It wasn’t until 10:30 when the musicians started wandering in at Teneleven last Tuesday night, toting and unloading their gear for Greg Garing’s weekly residency gig.
Yes, he’s back on Avenue C, between 10th and 11th Streets, to be exact. Two blocks up from what used to be 9C, at what is now Banjo Jim’s.
It was at 9C where Garing first transplanted the hardcore traditional country scene he created on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, where he paved the way for BR549 but missed out on that band’s media frenzy and commercial success himself. So he headed north and recorded his acclaimed trippy modern rock album Alone in 1997, and assembled a ragtag bunch of local bluegrass and old-time country players.
Then called Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry, the loosely-structured Monday night 9C jamborees for the next year or so did in fact garner attention from the likes of David Byrne and Moby. It also drew participation from the late John Herald of New York’s great 1960s urban bluegrass band Greenbriar Boys, alternative metal band Helmet’s bass player Henry Bogdan (who had turned to lap steel guitar) and local Demolition String Band leaders Elena Skye and Boo Reiners.
Most important, it established a sense of community for New York country music purists who were otherwise outsiders—much like Garing. A veritable pop music encyclopedia, the Erie, Pa. native played with country/bluegrass legends like Jimmy Martin, John Hartford, Vassar Clements and Jesse McReynolds—all heroes of the lanky, longhaired vocalist-guitarist, who actively sought them out in his 10 years in Nashville.
“I was playing Lower Broadway when people were still getting shot there,” he told Billboard after starting up his Alphabet City Opry. He said had come to New York after tiring of the hassles—even though his honky-tonk shows at the fabled Tootsies Orchid Lounge drew fervent comparisons with Hank Williams.
So he moved to New York in 1996 to play rock ‘n’ roll, but found that he missed honky-tonk. He soon attracted top area string pickers, bowers and harmonica blowers, all crowded old-style around one standup microphone and taking turns soloing and singing ‘40s and ‘50s honky-tonk, country and bluegrass gems from such luminaries as Williams, Red Foley, Webb Pierce and the Osborne Brothers.
“Greg’s like a musical genius,” Herald told Billboard. “I’ve been doing bluegass for 40 years, and he plays every string instrument better than anybody in the Northeast. And he’s a walking jukebox: He knows every song I ask, no matter how obscure–and with the energy he has to get this thing going, he’s a real force.”
Garing, who also formed other bands devoted to other distinct pop music genres, is getting this thing going again at Teneleven, where what he now calls Greg Garing’s Full Circle has been gathering weekly for the last month or so. Without any hype, word of his return from a long hiatus from Manhattan is beginning to spread, bringing in musicians like dobro player Sheriff Uncle Bob (who wears a badge and a “Sheriff of Good Times” vest and was a regular Alphabet City Opry member) and drummer Todd Perlmutter, also the founder of L.E.S. Records (initials for Lower East Side), which will release Garing’s next album in the spring.
In keeping with tradition, as many as eight musicians were on stage on Tuesday–guitars, mandolin, lap steel, drums, banjo, bass fiddle, and guest vocalists joining Garing at the sole mic. Other than the Sheriff, who sang the Josh White classic “One Meat Ball” while Garing took a break, the Full Circle was made up mostly of younger newcomers, including singer Jeannine Hebb, who sang with Garing on the Osborne Brothers hit “Once More.”
Garing’s songs included obscure and hit bluegrass and country titles like “Little Girl In Tennessee,” “Singing The Blues,” “Your Old Love Letters” and “Just Because.”
“A lot of people are coming in with instruments who want to play, so don’t you go anywhere!” he said, before yielding the mic to a friend with a guitar.
It was nearing midnight, and Garing would return to the center of the Full Circle shortly. Word of his return to the Lower East Side seemed certain to spread wider–and swiftly.
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