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.

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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).

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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

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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

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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.” 
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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.”
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Joe Stippick // courtesy of a friend
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Crossing the Delaware: 10 Philly Stages I Have Experienced as a Musician

Since I was 17 years-old, I have been performing in the local music scene. I’ve seen all types of stages from VFW’s to professionally designed performance venues. Six years and several bands later, I am sharing a brief list of select venues I have experienced along the way. So here’s to local venues.

Here they are in alphabetical order:

1. Boot and Saddle in Center City – This hallmark venue is the host to some of the most hip and relevant bands in the Greater Philly Region. With a front door that leads straight to the bar and eating area, this place emanates that classic Philly bar-turned-venue style. I played here in 2016 and it was a blast. It has overall cool aesthetic, and since that is such a big part for people in Philly, the old refurbished Boot and Saddle is not something that should go unnoticed. They have a very informative site. This venue is a solid A.

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Photo – Boot and Saddle

2. Bourbon and Branch in Old City/Poplar – The B and B is a pretty sweet spot. It’s got this wide open street that really lends itself to the vibe and atmosphere of late Summer nights. There are two levels, a thin, winding staircase accompanied by art, and a really old green room that feels like there should be more than just one taxidermy moose deer head on the wall. The venue isn’t too large, but it hosts all kinds of upcoming talent in addition to well known bands. Again, this is an old school bar-type venue that has certainly fulfilled its purpose throughout the years.

FUN FACT: I played a show there in the summer of 2015 and a touring band, friends of ours, were in the middle of their set when the power grid gave out and all power was lost. The show was cancelled and we rescheduled another gig there the next month. 

3. Johnny Brenda’s in North Philly – This is another A list venue no doubt. I had the pleasure of performing here at least two times. The venue is located on top of  a lower level restaurant and bar. There is also a bar in the venue (which is one the second level). The third level leads to an overlooking and semi-surrounding balcony. Let me tell you, this is a sweet spot. It’s one of few venues in the area that include this feature: a from above perspective of the stage. The stage dons a glittery tassel-like background that kind of puts the theme of the place in question- and that’s just okay. About a year ago, I performed here for Rosu Lup‘s debut LP release show. I highly recommend a visit.

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view of the stage at Johnny Brenda’s/image via Wikipedia Commons

 

4. Kungfu Necktie – KFN is a pretty odd little spot, but like so many little tucked away, small room venues, it welcomes well known acts as well as upcoming bands are nobodys (I’m joking). But really, the place is very strange. The entrance is sort of cramped but once you get in there it comes to life. This venue had to be an apartment of some sort in its previous life. There is bar that is adjoined to the upstairs stage where I performed once last year. On this night there was no sound man so the bands had to make do with the cables and mics that were in the CLOSET right next to the stage (no, I am not joking). There is also a downstairs which holds a larger stage and a more spacious audience area. Give the place a shot- it is so Philly.

5. The Legendary Dobbs on South St. (closed) – This place has been truly legendary. It was a very hot spot for bands back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It recently had a revival in the new decade, but unfortunately could not keep its doors open and closed in 2015. I played here twice with rock group Heroes In Error.

6. Milkboy – This boy, newer to the scene, was a venue inspired by the Milkboy Recording Studio. It found its way into the music venue scene in August 2011. This is an upper class kind of place, yet it resembles that of the classic bar-types. It is more polished and very spacious, yet the look and feel are somewhat reminiscent of the older boys.

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Milkboy Philadelphia / Photo: Rhys Asplundh

7. The M Room – Unfortunately this venue closed down a bit ago, but it was a great place for all kinds of bands to just come and jam. The room was very oddly shaped, almost like a long triangle. Another room was alongside the main room with up and down, flap-like window shutters that allowed guests to see the band from pretty much every perspective. I only played thre once but I remember the stage being very tight, especially for an 8-10 piece funk band.

8. Underground Arts on Callowhill St. – Yes, this place is underground; and it sounds great. Without too much padding or sound-proofing, the venue has a natural spot in the Philly venue catalog. This underground guy is similar to a lot of Philly spaces, though. It has two stages that are adjacent to each other. Both upcoming bands and national acts have been playing there for quite some time. They are very busy with shows all of the time. Get to it.

9. Voltage Lounge – The Voltage Lounge in Center-North Philly is a tight spot for rockers and meatheads, but welcomes all kinds of groups. It is similar to Johnny Brenda’s in that it has a balcony. This place has a very fortified structure and a very fine stage. It is located just next to The Electric Factory, a much larger concert venue. I played there once in 2013 with a funk band that is no longer together, Matt Caringi and the Noise. We are pictured below outside the venue.

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Matt Caringi and the Noise at Voltage Lounge

10.    World Cafe Live on Walnut St. – The venue with the most nuances in Philly, World Cafe Live is a space for performing artists to come and celebrate all genres. Not just that, but the venue is the home of the world-renowned radio station 88.5 WXPN. The experience at World Cafe Live is one that only gets better and there is never a dull night at this eclectic joint. To read more about this out unique spot, read my previous feature article. You don’t wanna miss out on Philly’s most inclusive venue.

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World Cafe Live / photo: Elliott Woolworth