Maxwell’s closed last year with a lot of fanfare: widespread media coverage, a string of shows by club favorites returning for one last show, and then one final blowout, with a block party outside.
The club’s reopening, Friday night, was a comparatively low-key affair, with just one act, “American Idol” alumna and Kinnelon native Elise Testone, a full house inside the redone Maxwell’s backroom, but no hordes outside, and not a tremendous amount of press.
Maxwell’s deserved its final blaze of glory, of course. From 1978 on, it was an essential part of the Jersey rock scene, and an important outpost for nationally touring bands. Photos of bands that have played Maxwell’s fill the wall behind the club’s bar, and it’s an imposing sight: Nirvana, R.E.M., The Replacements, The Pixies, The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, My Chemical Romance, Weezer …
Judging by online comments, former Maxwell’s club-goers have mixed feelings about the reopening (with the slightly modified name of Maxwell’s Tavern). New owners Pete Carr and Evan Dean define their booking strategy as “rock and blues,” not indie-rock and punk-rock, and though they plan to include local bands in the mix, that hasn’t started yet. A couple of cover bands on the first few weeks’ schedule also raised concerns that this will be a covers club, not a place for original music, though the plan is for original music to dominate.
Some feel that the new owners are doing the old club an injustice simply because they’re doing something different with it.
As far as I’m concerned, the bottom line is this: The original Maxwell’s is not coming back, under any circumstances. The emergence of any new music venue in New Jersey is a good thing. And Carr and Dean, while not interested in creating a carbon copy of the old Maxwell’s, seem to genuinely want to bring quality music to their club. So why not give them, and Maxwell’s, the benefit of the doubt?
Certainly, Friday’s show was encouraging. Paintings from local artists brightened up the room, and the new sound system made for a crisper-sounding show than you tended to get at the old Maxwell’s. The bleachers have been taken out, and the bar and the sound booth take up less space than they used to, so the club feels slightly larger. Two video screens stayed on behind Testone throughout the show, one showing just her name and, the other, the new Maxwell’s logo. There were some tables, though most people stood. (Some future shows may be fully seated).
Yes, a constant rumble of chatter emanated from the bar area, but that was a problem at the old Maxwell’s, too; those wanting to focus on the music could move to the front half of the room, where they could see and hear fine.
Testone, who was backed by a four-piece band, performed covers that ranged from Erykah Badu’s “Certainly” to two Led Zeppelin songs (“Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker”), but about half of her set was devoted to originals, including an explosive new one called “Help Me.” She can do it all, from scatting to bluesy belting, has a warm, friendly stage presence, and conveys a sense of being totally committed to her music.
She still needs something to get to the next level — a stylistic breakthrough that would catch people’s attention, or an absolutely killer song, or just a lucky break such as getting a song on a hit movie’s soundtrack — but she left no doubt that she has the talent and drive to make her a real contender.
The next Maxwell’s show is a Halloween Bash featuring The Nerds on Thursday. Other shows will include Murali Coryell, on Nov. 8, and Michael Powers, on Nov. 15.
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