(ASBURY PARK, NJ) -- "This will be our last Night In Progress for a while," explained Rick Barry, the host of the popular monthly series at The Saint in Asbury Park. "Some people don't know this, but I was recently diagnosed with laziness and can't come up with new songs each month."
Of course Rick was kidding. There are very few songwriters around that can consistently create a brilliant song out of nothing and in no time flat. In fact, that was one of the inspirations behind the Night In Progress series. Rick took on a dare from Scott Stamper (owner of The Saint) to do a show completely full of new songs. Scott knew Rick could do it and he knew it would be good for Rick as well. What few people knew at the time was just how well received the concept of debuting brand new material in front of an audience would be received by other artists. The truth is it seemed to liberate them - like with tonight's first artist - Rob Dye.
Rob Dye was an inspired choice for Night In Progress. After finally releasing his first record upon playing out for so many years, it was interesting to hear the songs that either didn't make the record or were written since the disc came out.
"That's actually the first time I've ever played that song. This is a good idea, Rick,” said Rob Dye after debuting one of his tunes. A bit later he added, "It's kind of scary up here. Think I'll go back to my comfort zone and play something from the CD," and then proceeded to play "Cars, Trucks and Buses" during a set that mixed several unreleased tunes with a couple from his record.
Given the opportunity (and the excuse) to showcase brand new work has led to the creation of many songs that artists will be recording and releasing in the near future. From that angle alone the series has been an unquestionable success. The series has also introduced many artists - including some touring artists from outside the tri-state area - to The Saint and a crowd hungry for original music. Unfortunately, all monthly shows eventually need a little time to recoup their original spirit and energy and Night In Progress is no different. According to Rick, the show will probably return sometime in early 2010.
The biggest surprise of the night for me had to be seeing Justina who followed Rob Dye. Long a favorite of Sonny's from Espresso Joes, I have to admit I didn't even recognize her when she got on stage. The last time I saw her she had somewhat long brown hair while her current look contains short blonde hair. I actually had to ask Scott if that was the same Justina from several years ago because her appearance wasn't the only thing that had changed over the years; her entire stage presence is different. When Sonny first played me Justina's record, I liked the songs but was under whelmed whenever I saw her perform live. She seemed too quiet, too solemn in front of an audience. It was almost as though she just wasn't having any fun as a performer.
I'll never forget this one show at SICA in Long Branch that took place sometime in 2005. The show was billed as "Revenge of the Brunettes" and featured April Smith along with two young, upcoming artists - Jessie Poland and Justina. April was getting airplay on several radio stations and was starting to break; she was clearly on her way. Jessie Poland was already a veteran of teen magazines and had such an amazing outward personality that you could tell she would be a star someday (and currently is with the band Charlotte Sometimes). Meanwhile, Justina was the odd one out. At that moment in time - sandwiched between two rising stars - I felt she was either missing something or had something holding her back. I thought she would remain a good artist capable of writing nice songs, but one that would fail to connect with an audience.
So, imagine my surprise when I see her a few years later as this amazingly confident, bubbly artist? Tonight at the Saint, Justina was loose and funny on stage. More importantly, she looked like she was finally comfortable and actually having fun. When you combine all of those things along with good songwriting, you have an artist that just might fulfill the promise she showed to people like Sonny. She's definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Rick Barry took over after Justina and played a bunch of songs that all made their debut at one time or another during the series run. "Works in Progress" still amazes me every time with its simple bare-bones honesty and comparison of the local music scene with the rebuilding of Asbury Park. It's a shame this song didn't make his last record.
"Annie's Sing-A-Long Song" was a tune that Rick first played at the Night In Progress show held in Hoboken. This is another classic Rick Barry song with lyrical lines that rival Elvis Costello during the late 70s. "And it just might be the drugs, but you don't know which one you love more - the disease or the cure."
Mired with some miscues, excessive tuning, and general comments to the crowd, Rick was actually on stage for quite a long time. Recognizing the delays he said, "If anyone ever listened to any of the recordings of these shows they would never believe I'm a singer-songwriter."
His take on "Portrait of a Coward" would dispel any such doubts though. My clear favorite of the tunes presented during the Night in Progress run, this song always reminds me why I consider Rick such an amazing talent. His voice and calm guitar playing just draws you into his stories. Despite the rave reviews for Rick's CD and his new band, you can still put me in the corner of those who believe Rick is in his element when he's performing his songs on stage alone - raw, bare-bones and without heavy instrumentation muddying up the lyrics. Comparing his solo work to his band work to me is like comparing an original masterpiece to the cheap lithograph sold at the mall. This series was the perfect vehicle for Rick to showcase his words above everything else. Maybe someday he will find the perfect mix to improve upon his tunes in a full-blown band effort, maybe not. All I know is that I can easily imagine Rick's solo music changing the world for someone, who has never heard of him, upon seeing him play for the first time. And I have yet to get the same feeling from any of his bands. He's getting closer with his current band, but the raw intensity of his solo work still brings out his lyrics more than any of his band work does.
Someone once told me they thought Rick doesn't write any "hooks" to his songs. Well, the hooks are there in his solo performances. I've seen many people walk out of his solo show knowing every word to a song they've heard for the first time - something I just don't see happen with the full-band shows that drown out the majority of his words.
Justin Trawick from the Washington DC area was up next. "I feel like I have a special kinship with Justina because she has all these anti-male songs and I have all these anti-female songs," he joked. His set contained several recently written songs including "Love Song", "White Trash Dream" and one so new he didn't even have a title for it yet.
Trawick has a nice country-rock flavor to his songs. You could easily imagine his tunes going in either direction. In fact, he mentioned turning a few of his usual full band rock songs into a more country and blue-grass sound for tonight. Justin performed at the Wave Gathering Festival at the start of the summer and will most likely return to the Shore in the future. He's worth checking out the next time he's in town.
Christian Beach closed out the night, a dubious distinction since the crowd had largely thinned out by this point. One of my only complaints with the Night in Progress series is that it always seemed to include one too many artists on each bill. While the quality of music was always excellent, I've seen too many closing artists perform in front of sparse crowds. Those who did stay caught a wonderful set by Christian that included some songs that are being recorded for his next CD and a few that were extremely new.
I've often said that while Christian's last record was very good, the songs I've heard from him since are nearly all twice as good. Ever since catching Christian perform much of the next record at the Winter Hours tribute; I've been anxiously awaiting the new disc.
Switching between guitar and keyboard, Beach showcased intense vocals that reel you in. He's got that sort of classic rock vocal style which can make every line seem so important that you strain yourself to listen to every word. He reminds me of someone between Joe Jackson and Bruce Hornsby - a sound we don't hear much along the Shore. As someone that loves piano-based rock and roll, I think he's got something very good going right now.
Night In Progress has been a solid night of music every month for well over a year. Hopefully, the series will return in 2010 with new artists and a new vigor. It's the type of show we need in Asbury Park. With cover bands all throughout the Jersey Shore, it's nice to have a night where original songwriters are saluted. The names on the bill aren't the main draw for me, the experience is.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.