Looking back — and ahead — at New London's once-fertile music scene
New London rock band the Reducers formed in 1978 and steamrolled until 2012. Throughout their run, the Reducers were synonymous with what came to be known as the New London Music Scene — in part because they chose to stay centered in their hometown rather than pursue likely stardom.
"The Reducers were a through-line of rock and roll in New London for more than three decades and were the gold standard in terms of recognition of the quality of the music you'd find any given night in the clubs here," says Rich Martin, a Mystic native who moved to New London in the late '90s.
But the Reducers weren't the only ones drawing attention back at the beginning. Acts like the New Johnny 5 and Paisley Jungle and live music clubs like the El 'n' Gee and Pool Hand Luke's were also part of a sort of spontaneous-combustion musical universe that expanded and flourished in giddy fashion.
"There was a real energy and history in New London, and people and musicians wanted to be part of it," says Martin, who has been a major force in the New London arts community as a musician, promoter, former director of Hygienic Arts, and current owner of the Telegraph Records Shop and the Telegraph Recordings music label.
Though it's certainly not dead, the scene has diminished significantly in the last few years. A lot of forces are at play.
"It does seem the local music scene is in a real lull these days," says Peter Detmold, guitarist/vocalist of The Reducers, now playing in The 3-Pack. "There are fewer bands coming up, and those that do tend to be older. I'm not certain people in their teens, 20s and early 30s are as consumed by rock 'n' roll as we were."
In this context, over the past few weeks, The Day interviewed several representative artists, club owners and sundry participants in New London music in recent years.
Most describe the scene's peak period as lasting roughly from 1997 until 2016. Over that time, long weekends in the city often meant multiple-band bills of original music — indie rock, punk, hardcore, metal, Americana, ska — in performance spaces such as the El 'n' Gee, Station 58, the Oasis Pub, Stash's , T>A>Z, Brass Rail, Secret Theatre, the Bank Street Roadhouse, the Bank Street Café, 33 Golden Street, the Hygienic, the Bulkeley House, and more.
Friday and Saturday night sojourners pinballed down Bank Street and beyond, from one show to another, trusting the bands and songs and social camaraderie to guide them, with area restaurants, galleries, shops and more contributing to and benefitting from the processionals. Eventually, folks from New Haven, Hartford and Providence started making regular trips to New London to enjoy the riches; in a 2006 feature, the New York Times wrote an enthusiastic article praising the power of the New London music scene.
Multi-instrumentalist Jay Silva, who plays in the garage rock band Straight to VHS and The Jamson Jubilee (an offshoot of another group he cofounded, The Weird Beards), moved to New London from Willimantic in 2008 to be part of it. Of his first weekend here, he says, "I remember a high energy city with street musicians on every corner and a venue on every block."
It's a description that resonates with many New Londoners from the past 20 years. "I was very fortunate to be playing in the New London scene at what I consider its peak," says Nick Johns, guitarist/singer/songwriter of Marvelous Liars and, before that, Gone for Good. "New London was a force to be reckoned with. It really was a musical melting pot. I've never experienced anything like it in my life."
Singer-songwriter Anne Castellano, who was in former bands the Cavities and Skin Walkers, currently plays in HeSaidShe Said and Anne Castellano & the Smoke, also moved to New London from Willimantic, attracted to the music at the El 'n' Gee and impressed by locals forming bands after the success of the Reducers. In the scene's heyday, she remembers "checking set times and planning my nights so I could go back and forth between the venues to see the bands I didn't want to miss. If friends were at different shows, we were texting back and forth to see which band was on and who was up next so we could coordinate schedules."
It wasn't just that dozens of bands formed to play original songs, but their existence and the fact that people wanted to see them play spurred plenty of activity, not just in terms of clubs and venues but beyond. Martin and another enterprising activist, Sean Murray, were visionaries.
"Murray and Martin were huge for the scene," Johns says. "Their selfless devotion to get New London on the map can't be understated. They were always one step ahead of (other towns and scenes), creating festivals, awards show, bringing underground bands into the city ..."
Separately or together, the pair were integral in the rise of the Oasis Pub, the summer music series in the Hygienic Art Park, the I AM Festival, the Whalie Awards celebration of the New London scene, and other annual events or one-off concepts. In that "Field of Dreams," build-it-and-they-will-come spirit, other activists and entrepreneurs jumped into the fray.
Barbara Neff, who oversees Sailfest, began incorporating more local acts as well as urban, hip hop and Latin programming. Ben Parent, leader of the popular Americana band the Rivergods, helped create the long-running songwriters-in-the-round Sinners Circle series. In 2007, local honky tonk musicians Preston Frantz and Ken Atkins established an extremely popular, late-afternoon "Blue Collar Happy Hour" at the Bank Street Cafe. The Day's "Live Lunch Break" online concert/interview series debuted in 2012.
Clubs or existing venues, galleries, coffee shops and restaurants often presented live music or arts-related programming. For years, the scene flourished, experimented and inspired. Until ... not so much.
For a variety of reasons including the rising cost of touring artists, lessening grant and sponsorship money in a tough Connecticut economy, and real-time competition from casino sponsored festivals, I AM ceased to exist two years ago. The Whalies went on hiatus in 2017 with no indication from principals involved that it will be back. Murray declined to be interviewed for this story. It's reasonable to assume that the reason reflects the area's general decline in the area's musical activity. "Live Lunch Break" halted regular programming last summer. The show will continue with special productions, but the decline in requests to appear has been precipitous. Blue Collar Happy Hour is now a sporadic production. The Oasis Pub in the last year has cut back its live music schedule substantially, and in recent years, the El 'n' Gee, Bank Street Café, Bank Street Roadhouse, Bulkeley House and other signature music rooms have closed. And while downtown restaurants the Social, Octane and Daddy Jack's book some live entertainment, only 33 Golden Street supports live original bands on a weekly basis.
"We get 100 messages a week from bands that want to play here, but most of them are from out of town," says 33 Golden Street owner Gene Barousse, who moved to New London in 2002 and worked as a bartender in such music-happy rooms as the El 'n' Gee, Bank Street Café and Stash's. "Music goes in cycles. A lot of the bands that we saw for years? Well, people get older. They get married and have kids. They might still love and play music, but there are other priorities now. I think that's part of what's happening."
"I don't know if this is a chicken/egg situation," says Parent, who also oversees the local Good Sponge label and co-curates the Hygienic Rock Haus shows. "Do we need more bands? If there were more bands, would there be more clubs? If there were more clubs, would we see an increase in bands?"
Detmold credits rooms like 33 Golden Street and the Oasis, along with the vitally active Strange Brew Pub up the road in Norwich, for their longtime support of live music — but wonders if the presence of a larger club like the El 'n' Gee would help, too. "When a good band does develop around here, it's difficult for them to build an audience because they're always in a smaller club," he says.
With fewer venues, it's difficult for the bands that do exist to maintain any communal spirit and nurture the atmosphere. "There was so much camaraderie between bands, and it didn't really matter what style of music you played," Parent says. "I'm not sure that's the case anymore. There are some younger bands, but it doesn't seem like they promote each other or support each other."
One reason might be called the burnout factor. For all of the fun and camaraderie, and with seemingly limitless opportunities to play, many New London bands got overexposed.
"You just can't continue to play six shows a month in a 10-mile radius," says Craig McCalister, general manager and booking agent at 33 Golden Street. "Even with great bands, you have to keep things fresh. It's one reason we've had to look out of town so much for our calendar."
Another truth is that many of the musicians who comprised the heart of the scene for so many years just got older. It doesn't mean some of them aren't still playing, but at perhaps a slower pace. Some have retired. And there isn't a ready supply of younger bands following. But society's changing, too.
"You need to have a reason to go out on Friday or Saturday," says Barousse. "Social media has altered everything. Before, we were all going out anyway, and we trusted that there would be good live music. Now, people text and check social media before they leave the house, just to figure out if anything's happening."
It's damned easy to stay home. The sheer number of easy-access TV shows, movies and games is formidable. And more than one respondant alluded to the power of the craft beer explosion. Bars like the Oasis and the Social, with significant craft beer varieties, attract customers who might be more interested in sampling beers than listing to live music.
It can't be overlooked either that there's been a huge paradigm shift in popular music. Younger musicians who might have learned guitar or drums 15 years ago are more interested in rap or urban music. "Hip hop has won the day, and that's OK," Martin says. "Music has to evolve. Gradually, over the last five years, hip hop has become the most vital scene in New London, but it's not as visible."
Everyone who commented for this story was vehement that the New London music scene isn't dead. In addition to 33 Golden, Hygienic Art, with director Sarah McKay, has started off-season music programming and continues to book summer music concerts. And Martin hosts regular multi-band bills in the Telegraph.
McCalister says, "Anyone in the business knows music is cyclical. New London has talent and energy. It'll come back."
Martin says, "The New London music scene is still quite vibrant. I think what's missing right now is a sense of continuity, but there are still a lot of great bands. Someone will step forward and nurture the scene, because someone always does."
Johns offer perhaps the most infectious opinon.
"I promise you, the scene won't die," he says. "Right now, some angry, misunderstood kids are getting together in a basement or garage right now, making noise, and when they get old enough, New London will be waiting for them."