Sounds of the city (or at least the sounds of my neighborhood of small houses, apartments, retail stores, and restaurants on the edge of Princeton’s central business district):
The rumbling begins off to the east at around 5 a.m., and turns into a clank as it passes under my window 30 feet away. At 5:40 it rumbles and clanks back in the other direction. It’s the street cleaning machine, of course, which on many mornings heralds the new day in my neighborhood, where we have the cleanest streets in the state.
At 7 a.m. sharp the garbage truck comes up the street to empty the dumpster behind Sovereign Bank. The massive vehicle roars up to the parking lot entrance with a pounding percussion, fails to get through the narrow passage on the first attack, and then shifts into reverse to improve its angle. With that maneuver, of course, the roar is punctuated by the beeping alarm of a truck in reverse — it’s the triangle accenting the bass drum. For most of us in the neighborhood it’s a wonderful alarm clock. Only my two teenage boys, sleeping 10 feet away from the backed-up truck, manage to sleep through it.
That’s the morning symphony. But at night it’s another, more rewarding show. On Fridays in the summer, if you stand outside my house and listen carefully, you can hear the faint sounds of music wafting down from Nassau Street. Is that “American Pie” I hear? Or “The Boxer?” Yes, it is. And that would be a one-man band, a singer and songwriter named Briz performing on acoustic guitar and harmonica in the courtyard outside Thomas Sweet Ice Cream.
Head a few blocks to the east, toward New York, and you come to Nassau Street’s restaurant alley. And there at the Blue Point Grill, tucked neatly into the space between the curb and the sidewalk, a jazz quartet — bass, sax, drums, and guitar — known as the 6th Street Quarterion holds forth every Saturday night, weather permitting. It’s a free concert for diners waiting for a table at the seafood restaurant and for passersby.
Head back into town, and walk a block down Witherspoon Street to Hulfish, and you come to a sliver of land between a parking garage and the outdoor seating area next to Halo Pub, another dessert destination. On Saturday nights, weather permitting, you will find that sliver of land occupied by musicians, as well. This Saturday, July 14, it’s Irish and folk, with Bill O’Neal and Joe Kramer.
So who says they don’t have live music anymore? Yes, I know about the concerts on the Palmer Square green in front of the Nassau Inn on Saturday afternoons, and the Princeton Shopping Center concerts on Thursday nights, and the lunchtime concerts at the Carnegie Center on Wednesdays and Thursdays at lunchtime.
But this is different: Accomplished musicians — guys actually making a living at it — showing up in odd places where you would not expect them. It’s a lesson of the new urbanism: Put enough people together in a small space and someone is going to figure out how to have fun.
David Conard earned the nickname “Briz” as a kid growing up in Hopewell. Now 54, Briz has given up his career in food services to toil fulltime as a musician. He plays at Thomas Sweet most Saturday nights and some Sunday afternoons, and he also performs Thursday evenings at the Stockton Inn. It helps that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music — Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young are among his influences. And he is also smart to write his own stuff, including a musical interpretation of slavery and the civil rights movement that he performs at libraries and schools (www.brizsongs.com).
At Thomas Sweet Briz plays nonstop from 7 to 10 p.m. That’s a reflection of his food service experience. “I know I’m here to keep the customers around,” he says, looking out at a crowd that has filled all the nearby tables and taken over the lawn chairs in front of 185 Nassau Street, as well.
Art Stephano, the bass and spokesman for the 11-year-old Sixth Street Quaternion (www.6stq.com), moved from the Philadelphia area to Hightstown around four years ago, so his wife would have an easier commute to her job with an ad agency in New York. He searched the Internet looking for restaurants that might want to book the quartet.
When he called Blue Point Grill the manager made the obvious point that the restaurant didn’t need musicians to draw more customers — the place was already filled to the gills. But, he and Stephano both mused, perhaps some live music might calm the diners during their long wait.
The 6th Street Quarterion is now in its fourth season at Blue Point. The season is supposed to end in September, but if a warm spell carries into a Saturday in October or later you might find the group back on the sidewalk.
The owners of Halo Pub on Hulfish were in a situation similar to Blue Point Grill: Plenty of customers on a Saturday night but a feeling that they deserved a little something extra for their time. That led to booking a series of musicians — who provide an unexpected sound in an unexpected setting from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
The street music ends fairly early in my neighborhood. The next gig belongs to that street cleaner.