Safe and Sound: How Live Music is Flourishing on a Small Scale (for now)

Ed. Note – this private, socially distanced event in Central New Jersey is an example of how small scale live music can be done safely, for now. The property owner shares his experience putting together a second private event for a small crowd of friends, featuring Dogs in a Pile and Black Dog.

People like to gather. It’s part of the human condition, ingrained in the very core of our existence as social animals. Not to minimize death, sickness, financial devastation and/or uncertainty, but being unable to check the boxes next to our social desires has been perhaps the hardest part of these last five pandemic ridden months. As such, along with our inability to congregate, we’ve also, for the most part, sacrificed live music, comedy, theater, et al. This isn’t a piece about the pandemic, but it does point to the creativity and passion that have inspired whatever few events have sprung up in recent history. 

I’ll switch to the first person now as I acknowledge the fire that has been burning in my belly, sparked by love and passion for live music and all that surrounds it, that has been the catalyst for a series of music festivals in my backyard. As I mourned the loss of live events (and the tangential camaraderie that is livemusic’s partner in crime), my brain was firing synapses that unleashed a business acumen and creativity that I didn’t know I possessed. Music unites in a way that little — dare I say, nothing — else, can or does. Share a show with a new friend and on the basis of that shared experience, you’ve got a friend for life. I missed that, so I set out to create it on my own. Enter #Marckomitoville. And, for what it’s worth, a host of new friends.

This past Saturday was the second of three (or more??? —  #mywifesasaint) such events, an unintentional double bill of canine goodness, with Dogs In a Pile and Black Dog, an up and coming jam band and a seasoned Led Zeppelin tribute act, respectively. In full confession mode, Black Dog was an easy hire as their lead singer and I teach in the same high school, I’ve seen them numerous times, and am intimately familiar with how accurately they honor the best catalog in rock and roll history.  Dogs In A Pile, on the other hand, was hired sight unseen (note unheard???) based on a direct message recommendation delivered via Instagram with the uncanniest of timing. I listened to about fifteen seconds of their stuff before reaching out to ask if they’d like to play a party in my backyard. Just to round out a nice small world story, their booking manager and I hit off, he having graduated from the same high school where Black Dog’s lead singer and I both teach. I explained what I was trying to do with social distance gatherings and live music and he, in turn, promised that Dogs In A Pile would “vaporize my backyard.” ‘Nuff said. Contract signed.

TL;DR: Hiroshima.

Dogs In A Pile

The day finally arrived and, with a trailer full of equipment and a mini-entourage taboot, so did Dogs In A Pile. I have to say this right up front (while also reserving the right to come back and repeat it every few paragraphs), these are good humans. Every person associated with Dogs is utterly kind and professional to a fault; the band, the crew, their families and friends, these are A+ folks and I’m so grateful for the friendships that were born this past weekend. Their equipment was a force all its own and there were times I couldn’t believe I was in my own backyard and not the Stone Pony Summer Stage. That being said, they forgot their rug (comfort first) and were about to drive home and back to get it. Fear you not, marckomitoville provides, so as my wife and I were literally days from replacing our bedroom rug, we saved them the trip and all the day’s sets were played from the comfort of the shag that was under our bed literally just moments before. 

This is a jam band, make no mistake about it, and let’s cut the bullshit right now if there are any negative connotations associated with that moniker. Jam bands improvise and listen to each other as they play, revamping their organized structures on the fly and adapting not just to each other but the crowd and its vibe. But just as obvious as their jam band status is the classical training and musical education of these (three of five, actually) Berklee schooled musicians, their propensity for jazz on display just as much as the other musical influences for whom we share a love. On a related topic, let’s recognize the good parenting that made the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and Phish part of these kids’ musical DNA and enabled them to effortlessly dangle teases and covers throughout their set, a display that spoke volumes about the musical homes in which they were raised. Speaking of which, enjoying this show alongside a couple of their dads was pretty damn cool, the musical version of a soccer sideline full of proud parents.

Jimmy Law, lead guitar and vocals, is the front man that every band needs. A local wunderkind, he’s the face of the band and with damn good reason. Though humble to a fault, he’s got it and plays with the confidence of someone who knows it. While it’s hard to take your eyes off Jimmy, let that not detract from the rest of this highly talented quintet. Stage right from Jimmy is guitarist and singer Brian Murray, probably the first member of the band to be overlooked, even if the Phred (Languedoc replica) that he plays is hard to miss. I implore you to give this kid the attention he deserves — Bob Weir stood next to Jerry Garcia his whole life, no easy task I’m sure, but he did it with grace and humility and along the way became the best number two of all time (don’t get caught up in the loftiness of the metaphor, just take it for what it is).

Sam Lucid, bass and vocals, stands stage left. His bass is funk and jazz in turn, exactly what I’d expect from a guy who lists Jaco Pastorius among his biggest influences. Joe Babick, drums, himself a four-year veteran of the Count Basie program for gifted young musicians, is a seasoned performer playing live shows since he’s nine years old  — the rhythm section of he and Sam is a force to be reckoned with. I’m a teacher and a father so, as you know, I have no favorites. With that being said, allow me to introduce Jeremy Kaplan, keyboards, playing a red Nord with his right hand and a Hammond XK-3 that’s a dead ringer for the B3 with his left. Enrolled at Berklee on a scholarship from the Piano Man himself, Jeremy blew my mind time and again and again and again. And again. And then some more. Jazz, funk, rock, he checks all the boxes, not to mention running the band’s sound while he plays. Bravo, sir!

Saving the best for last, the love that these kids (the oldest among them is twenty-two) have for each other and the music they play is tangible. Having had a chance to chat and hang and spend the day with them (and hoping they read this!), I’m reminded of a quote I just read from (Sir) Joe Russo, “Ninety-eight percent of being in a band is hanging out, not playing.” I hope they continue to love and accept each other and weather the storm that is this global pandemic, because people need to see them. To a man, they had as much fun playing for me as I did listening and dancing with them. If you know me, that’s saying a lot. I shared every ounce of myself with them and they gave it all right back and then some. All the love.  

Perhaps taking a cue from the bestselling book How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dogs In A Pile opened their first set with a cover of Phish’s “Free.” Just as I was thinking that they certainly nailed the formula to win over a crowd of Phish loving Deadheads, a buddy shouted from the pool, “They had me at hello.” No truer words had been spoken and they applied equally to all in attendance, from my dog Charlie (who had two songs played in her honor) to my sixty-nine year-old mother who doesn’t even like music.

In a set that, for the most part, alternated original material with well chosen covers, “Look Johnny” gave us the first taste of the Dogs catalog. Having already put them in a jam band box myself, I was so impressed with the range showcased by their originals … jazzy intros to rock and roll songs within psychedelic frameworks and funky-ass rhythms. They move in and out of genres and structures with an ease that not only illustrates the cohesion of their unit, but creates its own synergy from the roots of their varied influences. They’re a jam band to be sure, although that classification limits the scope of what they truly offer.

As DIAP were perhaps still feeling out their audience’s collective appetite for their originals, the Rascal’s pop hit that became a Grateful Dead staple, “Good Lovin’”  was a safe choice for the three-hole. Their interpretation of these songs does them great service and dancing to Dead tunes is a tried and true formula. However, even in the early going, I just found the band to take more chances and showcase more of their musicality with their original work. 

As if reading my mind, a friend yelled, “More originals” from the pool at that very moment. As such, “Blues for Brian” with its seriously sexy bass lines and “I Can’t Wait For Tonight” followed. I do love the covers, too, though — they are, after all, the soundtrack to my life. So even as our collective yen for more originals deepened, I was thrilled with the jubilant “The Music Never Stopped” that followed. Two more originals, “Snow Day” and “Go Set” preceded the set closing cover of “Mr. Charlie”, the first of two songs with my dog’s name in the title. Coincidence??? I think not.

“Rinky Dink Rag” opened the second set, a Nord-heavy tune that really foresaw the keyboard mastery that Jeremy Kaplan put on display for the duration. The name of the song kind of tells exactly what it sounded like, maybe except for the fake sneezes, “Bless you, Brians”, and “Thank you, Jeremys” that showed the bands’ propensity for silliness. Endearing in the very best way, I couldn’t help but think of a young Page McConnell and his silly little VT quartet as Jeremy tickled the black and whites. An original-ish cover of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” that really let that Hammon XK-3 shine melded with a Charlie Brown jam called “Linus and Lucy” that had shadows of the Allman Brother’s “Jessica”.

Hot damn that was some fun stuff! “Thomas Duncan Part 2” followed with teases of both “Shakedown St.” and “Character Zero” before segueing into “Bugle On the Shelf”, another Dogs original, though I was really hoping for the prequel to Thomas Duncan, ya know, Part 1. {I have no clue if this really exists but it was funny when I thought it since I have no clue what their catalog looks like!} “Untitled Bathroom Break for Sam” gave a little more insight into the fun that these guys have just being on stage together just as it showed their ability to keep it light and loose while playing. “Craig & Pat” was the penultimate number before the band thanked my poor wife for letting them play at our house and dedicated the final song to my dog, both named, “Charlie”. It was her birthday party, after all, as turend five {I remember holding her in one hand} the previous day. 

Seven songs and an untitled improv filled the ninety minute set, the band never once straying or losing a danceable beat. To that end, it’s worth noting that I danced 23,571 steps, the rough equivalent of between 11.134 – 12.221 miles depending on the stride length of a six-foot male. I think everyone present can attest to every one of those, just as I’m thankful for the Moon Mat™ that saved me from feeling each one as I write this two days later (I only feel a third of them).

I truly believe that in a few years time, those of us here will look back on this afternoon and laugh at the “remember when” of seeing this incredibly tight and talented band in my backyard. Prove me wrong.

Andrew Rich

Music and comedy are a match made in heaven. I first experienced this magical pairing with Yo La Tengo and their annual Eight Nights of Hannukah at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, so in that spirit, Andrew Rich was called upon to perform standup between sets. Truth be told, he called upon me but who’s counting? An idea born when a close friend jokingly asked if a big promoter like me (tongue in cheek, I hope) would give a comic a chance to perform, Andy Rich gave a great set with his first live performance in five months. Tres cool, well done, and thanks for the laughs. 

Black Dog

I love watching musicians watch other musicians. There’s something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on but just makes me really happy. Watching Black Dog arrive and seeing them take in their younger canine predecessors was a sight to behold. With lines of joy etched into their faces, it was easy to see their appreciation for the younger generation of talent. Equally enjoyable was the reverse, as Dogs In A Pile all stuck around for the master class in Led Zeppelin that is Black Dog. 

Enjoying a run of great success over the months leading up to the pandemic, Black Dog was arguably at the high point of a long and successful career, recently playing on hallowed stages from Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre to the Fillmore Philly. A veteran tribute band, their homage to Led Zeppelin is authentic and awe inspiring. Getting your live Zep fix is no easy task, especially now, and I’m blessed to call these guys friends, even more so to have had them crush my backyard. Rob Malave, with an uncanny ability to match Robert Plant’s pitch, sings and plays harmonica as the band’s front man.

A coworker of mine who teaches language arts in high school english, I’d love to sit in his class and see him dig into Beowulf. Dan Toto, guitarist, honors Jimmy Page with his play, his look, and his impressive guitar rack. Whoa. Jeff Mott, a la John Paul Jones, plays bass, keyboards, mandolin, and 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars. Ted Gori, drums, has the difficult task of rising to the challenge of Bonzo’s beats and fills, and he makes it look easy. Christ, he even had a gong which drew the occasional ire of his elbow. These are skilled and practiced musicians, channeling the skill and catalog of their musical heroes with aplomb. 

Playing a setlist straight out of my dreams (no, really, I kind of wrote it with the help of a good friend), they gave us two hours of the very best. Picking up on cues from the crowd response to the previous Dogs, they knew they had the audience to take a few tunes deep and they really went for it with “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Lemon Song” being perhaps my two favorite tunes that they took the furthest. Black Dog really gave their all in addition to giving us a little bit of everything, from the keyboard songs to the acoustics and everything in between. The acoustic set was perfectly placed, the peaks and valleys expertly coordinated, and these pro’s pros took us on an almost two and a half hour ride through rock and roll’s finest playbook. Whoop.

As stated up front, music unites in a way like nothing else. I am truly humbled by the opportunity to have brought such good people together for an insanely fun (and safe!) time. Thanks for everything … dancing, singing, laughing, playing, eating, swimming, sharing in the joy, and reading these words. Thanks for being you! My heart is full. 

Finally, for the woman who allows it all to happen, thank you, Diana! I love you. #mywifesasaint

44,942 steps. Whoop!

Dogs In A Pile

Set One: Free, Look Johnny*, Good Lovin’, Blues For Brian*, I Can’t Wait For Tonight*, The Music Never Stopped, Snow Day*, Go Set*, Mr. Charlie 

Set Two: Rinky Dink Rag*, Boogie On Reggae Woman >Linus and Lucy, Thomas Duncan Part 2, Bugle On The Shelf, Untitled (bathroom break song for Sam), Craig & Pat, Charlie

Black Dog

Rock & Roll ->, Good Times, Wanton Song ->, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Over the Hills and Far Away -> Gallows Pole -> Ramble On, Going to California, That’s The Way, Back Country, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, Kashmir, Dazed & Confused, Immigrant Song, Lemon Song, The Ocean, Black Dog

black dogdogs in a pilemarckomitovillenew jersey