Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the October 31,

2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

For Groovelily, Performance Meets the Music

At a performance last spring at Mine Street Coffeehouse

in New Brunswick, it was obvious the members of Groovelily have not

only mastered their instruments, they’ve also mastered the art of

performing. Jokes and stories flowed freely. Historical background

and details about how songs were written were interspersed with the

music.

Groovelily’s lead singer and violinist, Valerie Vigoda plays a lightly

amplified violin with a lot of electronic gizmos attached to get a

range of special effects from her instrument. While she is front and

center, many of the songs on the group’s CD are co-written with her

husband and keyboardist, Brendan Milburn. Rounding out the Groovelily

trio is Princeton native Gene Lewin on drums.

Despite the fact that Mine Street is not one of the highest paying

gigs in the Garden State — it is the oldest continuously running

coffeehouse — the band put on an inspired show. Millburn has a

graduate degree in musical theater and he, together with Vigoda and

Lewin, incorporate some effective theatrical devices into their live

shows. On this night, the Mine Street audience of 50-some patrons

demanded three encores.

Anyone who didn’t hear enough at Mine Street can have a second chance

this Saturday, November 3, at the Concert at the Crossing at the

Unitarian

Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville. Opening for Groovelily

are Ben Murray and Siobhan Quinn.

Born and raised in McLean, Virginia, Vigoda, 34, was

classically trained as a violinist, but decided long ago she didn’t

care much for the classical music world and all its requisite

stuffiness. In

a cell phone interview while she and her husband were making their

way in the van to a radio station interview in Bethlehem,

Pennsylvania,

she says she was drawn in a folk-pop direction, first with a band,

and now with her trio, Groovelily.

Groovelily’s latest album, "Little Light," was released in

March. It showcases Vigoda’s extraordinarily tasteful electric violin

playing and vocals, Milburn’s keyboard treatments and vocals, and

Lewin’s jazz-inflected drumming. "Little Light" features 11

original compositions and one cover, Mick Jones’s "I Want To Know

What Love Is."

A graduate of Princeton University, Valerie Vigoda was the youngest

woman it had ever admitted. Admitted at age 14, she began attending

at 15, and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1987, at age 19.

Her father, Bob Vigoda, was a jazz pianist who is now retired. "He

was a guy in Washington, D.C., who would play all the society

parties,"

she says. "I actually got to go with him to a few gigs. He would

play the White House and sometimes lead a big band. He’s accompanied

Pearl Bailey and played accordion with Sting." Vigoda’s

grandfather,

Samuel Vigoda, was a well-known Jewish cantor who lived to the ripe

old age of 96 before passing away in 1990.

"My dad was very encouraging," says Vigoda, "and in

classical

music competitions he was always my accompanist. For a while there

he was afraid of me going into an unstable area," meaning the

music business, "but more recently, as he’s seen our band get

some good recognition, he’s been happier about it."

Groovelily’s dummer Lewin, 39, majored in computer science at

Princeton,

but the two did not know each other there. When not performing with

Groovelily, Lewin backs various groups including the well-known Latin

jazz saxophonist, Paquito D’ Rivera.

"When we were in college Gene was much more into jazz and I was

much more into orchestra and singing a cappella. Back then, I was

still mostly a classical chick," says Vigoda, who was a member

of the Princeton University String Quartet. In an unlikely combination

of activities as a student at Princeton, to help pay for the massive

cost of her education, Vigoda joined ROTC. As a consequence, after

her graduation, she spent four years as a "weekend warrior."

"The army thing was just something I wanted to do that also helped

me exert my independence from my family," she says. "It was

a way for me to pay for college. The best thing the experience gave

me was some discipline that I didn’t have at the time. While I was

in the middle of it, I questioned why I was doing it, but in the end

it allowed me to get in really good shape, too."

Groovelily’s three musicians met in New York City while Vigoda was

leading a larger ensemble, the Valerie Vigoda Band. Formed in 1995,

Groovelily was a smaller, more portable version of that band. That

summer, they had the opportunity to be the house band at a theater

in Amsterdam, Holland. They took it and the band got their chops

together,

learning how to play as a trio.

"That was the first time any of us had made a living from our

own original music, and it really was a turning point," says

Vigoda.

"It allowed for much more collaborating between me and

Brendan."

She hands the cell phone off to her husband, Brendan Milburn, while

she runs into the Musicians’ Union office on 8th Avenue in Manhattan

to pick up a check from a freelance violin gig, of which she has many.

Brendan Milburn, 30, attended Pomona College for musical theatre in

California and decided to pursue a post-graduate education in musical

theater at NYU. Millburn came to one of Valerie’s first gigs with

her Valerie Vigoda Band — her father was playing piano at the

gig — and was taken by the performance he saw.

"The first time I saw Valerie play was June 9, 1994. This show

just blew me away," he says. "I saw this woman sing and play

and I knew I had to be a part of it."

"Over the course of the next year-and-a-half I completely changed

the focus of my life. Here I had spent all this time trying to learn

how to write musicals — not exactly the most lucrative career

one could choose," he says. "So in 1995 I chucked it all and

got on a plane to Amsterdam to play rock ‘n’ roll for the summer.

"I found it addictive to write a song with somebody and then get

it together with your three-piece band and play it for an audience

that night! It’s not at all like writing a musical, where you have

to go through all these people and all these different stages of the

project, finally, maybe, to get your play in an off-off-off-Broadway

theater."

While Groovelily was off and running by the fall of 1995 and playing

places in New York City like Kenny’s Castaways and CBGB’s Gallery

— two venues in lower Manhattan that still support original music

— and concentrating on the college circuit, by 1997, Vigoda was

tapped by vocalist Cyndi Lauper to join her all-woman road band.

Groovelily

managed to hold it together through this period, while Vigoda made

summer tours of the U.S., Canada, and England with Lauper’s band,

which opened for Tina Turner and Cher.

Milburn says he misses the Bay area but values the East Coast for

the fun and excitment generated by its population centers. "If

I had my druthers, I’d much rather be in San Francisco. Which is not

to say I’m unhappy here. And both Gene and Valerie have roots out

here."

"I’m still writing musical theatre projects on the side, but

things

have gotten so busy with this band, that thankfully, it’s not my bread

and butter any longer."

Although she has been recording since the mid-’90s,

Vigoda her first "big break" came just last year when

Groovelily

played at the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance Conference last year

in Texas. That in turn led to a booking at the Kerrville Folk

Festival,

a massive, 18-day Texas gathering in May which then brought them to

another prestige festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, in August.

Although her background was in classical music, Vigoda is ready to

forge new paths in other genres of music. The collection of songs

on "Little Light" is ample proof that Groovelily has something

special going on, in terms of its collective influences that are

reflected

in the trio’s original songs.

"I really don’t spend a lot of time listening to classical music

these days," she says, "I prefer listening to great

songwriters

like Jonatha Brooke and Paula Cole. I just continue to soak up as

much as I can."

"The more I play out in the pop world, the more I learn about

other types of music," she says. While she still has a certain

fondness for the classical recordings of Isaac Stern and Josh Bell,

she says her important influences would have to include folk violin

players as well as her violin maker, Mark Wood. She describes Wood’s

music as "incredible guitar-ish violin that has all the

inflections

you would associate with Jimi Hendrix."

— Richard J. Skelly

Groovelily, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian

Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1803. Valerie

Vigoda,

Brendan Milburn, and Max Langert. Opening: Ben Murray and Siobhan

Quinn. $12. Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m.


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