New York State of Mind Amoeblog #17: Up in Harlem @ Apollo & Lenox Lounge, GZA, Dessa, & The Relatives, Concerts & Events

Posted by Billyjam, January 16, 2013 02:50pm | Post a Comment

In this installment of the weekly New York State of Mind Amoeblog I take a visit up to Harlem where the Apollo Theater (left) is holding strong. Unfortunately, another African American cultural landmark, the nearby legendary Lenox Lounge jazz club, recently faced eviction. In addition to a run down of some of the concerts and events (including NY Restaurant Week and free national monument admission day next week) in the week ahead, I also report on last weekend's WFMU benefit concert with The Relatives and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at the Bell House, and the GZA headlined show at Stage 48.
"This is where it all started. Before American Idol. Before Star Search and before all of these other great shows that are on, it was the Apollo Theater that really was the springboard to jump everything off," Vanessa Rogers, producer of Amateur Night at the Apollo, told me when I stopped by the Apollo Theater in the heart of Harlem. For close to eight decades (two of them televised on "Showtime at the Apollo") the legendary Harlem theater has been fueling dreams and jump-starting a seemingly never ending line of careers that have been kick-started at the Apollo. Since Superstorm Sandy hit, the Amateur night got put on hold. It will resume in early March with national regional auditions to get to Harlem taking place in the interim. Over the decades countless greats came to shine courtesy of the Apollo.  Billie Holiday, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Michael Jackson, Stephanie Mills, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys,and Dave Chappelle are all among those who came to the historic uptown Manhattan venue on 125th Street as unknown 'amateurs' but left as future American superstars.

Fittingly, James Brown returned to the Apollo for his very final public appearance when on December 28th, 2006 the body of the late great Godfather of Soul was laid out in a regal gold plated, open-coffin below a bright neon Apollo sign on the very same stage that launched his career decades earlier. It was a ceremony that attracted thousands of mourners and befitted an American presidential figure.  The Apollo Theater, at 253 West 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, is a historic landmark but not too long ago it was destined for demolition and it seems to be constantly trying to keep up with expenses in maintaining the historic building's never ending costly upkeep. "It often seems that people outside of New York really really appreciate and get more excited about the Apollo than they do here," said Rogers who produced Showtime At The Apollo for over half of the years it ran in national syndication on TV up until 2008.

Many of those out-of-towners come to the Apollo not only for concerts and shows but also for the tours that the venue offers which are a combination of music history and architecture tour. But the best nights are the Apollo Amateur nights where the harshest judge is the Apollo audience who are notorious for not giving contestants a break. 

"They are brutally honest and we encourage them to be. I tell them before the show if you like them, let them know you love them," longtime Apollo employee Billy Mitchell told me when I stopped by the Apollo a while back.  "And I tell em if you don't like em get em off that stage as quickly as possible. Get em outta here because you don't want them to suffer any longer, thinking that they have talent when they really don't. And you're also encouraging them to go and practice a little more and just get it right and then come back," said Mitchell who was only fourteen when he first started working at the Apollo in 1962 running errands at the time for performers like Redd Foxx.  When he first met "Little" Stevie Wonder, he was the same age as the singer. Mitchell is the official Apollo historian and chief tour guide. The Apollo tours include explaining the relevance of the lucky "Tree of Hope" that each contestant rubs before performing on the Apollo's well worn stage.  On March 6th, Amateur Night at the Apollo returns. Next month (Feb 18, 22, 23) will be the production Apollo Club Harlem, which will be a review that will transform the legendary theater into a nightclub of the 30's and 40's. For more info on concerts and tours, visit the Apollo Theater website.

In another sad sign of the times, historic Harlem cultural mecca of many decades - the world famous Lenox Lounge jazz club (formerly a speakeasy) and restaurant closed its doors a couple of weeks ago on December 31st. The club -- where such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday have graced its stage and its clientele has included such notable African American figures as Langston Hughes and Malcolm X -- had its lease expire and its rent increased substantially, forcing it to close its doors. The venue at 208 Lenox Ave. just south of 125th Street, in the increasingly gentrified district of Harlem, had its rent doubled from $10,000 to $20,000 and the club's proprietor, Alvin Reed Sr., said he simply could not afford this 100% rent increase. Sad as this news of losing another cultural landmark (just like it lost CBGB's downtown on the Bowery seven years ago) is for the city of New York, the good news is that Reed did not miss a beat and promptly located a new space just a couple of blocks up the street. Also on Lennox Ave., between 126th and 127th, the new Lenox Lounge will reopen sometime this summer. It will feature that famed neon sign, which has already been dismounted and taken down from the 208 Lennox address (as you will see in the photo below that I snapped last week just as a tour group was gathered outside the historic location).

Last weekend I got to go check out the newly opened Stage 48 venue on 48th Street (in the Hells Kitchen district) between 11th and 12th avenues. A nice, modern open space with a balcony that can fit several hundred audience members, Stage 48 has a good sound system and offers its patrons all good unblocked views from both levels. The show I saw last Saturday (January 12th) qualified as perhaps the most musically diverse lineup I have witnessed in one club on one night. It included Rasputina, Dessa, GZA, and blues rock artist Robben Ford who I had not heard from since he made a splash back in the latter '80s, but who has still been making and playing good music. The opening act was Spanish/Mediterranean music artist Pavlo (plus his wonderful band) who has the distinction of winning a major lawsuit against R-Kelly and Jay-Z for sampling his song "Fiesta" without permission. They are all good friends now, as he stressed onstage Saturday before launching into the powerful song in his short set.

The cello and drum driven Rasputina, who I last saw at Slim's in San Francisco about eight years ago, are still doing their quirky offbeat style that is best when including an electronic or hip-hop beat behind it. Unfortunately they stayed too much in atonal folky (lacking in soul) territory on Saturday and, of all the acts, they seemed like the odd man out of the night. But they were still good to see. After the headliner, the star of the night was Dessa as the clear second crowd favorite and she killed it with her live band in their short five-song (no encore) set. Afterwards she and her fellow Doomtree crew hung out with fans and enjoyed the rest of the show, which included GZA who was amazing!  Backed by a tight live funk band all decked in matching black GZA logo T-shirts and comprised of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and two horns, the Wu-Tang member (also known as The Genius) did a fast-paced, well-planned set that was more like the live equivalent of a quick mix mixtape. He spent about a minute on each killer song before effortlessly segueing into next sick joint. At one point in his 45 minute set, GZA sent out love to his late great fellow Wu member Ol' Dirty Bastard and to ODB's mom, sister, and daughter - all of whom were in the audience enjoying the set along with everyone else - before launching into an inspired, albeit abbreviated, version of ODB's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya."

Recommended upcoming shows at Stage 48 include NorCal bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven this Saturday, January 19th,  Raekwon and Rakim on Feb 8th, The Residents on Feb 9th, and Ozomatli in April. Get full concert and venue info here. The following night of last weekend, Sunday Jan 13th, was the WFMU benefit concert following the all day WFMU Mini Record Fair - both at the Bell House in the Gowanus district of Brooklyn. And like the night before the WFMU showcase was another refreshingly diverse talented line-up thanks to the expert booking by WFMU Music Director Brian Turner. Following sets from Arrington Di Dionyso of Old Time Relijun, (crowd pleaser) Dot Wiggin Band (of The Shaggs), and the wonderful feedback happy  Jon Spencer Blues Explosion then the clear stars of the night, the soulful, funky Dallas TX ensemble The Relatives, took to the stage last and blew everyone's mind and got everybody swaying and grooving hard to the music that was like a Meters type band  (funk with guitar, bass, and drums) backing a gospel/soul vocal four piece plus conga player - all five decked in matching white suits with infectious soul that made everyone fall under their spell. And   despite their mature age, they rocked hard and had everyone shaking and swaying along with them. Do yourself a favor and go check them out if you get the opportunity or look for The Relatives album Bad Trip at Amoeba.

Concerts and parties in the week ahead include tomorrow Thursday Jan 17th Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest fame) presenting his monthly party That's My Ish at Paper Box in Brooklyn - which is a Giant Step co-production. Joining the legendary ATCQ DJing will be DJ Beetle both throwing down quality hip-hop, alongside soul and funk. That's My Ish happens Thursday, January 17th at 10pm at Paper Box, 417 Meadow St., Brooklyn, NY 11206. Tix $5/$8. More info. On Sunday Jan 20th Buckshot, Sean Price, Roc Marciano, Thirstin Howl 3rd and The Lo-Lifes all play the Highline Ballroom as part of the Lo-End Theory. Note early showtime of 4:30pm with doors opening at noon. Tickets are $19.67 in advance and $25 at door. The Highline is located at 430 West 16th Street near 10th Ave. More show info here.
At that same Chelsea district venue next Wednesday, Jan 23rd, jazz/hip-hop/RnB artist José James, in celebration of his new album debut on Blue Note Records - No Beginning No End. The Highline Ballroom, 431 W 16th ST (between 9th and 10th Avenue) Doors: 6:00 PM / More Info $15 Advance Tickets.

NYC Restaurant Week, which actually runs for just over three weeks, kicked off on Monday (Jan 14th) and is a good time to get out and sample the menu offerings of a wide variety of food (Italian, French, American, Thai, Seafood, Indian, Mediteranean, Pan-Latin, Steakhouse, etc.) with the 300+ participating restaurants around the Big Apple all adhering to Restaurant Week's set prices of 3-course lunches and dinners for $25 and $38 respectively. More info here  This is a good week to be in New York with free time since January 21st will be the Free Admission to All National Parks prorgam with the approximate 400 national parks across the US offering free admission to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Of these 400 national parks there are ten National Parks with twenty two unique destinations in both New York City and neighboring northern New Jersey including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the African Burial Ground National Monument, Castle Clinton, and Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace on East 20th Street. To help locate specific individual national parks click here.

NYC has a lot of dogs for such a small area so dogs are omnipresent and events for canines are appreciated like the one upcoming  at Brooklyn Bridge Park which consistently offers a variety of events even in the colder months. The park, which is home to two popular dog runs with locals (at Main Street and at Pier 6), is planning their Cutest Dog at the Dog Run Photo Contest. Submissions accepted until January 22 with voting beginning the next day on their Facebook page. Even if you are not in the area check it out and vote on and/or see some of these New York City pooches.

Thanks for checking out the New York State of Mind Amoeblog and check back next week when I will do a video interview with Bay Area to NYC transplant Jamie McCormick at his wonderful coffee shop Abraço Espresso in the East Village - seen in photo right outside his store next to cool street art dedicated to the late great MCA of the Beastie Boys. And finally I leave you the video report, c/o the Improv Everywhere guys, on last Sunday's (Jan 13th) NYC No Pants Subway Ride as previewed here last week.

Improv Everywhere's No Pants Subway Ride NYC 2013

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Abraco Espresso (2), No Pants Subway Ride (1), Dessa (4), Stage 48 (2), The Bell House (1), Wfmu (33), Brian Turner (2), New York State Of Mind (92), The Relatives (3), Gza (7)