Hugh’s Room Live was the scene, and the man delivered. Boy, did he ever.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM
I’ve never met the Pope. But I’ve met Garland Jeffreys and I’m expecting the experience to be similar. Aside from the man’s 47+ years of show business credentials and endless library of exceptional songs, he appears to stand for everything that matters in this world, embracing an absolute love of his fellow man with a buoyant, upbeat positivity that would make Julie Andrews blush – everything you’d expect of a proper pontiff. Completely approachable and extremely fan-friendly, the extra time he invested into the end of his evening turned out to be as lengthy as the 16-song set he and his Coney Island Playboys had just laid out for a full, adoring house of forever fans. Long after most artists would’ve been justifiably hotel-bound, Garland Jeffreys sincerely cares to go that extra mile.
Touring his latest (14th) release, the 12-track 14 Steps To Harlem, Jeffreys was quick to keep things moving forward, proving that one of New York’s finest poets is as relevant today as he ever was –possibly more so. A lifetime of smart, socially-conscious songs and brilliant covers – dipped in loving portions of rock, R&B, blues and reggae – has resulted in the creation of music defying simple categorization. Born to an African American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, the tough neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn made him the butt of rampant racism, paying dearly for being neither fully white or black. Jeffreys fought back with love and music, penning countless songs to document his painful, isolated journey in his efforts to right the wrongs of the world without ever once pulling the victim card. In so doing, he grew all the more invincible for his efforts, earning the respect – and friendship – of powerful people.
So, for many of us, Garland Jeffreys is more than a successful musician with an impressive career (who, by the way, still sounds and acts as freshly-squeezed as he did when he first started). He’s a modern-day hero, if not an icon for beating the odds and winning over negativity with compassion and positive action. And…. let’s not forget the fruit of his labor – his inimitable catalogue. Beginning with a track from 2011’s The King of In Between, “Coney Island Winter”, Jeffreys and band slowly built up momentum as the small Hugh’s Room stage had its sound adjusted.
Rolling Stone’s Best New Artist of the Year (’77) followed this with “’til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” from the same record, a tough-sounding blue boogie in the spirit of the master. Yet it took the slowed down version of the Stones-like “The Contortionist” (The King of In Between) to truly appreciate the ageless quality of Jeffreys’ rich vocals. The significant live skills of his band members are not to be discounted, integral to Jeffreys’ secret recipe. Keyboardist and longtime band member, Charly Roth, plays a key role in adding flesh to each composition while the fat-bottomed rhythm section of drummer Tom Curiano and bassist Brian Stanley are crucial to the foot-tapping nature of every Jeffreys song. Guitarist Justin “J.J.” Jordan proved a wizard with many surprises – from dizzying lead solos and special effects across a range of stringed instruments.
The highly effervescent “Venus” (from 14 Steps To Harlem) is a natural fit to Jeffreys’ repertoire – a “summer song” if you’ve ever heard one, causing the artist to ask the crowd if he had a hit on his hands. “Yes”, came the immediate vote. Harlem’s ”Reggae On Broadway” fed fans their fix of that earthy collision of New York via Jamaica. Yet it was two tracks from ‘77s Ghost Writer that quickly elevated the temperature of the room: the infectious “35 Millimeter Dreams” was manna from heaven while the sweetly soulful “Spanish Town” benefited from Jordan’s deft Spanish guitar accompaniment and Jeffreys’ emotional mastery over the Latin-esque ballad. Chili dogs have never sounded so appetizing.
The newer, rockier “When You Call My Name” (Harlem) followed with supportive vocals from band members and a heavily, keyboard-led groove. A heartfelt story about meeting John Lennon (a like-minded advocate of right over wrong) led to a slowed-down, graceful remake of The Beatles’ ”Help” (14 Steps). The quirky “Harlem Bound”, from his self-titled ’73 release, took flight, nourished by Roth’s lovely piano and powered by Stanley’s funky bass contributions, before segueing into the powerful “14 Steps to Harlem”. A tribute to Dylan’s influence came in the form of “She Belongs To Me” merged into his tribute to fellow Syracuse University classmate, Lou Reed, and an aggressive, harder-edged cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man”. Far from an artist feeling the need to ‘milk the oldies’, “Ghost Writer” has become a must-play and the audience was treated to this sensual, if not penultimate Jeffreys track which, again, revisited elements of “14 Steps to Harlem” to stunning effect. Ghost Writer’s “New York Skyline” was another essential flashback as Jeffreys updated it with a “We’re All Equal” rap that also boasted one of Jordan’s most effective guitar solos.
And, from the school of Ending the Show with a Bang, an uproariously funky treatment of “Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll” (from Don’t Call Me Buckwheat) was a talk-sung barn-burner – not before closing with an equally powerful cover of one of his strongest covers – ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (from Escape Artist), featuring some impressive B3 from Roth’s keyboard. Sweating up a storm and in a clearly rambunctious mood – nourished by an audience who couldn’t quite get enough of Pope Garland – this night was clearly as much fun for the spry performer as it was for the party faithful. Jokingly, he reminded us that, should anyone ask what the ruckus was all about, “tell them Elvis was in the building. ‘
There was no “Wild In The Streets”, “Cool Down Boy” or “I May Not Be Your Kind” – but there didn’t need to be. Essential? Vital? Legendary? Crucial? You can’t help but gain a reassuring handle on your world given the realization that New York’s proudest son continues to perform like a man on a mission. Even better, despite all that he’s endured, Jeffreys feels truly blessed in his role to make the world a better place. Hail, hail indeed.
Postscript” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know Garland Jeffreys or doesn’t understand his musical contribution, there’s good news in the form of a feature documentary that’s in the works. Interviews with Laurie Anderson, Graham Parker and Harvey Keitel are already in the can as this project grows. You can get involved via the crowd-funding site, below: