by Kirk Woodward
[Once again, Kirk Woodward has come through with a fascinating new article for ROT. This time he’s not only discussing music, bands, and performance venues, but he did some personal research/field work to write this post: Kirk went to the Great Notch Inn in New Jersey, near where he lives, over the course of several weeks last month to see what it was all about and listen to the bands that play there and hear the kind of music they play. As you’ll read, he got to chat with several band members and even the owner/manager of GNI. I’m delighted to share Kirk’s discoveries with ROTters and I know you’ll all pick something up from this—perhaps even an interest in checking GNI out for yourself. ~Rick]
If you leave Manhattan for New Jersey by the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, follow Route 495 to Route 3, and continue when Route 3 joins Route 46, you will shortly afterwards see on your right a small brown house with a large porch, and a sign in front identifying it as the Great Notch Inn.
If you take this trip on a night when the Inn is open and a band (identified on the sign) is playing there, you will probably also see a number of motorcycles parked in front. Ah ha, you say, it’s a biker bar.
True, there are usually bikes there, but what the Great Notch Inn (www.thegreatnotchinn.com) – the GNI – really is, is a roadhouse. Wikipedia says that roadhouses used to put travelers up for the night, but that they seldom do that anymore. A Google search indicates that in New Jersey, a roadhouse is primarily a house, by a road, that serves customers liquor. (In other states, roadhouses tend to serve food; the GNI used to, but doesn’t any more, except for chips and the occasional pizza.) Music is also a common roadhouse feature.
Great Notch itself isn’t a town but a geographic feature, a gap in a long ridge, which made and makes it a natural spot for transportation east and west. A hotel and tavern with the Great Notch Inn name were established in the area in 1798, but the current establishment opened in 1939 when a house was moved across the road on logs to its present location.
Inside the house is a bar to the right, with about a dozen stools, and a band to the left, with about six feet between the bar stools and the microphones. It’s an intimate place to hear music, to say the least – the band is right on top of you. The décor could be described as bar funk: over a dozen illuminated beer signs, miscellaneous posters of long-ago events on the wall, wood beams, nothing fancy.
Ordinarily the GNI is open seven nights a week, and on six nights there’s live music. (On Mondays there’s an open jam night.) That’s what got me to go there in the first place – the music. My daughter had been there, and had heard a band she liked, called Better Off Dead (not a Grateful Dead cover band – see below), and she persuaded me to go with her.
What’s interesting about the Great Notch Inn? For myself, I love music, and the GNI is a great place to hear it. What’s more, I’m always interested in the dynamics of performing groups, and at the GNI you can be so close to the band that you can see the smallest signals and instructions that band members give to each other. And bands are a form of performance, with no two exactly alike, and that always interests me.
I was a little apprehensive at first about the Great Notch Inn, like many other people I’ve talked to about it, because of the bikes. I think my mind must have been stuck in the 1970s. Anyway, I immediately felt comfortable in the place, and continue to, and for those of you who don’t know me, I don’t look anything like a biker. (A friend of mine said she knew she’d be okay there when she hesitantly asked for a white wine and the bartender said, “Pinot?”)
I decided that I’d make it a point of going to the GNI as often as I could, maybe for a couple of weeks, and keep a running report on the experience. Before beginning that report, I need to mention four things.
First: My visits weren’t long, so these descriptions are snapshots, not in-depth portfolios. I’m not a night person, and my days of hanging out in bars not only are over, they never began. I don’t drink either, as a rule, so I ordinarily nursed a Diet Coke each night, and that’s hardly a typical bar experience.
Second: you don’t need to depend on my descriptions of the various musicians and bands; almost all of them have their own websites, and many post videos on YouTube.
Third: bands are often at their best as the night gets longer, and I seldom heard more than a first set. I never heard anyone at the GNI who was less than excellent, but I probably didn’t always hear a band’s best, either.
Fourth: bands frequently change personnel, and also bring in substitute musicians on occasion. So the lineup I saw for a given band may not be the one you see if you visit the GNI, which I hope you do.
With those things in mind, here we go.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 12 – Joe Taino, black clothes, black moustache, white goatee, pork pie hat, a guitarist accompanied by drums, bass, and “harp” (basically, harmonica). He plays blues-based music with a helping of jazz – the night I heard him, he started out with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Coming Home Baby,” both jazz standards, warming up before delivering some sizzling blues numbers. He has a sturdy, straightforward voice and played some magnificent guitar.
One of the interesting features of Taino’s performance is that he’s from Puerto Rico, and Latin music is an obvious influence in his sound. He mentions on his website that it can be difficult to be accepted as an Hispanic blues musician. (How many have you heard of?) However, his resume is impressive and he plays a mean guitar.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1 – comedy night. Not because there is comedy at the GNI, but because I have to laugh at myself. First of all, I have trouble getting there, forgetting that you can only reach the Inn by driving west on Route 46 (go west, young man!). Go east, and the best you can do is wave as you sail by. I get to Route 46 on an entrance that only points east, and have to weave around until I’m heading in the right direction. I find myself hoping that isn’t an omen for this little plan of mine.
Then, when I get to the GNI, there are no bikes, and only one car, in the parking lot – a white Jeep with a kayak on top – until I park there. It’s the end of summer; with no music tonight, there are no customers. (I hadn’t checked the website in advance.)
There is only one person there, a large, bearded man with a pleasant deep voice, sitting on the porch. This turns out to be Rich Hempel, who with his sister Gail Sabbok owns and runs the GNI, and we glance at the Mets game on the TV above the bar and talk a while. I ask him if the Inn will be threatened by the highway construction that keeps being predicted for the area, and he says it won’t; new roads will be built behind the Inn, and he’s already sold some property back there for the purpose, but the GNI itself will stay.
It turns out Rich is both one of the bartenders and a drummer, so we talk about the music at the GNI. He has dozens of bands in rotation, he says; one has been appearing there for over twenty years, and he has plenty more lined up that would like to appear there. “There aren’t a lot of places that feature live music,” he says. Jam nights, he tells me, are literally jammed. I mention that it was my daughter who had introduced me to the Inn. “When people say it’s a scary place,” he says, “I know they’ve never been here.”
I sit on the front porch a while and watch the traffic go by. The porch is maybe 15’ by 30’, with windows on three sides, a flagstone floor, and a horseshoe (open end up) over the big opening in front. There are three tables, maybe a dozen chairs, and benches all around. On the cement by the front step is painted the word WELCOME. I try to count the cars racing by on the highway; a thousand must pass by in the short time I’m there. It is strangely restful. Not, of course, like it would be on a music night.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2 – twelve bikes in the parking lot when I arrive, plus cars. A big crowd! Well, not indoors – everybody’s on the porch; when I go inside, there are six people there, including me, the bartender, and Carmen Cosentino. He’s playing solo acoustic guitar tonight; he also plays with the band Real Rock Drive, who are on next week’s schedule, and he has accompanied some pretty amazing rock legends, including Chuck Berry and Berry’s equally remarkable pianist Johnnie Johnson.
With hardly anybody in the room to interact with, he doesn’t work the “crowd” much, sticking to picking a good variety of songs and having his own fun with them. I’ve made it a rule in this project not to look up the artists before I go to hear them; I wish I’d prepared for Cosentino, though, because I’d have liked to ask him about some of the people he’s played with.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 – three bikes in the lot, three people at first, plus me and the musician, in the bar. The musician is Wild Bill, the youngest player I’ve seen at the GNI (in his thirties?), with a clear guitar sound and versatile, confident vocals. He changes up a lyric now and then “just to see if anybody’s listening.” For a long while I’m the only person in the room without facial hair. When I leave, I say “Thanks” and he says, “Where’re you goin’?” “Duty calls,” I say. “See you next time,” he says, and we shake hands. I walk outside and there’s a party – maybe fifteen people on the porch, women and men, chatting amiably.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4 – one bike when I arrive, another half dozen by the time I leave, and the parking lot fills up too. I get there early, and the band, predicted on the GNI website to start at 7, and on their own website at 9:30, doesn’t begin until 9:45. I have plenty of time to wander, so I spend some time on the porch, and join a small group gathered around a biker with a magnificent black Honda motorcycle. When I ask him if he does his own maintenance on it, he says, “What maintenance?” According to him Hondas hardly ever need any attention. He has an interesting history: he was a pipe fitter, diagnosed with MS around 2005, and despite some flare-ups still spends half the year living on his bike. “I plan to ride as much as I can,” he says, “until I can’t ride anymore.”
The band is Enzo and the Bakers, with lead and rhythm guitar/vocal, keyboard, drums, and, on bass tonight, Don Kenny, lead guitarist for Better Off Dead. I tell him I miss hearing that band – they won’t be at the GNI again until sometime in October. Enzo and the Bakers rock powerfully, with a leaning toward R&B (they start the set with a couple of numbers by Sam and Dave), crisp vocals, and exceptional lead guitar work. First rate rock.
The GNI is so small that on my legs I feel small puffs of air coming out of the opening in the front of the bass drum. The music is plenty loud; I leave when I think my ears are going to start to bleed. Memo to self: no matter how silly it looks, bring ear plugs.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 – one bike – the same one as last night – and maybe ten cars in the lot when I drive up. The numbers increase as the evening goes on, but there are never as many as tonight’s band, Sharp Edge, deserve. They’re a trio: Mike Brocato, the lead singer and guitarist, looks like Keith Richards if Keef ate a meal once in a while; the bass player looks like Ben Stein; and the drummer actually plays with dynamics – he can play soft as well as loud, he uses mallets, he started off the evening with brushes.
The opening set is mostly music from the 1960s, including the first Beatles song I’ve heard at the GNI, “I’ll Cry Instead;” a powerful “House of the Rising Sun,” and a magnificent “Like a Rolling Stone.” Brocato is practically a whole band on his guitar alone; he’s a virtuoso, and quite a singer too. According to its website the band also does original material, and Brocato also performs as a single. I recommend seeing him. This is a band I’ll be returning to hear again.
The band’s name, Sharp Edge, gets me thinking about the various band names I see on the sign in front of the GNI. Many are aggressive names, and I’ve wondered if I’d run into bands with real attitude, like the Who in their early days. Maybe so, but I haven’t yet, and it strikes me that a couple of factors work against that sort of thing.
One is that the bands are physically so close to the listeners that if the audience got irritated, there’d be no place for the musicians to hide. Another is that some of the bikers are really, really big men and women. It’s as though they’ve grown to fit the sizes of their bikes. As a friend said to me, I’m like the proverbial 90 pound weakling around them. As far as I can tell they are agreeable people but I would not want them to be mad at me, no matter what the name of my band was. (I’d probably name it “Bikers Rule,” just to be safe.) And a third reason, I suppose, is that we’re all getting a little older. Or so I hear.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6 – this is Labor Day weekend, and tonight is the first night at the GNI that has felt like it. Twelve bikes in the lot when I drive up a few songs into the first set, and the bar full of enthusiastic people. The band is The Poor Man’s Opera, three vocalists – the two guitarists (one vaguely resembling Jerry Garcia) and the bass player (vaguely resembling Neil Young), and also drums. Solid and energetic. They apparently started playing together six or seven years ago at a benefit for children with cancer. Favorite song I hear: a somewhat punk version of “Different Drum.”
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7 – three bikes in the lot, ten people signed up to play on Jam Night. I’m eager to find out what this night is like; Rich, the bartender/owner, had told me that usually when he moves a band into his regular rotation, it’s because they’ve played so well on Jam Night. Jams can take a while to ramp up musically, though; tonight the music doesn’t start until 9:50 anyway. I spend the time talking with Jeff DeSmelt, a pleasant guy who’s there to play guitar, and whose day job is entertaining very young children with music (http://bigjeffmusic.com/). We talk about the various weird things that can happen when you’re performing in an unfamiliar space, and about how tough it is to make a living in the arts.
The house band, when it starts, consists of a guitarist/vocalist (also the MC), a standup bass player, and a drummer (that’s Rich, the bartender, who has a classic drum style). Blues and basic rock are the easiest to jam to, so that’s what they play while I’m there, rotating in, after a few songs, a vocalist/harmonica player, and then a new drummer. The sound is punishingly loud, and I duck into the Men’s Room to make some earplugs out of toilet paper. Perhaps ironically, considering the volume level, one mike doesn’t seem to work. The MC tries to rouse the crowd, but hardly anyone in the room is there to party; they’re there to play.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 9 – Three bikes in front when I arrive, six when I leave. Tonight’s music is provided by Mike Brocato, lead singer and guitarist for Sharp Edge, the band I liked so much last Saturday. I ask him how the second set went that night. “It was crazy, man,” he says. “Some wild [stuff]!” Tonight he plays amplified acoustic guitar – he’s brought three, including a beautiful Gibson (I think) and a twelve-string. He starts with a Beatles song, and stays mostly in the Sixties. When I remark how much the twelve-string sounds like the Byrds’ sound, he plays several of their songs.
The highlight of the set for me is a brilliant “I Shot the Sheriff,” with an adventurous solo that leaves me amazed. His right hand can strum with the pick held between his thumb and forefinger, while he plays solo lines with his fourth and fifth fingers – and at fast tempos. “I like this kind of evening,” he says. “Just a few people sitting around enjoying music.” The absence of an accompanying band is compensated for by a biker sitting next to me on a stool who harmonizes, and who knows all the words.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11 – maybe ten bikes and a hefty number of cars. Tonight’s band is the one I was most curious to hear because of their name. They’re called Hot Monkey Love, as good a band name as I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure what I expected them to be like – live sex acts on stage? No, but they’re hot, all right – they’re a roaring blues band with a lot of presence.
They have two guitarists, both capable of playing lead – V. D. King, from Better Off Dead, and Dee Meyer; a bass player, tonight also from BOD; a vocalist (Jack O’Neill) who looks like a cross between Willie Nelson and Joe Cocker, and delivers his vocals with power; and a drummer (Eddie “The Elf” Piotrowski) who surely was the model for Animal, the drummer in the Muppets.
Piotrowski so far wins my award for showmanship. Tonight, he flailed around; he tossed his drumsticks in the air, and didn’t catch them – twice; he leaped out of his seat to smash the drums at climactic moments; he silenced a cymbal with his mouth. When O’Neill said, “Let’s bring it down a little,” Piotrowski slid to the floor; when O’Neill said, “A little lower,” he disappeared behind his drums.
My favorite number in the set I hear is the early Rolling Stones song “It’s All Over Now,” but all the songs, mostly blues-based, are excellent. My friend and I both brought earplugs; as I write this, my ears are still ringing.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 12 – Two swings, two misses. I’m seeing a play tonight, but the GNI website says that Real Rock Drive starts their first set at 7. I’m suspicious, since the band’s announcement says they’ll start at 8. When I get there (no bikes), the bartender tells me the actual start time is 9. So I go on to my play. When I return, I swing by the GNI for a quick listen. It’s raining, so there are still no bikes, and there are no parking spaces either – every single one is full. Since the GNI is on the highway, there’s no such thing as on-street parking. So I go home, and I here and now offer my apologies to Real Rock Drive. Judging from the music you’ve posted on Facebook, you’re an excellent band.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 13 – half a dozen bikes. I must be getting known at the Great Notch Inn; Rich pours me a Diet Coke tonight without my saying a word. The band is the Brother Sal Trio. They’re what I think of as a “blues plus” band – they’re blues-based, and they bring to other kinds of songs a blues sound. Sal has a voice and a scream that would make James Brown proud (and they do “Super Bad”), and plays vigorous guitar. The band members are good humored and it’s fun to watch the interplay between Sal and the bass player (Chris Ball). Rock trios can sometimes sound thin; the drummer tonight (Andrei Koribanics) makes the drum practically an additional guitar – his fills in particular are outrageous.
There are a few firsts for me tonight in my brief series of visits to the GNI. It’s the youngest band I’ve heard, and they have the drive and stamina to prove it. They play one original song. It’s also the first night there have been more women than men in the bar, and perhaps not coincidentally the first night I’ve heard a woman sing, or do anything else, with a band – one sings two songs, with fire. Another friend of the band plays harp for a couple of numbers, and a man who apparently has nothing to do with the trio at all, and who brought along a homemade percussion set that he wears over his shoulders, plays along with the band for a few numbers too, leaving the band bemused. All in all a fun night of music, and I hate to leave.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 – three bikes when we arrive, six when we leave. Tonight’s band, the Fabulous Flemtones, is a regional institution, with a standing monthly gig at Tierney’s, a Montclair, New Jersey bar that also features bands. The Flemtones remind me of groups I used to hear at college parties, and I mean that as a positive, although neither the band nor I have been in college for a long time. I think the reasons I feel that way are their song selections, and the sturdiness of the drums and bass. The members of the Flemtones, also including two guitarists who can both play lead, seem to have a good time with each other, like a batch of friends who love to play together. They enjoy the challenge of pieces with rhythmic shifts and long builds, and they often sing three-part harmony, the first I’ve heard in this series of visits.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 20 – four bikes when I arrive, several more when I leave, and the crowd grows as football weekend wraps up. The band tonight is another one I’ve wanted particularly to hear because of their name – The Kootz. What kind of name is that? Well, some of them are older guys, so – “coots,” get it? Except there’s nothing old about anything in the hour and a half set I hear. On one song the band plays the closest to jazz I’ve heard in my visits since Joe Taino – a fine version of “Summertime.” The musicians are versatile, in particular using numerous guitar effects for a big variety of sounds in soaring solos. The leader, Glenn Taylor, switches between guitar and synthesizer, and he has a great command of his keyboard, which I’m partial to, being a keyboard player myself. Rich Hempel, the owner and bartender, sits in and plays mighty drums for a couple of songs. The band rocks from start to finish. “Old men should be explorers” – that’s what T. S. Eliot said. He never heard this band but he had the right idea.
After the set I talk for a minute with Taylor, who gets my name for the band’s email list, and tells me, as my jaw drops, that there are some 25 people in the group! (He is a constant, playing nearly all the dates.) “We play about 280 gigs a year,” he tells me. Aside from him, the personnel rotate nightly – this particular unit had last played together six months ago! That seems impossible – they’re so in sync with each other. “How do you schedule all that?” I ask. “Do you just ask who wants to play a particular gig?” “I plan them months in advance,” he says. I tell him that in that case I’m doubly amazed at how tight the band is tonight. “This is a good group,” he replies. I’ll say.
After all the bands and solo performers I heard, Better Off Dead, which didn’t perform in this series (although three of its members did, individually) still wins my first place prize, as one of the best rock bands I know, among all these outstanding musicians.
That band’s leader, V. D. King (vocals and guitar), has had with him, every time I’ve heard them, a drummer, bass, and lead guitar/vocalist, and a keyboard player. The band is tight as a tick (how tight is a tick?), but that is true of pretty much all the bands I’ve heard at the GNI as well. What, if anything, separates Better Off Dead from the rest?
The answer, in my opinion, is song writing. Virtually everyone I’ve seen at the GNI in my recent visits has performed as a “cover band,” playing songs written and popularized by others. (Some have original material in their repertoire, but little was played while I was there.) Better Off Dead is different. The songs it performs are almost all original. King writes most of the group’s material – they’ve recorded several terrific CDs – and he writes basic rock with a bit of a country attitude, with song titles like “(If I Can Quit Drinking) Why Can’t I Quit You.” Writing is the foundation.
King is an outstanding songwriter, and a clever one. Because the component parts of his songs are familiar, the band doesn’t have the problem that local bands usually face when they do original material – that nobody knows the songs. To solve this difficulty, typically King will take a familiar rock riff, layer a blues-based melody on it, and then finish it off with a brash, funny, sometimes outrageous lyric. The attitude of his songs is lower working class; the speaker frequently is somebody who drinks too much, has trouble holding a job or doesn’t like it, and doesn’t have much luck with women either. Rock ‘n’ roll!
Better Off Dead notwithstanding, most of the bands I saw at GNI were “cover bands,” doing their own versions of songs written by somebody else. Having heard these groups, I’m through accepting the term “cover band” as a kind of insult. Is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra a “cover orchestra” because it doesn’t write its own music?
There are many ways of performing a song that someone else has recorded. You can do it exactly the way it was recorded, if you want. Or you can change it some. Or you can do a version so much your own that it might as well be a new work. I heard all these approaches at the GNI – the latter most of all; all can give pleasure; and it takes a lot of musicianship to do any of them.
What else did I learn in my weeks of sampling music at the GNI? I learned a new respect for performers. The late playwright Robert Anderson had a sign over his desk that read, “NOBODY ASKED YOU TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT.” Well, hardly anyone asks you to be a musician, either, or an actor, or a writer, or a painter, or for that matter an artist of any kind. The commitment to art has to come from artists, because it won’t come from the culture.
The GNI is a brave and fairly lonely outpost for one kind of performer, who will never get rich playing there – the tip jar seldom seems to have more than $20 or so in it, and there’s no other money for a night’s work. But musicians go to the GNI to play the best music they can. That has to be enough. There aren’t a lot of places like that. My hat’s off to all of them.
And the bikers? Turns out they’re people, who ride bikes.
[I suggested to Kirk that he consider making another series of visits to GNI again in about a year or so to see how things are then and if anything has changed. He e-mailed me: “I love the idea of returning . . . .” We'll just have to wait and see.]