Walking along Palisade Avenue in Jersey City on Jan. 12, I was startled by the gorgeous view across the Hudson River of New York skyscrapers lit up so bright. But New York, which usually calls out to me, couldn’t compete with the music emanating from the Fox & Crow and the Guitar Bar Drum Den, located a few blocks from each other on Palisade Avenue. The Karyn Kuhl Band packed Fox & Crow and the Anthony Tamburro acoustic trio brought a large crowd to GBDD.
Arriving an hour in advance of the showtime, I secured one of the last barstools at Fox & Crow. The show was compelling, exciting and memorable. Kuhl announced the band’s intention to play 23 songs in two hours and they did so, without a break, to an audience entranced by their energy and sizzling guitar sounds. I didn’t observe anyone checking their phones, wandering out for air breaks or chatting over the music. We were very present.
Sharing her impressions, later, about the concert, Kuhl — singer, songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire — said: “Fox & Crow is an intimate space and I had quite a few friends there so that has a lot to do with it, but I don’t think I ever felt so connected to an audience. A few people came up to me after and said they were inspired. That’s the highest compliment I could ever receive. The icing on the cake was that we made people laugh and dance. We all need more of that, especially now.”
Indeed, the concert was inspiring for those of us looking for a seasoned musician who sings about difficult issues with passion and honesty. Kuhl voiced her concerns about the state of the world and focused on feelings of love, loss, longing, loneliness and hope. She brought us on her journey with fresh, original material and left us with the message that she is not defeated. She also enjoyed dedicating songs to special friends in the audience, including Jack Silbert, a Hoboken music lover and writer. It felt like the evening was one big release of collective angst about personal and political circumstances.
She opened with a thrilling, hard-driving version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” singing the lyrics over a 12-bar blues progression. First released in 1964, the song remains relevant and offers hope for those concerned about our country’s current abysmal conditions.
From the outset, we were made aware of the band’s state of mind. Guitarist James Mastro, bassist Larry Heinemann and drummer Jonpaul Pantozzi were masterful and awe-inspiring in their own right. All looked like they were falling deep inside the songs, feeling the emotions conjured by Kuhl’s words. (Certainly, I could be guilty of projecting here.)
Kuhl’s anthem “It’s Over” — which will be on her new EP — was one of the evening’s highlights. She sang with fierce conviction a declaration and warning:
The family tree ain’t what it used to be
And it will never be what it was
We know it’s over and so do you
So three cheers to the new red, white and blue
The end is near and it’s what you fear
Because the future is female, black and queer
You know it’s over … you can’t stop time …
You can’t stop the power of the people’s revolution.
There’s depth to this song, which addresses greed, poverty and bigotry. When it was over, Kuhl remarked, “It felt good to say that.”
Someone from the audience screamed out “the new Patti Smith.” Kuhl replied, “We have (Patti Smith’s song) ‘People Have the Power’ and now we have something else.”
I think the comparison to Patti Smith is spot on, and in my fantasy March on Washington redux, Kuhl’s song would play over loudspeakers as we protest the sexual predator/climate change denier in the White House.
Kuhl’s genre-defying psychedelic disco tunes included Donna Summer’s hit “I Feel Love” and a very hot version of Summer’s “Spring Affair,” which Kuhl sang with Alice Genese, her bandmate in the ’90s group Sexpod. The disco tunes brought us up emotionally and forced us out of our chairs to dance and just feel the elation of being alive. The room was filled with smiles and eyes intensely focused on Kuhl’s exuberant performance.
Kuhl made me dizzy with her jazzy, dreamy song “Drunk on Beauty” from the band’s 2013 album, Songs for the Dead, singing: “Let’s get drunk on beauty/Let’s get high on love.” The room warmed up by about ten degrees by the time she completed the song. It was hard to resist the gorgeous mood the band created on this song.
She belted out an edgy, haunting rendition of “Lobster Girl” from the band’s 2016 EP The Stars Will Bring You Home, produced by Mastro. The line “I’ll just float away on an ocean of tears” from the song suggests the state of feeling alone within a relationship. With “Conjuring You,” also from The Stars Will Bring You Home, we heard the band’s eerie and discordant guitars and Kuhl’s hypnotic intensity when she shared her longing for a lost love. The pain is palpable.
Kuhl bravely reached back into the past on the title track, dredging up feelings of longing for the one who got away with a vulnerable, bold voice, singing:
The last time I saw you, we sang a pretty tune
Sitting by the river, beneath the stars and the moon
That was just a long-lost dream, I’m waking up, feeling mean
Given up on happiness and resigned myself to this ugly mess
The days, weeks, months and years have become a blur of endless tears
Raining down from the skies so blue
The band created a trance-like state and supported Kuhl with just the right amount of musical intensity. She engaged the crowd to sing along with her, supported by those of us who have ruminated on someone we lost; sometimes ghosts stay with us for many years. Her sad, desperate prayer for a lost love to come home offered an exhausting climax as she wailed:
Everything I do, I do for you
Every word I say, every note I play
All I do, every day, is pray the stars will bring you home.
“Be Your Friend,“ the band’s 2018 single, didn’t disappoint. With a persuasive hard rock approach to seduction, she reminded her resistant love interest that
You said you need a little magic
You’ve had enough of tragic
To last you for a thousand years
You wanna take some chances
Stop spurning my advances …
I just wanna be your friend
Why you gotta run away again and again
Come and get all that I can give
Why can’t we just live?
The song left me wondering why not? Every time I hear this song, I shake my head and wonder if she should have been a lawyer because she makes a convincing argument, and her sultry tone supports her case.
In a prior interview, Kuhl noted that while she is a homebody who enjoys time in her pjs, nestled next to her cats, she becomes a different person onstage. She gets completely immersed in the moment and lets go of past or future concerns. “It’s kind of ecstatic,” she explained, and her performance at Fox & Crow measured up.
The Karyn Kuhl Band is a group of musical high achievers that could easily command a bigger venue. My New Year’s wish for this band is that they get heard beyond their current borders in 2019. When the new EP — which will be recorded at Montclair’s Magic Door Recording, owned by Elk City band member Ray Ketchem — we will have another chance to gaze into the hearts and minds of the Karyn Kuhl Band.
Earlier in the evening, I visited Mastro’s GBDD, an all-purpose music store by day, to hear the Anthony Tamburro Trio, featuring frontman Tamburro on guitar, David Rimelis on violin and Chris Smith on upright bass. Playing R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, Tamburro sang emotionally riveting and catchy original songs with raspy vocals as well as some interesting interpretations of hits by Marvin Gaye (“Come Get to This”), The Velvet Underground (“Femme Fatale”), Tom Waits (“Innocent When You Dream”) and William DeVaughn (“Be Thankful for What You Got”).
Tamburro, a Jersey City resident for more than 10 years, is a great storyteller, sharing his experiences with loss of parents, letting go of relationships, looking for direction and love; his songs were backed beautifully by the warmth of Rimelis’ violin. He filled the space with provocative phrasing on many tunes, including “Windswept,” from his 2015 debut album, Alaska. He sang:
I’ve been hard pressed to find a reason why I’m gone
And no matter what I do tonight I’ll find out it was wrong
Seen the mountaintop and rumbled to the sea
All there was, was godlessness, hopelessness and me
Now I’m pulling my heartstrings
Weather sure looks cold tonight
I heard it’s gonna rain
Standing on this corner and I thought I was alone
Looked into her angel eyes, I knew where she was going
I said, “No no no, I’ve been there before, nothing left for me.”
He and his wife, actress Hank Morris Tamburro, sang “Elegy,” also from Alaska, as well as a cover of Justin Townes Earle’s song “Mama’s Eyes.”
In “Make You See,” also on Alaska, he asked “what’s that anger you’ve been putting out,” referencing broken promises, but then nodded to emotional resolve and openness, singing “let’s get naked, jump in that crystal sea/We’ll strip our clothes off with no misery, making love for all eternity.”
In “Place I Wanna Be,” Tamburro, looking for love, confessed that “sometimes I walk by myself at night/Sometimes I drink by the candlelight … here comes another Sunday morning and I watch ‘Meet the Press’/I just got depressed.” He later told the audience, “I wrote that right before I met Hank. I knew she was coming.”
His saddest song of the evening was “Missing Piece” which, he explained, represents the flipside of the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” because when his mom died there was nothing missing and no circle to damage. He wails at her funeral,
They lowered her body to the ground
My brother’s head was hanging down
‘Cause there’s no missing piece
There ain’t no missing piece
My mama never cooked no chicken fried in bacon grease
There ain’t no missing piece …
There was no circle that was broken
The conversation was never spoken, no one said a word
Now it’s just flowers in the dirt.
Tamburro has also been playing blues and rocks clubs in New York and New Jersey for more than a decade as the frontman of the band, Enzo and the Bakers.
Mastro, one of the architects of the Hoboken rock scene (as a member of The Bongos) who now operates Hoboken’s Guitar Bar and Guitar Bar Jr., explained that he has wanted to host live music in Jersey City as he does in Hoboken. And when Tamburro approached him about playing at GBDD, he said, “it seemed like a good way to start off … and to support our local musicians here. He’s a fine example of the talent that exists here. I thought he would carry well in our intimate setting.”
The musical director of many shows in the tri-state area — as well as a member of Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter’s band, and a touring member of Mott the Hoople itself — Mastro picked wisely, and I think Tamburro’s show marks an auspicious beginning for live music at Guitar Bar Drum Den.
Here are some videos from both shows: