Jim Beckerman

Andy Bernstein

Alternative Country

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This article by Katie Payne was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 18, 1999. All rights reserved.

Voodudes: Not Your Everyday Music

Have you ever heard of Y’alternative music? How about

Funk-a-billy, Creole Soul, Americana? Still doesn’t ring a bell? What

about No Depression, Swamp Punk, or Mardi Gras Groove-and-Jam? Believe

it or not, all of these terms have been used, at one time or another,

to describe the VooDudes, a five-man band from Highland Park.

That’s right, they’re from New "Joizey," not New Orleans.

Sounds strange, but speaking with Andy "B!" Bernstein, the

lead vocalist for the VooDudes, taught me a little something about

life in the Big Easy, and about five guys from New Jersey who have

come to embody a piece of New Orleans culture through their love of

the music and their knack for hamming it up onstage.

The VooDudes give one of their signature performances at a free outdoor

"Mardi Gras at the Monument" show at New Brunswick’s Monument

Square, Thursday, August 26, at 7 p.m.

The VooDudes first came together as a side project in 1989. They solidified

as a band in response to the accolades they received on the first

45 rpm record that they cut (back in the "old days," according

to Bernstein, when vinyl was still used for singles.) Each of the

"dudes" was a member in other bands at the time of their first

practice.

"A bunch of guys were fooling around and decided to record a song

that included every New Orleans cliche — both lyrically and musically,"

says Bernstein, in a deep, captivating voice of unexpected eloquence.

"We sent it to a disk jockey in New Orleans and it became the

most requested 45 in that city." The song was "Fatty Brown

Must Die," and in response to its surprisingly warm reception,

keyboardist Jim Beckerman rounded everyone up to start playing out

on the club circuit. The VooDudes hoped to make it someday to New

Orleans, "the city that care forgot."

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Jim Beckerman

That was in the winter of 1990, and while they have

made it to New Orleans and back since then, the band has also undergone

some changes, both in their music and their members. Today Beckerman

and Bernstein are the only members of that original band remaining.

The VooDudes now consist of Dave "Thump" Ambrosy (drums and

vocals), his brother, Gary Ambrosy (guitar, lap steel guitar, and

vocals), Fred Saunders (percussion), Jim Beckerman (keyboard and vocals),

and Andy "B!" Bernstein (vocals, percussion, and harmonica).

When they are not on tour, you can usually find the VooDudes at the

Old Bay Restaurant in New Brunswick, where they are the regular house

band. Their albums "I Been VooDUDE!," "Wake the Dead,"

"Night of the Living Dudes," and "Demo 1998" are available

on CD and cassette.

All the VooDudes come from rich musical backgrounds, a factor that

probably contributes to the professional demeanor in which the VooDudes

treat their music and concerts.

"We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we just take the band

seriously," says Bernstein, who has performed with show bands

throughout New Jersey, as well as in Philadelphia and New York. Beckerman

has performed for Princeton and Rutgers University audiences, and

both Dave and Gary Ambrosy have performed with established blues musicians

on the Chitlin’ circuit in the South. As a band, the VooDudes’ television

and radio appearances include MTV’s "Street Party" and "The

Morning Show with Scott and Todd." They have also rocked the stages

at numerous festivals, including the Sandy Hook Clearwater Festival,

the New Brunswick Food and Music Festival, and many more.

The VooDudes, whose music is a funky mix of country twang and lap

steel with an infectious zydeco beat, have been "possessing"

their audiences for years, but just recently began reaching a larger

sector of the music world.

Their success may be their charm, plus a captivating stage presence,

and a powerful melding of American roots music with energetic pop.

A breath of fresh air in the midst of radio bands that seem to be

Xerox copies of each other, the VooDudes aim to please their audiences

with a taste of indigenous American music.

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Andy Bernstein

"What’s the alternative to regional roots music?" asks Bernstein.

"You’re either listening to a machine making music or you’re listening

to somebody aping the same thing that you just heard on the radio."

With a resurgence of interest in American regional folk culture and

music, the VooDudes have carved out a niche for themselves in the

music scene.

Nearly 10 years after its quirky creation, the VooDudes’ first single,

"Fatty Brown Must Die," was re-released on a 1998 European

anthology entitled "New Orleans and Louisiana: French Influence

in American Music," and again, just recently, on the French recording

"Les Musique de Nouveau Orleans."

The VooDudes, who have developed a strong regional following, have

also toured the United States, and made two tours to Europe. While

their following is strongest locally, they say they always recognize

familiar, friendly faces when touring the U.S. and Europe.

While the VooDudes’ passion is their music, the five have diverse

experiences in other areas, both educationally and professionally.

Beckerman, 40, and Bernstein, 45, both graduated from Rutgers. Gary

Ambrosy, 40, attended the Chubb Institute as a computer science major,

and Dave Ambrosy, 35, trained professionally as a video producer.

But, contrary to the experience of so many bands, the group did not

take on its present form during their college years. Gary Ambrosy

and Bernstein had been playing together, on and off, for years; and

in fact it was Gary’s younger brother, Dave, who was the first of

the Ambrosys to join the VooDudes.

As it happened, Beckerman and Bernstein were playing at a Red Cross

Flood Relief Benefit concert in 1993 where they performed with Dave

Ambrosy. Knowing that they were soon going to be in need of a drummer

for the VooDudes, Bernstein and Beckerman recruited Dave Ambrosy.

In 1995 Dave brought his brother into the band.

When it comes to influences, the VooDudes’ list could go on into next

week, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to old blues musicians such as the

legendary Robert Johnson, but each member was also influenced by their

families.

"My father had a tremendous record collection, old 78s of jazz,

blues, and American folk music," says Bernstein, "and that’s

what got me into this music and gave me an open mind for a kind of

music that you didn’t hear every day growing up in New Jersey."

Andy Bernstein’s parents were both children of immigrants. His father’s

father, born in Warsaw when it was part of the Russian Empire, was

a tailor. His mother came from a family of musicians in the Austro-Hungarian

empire who emigrated directly to New Brunswick. "So what else

could a Bernstein be? Either a musician or a tailor," says Bernstein,

with a basso chuckle.

Bernstein’s father, a graduate of Kings Point Naval

Academy, Long Island, spent the first part of his career as a naval

officer, in service for 10 years out of the Houston Naval Yard. This

was where he was immersed in American roots music and built his record

collection. He eventually became a microbiologist and professor at

Rutgers. "My mother was a school teacher and librarian," says

Andy, "and that definitely gave me an advantage. She was so open-minded

about new experiences." Berstein’s colleague Beckerman, also encouraged

by his family, began playing piano at a young age and has been playing

ever since.

And it hasn’t always been easy. The VooDudes, who successfully combine

every musical genre from zydeco and gospel to funk and Southern folk,

are hard to classify.

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Alternative Country

"At last year’s Crazy Crawfish Festival in Fort Lauderdale they

put us on what they called the `Alternative Country’ stage. The first

thing I thought to myself was `What the hell is alternative country?

What kind of people are going to come here?’ And it was one of the

best audiences that we ever played for. Their ages spanned three generations,

and they were hip to whatever we were doing," says the enthusiastic

Bernstein.

The VooDudes seem to be constantly surprised by their audiences, who

are highly receptive to the band’s experimental combination of musical

genres, and Bernstein’s captivating baritone voice. In fact, "Jim

[Beckerman] always says that he thought we would get down there [New

Orleans] and they would treat us like a bunch of Yankee posers. What’s

funny now is that people really think we’re from down there,"

says Bernstein.

While the VooDudes have come a long way since the first chord they

struck back in 1989, the band still works diligently to achieve its

goals. They would like to get out on the road and begin touring full-time,

and the band also has hopes of getting signed with a record label

that focuses on American folk and regional roots music.

"If you can get a small label deal that has national marketing,

there are a number of big booking houses that handle American roots

music. Right now we do everything ourselves," says Bernstein.

But that hasn’t slowed down the VooDudes, who are currently working

on a new CD, while their last studio effort, "Wake the Dead,"

is in its fourth printing.

Coming soon, the group’s fourth album, currently in production, under

the working title "Straight Jacket Rodeo" in memory of the

now-closed Marlboro Asylum. "When we were growing up, our parents

said we’d all end up there if we kept playing this kinda music,"

says Bernstein. "But since we’ve outlasted the intitution, we’re

having a few chuckles at its expense."

— Katie Payne

The VooDudes, City Market Summer Series, Monument Square,

Livingston Avenue and George Street, New Brunswick, 732-249-5892.

Free "Mardi Gras at the Monument" for all ages. Thursday,

August 26, 7 p.m.

For more information, or to join the VooDudes’ mailing list,

visit http://www.bike.princeton.edu/voodude/; or write

to VooDudes, Box 1413, Highland Park, 08904-1413.


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