Though I've performed music in Jersey City before, I'd never gotten a true sense of the city's tight-knit art scene until I visited last night for a three-act show at the Dopeness, a Mexican restaurant with a performance space in the back room. As Steve Donahue of Young Legs described Jersey City to me, it's like "Brooklyn, but less smelly and terrifying." Ever since neighboring Hoboken became too stiflingly gentrified to support an arts community (its legendary venue Maxwell's closed last year), Jersey City has proven itself to be a worthy alternative for Hudson County, and all of North Jersey for that matter.
Because of the microscopic stage at the Dopeness, I'm not sure if full, electric bands have ever played there, but the three bands I saw last night all performed acoustically with abridged line-ups, which meant that the songs had to be front-and-center. The first act was the Dead Bums, usually a folk rock trio, but performing tonight with just its two guitarists. Their performances were technically flawless, with singer Michael Browne displaying a powerful voice reminiscent of the Tallest Man On Earth (only less grating) and rhythm guitarist Steve Nurge occasionally breaking out a beautiful lap steel, but the songs themselves left a lot to be desired. Not that they were amateurish or melodically simplistic, in fact quite the opposite, but this slickness and lack of edge may actually be their biggest weakness. I was getting too many Jason Mraz vibes and not enough Tim Buckley vibes. It certainly didn't help matters that they closed with an earnest cover of "Hallelujah," the "Free Bird" of clueless singer-songwriters. It's a fine song, no doubt, but in 2014 there's pretty much no way you can play it without sounding like you're auditioning for American Idol.
Up next was Young Legs, the solo project of Steve Donahue, who was releasing the cassette tape version of his 2010 album The Fog and the Forest and would be playing two sets. Though his first set was occasionally hindered with technical problems (fussy pick-ups, an elusive capo), this was all forgotten once he was actually playing the songs, which are as delicate as early Leonard Cohen and as harmonically sophisticated as Sufjan Stevens, or even Rubber Soul-era Beatles. He performed a cover of Nick Drake's "Place To Be," as his second song, which he executed beautifully despite forgetting the words to the final verse (being very familiar with the song myself, I came very close to walking up to Donahue and whispering the lyrics in his ear).
Playing in between the two Young Legs sets was the Big Drops, a psych-pop band from West Mildford, New Jersey that was playing as an electric guitar duo tonight. Though when I think "psych-pop," I immediately think of mid-period Beatles, or the Elephant 6 collective, what the Big Drops play is much stranger than that, filtering Syd Barrett and Donovan through some vaguely country and rockabilly vibes. You're not going to find any clichéd, exhausted chord progressions in these songs, which are filled with quirky chromatic sequences that don't sound right at first, but eventually reveal themselves to be extremely inventive.
Young Legs closed out the evening with a second set (dedicated to me, since I turned 22 at midnight), performing four songs from his album as well as two unreleased songs. Any rough patches from the first set were completely forgotten as Donahue sang, backed by Ashley Simon on vocals and Matt Olsson on drums. Though the recorded versions of the songs feature much more complex arrangements than this trio could provide, they translated the songs masterfully.
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