‘This is a community,” says “Nasty Ned” Petti, who organizes the American Roots Showcase of musicians and bands who perform Wednesday nights at Rhythms of the Night at JP’s Steakhouse in Manville, just a 25-minute drive up Route 206 from Princeton. The spacious venue looks as if it can easily fit 600 people, but on a recent cold Wednesday night in November, perhaps 40 people were scattered around, sitting at tables and paying attention to what was going on on stage. There are televisions, but they’re at the far back of the room and they’re not on.
Petti, a Middlesex borough native, is best known throughout central New Jersey as the singer, harmonica player, and front man for the bands the Conqueroos, Nasty Ned and the Famous Chili Dogs, and lately, the New Conqueroos. Like a lot of people who have been on the Garden State’s music club scene for years, Nasty Ned — he prefers we refer to him like this with no last name “beause it takes away from my brand identity” — misses the glory years. Short of a state-mandated program to subsidize taxi companies for club patrons, he sees little hope of its ever recapturing its former glory, since the most densely crowded state in the union was at the forefront of the subsequent national drink ‘n’ drive crackdown.
“The impetus behind this whole ‘American Roots Live’ series was a combination of things,” Ned tells this reporter on a recent Wednesday night at Rhythms of the Night. “One was the changing climate of the live music environment, and what I saw then, and others agree with me now, as a need to turn on youngsters to where their music comes from.”
Ned serves as the showcase’s emcee each week, introducing a variety of musicians — including newcomers as well as old veterans like Tommy Fuller of Bound Brook and Plainfield Slim (Gar Francis) of North Plainfield, and Joe Cerisano of Warren Township. American Roots Live began four years ago at a small club in Bound Brook, which closed last year, called the Rail, next to the Bound Brook train station.
“It’s slipping so far into the past now, that coupled with the need for more live music venues, we want to try and revive some of that old spirit that existed on the scene in the 1960s and ’70s,” Ned says. “When I came of age in the ’70s, you could go out any night of the week and not have to drive very far to hear some good live music. So we’re happy to have this venue where we can meet each week and play and celebrate American roots music.”
By American roots music, Ned means everything from singer-songwriters with message songs to classic rock ‘n’ roll bands and the occasional country band to the kind of down home, modern roadhouse blues that Ned himself plays with his band, Nasty Ned and the New Conqueroos. “Live music venues are shutting down left and right,” he says, noting the latest casualty is the Blue Tone Cafe in Easton, PA, as well as the Rail in Bound Brook. Orphan Annie’s, a comfortable club in Stirling, was slated to close in May of this year, and at that point, Ned moved his American Roots Live showcase to Rhythms of the Night.
“I call it an equal opportunity celebration of American roots music in that anyone can come in and get on stage,” he says. Most Wednesdays are filled with veteran performers like Fuller, Francis, and Cerisano, who works with the Trans Siberian Orchestra, but there’s also room for newcomers. The November night I was there, a trio of siblings, Sweeter Than Honey, performed. Consisting of two brothers, 12 and 14, and a sister, 16, the Rios family comes down to Rhythms of the Night to perform once a month or so.
A dwindling number of live venues for performers to showcase their new works and diminishing crowds are all part of the same overall problem, Nasty Ned argues. “It seems to be inherent in our new overall climate, because back in the heyday of live music, the police were a little more tolerant. Now it’s a whole combination of things, where live music is now competing with Internet, home videos, and upwards of 10 24-hour news channels, and even movies at home on demand,” he says.
For a veteran musician and songwriter like Tommy Fuller of Bound Brook, who has opened shows for Bruce Springsteen and U2, and collaborated with Frankie Previte (who wrote the hit soundtrack for “Dirty Dancing”), the American Roots Live showcase offers him a chance to try out new songs in front of a live audience. “This gives me a chance to try new material and get back to myself,” Fuller says, “because there’s a certain freedom here where I can play whatever I want and jam with people who I respect. It doesn’t matter how large or small the crowd is, there’s a bunch of great musicians here each week, and since I’m a part of it, I feel good about it.
“I’ve seen it packed and I’ve seen it when there’s very few people here,” Fuller continues. “If there are four people in here, I’m still going to play as well as I possibly can.” Fuller, like Nasty Ned, is in his early 50s and he too misses the glory days of the Garden State’s once-vibrant music club scene.
Vocalist Joe Cerisano of Warren Township was in a band called Silver Condor in the 1980s and had a deal with Columbia Records before he and his bandmates were dropped by the label. He found success singing television jingles for G.E., Sprite, Miller beer, and the U.S. Navy in the 1990s. He has played theaters and he has performed at Madison Square Garden, but it was the jingle work that allowed him some measure of financial success so that he could put more time into writing his own songs.
“I was the top cat [in the jingle world] for a while, and I got embarrassed I was doing so much work,” he says, “but it allowed me to buy a house in Warren. I like this showcase because I get to try out my new songs and see how they work.”
Ned has taken all he has learned about marketing and promotion and the Iinternet to make American Roots Live a success. “The showcase sort of grew up with the MySpace page, so the cyber community helped the physical community to grow, and it all led to better turnouts of patrons and musicians at this venue,” he says.
Music begins around 8 p.m. each Wednesday. Sets are about 30 minutes in length. J.R. Bradfield, Ned’s right-hand man, helps set up and take down the sound system at the club’s spacious stage, and food is available all night because Rhythms of the Night is part of JP’s Steakhouse. Manville Music donates the sound system for the weekly showcase.
“As opposed to an open mic night, we like to think of it as a live music showcase and super jam,” Ned says. “We encourage people to come and sign up to play by becoming friends on our MySpace page. Newcomers can shoot me an E-mail with a sample track of their music or refer me to their Myspace page.”
Earlier this year, partnering with Ben Elliott at Showplace Studios in Dover and another partner, Stephen A. Schiff, Ned released two recordings, “American Roots Live with Nasty Ned,” Volumes 1 and 2. Performers who have taken part in the Wednesday night showcase include Christine Martucci, Aster Pheonyx, John Powers, Honeyboy Dupree, Plainfield Slim, Paris James, Corey Small, and Nasty Ned himself. Both CDs feature 16 tracks and sell for $10 at Rhythms of the Night and on www.myspace.com/americanroots.
“As far as the recordings go, we’re all over the Internet and we’re at every download site there is,” Ned says. “A CD has become a souvenir of a live show, and now with everything being put onto people’s iPods, we’re kind of a throwback: each album comes complete with liner notes and all of the session information is listed for each track, so you can find out who’s playing drums on what track. All of that information is lost in this modern realm.”
American Roots Live Rhythms of the Night at JP’s Steakhouse, 729 South Main Street, Manville. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. No cover charge. 908-707- 8757 or www.americanshowplacemusic.com or www.myspace.com/americanroots.