The Blues is a Chair, and We Don’t Care

Blues IN a chair: Branded entertainer BB King is the thickening agent in the BBQ sauce, as Ribfest comes to the corporate gazebo of the Pee ‘N See Arts Center this weekend — a weekend that further features some intriguingly affordable options to hear The Blues, whether real or imagined, in all its myriad hues.

Let us tell you ’bout The Blues. Actually, don’t listen to us — as much as we live the blues every hour of every day, we’re in no position to tell you what The Blues IS any more than the legion of po’boy-wearin’ poseurs who purport to purvey the Real Thing, three sets nitely.

All we can tell you with any certainty is what we like (anything by Howlin Wolf, older Fat Possum, newer Slim Harpo, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart…us and Jon Huntsman…plus Shore goodguy Gary Wright, who recently blew us away with a brief but astonishing set of solo folkblues right here at the historic house where we hang our hat). That and the fact that Asbury Blues is Temporarily Closed like Venice is temporarily sinking.

THAT, and the fact that John Lennon said “the blues is a chair.” Can’t argue with that.

This weekend, like so many other weekends up and down the Upper WET Side and all around the calendar, offers a shipload of opportunities to get a handle on this inscrutable commerce we call The Blues — from old-timey victrola back-porch scratch ‘n skronk, to matching jacket/union-card casino showband clam ‘n pomp. From barely-blues classic rock repositioning, to beyond-blues jam culture mixology and everything in between all those things, which, this being blues, ain’t a huge patch of turf.

What makes THIS particular weekend extra relevant is its almost cosmic confluence of events that illustrate the very State of the Blues in 2011: the tightly controlled and vetted museum-piece kind; the thinly veneered showbiz kind by which soulless suburbanites get to live with themselves one more day at premium-seating prices — and the intimate, almost underground vein that points most directly to the amazing past AND hopeful future of the form. It’s a tour that begins with a freebie festival on Saturday morning, and a kid-gloves flip of the vintage 78…

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ARCHIVE: Finding Cash in the Carousel

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The immortal Man in Black, wearing summer whites on a visit to Asbury Park in the 1980s.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 5, 2009)

When the seventh annual edition of the Garden State Film Festival gets cranking today, it’ll be the start of an ambitious three-days-and-change that spreads its sprockety stuff across the city of Asbury Park — with dozens of screenings, seminars, lectures, receptions and other offerings that run a thematic gamut from the Shores of home, to some fairly fantastic dimensions beyond.

Somewhere within Saturday’s full dance card of GSFF events will be a very special salute to a cultural icon who embraced, for a time, this salty old empress of Jersey Shore resorts. And no, it’s not Bruce Springsteen; nor is it Stephen CraneDanny DeVito, or even Bud Abbott.

The past couple of decades have visited such changes upon Asbury Park, its cast of characters and landmark structures, that it seems almost something from a dream to contemplate a time when Johnny Cash came to town, with an eye toward making a part-time home here, and a Tennessee Flat-Top Box full of visions for the future.

The facilitator in this unlikely story — an interlude about which even June Carter Cash in her memoir said, “when I try to explain it, nothing makes sense” — is Henry Vaccaro, co-founder of the Neptune-based Kramer Guitar company and a longtime Cash fan who became friends with the veteran country star after meeting him at a concert in 1973.

Vaccaro, you may recall, is also the man who briefly partnered with Michael Jackson and his siblings to bring a Jacksons theme park to the Asbury boards — a bizarre alliance that led to legal wranglings over his selling off a warehouseful of personal Jackson items a couple of years back. But, that’s another story for another documentary.

Although The Man in Black spent a limited amount of time in Asbury, something about the “ragged glory” of the seedy old resort struck a chord with the singer who later in life became fascinated with antiques and curios. The Cashes invested a quarter-million dollars with Vaccaro in the mid-1980s, in his purchase and planned refurbishing of the venerable Berkeley-Carteret Hotel (New York TV newsman Ernie Anastos was another investor). The idea being that the Berkeley, reborn as a first-class resort, banquet and conference facility, would be the centerpiece of a renaissance that extended to the nearby Convention HallParamount Theater and boardwalk businesses.

While it’s been said that Johnny and June “lived” for a time in Asbury Park, in actual fact they simply maintained a suite inside the hotel — a suite in which the couple (who kept their primary residence in Arkansas) stayed sporadically, until their involvement with the project ended in 1992.

Before that, however, the First Family of country strolled over to the nearby Paramount to play a memorable concert in the summer of 1990 — a show that finally saw release as a live recording (The Great Lost Performance) last year. Johnny, June and son John Carter Cash also played the Count Basie Theatre in the early 90s, and June was spotted more than once browsing the creaking floors of theRed Bank Antique Center in those years.

The Vaccaro partnership’s plans eventually fizzled, and the Berkeley-Carteret passed into other hands (including, for a very surreal moment, a transcendental-meditation group who planned to turn the place into an Institute of Yogic Flying). Now, with the old building once more under new ownership, effecting a slow renovation under the name The Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, GSFF founder Diane Raver assembled a program in tribute to the black-clad stranger who kept a place in his heart for the town named Asbury Park. It’s a program that’s centered around a Saturday night screening of the documentary entitled Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

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