December 18 was circled on the calendar for a long time. The Front Bottoms present Champagne Jams at Webster Hall, featuring big time local artists such as The Screaming Females, Brick + Mortar, Lvl Up, Hodera, Diet Cig, Dollys, and American Trappist. Twelve total bands, three stages, over five hours of live music. I got tickets for the N.J. Racket crew back in early November, and we were all amped to be able to see all of these bands at a single show. So amped, that I’ve been listening to this playlist for months.
I should mention that it takes a lot for me to willingly go into Manhattan for anything. NYC is stupid and I don’t like it. The biggest reason being instances like Sunday afternoon, where after we made our plans to get to Webster Hall by 5pm, to be sure we’re there for the start of the show and to avoid being late like we always seem to be, the damn PATH Train wasn’t running to 33rd, leaving us to take the WTC train, a bus, and a taxi. “But, you shouldn’t have needed to take a bus AND a taxi.” Well, we went the wrong way because we’re from west of the Hudson and don’t do that shit, but regardless, we were able to make it to the venue before dollys took the stage at 6.
Dollys played the “Studio” stage to an audience of easily a few hundred people. This was the largest show I had seen them play, and aside from the absence of their trademark rope lights, this show sounded and felt the way I expect a dollys show to. Erik, Jeff, and Natalie were all perfectly in sync, the energy was absolutely electric, and they had the audience hooked from the very first note. After the set, droves of new fans pushed up to the stage and the band made time while collecting their equipment to greet each one. Dollys is a band that has been getting noticed, recently bringing home an Asbury Park Music Award for Best Local Album Release, and it’s good to continue to see them recognized and appreciated.
Upstairs in the “Marlin Room,” American Trappist was already underway with their set, so we settled in toward the back of the crowd. The one unfortunate part of this show, if I can be a negative asshole and complain about this incredible show, was that to have twelve bands play in one day on three stages, there had to be a little bit of overlap, so we did not see every band, although we would have liked to. Luckily, we did get to catch Philly’s American Trappist, Joe Michelini’s latest solo project following the breakup of River City Extension.
One of the best moments of the night came during Brick + Mortar’s set. During the performance of “Keep This Place Beautiful” off their 2013 album, Bangs, they had the entire audience—hundreds if not even a thousand people—sit down during the chorus of “We can get high/ We can get high/ We can get high,” and then, when the beat dropped after the chorus, the thousand or so people all got to their feet and started jumping in unison. Again, stuck in the back of the Ballroom because we were late leaving the American Trappist set, we actually had the perfect perspective to see the whole thing, which, in conjunction with the psychedelic, trance-like music, was hypnotizing to watch. For the next song, the band had the audience give them a random word, which ended up being “spaghetti,” to represent each person’s individual fears and insecurities, and the entire crowd would scream “spaghetti” together in a cathartic effort to release ourselves from whatever baggage we’re each carrying. Yeah, it got real fucking spiritual for a minute, but it was totally cool. Probably how all the people felt at Jamestown before the Kool Aid incident. Seriously though, Brick + Mortar were really impressive in their ability to transcend the performance from musical to an interactive and engaging experience. It was original and unique from anything I had ever seen at a show before.
Also set up in the Ballroom was the Screaming Females’ merch table, which I always seem to gravitate to. However, I didn’t realize until I got to the table that “King” Mike Abbate, the band’s bassist, was working the table himself. I assumed that a rock star the caliber of the Screaming Females bassist would be backstage demanding a bowl of green M&M’s or red M&M’s or whatever color M&M’s he desired that day, but instead he was super chill. We talked about old pet stores in the Essex County area and he talked me out of buying a CD of Live at the Hideout, because it’d probably end up lost on the floor of my car and I was better off ordering the vinyl instead, since that’s what I wanted in the first place (I actually placed the order while writing this and can’t wait to get the record in the mail). I’ve written previously that I incredibly awkwardly and timidly introduced myself to Marissa Paternoster at their show at The Chameleon Club. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that my ability to speak to Screaming Females members is drastically improving, and if I ever meet Jarrett at a show, I expect we’ll be great friends.
Back downstairs in The Studio, Hodera was set to take the stage. Cooper and I had seen them perform at a basement show in New Brunswick back in September and they had taken off on a tour shortly after. Hodera is another local band that’s been achieving increasing levels of success over the past few years, and I think it’s a safe bet that you will be seeing and hearing big things from these guys in the very near future. Levels of love and honesty are so prevalent during their performances that you can’t help but be overcome by them. Matthew Smith’s vocals are so deeply heartfelt, authentic, personal, and relatable in such a way that even at a show where he’s performing for hundreds and hundreds of people, it feels as close and intimate as a one-on-one conversation between old friends. Even despite songs written about some real heavy shit, like “Feel Better” which is packed with regret and nostalgia for childhood and questions whether the younger you would be disappointed in the person you’ve become, the band has such a positive energy. Smith delivers the vocals in such a compassionate way that you leave the show feeling good and uplifted, which was fortunate, because Champagne Jams was not nearly finished yet.
The Screaming Females were already on stage by the time we made our way up to The Ballroom, and as The Studio and The Marlin Room were both closing, we were all packed in tightly. Since starting N.J. Racket, I’ve seen The Screaming Females play an attic in Newark, a small club in Lancaster, PA, and now a big club in Manhattan. What I love the most about their live shows is that all three of these shows were exactly the same in terms of energy, passion, and quality, and all three shows were completely different in terms of set list and the performance itself, further pushing the notion that these guys really put their hearts into every show, regardless of the ticket price. In that way, every time I see them play almost seems like a first. I assume that’s how Madonna felt when she wrote “Like a Virgin.” This is also now the second time I’ve brought people to see them for the first time, and the reactions both times was the same, wide eyed and mouthing “holy shit” through the entire set.
Finally, the end of the night was upon us when The Front Bottoms, the band that pulled this whole event together, started their performance. Having now become legitimate rock stars, The Front Bottoms have still managed to hold onto that same authenticity they had playing basements in the Jersey burbs. Brian Sella plays his acoustic guitar to the wild Webster Hall crowd with the same charisma and charm he had years ago. Now, the crowd that night was by no means excessively wild or rough; however, it was possibly the densest crowd I have ever endured at a show, which also led to a pretty unique experience for me. As everyone moved in waves back and forth, forward and back, left and right, Cooper and I managed to push our way right up to the stage. I enjoyed the view from there for about half a song before realizing how bad a spot I was in.
I still like to rock my khakis with a cuff and a crease. It’s one of the many things I have in common with Dr. Dre. But, straight gangster style is not helpful when someone is standing on your pant leg, and the surging crowd is pulling you farther and farther away…from your own pants. I had the perfect spot for one of the biggest performances I’d be able to see this year, and I had to bail out to avoid being half naked in the front row. Still, wardrobe malfunctions aside, The Front Bottoms and Champagne Jams met and exceeded every expectation I had of this event. I couldn’t be happier to see some of the bands that we’ve been following enjoy their well-deserved success, and it was equally encouraging to see the more well-established bands showing their support to the up-and-comers.
Personally, I’ve learned a lot and had a lot of really great experiences since beginning N.J. Racket, most of which are due to being surrounded by and working in a community with not only talented, but hard-working, dedicated, and passionate people with big goals that they are achieving. It’s something I find truly inspiring and I hope it inspires you to see the truly remarkable things that can be accomplished. Much respect and appreciation to all the artists: Secret Mountain, Dollys, American Trappist, Ezra Furman, The Big Easy, Will Miles, Brick + Mortar, Diet Cig, Hodera, Lvl Up, Screaming Females, and The Front Bottoms.
Written by Adam
Adam gave man-birth to N.J. Racket and is as close to an "editor-in-chief" the site has. He's a god awful photographer.