A night at The Bottom Line was a room full of haze from all the cigarette smoke. A joint is passed over from the table next to you and as you wonder if you’ll get in trouble you look over at the bar and there’s the headliner hanging out and smoking his own joint.
As part of the River-to-River Festival there was supposed to be a free concert in Rockefeller Park celebrating the late Bottom Line featuring performers, who had played there, singing songs about New York City. But the weather was iffy (we did eventually have one short shower) so they moved the show indoors into the World Financial Center Winter Garden. The Winter Garden is shops and restaurants with a glass atrium looking over the Hudson River. There are huge palm trees in the atrium and marble steps and the atrium is where the events take place.
Right outside are three food carts (burgers, lobster rolls, and pulled pork) and tables where you can sit and look out over the water. I stopped for a salmon burger before the show.
Three-quarters of the folding chairs were reserved so I sat on the marble steps. Just below fedora guy you can see a bit of the floor separating the steps from the folding chairs. The green room was behind us so those of us on the steps got to watch all the artists walk to and from the stage.
Jessica Weitz of The Bottom Line organized this night of music. It was also a celebration of the owners Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky (and Allan’s wife Eileen) and 30 years of music in NYC.
The event was hosted by long-time NYC radio-DJ Pete Fornatale. Over the years I’ve met a few people who knew Fornatale at Fordham or later at WNEW-FM. Every one of them had the same opinion. So I could imagine Jack next to me muttering under his breath and saying, “Asshole,” as soon as Fornatale walked out. I’ve never met him so I don’t know what he’s like in person. The event was supposed to be hosted by another long-time NYC radio-DJ, Meg Griffin, who I have met and like a lot. I think she may have introduced Fornatale (the person was behind a palm tree and gone so fast I couldn’t recognize the voice).
The house band was Mojo Mancini, who are Shawn Pelton (drums), John Leventhal (electric guitar and music director), Brian Mitchell (keys and vocals), Conrad Korsch (bass), Rick DePofi (organ and trombone), and Daniel Lewis Schielfer (sax). They opened the show with an instrumental version of “Tonight” from West Side Story.
The first artist was the only performer of the night who had never played The Bottom Line. Martin Rivas is a small guy with a big soulful voice. He has shoulder-length white hair and was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and looked like a member of the audience.
Let me pause here to say the audience was mixed age-wise. There was a good combination of those under 25, 25-50, and over 50. However, the people who insist on still dressing and smelling like hippies need to avoid enclosed spaces. I thought the stink was going to kill me. I don’t care how free you want to be – take a shower. I want to be free to breath the air around me.
Rivas sang Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” He tried to get the audience to sing along but except for the loud couple sitting next to me, most of the audience wasn’t having it. It was a strangely subdued crowd and I think part of the problem was the venue. It’s not a place you feel free to let go.
I recognized Suzzy Roche right away and assumed it was her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche next to her and I was correct. Suzzy played acoustic guitar and sang, Lucy sang and joining them on piano was Jesse Paris Smith (Patti Smith’s daughter), who they met on Bleecker Street. Which was also the song they sang (written by Paul Simon). As soon as they started singing I was reminded of the Roches’ harmonies – probably because Suzzy is such a strong singer and was always upfront anyway.
Next was one of my favorite artists Christine Lavin, who I first saw at Folk City so many years ago that I don’t remember how long ago it was. She was this cute funny girl wearing thrift shop clothes and high-heeled shoes that were too big for her. Now she’s an established close to legendary folk singer and still as funny as ever. First she read a story about Zabar’s and then she sang “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind” except she’s rewritten it from a man’s point of view so now it’s “Good Thing She Can’t Read My Mind.” I know this was done a while ago but it’s the first time I heard it and I was laughing out loud at some of the lines.
When the next artist was walking towards the stage I knew I recognized him but couldn’t remember his name and I was ashamed of myself when he was introduced. Willie Nile. And, of course, he performed “The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square,” which he said is a true story.
Fornatale then had us do a moment of silence for The Big Man and it was thankfully a very short moment because in that big space it’s impossible to get silence. An artist I wasn’t familiar with – Michael Cerveris – sang next. He’s an actor with his first album out and he said the song was actually about the sixth borough (New Jersey) and the couple next to me seemed to know it very well because they sang along. Loudly. I was trying to figure out if it was a Springsteen song because it had Springsteen-like lyrics but it was performed so badly. Now that I look it up I see that it is Springsteen’s “New York City Serenade” and I find it hard to believe I couldn’t recognize a Springsteen song (well I did but didn’t know I did).
This is my second pause to comment on some of the song choices. I love Bruce. But there are better NY or NJ songs of his that could have been performed in a big glass room filled with people. Some of the choices were too quiet. Others just didn’t fit the singer’s voice. And there are lots of songs about NYC that never mention the city itself (some of which we heard). And others that mention the city and don’t have a NYC feel at all (I’m looking at you “Spanish Harlem.” The song is about a Puerto Rican girl not a Spanish girl).
The GrooveBarbers are an a cappella group that grew out of Rockapella, who seemed to play The Bottom Line every other day. They sang – what else? – “Girl From New York City” with all the “ooh wahs” and “come on kittys.” It was one of the more upbeat moments of the night.
Vin Scelsa was always one of my favorite NYC area radio-DJs. In my teens and twenties he introduced me to music that I still listen to today. And when I was in college he agreed to be interviewed by me for a term project on how the career and life of Phil Ochs rose and fell with the rise and fall of the sixties counterculture. He read Walt Whitman’s “Mannahatta” and I was sad that that was all we were going to hear from him.
Bringing us back to that day and where we were sitting was Garland Jeffreys and his “New York Skyline” and the references to different buildings including the two towers downtown. Mojo Mancini then performed The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” and then Brian Mitchell sang solo a song that I can’t identify but the lyrics were something like “everyday’s a holiday since I moved to this town.”
Singer Catherine Russell performed a Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne song “Brooklyn Bridge” that was made famous by Frank Sinatra. Budd Mishkin, a reporter on NY1, told a wonderful Bottom Line story. He took a girl on a blind date to a show there. It was love at first sight and was going to be forever. Until it wasn’t. Years later they met up again and it was love again and it was going to be forever. Mishkin called Allan Pepper and told him the blind date story (Pepper, who has seen thousands of shows says, “Yeah I remember. That was a good night.”) and that he wanted to play his guitar and propose to his girlfriend on the stage of The Bottom Line. Pepper opened the club for Mishkin and she said yes and they’re still together (there were a lot of really nice details I left out but even shortened it’s a nice story).
Rosanne Cash told another Bottom Line story. She had written the lyrics to the song she sang “Seventh Avenue” on a napkin in the Bottom Line. She handed the napkin to John Leventhal who then wrote the music. Leventhal is also her husband. The song was another quiet one and didn’t hold everyone’s attention. Her next song, Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” should have gotten everyone to sing along but did not. It didn’t help that Cash forgot the lyrics and fumbled a few times.
But Loudon Wainwright III did get everyone bopping along to his “Uptown” a song written when he was living in the East Village in a BIK flat for $53 a month. Suzzy and Lucy joined him for “No Sure Way” a song written when he was living in Brooklyn Heights. This song details a nightmare subway ride of getting from Brooklyn to Manhattan on 9/11. I’d never heard it before and it is one of his better songs.
It was no surprise that Dar Williams performed “Spring Street.” Afterwards she gave a shout-out to Jack Hardy, “who helped so many of us become folk singers” and I think that was a very nice touch. With Martin Rivas and Marshall Crenshaw she sang Hello’s “New York Groove” (written by Russ Ballard of Argent and covered by Ace Frehley) and as much as I love her voice, it didn’t fit with this song and you could hear that it didn’t. Rivas did a great job and would have done better on lead with this.
Marshall Crenshaw sang one of the perfect NY songs, “Up on the Roof” with the GrooveBarbers providing back-up. Then he followed with another perfect NY song – The Ramones “Oh Oh I Love Her So.”
Fornatale announced that the finale song was one that for 30 years he thought was a British Invasion song but was actually written about Times Square – and I thought “asshole.” Most of the artists came on stage for “Downtown” although only a few had the lyrics – Rivas seemed to know it by heart, Williams sang lead when he didn’t, Suzzy and Lucy took lead for one verse and Rosanne and Loudon didn’t join them on-stage. Funnily enough Mishkin was front and center and he’s not a singer. But it was one of those everyone on-stage folkie sing-alongs that can either go really well or really badly and this was sort of in-between. It wasn’t a champagne popping ending but not flat either. Just like the show itself.
By Carene Lydia Lopez