by Nicole Skeltys
When we introduced ourselves, the large black doorman broke into a big sly grin, showing a gold capped tooth. “The Jilted Brides, huh? Ha ha ha. Thats a great name”. A couple of babes dressed in uptown fashions for their night out in the East Village, teetered past us on spiky heels into the club. The doorman nodded after them, still grinning “Hey, they ain’t jilted brides. They ain’t cooool enough to be jilted brides!”.
We’d been booked to play at the Lit Lounge in East Village since April 2008, since before we had left Australia. I’d had an image in my head of New York band venues all looking like photos I’d seen of CBGBs in the late ’70s. Dimly lit, low ceilings, dungeon-cool aesthetic, heroin-chic clientele sprawling on crumbling torn black vinyl lounges, decadence. I wasn’t disappointed. As Tanya and I made our way down the steep narrow stairs into the band room, I saw with satisfaction that the Lit Lounge was, “a charming cellar hole” (as a delightful elderly lady who came to the show later described it). The venue fitted my NY stereotype perfectly.
Well, almost perfectly. The decor and feel was smouldering and edgy but the audience for the first band (a duo that looked and sounded just like The Dresden Dolls) were a handful of neatly dressed people in middle age. They were the proud parents, uncles and aunts of the band, who politely clapped after every tortured ballad.
Our brand new band arrived, one at a time. First, Stu – our doe-eyed, mild-mannered guitarist, who had been playing in bands ever since he’d been a kid in the late ’60s. Then Brian our bassist, the youngest member of the band, who turned up sporting a fedora and spats, looking impossibly dashing. Finally, Garry, our black drummer arrived at the last minute and shook his head in good humored disgust at the tiny crack at the back of the cramped stage that was where he was supposed to set up his kit.
Before we left for the Byrdcliffe art colony in Woodstock in late August, we’d put ads up on Craigslist asking if any NY musicians wanted to join us for our two NY shows. We explained that there was no payment involved, they would be joining us just for the fun of it. I expected to get no response, due to the obvious lack of financial incentive. But I was wrong. A number of musicians responded straight away. One guy described himself as “your jilted guitarist”, explaining he’d like to play with us because he “sure knew what it was like to be jilted”. One bassist called Gio, a large hispanic guy covered in tattoos (he sent us photos) who seemed to specialize in metal and funk, boasted he could “do slap real well”. A “romantic violinist” offered to join us: due to the lack of a Myspace page where we could hear his stuff, he suggested we call him so he could play some soulful strains to us down the phone.
Eventually, we settled on Stu, Brian and Garry because they seemed the most professional and suited temperamentally to our folky/psychedelic/ atmospheric sound. I was both grateful and amazed that musicians of their calibre wanted to help out an obscure Australian duo, purely because they loved our music. But I was very unconvinced that they could master a set list comprising a mixture of tracks from The Jilted Brides and Dust (my previous Melbourne band) in only a couple of rehearsals. For two reasons: most of the tracks were not simple, they had fairly complicated arrangements and chord structures. And it takes a long time for a band to get tight – Dust rehearsed for 9 months before we felt we were good enough to play our first gig.
For the weeks we were in Woodstock, I got a knot in my stomache everytime I thought about our gigs in the Big Apple and our as yet unseen band. Every day, Tanya and I would tramp down the upper Byrdcliffe Road to the Icehouse (a small barn which was our rehearsal space) and we’d sing to the backing tracks which I’d loaded up into I-Tunes on my laptop. As I stared out the window at the light falling through the woods, serenading the unseen bears that everyone told us were out there, I thought: “How are we going to master all these tunes live with only a few hours rehearsal? We are going to sound like a sloppy teenage garage band. We are going to make goofballs of ourselves”.
But at our first rehearsal in Brooklyn, on the Monday before our Saturday night gig, I felt the rock and roll angels had once again been pulling cosmic strings on our behalf. Our Craigslist band had not only flawlessly worked out their parts, but they had memorized them already. They knew the songs like they’d been playing them for years. And they were charming, funny, easy to get along with, on our wavelength. They were very enthusiastic about the songs which they told us they loved playing. They were, in fact, a dream band.
On the L-train home to our sub-let in Bushwick that night, I repeated the phrase “dream band” to Tanya many times, who agreed with me. I alternated that phrase with shaking my head and stating. “We are going to pull it off. We are actually going to pull it off!”. Tanya confirmed that we had indeed just witnessed another miracle and yes, we were going to pull it off. I scarcely noticed the grimy Brooklyn subway stations as they flashed past. I was not just feeling less terrified about the gig, I was now positively champing at the bit to perform- I knew we were going to sound great.
Sure enough, right from the first few bars of Set Apart, our alt.country opening number, the band kicked in with a vigor, confidence and panache that impressed the audience and resulted in wild cheering after every song. Tanya also looked jaw-droppingly good in her Brigid Bardot look-alike hotpants, fishnets and booties rig-out. Even the harmonium was a hit, with at least one member of the audience pleading for “more harmonium!” when our exotic, much traveled instrument was apparently not loud enough.
After the show, the boys had to split for various reasons, and Tanya and I had to wait around until the other bands on the bill finished playing so we could get paid our cut from the door takings. We didn’t mind at all, as it gave us the opportunity to be repeatedly congratulated on our performance and to take liberal advantage of our bar tab. We wandered into the upstairs bar and then down again, pushing past many people dressed in new New Wave couture, drinking and jiggling and (sometimes) shouting compliments at us. The soundtrack to the evening – the house music between bands – could have been the house music at CBGBs in the late ’70s/ early ’80s: Iggy Pop, Blondie, Bowie, Lou Reed, My Bloody Valentine, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ramones. As we eventually degenerated into a slumped giggling clump in the backstage bandroom, I had (not for the first time on this trip) a sense of having returned to my adolescent years.
Finally Max, the venue manager, appeared Dr Who-like from (literally) a tiny hole in the wall. And, just like an episode from the iconic BBC sci-fi series, members of each of the bands that had played that night moved slowly, awkwardly towards him, the tentative way you would if you were an alien and you saw Dr Who land on your planet. Max clutched a fistful of dollars, and doled out measley sums to each band, followed by what looked like pep talks of some kind. When our turn came, Max at first looked a bit startled to see that we were filming the whole procedure, but then cheerfully informed us that we had pulled more customers than any other band and gave us the remainder of the takings – $80 (after the venue had taken its cut).
Tanya said “Look at this, musicians get treated like shit, its a dogs life!”. I whole-heartedly agreed. We fell back into the sticky couch again and laughed and laughed. A silver skull graffitied on the black wall opposite grinned back at us through the gloom. One of my favorite shoegazing anthems of all time, one I had not heard for a very long time – Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” kicked in at full volume. We finally rallied ourselves and with the help of some fellow Byrdcliffe colony artists who had come to see us, we grabbed the harmonium and keyboard, and staggered out into the early morning ruckus playing out on 2nd Avenue. Our first gig on the Eastern seaboard had turned into the quintessential New York underground rock experience and as we hailed down a cab, we felt invincible.