The Scene That Grows by the River: The Musical Garden that is South Jersey

Spring 2011 was the signal of a new chapter in my life as a musician.

I was at West Deptford High School, sitting in home room or something like that. Today was one of the good days. I had clearly made it to school on time– wowee!

When what to my seemingly lifeless eyes to appear is nothing more than a friend’s discussion about a band he had just started a few weeks back. This was my best friend in high school. I was all for it (a band), yeah! I had never been in a real band before nor did I really have any sort of extended chops or technical facility to even deserve the chance to perform in a band.

But forget that. It’s a band! So a couple of days later, I walk to my friend’s home just a block away from high school (this was the best) and we started working on some things. We had jammed before, but never had we played together in an organized fashion. Other members met with us  subsequently and the material started pouring out.

Performing at a graduation party in West Deptford, NJ – June, 2011 // Photo to unknown friend

The genre was ska/rock/punk. We were all between ages 16 and 18, and nobody could sing very well. I was playing trumpet, naturally. But good lord it was a ska revival at this time, and one of the best local ska/punk bands was No Such Noise, a group of guys who all attended Timber Creek Regional H.S.

Alas, there was the issue of electing a lead singer. Leave it to a bunch of teenagers to make an educated decision on the case of “Who wants to screech out some notes and front the band?”

If you felt so inclined to guess, then yes, it was me. I was the elected lead singer, and I was sweating for every moment of it.

So starting in June 2011, we played some shows, did some photo shoots, had some fun, experienced drama left and right, and even started adding some new band members towards the end of the summer.  I remember playing a slew of shows at small joints, namely the Berlin VFW, Whitman Square Hall, Championship Bar in Trenton, and even a set at the Trocadero  upper stage in Philly.

It was a long, trying, and hilarious summer that year. We all became best friends and worst enemies very quickly. But we did it all with good intentions, and we did it in South Jersey. Smack dab in the middle of Camden and Gloucester Counties, I played live music for the first time and it was something I will never forget. Because this overpopulated, shrubbery and green infested, tightly-woven land is where it all started for me– writing my own music, singing the band’s lyrics, and basically making a fool of myself was just as okay by me as anything else would have been.

Even though my stint in Gil and The Realtors lasted only 6 months, it opened me up to a world of local music, venues, and mostly importantly, the scene which is the people I met in our area’s local bands (some of whom I still have good contact with).

Gil and The Realtors at Berlin VFW, Summer 2011 // photo from unknown friend

But there were others who had a voice about this scene, and what it meant growing up around and in it. I reached out to some guys who I have met along the way in various venues and through my friend groups and such. Their voices are captioned below. I hope you learn a little something, because God knows I did.

“It was freedom, at least for any teenager living in the suburbs who liked punk, or ska in any kind of way. It was an odd culmination of a lot of creative folks that some how came together in the same place, and I feel just as quickly died out. This probably had a lot to do with the closing of savage rock school.

Savage was a free for all in the best way possible. There were unspoken rules to respect one another, but I’m not anyone actually knew what would happen at savage (one night the show turned into a bat Mitzvah and I became a man, who knew!) The music propelled everything, and it was certainly the last time I remember playing a show and seeing people dance. Not only dance, but dance because they wanted to and it was a form expression for them. A way of feeling connected to the music, and a deeper connection to the band that was playing. Other venues popped up but were quickly shut down when the culture of savage was brought to new spaces. Sadly in a lot of ways, it started with savage, and ended with savage.”  -Pat Brennan

Pat Brennan // Rocco Peditto Photography

“Original local music not only gave me purpose when I was younger, but it molded me as an adult. Especially in the South Jersey music scene.”  – Connor Lenahan

Connor Lenahan of Heroes In Error // photo by Jason Paul Renna
Danny Hummel, in particular, has been around the South Jersey music scene for the past 25 years or so. He remembers when things were different, and reflects here.
“Things in the Delaware valley live music scene have changed drastically in the past few decades, but set lists not so much. Most venues had a specific area or stage for the band, [It’s] getting increasingly rare nowadays and most times you need to wait until tables clear to set up.
As far as south jersey goes, Dick Lees was the place, Jugs and Muggs, the saloon, too.” 
Danny Hummel // Photo by Deborah Boardman
A rather captivating story comes from Hand Me Downs singer, Joe Stippick. He relfects on his commencement into the local scene and also speaks about Savage, as did Brennan earlier.
“I’ve been attending and playing local shows in South Jersey for nearly a decade. The one thing I find truly special about our scene is our perseverance with venues constantly closing their doors(or being kicked in by the cops!) I’ve seen dozens of venues shut down or downright give up on hosting local music in our area but it’s never stopped the shows from happening. Whether in a basement, backyard, or even a driveway we’ve always found a way to keep playing. The very first local show I’ve ever played was at Savage School of Rock in Blackwood circa 2007. It was an old dentist office that local legend Bob Savage turned into a space for shows on the weekends and music lessons during the week. Countless bands, both touring and local, jammed themselves on the tiny homemade stage and played to dozens of kids losing their minds to the music. Unfortunately, it came to an end with a kid smashing his face into a wall from being caught in the energy that was present at every show. Years later Mike Britt took the old wooden stage and turned it into the vocal booth in his recording space, preserving an artifact of our local history. No matter how many hundreds of miles away from New Jersey I’ve played, I’ve never forgotten where the fires in my heart first sparked.”
Joe Stippick // courtesy of a friend

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