Suppose they gave a rock show and
nobody everybody came?
Friday night, five mostly homegrown rock bands, a rapper who lives around the corner and 450 enthusiastic fans turned the spacious and beautifully appointed White Eagle Hall into Jersey City’s newest neighborhood rock club. Without fan support, “Jersey City Rocks” could easily have been a debacle. Instead, the night sparkled as a celebration of diversity and community for a music-rich town that’s suffered for decades without a proper place for its local musicians to play.
Singer-songwriter Debra Devi organized the night and dubbed it Jersey City Rocks, putting together a diverse lineup that showcased the eclecticism and depth of talent in her adopted hometown. Bands who had for years been lucky to draw 50 people while crammed into the corner of a small bar or restaurant got to play to a packed house in one of the state’s most attractive venues, with a state-of-the-art sound system, an attentive stage crew, professional lighting and, most importantly, a huge room packed full of fans.
At a time when all too many indie-rock festivals turn out to be a parade of 20-something white guys with guitars, Jersey City Rocks showed that diversity can be as integral to this kind of music as a 4/4 beat.
Rapper Constant Flow, who bragged about his Jersey City roots throughout the night (“I say tawk instead of talk, Noo Yawk instead of New York, just like all of you,” he boasted), took the job of emcee to a new level. With his deejay parked on one side of the stage, CF (as he calls himself) rapped and freestyled with a rotating crew of sidemen throughout the night, as each successive act set up. That kept the energy high and the crowd engaged.
The Components, releasing their Mint 400 debut album continuum at the show, kicked off the rock with a barrage of chorded guitar, energetic vocals and clobbering beats. Drummer Zoe Ekonomidis and guitarist/singer Ronnie Sena’s blues-based originals recall the early White Stripes, but Sena — with his strutting, posing and emotional delivery — brings a charisma to the genre that’s sadly gone out of fashion and rarely seen today. This band might just be starting out, but they already look and sound like rock stars.
“It was so exhilarating for us to be able to play and connect with so many people at once,” gushed Sena afterwards. “There was so much energy in that room, we could’ve kept playing all night.”
After another short set from Common Flow, the multi-racial Universal Rebel commanded the entire stage with a lineup that ranged from traditional guitar/bass/drums to a violinist and percussionist, with frontman Brandyn Heppard joined by a coterie of female singers. These professional road warriors draw crowds from Manhattan to Asbury Park, but Heppard made the group’s allegiance to Jersey City clear as its blend of reggae, funk, hip-hop and soul had the crowd swaying and dancing,
I was afraid that the indie twee-pop of Brooklyn imports Hey Anna might suffer following such aggressive, high-energy acts, but the band — built around sisters Erin, Anna and Katie Rauch-Sasseen — more than held its town, with sharply constructed pop songs featuring enchanting vocal harmonies and hooks galore.
By the time Devi took the stage, the room felt near capacity and her set felt like a victory lap for the idea of a Jersey City rock community. With blues-based vibes and powerful vocals, Devi held the room in her hand while her excellent band added energy and excitement.
With the place still packed, the psychedelic doom-metal of Jersey City’s own Black Wail closed the bill, with mesmerizing grooves, electrifying guitar and bone-shaking vocals, evoking a version of Black Sabbath that had developed a monster crush on Motörhead.
“Black Wail played its first show three and a half years ago at the Lamp Post, and to go from a small room in front of the kitchen at a now-closed bar to a packed house full of friends and music fans at a world-class concert venue is a testament to the Jersey City music scene and the people that support it,” said keyboardist Bram Teitelman. “That was easily one of the best shows we’ve ever played and a great night for local music.”
Most of the crowd remained in the house for an after-party that featured DJ Sirena Mari Mercado and Sirelo Entertainment’s Elevate drummers, who kept the party going into the night.
The last word goes to Devi, who set up the night. “I felt full of joy as I looked out over the crowd and saw so many familiar faces from our beautiful Jersey City community gathered to demonstrate our pride in the music, art and activism we create here,” she said. “The quality of the JC scene stems directly from our diversity, tolerance and kindness — values this nation must embrace in the face of the vicious assault on the American dream and American values by the White House and the far right. It’s fitting that here, in this town that has long been a gateway for immigrants, we showed last night what it is to rock together.”