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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the October 31,
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
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
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
a cell phone interview while she and her husband were making their
way in the van to a radio station interview in Bethlehem,
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
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
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
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
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
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
"It allowed for much more collaborating between me and
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
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.
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
"I’m still writing musical theatre projects on the side, but
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
played at the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance Conference last year
in Texas. That in turn led to a booking at the Kerrville Folk
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
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
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
you would associate with Jimi Hendrix."
— Richard J. Skelly
Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1803. Valerie
Brendan Milburn, and Max Langert. Opening: Ben Murray and Siobhan
Quinn. $12. Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m.
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