicians together, even if many in attendance were the children of the seminal club’s regulars. Fallo was brought to the stage twice for kudos, and received a plaque commemorating her years of service from Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla. Steve Fallon, whose family bought Maxwell’s in 1978 and opened that fabled backroom to live music, was on hand and thanked as well.
With all that, the main stage on Observer Highway only represented part of the day’s events. A second stage a half mile away at Sixth and Washington streets played host to both up-and-coming talent like Jax Zilla, Melanie Murray and Allison Strong, as well as perennial favorites Gene D. Plumber, Gerry Rosenthal’s Widely Grown, the Zydeco Revelators and Frankie Morales & the Mambo of the Times Orchestra.
In between the two stages, dozens of booths lined Washington Street, offering a state fair-like atmosphere with food vendors, local businesses, civic organizations and local artists well represented.
Karyn Kuhl witnessed Hoboken’s gentrification and evolution into a music destination firsthand as a member of Gut Bank in the early ’80s. Over the years since then, first in the alt-rock trio Sexpod and then as a solo artist, Kuhl has honed her chops as a blues guitarist and emerged as a singer of renown while serving her community as a music instructor for the town’s toddlers. She was a perfect choice to open this festival.
She looked radiant as she led her band — with the thundering Jonpaul Pantozzi on drums, Charlie Nieland on guitar and Lou Ciarlo on bass — through a set of her soulful originals. And in a touching finale, she dedicated a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” to Fallo.
Before Lenny Kaye found fame working with Patti Smith, he put together a compilation of garage-rock tracks titled Nuggets in 1972 that became a template, in many ways, for the punk rock revolution that followed. Some 50 years later, Kaye, now 76, brought an all-star band to Hoboken to celebrate that release.
The powerhouse lineup included Fred Smith of Television on bass, Dave Amels of Reigning Sound on keyboards, the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken on drums, James Mastro on guitar and Vinny DeNunzio on percussion, with Kaye recalling his days in his own garage-rock band at Rutgers-New Brunswick in the ’60s and expressing his amazement that he was playing these songs so many years later.
With guest singers that included Kuhl, Tammy Faye Starlite, Elena Skye (of The Demolition String Band), The Feelies’ Glenn Mercer, The Bongos’ Richard Barone and punk-rock legends Tish & Snooky, Kaye led the band through covers of “nuggets” like The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction,” The Knickerbockers’ “Lies,” and the hit single he recorded under the stage name Link Cromwell, “Crazy Like a Fox.”
As electrifying as the set was to that point, the band pulled out all the stops for the rave-up finale, a song that Kaye helped revive with The Patti Smith Group and that he dubbed “the national anthem of garage-rock,” “Gloria.” “G-L-O-R-I I I I I, G L O R I A, Gloriaaaa.” (watch video below) It was … glorious. And the high point of an outstanding afternoon.
An early incarnation of The Bongos called “a” was the first act to perform at Maxwell’s. Later, The Bongos became the first group to tour the country proudly proclaiming themselves a “Hoboken band.”
“Hi, we’re The Bongos from Hoboken, N.J.,” shouted still-boyish frontman Richard Barone as the quartet — also featuring Mastro, Rob Norris on bass and Frank Giannini on drums — ripped into their traditional opener, “In the Congo.”
The band delivered a tight set of old favorites largely culled from their earliest records, with Barone nailing all the high notes as if not a day had passed since the group’s ’80s heyday. The set included ebullient power-pop like “The Bulrushes,” “Telephoto Lens,” “Video Eyes” and “Zebra Club” from the band’s 1982 debut album, Drums Along the Hudson, as well as the soaring “Numbers With Wings” (the title track of an EP that has just been reissued by RCA Legacy in an expanded and remastered version). (watch video below)
The set ended with a cover of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’Jane,” showing that The Bongos still have a few new tricks up their sleeve.
That left it to the ageless Feelies to finish the afternoon, which they did with their usual precision and ferocity, running seamlessly through a set that segued from their pastoral ’80s and ’90s output to the freneticism of their breakout 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. “How can they be this good?” asked a shellshocked Brooklyn punk rocker standing slack-jawed beside me. The answer was simple: “They’re The Feelies.”
Since they will soon release Some Kinda Love: Performing the Music of the Velvet Underground, a live tribute album recorded in 2018 at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, it made sense that The Feelies encored with a wailing take on The Velvets’ “What Goes On,” featuring Kaye and The Bongos. (watch video below).
It was the perfect end to a day of nostalgia and gratitude, a day when one couldn’t help but wonder what Hoboken will be like without Geri Fallo. But that Velvet Underground song … that was the way to send us all home.
“Baby be good, do what you should/You know it will be all right.”
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