James Maddock, Karyn Kuhl bring smart rock to Rent Party

James Maddock headlined at the Rent Party in Maplewood on Friday.

MARY ELLEN MATTHEWS

James Maddock headlined at the Rent Party in Maplewood on Friday.

“You’ve got to keep your dreams,” sang James Maddock in his grainy and rough-edged but appealingly real voice during “Keep Your Dreams,” the encore of his Friday night set at the Rent Party in Maplewood.

He’s got some experience in this matter. The British roots-rock singer-songwriter was in several bands before landing in one, Wood, that had a small amount of mainstream success in the early 2000s but didn’t manage to break through to real stardom. Maddock moved to New York, went solo and, since then, has released a series of well received albums and built a modest but enthusiastic following. He’s now in his early 50s and seems to be on solid ground, professionally; sure, his new album, “The Green,” is fan-funded, but at least he’s got enough fans to make that sort of thing possible.

The same kind of grass-roots spirit is behind the success of the Rent Party itself, a more-or-less monthly series of shows that started in South Orange in Maplewood in 2009 and recently moved to the atmospheric old auditorium at The Woodland (formerly the Maplewood Woman’s Club) in Maplewood. The Rent Party has booked both national acts (Marshall Crenshaw, Willie Nile, Garland Jeffreys, Freedy Johnston, Slaid Cleaves) and Jersey bands, and all proceeds go to local hunger charities.

In its five years, the Rent Party has built an impressive following of its own. About 200 people came out to see Maddock and opening act the Karyn Kuhl Band, Friday.

Maddock, backed by a four-piece band (including the Spin Doctors’ Aaron Comess on drums), offered sturdy pop hooks and old-fashioned showmanship — he occasionally had his band build up to a semi-acoustic rave-up or struck a rock-star pose at the lip of the stage while strumming his guitar — to go along with his romantic, soul-searching songs. “If what don’t kill you makes you stronger, how come I’m so weak it hurts?” he asked in the song, “Mister Universe.” There are echoes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Waterboys and Counting Crows (whose guitarist, David Immerglück, is an occasional collaborator) in his songs.

Kuhl looks elsewhere, to the angst-filled poetry of early Patti Smith, the rawness of the blues (her set included covers of John Lee Hooker’s “It Serves You Right to Suffer” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”) and the electric guitar theatricality of … well, anyone who likes it loud and fast and distorted. But she was just as impressive.

She’s got a back story as well. With the Hoboken bands Gut Bank, in the ’80s, and Sexpod, in the ’90s, she made lots of great music and inspired many critical raves, but never was able to get the lucky break she needed to take it to the next level, professionally. But she’s still at it, on her own. Like Maddock. And like, in their own way, the mostly middle-aged crowd that gathered in the middle of suburbia, at the Rent Party, to see some great music, and support a good cause.

The next Rent Party concert takes place Nov. 26, and features Rebecca Turner, Mood Ring and Fairmont. Visit rentpartylive.com.

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