Monday, January 16, 2017


The Health & Happiness Show - Tonic (October 28, 1993)
The Health & Happiness Show - Instant Living (July 18, 1995)

The Health & Happiness Show started with two old friends sitting around a kitchen table, playing Hank Williams songs and sharing a few beers.  Jim Mastro had been pursuing a music career since his teenage days performing with Richard Lloyd's post-Television band. He toured the world with the Bongos and then burnt out trying to get his chamber-pop group Strange Cave signed in the major label rat race of the post-Nirvana Nineties.  Vinny DeNunzio had been a founding member of the Feelies and had his share of near-miss bands as well.  But playing music together in their kitchen was fun.  "We started getting together with other friends around their kitchen tables, and I realized that if I pushed all the tables together, we had the makings of a band - a band that wanted to play just to play - not to get a record deal. We booked a show, had a good time, and booked another."

Vinny became St. Vincent DeNunzio.  Graham Maby joined on bass, then Tony Shanahan came aboard on bass and keyboards when Graham was away on tour. They added fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin. They took their name from a Hank Williams radio show and soon became favorites on the local club scene, then did what Vinny and Jim swore they didn't want - got a record deal with Bar/None.  These days, Jim Mastro still performs with friends like Karyn Kuhl and Ian Hunter, but is best known as the proprietor of the Guitar Bar, offering musical instruments and lessons at three locations in Hoboken and Jersey City.

Q:  Looking back, it's ironic that Strange Cave is the band that was supposed to make you rich and famous, but Health & Happiness Show seems to be the band people remember most fondly. 

Jim Mastro:  Strange Cave - my band after The Bongos - had every major label's ear for a while. We had endless meetings, showcases, demo deals, and were promised the moon. But the A&R people who loved us could never convince the money people to sign us. After awhile I realized I was playing music trying to cater to people who were more like used car salesmen then music lovers. It was a drag and killing my love for playing music. So as much as I loved everyone in the band, for my sanity's sake I had to end it. After a short while I invited my old drummer friend Vinny DeNunzio over for some beer and donuts. The acoustic in the corner was picked up and we started singing old Hank Williams songs. And we had fun. This turned into a weekly get-together, and then Graham Maby started stopping in, and other friends, too. After some time, I realized I was looking at a band in my living room, so I booked a gig without telling them, and then invited them to the show. Luckily, they all showed up, we played, had more fun, and decided to continue.

Q:  Is it true you had a near death experience on the road that influenced your second Bar/None album Instant Living?

Jim: We were on tour and heading to Nashville for some shows. A car cut us off, and in trying to avoid hitting it, I swerved and our van - full of gear and 5 people - rolled over twice. The vehicle was totaled, but amazingly no one was seriously hurt. Surviving something like that definitely reinforces your joy to be alive. Lyrically, I think I was more introspective and philosophical on that record; musically, it's a much more electric and faster-paced album then Tonic was. Hurtling at 70mph with the sound of crushing metal in your ears will do that to you.

Q: Are there any lessons you learned in your career as a working musician that's helped you in your successful career as a local businessman?

Jim:  Learned and still learning. Everyone's different, and everyone has a story. If you're not a good listener. you're not going to be a good musician. And I think the same applies for the business owner, the priest, the cop, the checkout clerk. There's a story in every word. You just have to be open 24 hours a day to hear it.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Hotel Lights - Hotel Lights (March 7, 2006)
Hotel Lights - Firecracker People (August 19, 2008)
Hotel Lights - Girl Graffiti (August 16, 2011)
Hotel Lights - Get Your Hand In My Hand (March 4, 2016)

Darren Jessee is Hotel Lights, a project he's pursued for over a decade when not preoccupied by his duties as the drummer of Ben Folds Five. A North Carolina native who now lives in Brooklyn, Jessee has teamed with  musician/producer Alan Weatherhead and an impressive list of session musicians to create four sterling albums renowned for their elegance, understated hooks, and refined arrangements.  Get Your Hand In My Hand, released in March, 2016, "continues Jessee’s tradition of writing subdued, melancholy guitar pop," wrote   Kevin Matthews of hailed the album as  "perfectly constructed pop-rock tunes drawn from the classic 60's/70's songbook, a fitting tribute to halcyon days, where sophisticated pop ruled the airwaves and the charts."

What he achieves on the album is a wonderfully crafted record with captivating songwriting and delivery," raved the Canadian website The "It’s witty, dramatic, intimate, and emotional, at times it’s sad, but there is a warmth to it provided by Jessee’s voice and the alluring quality of the instrumentation on this record."

Q: There was a five year gap between Get Your Hand and its predecessor, and of course there was a Ben Folds Five reunion and world tour in there. Is Hotel Lights something you can put aside for a period of time, or are you always writing and demo'ing? Can you write on the road or do you need a period of quiet study? Does the fact that the album came together over a protracted period of time explain how the songs seem to segue through a number of different styles and genres?
Darren Jessee: Yes. There was a Ben Folds Five reunion album and tour, and after that I traveled the world as part of Sharon Van Etten's band. I'm currently touring with Hiss Golden Messenger. I don't write a lot while I'm on the road beyond gathering a few ideas here and there. It takes a routine for me most of the time. But when I'm home, I am often writing. I have new songs written for what will be the first Darren Jessee album.

Q: The tone of Get Your Hand In My Hand is also quite a bit different than the album before it, less joke and much more pensive and introspective. Was that a result of personal changes in your life (there are some great break up songs on this album) or is just the way your muse spoke to you?

Darren: If you listen to the tone of the first two Hotel lights albums, they could also be considered as you described, more introspective and pensive. The album you're referring to --Girl Graffiti, was a conscience decision on our third album to keep it looser and try different moods. I've gone back to my emotional landscape roots on the new album, and it's my favorite Hotel Lights album experience.

Q: I noticed in most of the reviews of Get Your Hand that many critics didn't seem to recognize "Lens Flare" as a bossa nova. How do you feel about the state of criticism today. the way your work is received, and the prevalence of DIY blogs over the magazines and newspapers of a generation ago?

Darren: I'm grateful for anyone who wants to write about my albums. There are so many hyperbolic statements in music criticism today, you really must listen for yourself to know what anything is. The idea that a music critic knows a bossa beat or even how to play chords on the piano is asking a lot. Almost every review of Hotel Lights starts by by citing that I was in Ben Folds Five and co-wrote Brick. The artfulness of Hotel Lights is often overshadowed by the discussion of defining me and then comparing it all to my past.

Q: A lot of rock music starts with a hook or a catchy, repeating chorus; you eschew those tools. When you start writing a song, what's foremost in your mind? Are you writing to a listener, or to yourself?

Darren: I'm writing for myself and trusting my intuition about it. But I do like to imagine how one of my friends will feel when they hear a new idea. That comes later when I'm mixing. I aspire to go with the flow of being creative when I'm writing. The hooks are subtle, yet they grow on you in the best way.

Q: There is a lot of the new album that reminds me of Big Star or Game Theory, bands that never had "hits" but which endure because to certain fans, those bands are the most important thing in their life. You said that you aren't that active in social media, but I'm wondering if you manage to maintain a sense of community with your fans?

Darren: I feel like Big Star endures because of the quality of those albums. When I'm on tour as a freelance drummer, I meet fans every day who don't know about my records. Which is also a problem Big Star ran into. I'm hesitant to compare us beyond that. I feel better when I'm limiting my time on social media. A little mystery completes a person. I was once pretty famous for a musician from NC, on MTV every hour. I didn't completely enjoy that part of it. I don't feel myself leaning into the idea of cultivating an image or seeking constant affirmation. I simply love being an artist and making meaningful music. I like keeping my mind in that space. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Vinicius Cantuária - Horse And Fish (May 11, 2004)


Cantuária came to  Bar/None as an established star in his native Brazil, a leading figure in the worlds of bossa nova and jazz.  Leader of the rock band O Terco, he released six albums in Brazil in the 80's and with his album Sol na Cara (Grammavision), was a pioneer of the neo-Brazilian music in 1996.The multi-talented singer, composer, guitarist, and percussionist came to New York in the mid-90's and immersed himself in the city's avant-garde underground, collaborating with artists like Arto Lindsay, David Byrne,  Brian Eno, and Laurie Anderson. In 2004, he teamed with Bar/None for Horse And Fish, his 11th studio album.   "Since the earliest days of bossa nova in the 1950's, Brazilian singers and musicians have competed with each other to be the most understated, subtle practitioners of the form," wrote Chris Moss for the BBC. "Vinicius Cantuária is arguably the current master of the subliminally sensual." JazzTimes opined, "Even as Cantuária aims toward modernism, he interprets canonical Brazilian themes like 'O Barquinho' and Jobim's 'Ligia,' his voice taking on a strikingly intimate, vulnerable quality on the latter."  These days, Vinicius owns a studio in New York City and still travels frequently to Brazil, where he continues to create and produce. 

Q:  You came to America with an international reputation in jazz and bossa nova, but when you came to New York, you worked with many artists in the avant-rock world like Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson, and  David Byrne.  How did these collaborations change the course of your career, and what influence from these people have you brought into your current work?

Vinicius: When I started to work with that group of musicians I felt I had found a sound that entered well in my music and my aesthetic. It was a rich give and take of possibilities. I was influenced and in turn influenced these artists and together we made some fantastic music. Of course this all took my music to another level and my work still reflects this time in New York

Q:  Many Americans (including myself) were introduced to bossa nova by Frank Sinatra's collaborations with Jobim. How do you think Jobim's legacy and artistry has survived 40 years later?  Is he still influencing the music in Brazil and elsewhere?

Vinicius: Jobim is one of the biggest musical influences of the past century and his music is still alive and current, continuing to influence musicians across the world. And one of the reasons why his music is still current is that his harmonies and melodies, in addition to their Brazilian touch, create a bridge between jazz and classical music - something that makes it universal, seductive and appreciated by musicians and listeners

Q: What would you tell the American listener who is not familiar with bossa nova to get them to give it a try? What about this music is universal and timeless and appeals to so many different tastes?

Vinicius:  I think everyone has heard one way or another a song by Jobim, so in that way everyone has heard Bossa Nova, but for someone starting out I would recommend listening to the classic album with Stan Getz playing the classic "The Girl from Ipanema" From there you can discover many other recordings with the interplanetary music of Jobim and other bossa nova artists.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Tiny Lights - The Young Person's Guide To Tiny Lights (October 17, 1995) 
Tiny Lights - The Smaller The Grape, The Sweeter The Wine (March 18, 1997)

Tiny Lights straddled both the New Brunswick and Hoboken pop scenes when they formed in 1985, the brainchild of singer/guitarist John Hamilton and singer/violinist Donna Croughn. The original lineup included cellist Jane Scarpantoni,  bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and drummer John Mastro (brother of the Bongos' Jim Mastro.)  The group enjoyed a  remarkable decade-plus career, releasing seven albums and touring the country with artists like Michelle Shocked, 10,000 Maniacs, Henry Rollins, Poi Dog Pondering, the Feelies, and many others.   The band's unique mixture of orchestral pop and psychedelic improvisation - often expanding its lineup to include trumpet, saxophone, tabla, and bass clarinet - inspired Rolling Stone to dub the group "Sly & The Family Partridge."

Bar/None released the career-spanning compilation The Young Person's Guide To Tiny Lights in 1995,  and the group's final album, The Smaller The Grape, The Sweeter The Wine, in 1997.  Dave Dreiwitz and Jane Scarpantoni went on to enjoy long careers, Dreiwitz as a member of Ween and Scarpantoni as accompanist for Lou Reed, R.E.M., Bob Mould, 10,000 Maniacs, the Indigo Girls, and Bruce Springsteen. Hamilton and Croughn married and are now raising a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where John is a professor at Harvard University.

Tiny Lights (l. to r.) John Mastro, Donna Croughn, John Hamilton, Dave Dreiwitz
Dave Dreiwitz:  When Tiny Lights began, our goal was to make and perform beautiful music together. We worked very hard touring and recording. We had our own sound and that was what was most important to us.The very first Tiny Lights concert was in 1983 opening for The Bongos at the Showplace. I was a senior in high school. Somehow we always managed to get on some really cool bills. We played with so many different bands including John Cale, 10,000 Maniacs, Lenny Kaye, The Hoodoo Gurus, Lucinda Williams, Jim Carroll and The Feelies. When we started touring nationally we opened for Henry Rollins, Mojo Nixon and Michelle Shocked all on the same tour! In the early 90's, I remember one great bill at the original Knitting Factory with Kramer, David Peel (with the Pope of Pot!) and Luscious Jackson.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016


The Feelies - Here Before (April 21, 2011)

The New Yorker proclaimed the Feelies "one of America's most beloved alternative rock bands," Rolling Stone listed their groundbreaking debut Crazy Rhythms as one the 50 best albums of the Eighties, and a small army of jangling, pastoral, and frenetic indie-rockers have claimed them as an influence over the last three decades.  Mostly, though, the Feelies remain an American original.  "From their Passaic County fastness, the Feelies imbued nerdy suburban goofiness with spare downtown cool, rocking out all the while," wrote Robert Christgau. But perhaps percussionist Dave Weckerman said it best, speaking to Jersey Beat fanzine back in 1986: "Being in the Feelies is like living in a pyramid. Nothing ever changes and no one ever grows older." 

Bar/None released Here Before in 2011, ushering the Feelies into the 21st Century following a 20-year hiatus. The label has also reissued the Feelies' four classic previous albums - Crazy Rhythms, 1986's The Good Earth, 1988's Only Life, and 1991's Time For A Witness, which are available here. 

n February 24, 2017,  Bar/None will release the Feelies' sixth album, In Between, and the band recently gave fans a first taste from that album with the song "Been Replaced."  We asked Stan Demeski - the Feelies' drummer since 1986's The Good Earth - how new songs come together these days, with the band spread out over five cities in three states.


Stan Demeski: Since we started playing again in 2008 we’ve had enough shows where we would have to get together several times a year to prepare for them. So we do see each other more than you might think. Both members who don’t live in the area anymore still have family here as well so there’s reasons other than the band to come back.  If someone has a new song and feels like playing it at rehearsal or sound check, we give it a shot. But usually demos are sent out before we play a new song. For myself, I work on them at home and try to learn the song forms. If Glenn has a drum part on his demos, I try to play what he has. I might change it to fit my style a bit or to how I think it could be more effective. That’s mostly changing the bass drum part to fit with the rhythm guitar part. Bill will record guitar only demos at home, put them on CD and send them to the other band members. Glenn does a similar thing but his demos tend to have more to them since he writes the lyrics and most of the melody lines. Some of his demos are almost complete songs. We did some demos for this new LP with just the three of us recording. I think Glenn put bass on those tracks to fill them out and get a better idea of the arrangements.

Q: Looking at the entire timeline of the Feelies, the past few years have turned out to have been some of the group's most prolific.  Is the band just in a good place now, or is there a sense of urgency that no one is getting any younger and there may only be time for a few more releases?

Stan:  A bit of both. I wish we would have gotten back together sooner but it didn’t work out that way. I think not playing music to make a living certainly frees things up. And we are getting older for sure. Glenn and Bill both seem to write more now, I’m not sure why. Bill has already mentioned working on 'the next record.'

Q: The Feelies have always been a band that radiated humility, in everything from the band's onstage persona to its interactions with its audience to the very humble interviews we'd read from Glenn and Bill.  I'm just wondering if, when you're by yourselves,does the band every start talking about its legacy and where the Feelies fit into the pantheon of American rock?

Stan:  I don’t, that’s for sure. And it’s their band, I just get to play in it. They can think about those points if they like, but I don’t think they do.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Birdie Busch - The Ways We Try (January 1, 2005)
Birdie Busch - Penny Arcade (September 27, 2007)

Emily "Birdie" Busch, "Philadelphia's whimsical, verse-weaving siren," according to NPR,  has always had a way with storytelling. Her lyrics are introspective, offbeat, and oozing with  sentimentality. The nickname "Birdie" has nothing to do with singing; "it was bestowed upon me by a friend after a beret with metal studs was bestowed upon my head. It had nothing to do with singing, just silliness. So when they ask, 'what came first, the beret or the bird?' I say the beret," she told YellowBirdProject Blog.

After ingratiating herself in Philadelphia's alt-folk scene in the early '00's, Birdie's debut album The Ways We Try was recorded with producer Devin Greenwood (Amos Lee, the Weeds, JF Maher) and released on Bar/None in 2005.  At only age 25, Birdie captured the sweetness and complexity of some of America's finest singer/songwriters; A.D. Amorosi in the Philadelphia City Paper described the record as "Not dag funky but odd funky - her crackled rosiness draws you into [the songs] as would a painter's smallest strokes, asides that speak volumes when you stand closer. So get closer." Birdie worked with Devin Greenwood again for her Bar/None follow up album Penny Arcade two years later, recording the bulk of the album at Devin's South Philly home studio (dubbed "The Honey Jar,")  imbuing the album with a homey intimacy.

One of the standout songs is “The Huff Singers (North Philly,)” about a gospel singing group Birdie met while waitressing at a gospel brunch. “Mr. Huff, who is in his 80’s, carries a Polaroid camera around and he asked me if he could take my picture and then he gave me the copy. I love to visit the group in their rehearsal space and listen to them swap old time songs and recordings; we have made an effort to bridge the gap between cultures, and it’s a real pleasure for me,”  Birdie said at the time.

These days, Birdie Busch continues to perform and record in Philadelphia, with strong support from NPR's Acoustic Cafe and Philly's WXPN.  She released her latest album Thunder Bridge in June, 2016, and will be appearing at Ortlieb's in Philadelphia on December 7.

Birdie Busch On Philadelphia:

Philly has been a city that has allowed me time and space to react, write,, love, and everything in between. It's not a "hustle" kind of place although it is incredibly diverse and amazing. My relationship has changed in that I've come to feel more responsible for my contributions to this place, not only artistically but civically. I do a lot within the context of my community and use my art and music to make it all happen, including using albums to raise money for public schools and also visual art grants, which you can check out at link below.

For me, the dawn of the Internet had less computer time and more real time. Not that that wasn't an element of it. But initially, there was a lot of hanging out at bars, open mics, etc. And when hanging at bars, you were really there! Ha. No one was looking down at the screens, present focused energy seemed to still be upheld. Gosh I miss that. The collective experience without fractured attention.

Philly has so many amazing musicians and that's always felt like a constant to me. Right now, I've been really enjoying Rosali Middleman.
I also really love this group that plays a lot of vintage Hawaiian kind of stuff.

But I could honestly send you a long list of great music from Philly of all different feels.

Being in a smaller city has benefits and setbacks. I have had friends that left for bigger cities to seek more paid work in music, especially engineers and people in the production side of things. Many of us here combine many different things to make our lives work. Music is a huge part of my vitality, but with the state of music and living here I do a lot of different things. In the end I think it all informs each other and strengthens my soul.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Standard Fare - The Noyelle Beat (March 16, 2010)

Music was the family business for Emma Kupa. Her mother was in the Eighties anarcho-punk band Poison Girls. So perhaps it wasn't too surprising when she and teenaged pal Danny How started playing together.  When they poached drummer Andy Beswick from Danny's brother's band, Standard Fare's alluring blend of adolescent crushes, young adult sexual longing, and gleeful indie-pop melody was born. wrote of the Sheffield, UK trio, "The album's highlights-- 'Fifteen (Nothing Happened),' in which lead singer and bassist Emma struggled mightily with her temptation to sleep with a 15-year-old, or 'Philadelphia,' where she waited a year to revisit an overseas fling in the titular city-- hit upon an acidic, wide-eyed middle ground." Bar/None released Standard Fare's debut album The Noyelle Beat in March, 2010.  After a second album, Out Of Sight, Out Of Town in 2011, the group disbanded in 2013 but remains on friendly terms.
Standard Fare today
A Conversation With Standard Fare

Q.) Emma is playing with Mammoth Penguins these days. What are Dan and Andy up

Dan: We have a couple of bands together; Skeletal Shakes, where we play indie-punk-pop, and The Hangtown Thieves, which is old-time country-rockabilly. They're quite different but both great fun to play around with. We don't take them out much, but we're always writing and recording new things.

Q.) You got to tour America twice around the time of The Noyelle Beat. What was

your biggest surprise in the States, something you weren't expecting?

Dan: The biggest surprise to me was how far this scene went. We traveled all that distance and to cities we'd never been to, but we'd still meet these bands who played and loved the same music as us. 
We'd meet people in the afternoon and they'd drive 2 hours just to see the show that night, and people who'd let 3 strangers stay at their house just because they had guitars! Everyone really looked out for us.
Andy: Having the chance to tour the US, twice! with the guys and the band! was the best thing ever, and was a lot of fun! The roads there are much much longer than any road in the UK, haha.  However every gig we played was well worth the drive! I'd say the Splorks gig was something I wasn't expecting, when they combined chucking an array of teddy bears around the audience in a mosh pit (and we all joined in). That was the most insane thing I had ever witnessed :) 

Emma: The DIY scene in the US is full of such lovely people. We were shown such kindness. The first Philadelphia show we did was in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and we were getting electric shocks off the microphones but it was fun. There were a lot of long drives but the drive from NYC to New Haven was the worst as it was during a major storm and we had to keep driving past and even getting out to move fallen down trees in the road. We got to a dive bar pretty shell-shocked but played our set anyway.

Q.) I know you played SXSW in Austin and a festival in Athens,GA, two
cities that have produced great U.S. indie rock. Did you have any heroes or landmarks in those cities that you were especially excited about?

Andy: I just remember weaving through people, with beers in our hands, in the sun, walking around the streets at the SXSW festival and there was a different sound coming out of every door we passed! It was incredible there being a part of it. We had a busy schedule, but I do remember getting the chance to see Rival Schools set. I had never seen them before, and they were awesome, they had a massive sound with popping drums!

Emma: There was a great buzz in both cities while we were there. SXSW is such an experience and I remember a hairy late night drive with a red-neck taxi driver… We were keen to play Athens because Happy Happy Birthday To Me records had put out some great bands including Sourpatch.

Q.) In NYC, you got to play Death By Audio, one of the city's (now sadly
defunct) all ages, DIY venues. I've met people from Europe and Japan who marvel at the concept of illegal, unlicensed underground clubs like that flourishing in a major city. What was your reaction to DBA and are there venues like it in your part of the UK?

Dan: I don't think we really understood the concept until we tried to find the place! I think it was a brilliant idea really, that music should be available to everyone.
It might be the difference in legal drinking ages making pubs more accessible but I've only recently started to see similar places in the UK, like an old vegetable warehouse in Nottingham. We played a couple of warehouse shows whilst we were in the US, everyone was totally up for it, it felt really in the moment and it never got out of hand.

Emma: The all-ages thing is really important in the US I think and it is getting more so in the UK. I think it’s difficult to start up unlicensed venues here in the UK but there are more DIY spaces that are legal but are all-ages and bring your own booze like JT Soar (Nottingham) that Dan mentioned and The Audacious Art Experiment (Sheffield) and DIY Space for London.

Q.) As one of the few non-American acts to have been on Bar/None, do you
have any bands who have recorded for the label who were big influences or favorites of yours growing up?
Dan: When Bar/None first got in touch I remember seeing they put out Evan Dando's solo album and that was it, I was completely in. He's an absolute hero of mine, the varying sound, slow-soft/fast-loud, I still have the same albums of his on repeat now. It's something I can always go back to and suits many different moods.  Now, whenever I hear They Might Be Giants on the radio, it reminds me that we were a part of something really cool.

Andy: I'd not listened to a great deal of the stuff on their label before we were in contact with them, but now, I seem to have records and follow quite a few on it now! Like the Front Bottoms, The Moms, Parlour Tricks, and Of Montreal. It was a pleasure meeting Glenn and Mark and was great fun working with them too, they have a great studio!

Emma: I had a similar experience to Dan in that the connection to Evan Dando was really exciting for me.