‘Down in the basement, that’s where it’s at” refrains the lyrics of the song “In the Basement” popularized by the New Jersey Ben Vaughn Combo.
Although the combo sang the words at the famed City Gardens on Calhoun Street in the mid 1980s, the song is appropriate for a another Trenton destination: the basement of Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, on the corner of South Broad and Market streets.
The basement is an established Trenton music venue and for the past decade has served as a stop off for regional, national, and even international independent or underground rock musicians. The space attracts a steady group of regulars and locals attending the growing downtown events such as the Punk Rock Flea Market and the Pork Roll Festival.
Greg Kline, 32, who books shows and tends bar at Joe’s, explains it all. “I cater to touring bands and set up shows around them. It’s just getting better and better. Bookings have picked up in the last two years. We’re getting national and international bands. I like to do everything, but it is a lot of punk bands, hardcore bands, and a lot of hip hop groups,” says the Lawrence Township native who has lived in Trenton for the last 10 years. He adds that Raymond Strife and Dean Durbin (aka D Durbs) “book a lot of the hip hop shows” — more on them later.
The life style is different from his background: his father works for the IRS and his mother takes care of his younger brother and a sister who is old enough to know about the basement at Joe’s, but who, Kline says, has yet to wade in.
“We get a pretty steady crowd, definitely for the hip hop and punk shows. We just had the Night Birds in there. It was one of the wilder shows in a long time,” says Kline.
That is saying something, considering that Kline mentions an outfit called “the Murder Junkies” that appeared in the basement. That New York City group once featured a lead singer whose final throes of dissolution can be seen on YouTube (along with a funeral and activities that do not technically qualify as corpse abuse). In Trenton, the buzz lingers about their drummer’s allegedly nude performance and exploration of body cavities with a less well-known drumming device.
The members of another visiting group, the Night Birds, by comparison, are model citizens. Punk Rock has never been a G-rated musical genre, but the Night Birds, which formed with musicians from the New York and New Jersey areas, are purveyors of muscular punk rock music that is uplifting by comparison to the Murder Junkies.
Kline and David Locane, who also books groups at Joe’s, says the basement also hosts showings of films that are unlikely to be offered on Netflix or at the local AMC theater, such as “Filmage,” the story of the mercurial 1970s Los Angeles punk band, the Descendants.
Locane — who grew up in Trenton, married last year, and now lives in Ewingville — says “Filmage” was shown on the 100-inch screen at Joe’s. “We were the second showing in New Jersey,” he says. “It was a great movie, really well done. We definitely have a lot of things that you would normally have to go to New York or Philly to see. It’s a pretty unique experience.”
“There’s a variety,” Locane says of the presentations. “It all depends what is going on that night. A long time ago we catered to the art crowd. Now we attract music lovers and craft beer lovers.”
The listing of craft beers at Joe’s is also respectable, especially for those who may subscribe to “Beer Advocate” magazine. Situated as it always has been across south Broad Street from the county courthouse, Joe’s also offers a lunchtime menu of grilled dishes that are guaranteed to appeal to the tassel-loafered crowd. But at night, local DJs regularly spin the latest in the basement.
Locane says admission for bands is kept reasonable at $5 to $6. Murder Junkies cost $10 for the privilege. “We try to keep it as cheap as possible,” Locane says. “Whatever we charge at the door is exactly what we need to pay the band. I’m confident saying we are a rare breed in doing that. We started doing live music there about 12 years ago. Slowly but surely it has come together.”
The coordinators are not that easy to pin down, but they leave a social media and webpage trail. The above mentioned Strife, one learns with some keyboard clicks, uses a stage last name, use to play in punk bands “until the iPod was invented and replaced musicians,” reads a lot of comics, and boasts of being more sexually active than other similar characters.
In an online interview the Lawrenceville-native and now Trenton resident says he got his band name from Cloud Strife, in the role playing computer game Final Fantasy 7. Influenced by Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre, Strife says that he has “been in a bunch of bands, most notably Crack Filler, but they just kept falling apart, and I was always rapping too. So, I decided to stop relying on other people and just do my solo shit.” A revealing comment is “I actually don’t hate myself as much as it seems from my music.”
Nicholas Richard, a Lansing, Michigan, hip hop blogger, writes that Strife’s 2013 recording “I’m Sorry, I’m Broken” is “my favorite hip hop album of the year, hands down. This is lovely stuff . . . self loathing with a wink, self aggrandizing references to being a drunken comic book nerd. Ray’s got all of his contradictions; an ambitious pizza delivery driver, a talented drunk, a hardass punk with anti-racist anti-homophobic anthems. It all stews together into a fine paste of tasty songs.”
Durbin, raised in Hamilton but now living in Burlington, produces through Ill Villain promotions, a company “specializing in getting what you need done!” He uses Durbin for comedy productions but for hip hop uses Durbs, which — intentional or not — has slang connotations for oral sex.
Though Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon has a long history of jazz presentations and featured some of the mainstays of the Trenton jazz scene, it’s clear that the current configuration of a newer set is generating a scene of its own in the basement — where it does seem to be where it’s at.
Mill Hill Basement at Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, 300 South Broad Street, Trenton. For more information, go to the Millhill Basement Facebook page, Reverbnation at www.reverbnation.com/venue/millhillbasement, or call 609-989-1600.
Neshaminy Creek Brewing presents the bands Restorations (from Philadelphia), Banquets (Jersey City), and Aspiga (Collingswood), Friday, September 5, 9 p.m.
The Fifth “Banging in the Basement” event, with D.I. Okside, Rob Carney (central New Jersey), Biz Mighty (Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania), Miles, the Electro Organic Refuse Orchestra, and host Fats Da Don (Hightstown), Saturday, September 13, 10 p.m.,
You Vandal (Gainesville, Florida), Friday, September 19, 9 p.m.
Gameday Regulars (Bronx, New York), Wednesday, September 24, 7 p.m.
Not The Bees (Union, New Jersey), Friday, September 26, 9 p.m.
Altercation Punk Comedy Tour with underground comics Jay Whitecotton (San Antonio, Texas), Junior Stopka (Chicago), Joe Staats (Austin, Texas), Kristen Becker (Buffalo, New York), Nick Lavallee (Manchester, New Hampshire), and more, Saturday, October 18, 9 p.m.
Dan Aubrey contributed reporting.