Story and photos by Jim Testa
The first North Jersey Indie Rock Fest certainly accomplished
what it set out to do. The all-day event, held on September
10, showcased the rosters of the festival's two sponsoring
record labels, Mint 400 and Sniffling Indie Kids. In the
process, it helped debut a new concert space in Jersey City
called Cathedral Hall, a former Roman Catholic monastery.
Were there problems? Sure. The sound left much to be desired,
given that Cathedral Hall's two floors consist of an echoey
vaulted cathedral and a boxey basement rec room with no
soundproofing or dampening. Formerly St. Bridget's, one
of five Jersey City Catholic churches that were closed in
2014, Cathedral Hall boasts breathtaking classic architecture,
stainglass windows, a still functional pipe organ, and the
original altars and ornamentation. Like St. Michael's Monastery,
my childhood parish in nearby Union City, the church represents
an irreplaceable landmark that the Catholic Church simply
decided it couldn't afford to maintain anymore in the face
of declining attendance (not to mention the cash shortfall
the Church experienced after paying out millions in settlements
to the victims of its pedophile priests.)
I digress. While it's an undeniably gorgeous piece of architecture,
the building needs a few things - more plumbing and better
ventilation top the list - if Jersey City's Fourth Street
Arts organization (which currently leases the site) hopes
to succeed in turning this into a new arts center for the
community. (There are rumors that the building might be
sold to developers in 2017, in which case it's a foregone
conclusion that it will be demolished to build upscale condos.)
The building certainly deserves more respect than that,
but given Jersey City real estate trends, it's hard to believe
such a prime piece of property will go undeveloped.
But let's hope for the best. As a test run, the North Jersey
Indie Rock Festival proved that Cathedral Hall does have
enormous potential. The 20-band show, which lasted from
1 p.m. to 8 p.m., ran like clockwork, with bands alternating
between the upstairs and downstairs stages. The healthy
sized crowd (about 300 paid, with another 200 representing
guests, press, and the bands themselves) that turned out
for the event didn't seem to mind the Porta-Potties or the
humid heat; the final two bands of the night, Hightstown's
"fuzz-pop" foursome YJY and New Brunswick jangle-rockers
Sink Tapes, received as enthusiastic reponse as the bands
who had played earlier in the day.
Neil Sabatino of Mint 400 Records and Frank DeFranco of
Sniffling Indie Kids Records organized the festival largely
because they felt that the bands on their rosters weren't
being invited to perform at similar events in the Garden
State, like Don Giovanni Records' New Alternative Music
Festival taking place next weekend in Asbury Park. (You
can read my pre-fest interview with them here.)
Limiting the 20-band festival to those two labels' rosters
created its own shortcomings. Geographically, if you draw
a line through New Jersey, north and south would cut off
somewhere around Trenton. But New Brunswick - which has
a historied music scene of its own, and is home to many
Mint 400 and Sniffling Indie bands - traditionally isn't
thought of as "North Jersey." And unfortunately,
neither label has bands from Jersey City or Hoboken, which
certainly would have helped the festival's draw.
Diversity also proved an unspoken issue; New Brunswick's
Dollys have a female lead singer, and Maryland's excellent
Underlined Passages has a black drummer, but otherwise we're
talking a whole lot of white dudes playing electric guitars.
That's an issue that probably didn't become apparent until
all these bands were together in one place, but it's certainly
something that can be easily addressed should be there be
another NJIRF next year. (For the record, the co-ed The
Ones & Nines was not available for this event, and Mint
400 has had several LGBT-friendly bands on its roster in
the past. This is meant as a comment, not an accusation.)
Sabatino and DeFranco's own bands, Fairmont and NGHTCRWLRS,
represented their labels well with two of the standout performances
of the day. Sink Tapes, who closed the show, for me had
the most original and memorable take on "indie rock"
of the day, with the Dollys, the Clydes, and Underlined
Passages also standing out. I enjoyed the Bitter Chills'
more Americana take on the genre, with acoustic instrumentation
including mandolin, and New Brunswick's Rocky & the
Chapter provided a muscular example of Hub City rock (ala'
Members of the local music press (including myself, Makin'
Waves' Bob Makin, "Cool Dad" Jim Appio, and SIMGE's
Mike Mehalick) were invited to the festival to introduce
the acts and share a few thoughts, and other local music
media (like You Don't KNow Jersey, Jersey Indie, and the
Aquarian) acted as sponsors. Glenn Morrow of Hoboken's Bar/None
Records turned out to check out the proceedings as well.
Of course, I'm far from objective, but I endorse the idea
of getting the people who actually write about unsigned
and indie-label bands in the state involved.
With the death of the Hoboken Music Awards, something like
the North Jersey Indie Rock Festival offers a much-needed
shot-in-the-arm for the area's music scene, and it was heartening
to see most of the bands stick around all day and support
their peers. That's an important first step in building
a community of musicians, media, promoters, and labels...
or what, in a better world, we might call a "scene."
A Look at Cathedral Hall
Montclair's LKFFCT on the downstairs stage
NGHTCRWLER on the upstairs stage
Mike Mehalick and Bob Makin
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