New Brunswick PAC branches out with night of original rock by NJ bands

by JIM TESTA
nbpac rock

JIM TESTA

The New Bardōts (from left, Gar Francis, Vic Cappella, Wayne Olivieri and Johnnie Rago) on the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center stage, Aug. 26.

Three bands with decades of tenure in the New Jersey rock scene came together to benefit the Plainfield Area Humane Society on Aug. 26. This marked the first time that original rock music has graced the stage of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center since it opened in 2019.

The vibe might have been more AARP than CBGB, with a crowd of about 65 attendees whose venerable ages mirrored that of the performers. But the seated auditorium provided state-of-the-art sound, lighting and staging for an evening that included Kim Olin’s Leather Catsuit, garage-rockers the Grip Weeds, and headliners the New Bardōts.

“I really think there is a good opportunity here to do something for original music, depending on how this show turns out,” said Wayne Olivieri, the flamboyant lead singer of the New Bardōts and organizer of the night, in a pre-show interview. “I am in conversation with the theater director about possibly doing more shows. I would love to get involved in helping younger (and older) indie original bands have a really cool, state-of-the-art place to perform.”

Michael Latshaw served as emcee, opening the evening with a short film on the work of the Plainfield Area Humane Society in rescuing and finding homes for abandoned house pets, and then introducing the bands.

JIM TESTA

From left, Kim Olin, Jeff Surawski and Richard Rybinski of Leather Catsuit.

Olin, who is from Asbury Park, calls Leather Catsuit “the culmination of 30 years of being immersed in music”; she put together the project during the pandemic when several musician friends had downtime. The band released a self-titled EP on Rum Bar Records in April, and those songs comprised the bulk of its set. A new lineup assembled for this show included Jeff Surawski on bass, Rob “Rock” Bianco on drums, Richard Rybinski on guitar, and Keith Hartel on lead guitar. Hartel, a longtime lynchpin of the Hoboken music scene, also served as the act’s musical director.

The band’s blues-based repertoire provided ample opportunities for Hartel to soar off into extended solos, with Olin belting out the lyrics like a ’70s rock diva. “Piece of the Pie,” honored as “Coolest Song in the World” on Little Steven’s syndicated Underground Garage radio show, proved typical of the set, with chugga-chugga chords and a classic-rock hook. “Can’t Get You off My Mind” recalled the melody of Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk,” and the band finished with a spirited cover of Tom Petty’s “I Need to Know.”

JIM TESTA

Grip Weeds drummer and singer Kurt Reil.

For the Grip Weeds, this concert marked a return to their origins two decades ago, as drummer and lead singer Kurt Reil recalled how the band struggled to learn its first songs in a dusty basement just a few blocks away from the venue. “It’s good to be back,” Reil announced, as the band leaned into a set of originals with a substantial sprinkling of covers.

The Grip Weeds are very much a family affair, with Reil’s brother Rick on guitar and keyboards and wife Kristin Pinell on guitar and flute. Longtime bassist Dave DeSantis rounds out the combo.

The set included several originals from 2018’s Trip Around the Sun album and the 2017 single “She Brings the Rain,” featuring the band’s trademark garage-rock sound and showcasing its stunning vocal harmonies.

Still, the highlights of the set came with the covers: The Mann/Weil garage-rock stomper “Shape of Things to Come” from the Grip Weeds’ 2021 covers collection Dig; a psychedelicized “Gloria”; and the medley of “I’m Free” and “See Me/Feel Me” that the band contributed to the 2022 Jem Records Celebrates Pete Townshend compilation.

JIM TESTA

Wayne Olivieri, left, and Dan Skye of The New Bardōts.

Headliners the New Bardōts qualify as the first Jersey band in my memory that tries to emulate Journey, but that is only part of the group’s bigger-than-life approach to classic rock. Olivieri frequently broke out a blues harp to add a J.Geils blues feel and raced across the sizable NBPAC stage like a madman throughout the set, finding an Aerosmith groove on “Love You So Hard,” arena-rock extravagance on “Thrill of the Night,” and unbridled rock ‘n’ roll exuberance on the working-class anthem “Corporate Businessman.”

New Bardōts guitarist Gar Francis looked like a Madame Tussauds rendition of Keith Richards standing stage left in leather and shades; his career dates back to the ’60s in Jersey’s long-lived Doughboys. Dan Skye on bass, John Croot on guitar and keyboards, Vic Cappella on saxophone, and Johnnie Rago on drums and percussion completed the lineup. Olivieri added cowbell and tambourine as well as harmonica.

The band drew heavily from its new album Turn Your Head and Cough on Bongo Boy Records and closed the night with a thundering version of the bubblegum hit “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’,” originally recorded by studio creation Crazy Elephant.

Back in the ’90s and into the early 21st Century, New Brunswick had a great club scene that included the Court Tavern, the Melody Bar, the Roxy, the Budapest Cafe and Bowl-o-Drome. Now, with the exception of technically illegal DIY basement shows put on by Rutgers students, Pino’s Gift Basket Shoppe in nearby Highland Park has become the only area venue for any kind of indie rock.

The NBPAC, which mainly hosts theater, dance, jazz, classical music and the occasional tribute band, may not be the future of original rock ‘n’ roll in the Hub City. But this show was definitely a step in the right direction.

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