Red Hook's Jalopy Theatre and Music School hosts a free weekly old-timey music showcase on Wednesday nights called Roots 'n' Ruckus. These shows have an informal feel but they're no coffee-shop open mic nights, and they're now running 10 years strong.
The series began in the back room of the NYU-adjacent Thai restaurant Village Ma, and has come to serve as a lively haven for acoustic music, especially since it moved in 2008 to its current, more romantic accommodations. These days, performers play from a small stage, church pews seat dozens, and twinkly bulbs strung overhead augment the Boardwalk Empire ambiance.
Since its inception, the showcase has launched careers of New York natives and become a safe harbor for traditional musicians on the tour circuit. Local Hubby Jenkins is now a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and still stops by when he's in town. While attending college upstate, Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton honed his stripped-down banjo blues sound and found a community of people to appreciate it at Jalopy.
Roots 'n' Ruckus celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a four-night blowout starting on Wednesday night. The festival will feature 50 bands. At the center of it all will be Feral Foster, the wild-eyed, suit-wearing showman who has been booking the showcase since the beginning. Foster grew up in the East Village and starting at 19, set out to channel the Greenwich Village folkie cafe shows of yore. We checked in with him to find out what goes into trying to keep a weekly concert series fresh after 10 years, why Mumford and Sons is just Coldplay with banjo, and why that's a good thing.
How did you get started doing this kind of music? I started playing old-timey stuff, like old country blues and stuff like Bukka White and Charley Patton and music like that. I used to busk with it a bunch when I was 17, 18, like Washington Square Park, Tompkins Square Park, Union Square. And then from Union Square I started busking in the subways too, and just playing out a bunch because I just loved the music.
How did you get into Bukka White and Charley Patton? Originally, I knew about it from liking other old classic rock and '50s rock music and '60s, more well-known stuff. I did some research and realized that the roots of that music was in stuff that was older.
So you started looking through Wikipedia articles or the equivalent? Well back then it was AllMusic. I wasn't on Facebook at that point. They'd have the influences of different artists listed.
Then I met people. Music sharing was starting, but it was more like, "Oh my God, my friend's dad has this Reverend Gary Davis box set. Let's go listen to it." It was before I got into downloading music. It was around at the time, but like CD box sets were much more coveted.
When you were busking would you perform in a folk style or were you ever playing, you know, Ramones covers or "Stairway to Heaven"? Not really. I would play some slide guitar and I'd try to play things like Leadbelly songs. I noticed the louder I was, especially outdoors, the more attention I'd get. So I had a very loud style, very loud and very fast. That was my way: not necessarily the most technically adept interpretation or the most pleasant to listen to, but it was the easiest way to grab people's attention and gather a crowd to make a few extra dollars at a time.
What got you started organizing Roots 'n' Ruckus? At that point I was busking and playing in Washington Square Park; I was living in College Point, Queens; and my friend, Zach and I, and Hubby Jenkins, who will be playing the festival, were living together. Me and Zach were playing in the park every day and I had made friends with this guy Willy Gantrim. The three of us were hanging out and this guy Mike Katz said, "Do you want to come play this showcase that I do on MacDougal Street at this place called the Village Ma?"
It was a Thai restaurant, and in the back they had a room where they would do karaoke and stand-up comedy on weird off nights. This guy Cisco had taken over the showcase at that point, but Mike still played it. We were so psyched to get a gig like that. So, not even caring about the money or anything, we called all our friends and were like, "This is great! Come see us!"
Between the three of us we brought more people than had ever gone to that showcase. Honestly, it was probably like 25 people. But then we did it again and it was a big party atmosphere and this guy Cisco is like, "You should take over the show because I don't want to do it anymore." It wasn't paying anything, and it sucked. Not that the show sucked.
We started do it, and I remember Zach was like, "The term folk music sucks. We should call it ruckus music." And I think Willy said, "No, we should call it Roots and Ruckus." Willy coined the term.
We were doing it for like a month and then Zach moved back to Oakland once it got really cold. Willy did it with me a little bit, but he just didn't really want to do it. So for the next few years I ran it there and I had all sorts of people come and play it. The more I played in the park, the more I met people. So many musicians came through that park, and I just gathered a lot of people over the years.
It was fun. People would hang, we'd get drunk. In 2008, a friend of mine, Eli Smith, came by and said, "You should move this to this place called Jalopy that opened in Red Hook last year." Village Ma was changing hands anyway: it was closing down and becoming the Grisly Pear.
So we moved it to Jalopy and we've been there ever since.
Feral Foster has been organizing and performing at Roots 'n' Ruckus for a decade now. (Photo by Luke Ratray)
Was there any negotiation as far as setting up shop at Jalopy? At the beginning of the Village Ma show they offered $25 between the three of us for doing the show, and we were like, "Yes!" They were paying me $40 toward the end of the show at the Village Ma. At that time a lot of people had come and played at it, and a lot of people in the New York scene had started to hear about it. It was sort of a happening little thing.
When I moved to Jalopy, I'm like, "Okay, you pay me $50 a week." And they said yes. From there, the show really took off because, the combination of the format—five acts playing with no cover—and Jalopy is such a unique space, run by wonderful people, staffed by wonderful people, and it's also a music school and a shop. A lot of people took the show more seriously, and because it was a free weekly show, it became a word-of-mouth thing. People would talk about Jalopy and say, "You know, you really should go by on their free night."
There was a write-up in the New York Times that mentioned it. It's in the Lonely Planet guide for Brooklyn. Over the years, it built up its reputation, and it's still going.
And how do people get paid? You just pass the hat? It's never really empty, it's never terrible. Some slots of the night are better than others, but we've kept it going in that format for 10 years. It seems to work. I've noticed the free format sometimes puts more money in the pockets of the musicians than if you do a cover, because covers really do hinder people from going out.
It's stupid, because if you think about it, nobody thinks twice about spending $10 on a round of drinks, but they will hesitate very much to pay $10 to go somewhere for a show. But if it's free, you get rid of that knee-jerk reaction, and then they end up spending $10 anyway on tipping people, or more. That idea that there is no barrier keeps it open. Sometimes people drop you like $20.
I get the sense that people aren't necessarily performing there to pay their rent, that the camaraderie is a big part of the draw for the musicians. Yeah, and for solo acts and certain types of musicians it's an excellent format. It's set up so it's not a social space, it really is a theater.
So a lot of people like doing it because it's like, "I just played to a captive audience of people for 30 minutes," and that's surprisingly difficult to come by. There's less pressure for it to draw X amount of people. You go to the door at a show and people are like, "Who are you here to see?" and all that nonsense. It's a low-pressure show. That's also a perk.
If you're new in town, people I know in New Orleans and Nashville and Asheville will say, "If you're going to New York and you're looking for a gig, hit up Feral Foster. That's a good way to just get some exposure to musicians and people in the scene."
Do you have to be very selective about who you put on the bill, or is it hard to keep booking week after week and you take all comers? At this point, there's a line. It's not even a place where someone whose opinion I trust is like, "So-and-so is coming through." Now I look at stuff, and I'm like, "This will work." It's a gut feeling. I'm not even consciously thinking.
Even sometimes it's like, well, this isn't exactly my cup of tea, they're competent players, and they're good at what they do, so I have wiggle room for that. I won't say that there aren't people I've regretted booking over the years, but in general I try to keep it to the standard of people I enjoy and people who are talented at what they do. It's great to be a home and a place that can host those people.
Are you ever begging somebody on a Tuesday night to come the next day and fill an empty spot? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I do grovel. I'm like, "If you take the last slot tomorrow, I'll give you 10 o'clock in four weeks." Sometimes I'm begging for a Tuesday, but other times I have the show booked for months, because all of a sudden everyone latches onto one date. It's very strange.
How does now compare to what you were doing 10 years ago? In the beginning it was a lot more loose. And it was actually a lot more of the same people playing every week. Back then it was me, Jessy Carolina, who's playing the festival with her band Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess, my friend Hubby Jenkins, Frank Hoier, who's in this band Crushed Out now, and Willy Gantrim. It used to be a lot less professional back then to say the least. It was a lot more drunk; it was a lot more sloppy.
The [Village Ma] wasn't the greatest place. They had some vague and not-so-vague animosity towards us, but they kept us around. When it became Jalopy it became more professional, and because of the people involved whose careers took off in one way or another, that helped with the show's notoriety. Hurray for the Riff Raff used to play the show when they came through town, and then when they came back all of a sudden it would be like, "I'm going to do an unannounced show here" at the last minute, and that brings a ton of people out.
Sam Shepard, the playwright, and Peter Stampfel used to play in the Holy Modal Rounders, and they were like, "We can do this thing at Jalopy and have a reunion of our band." It happens like that.
There's no rhyme or reason. Sometimes a big band is playing with a big following, or several at the same time. Like when the Deslondes play and Spirit Family Reunion at the same time, then the place is just packed, it's just fucking balls-to-the-wall packed. Those shows are good because they gain us more returning customers.
I was living in New Orleans when Hurray for the Riff Raff was getting big, and I remember when people were writing about the band, they would always have an intro about how there's a folk music renaissance going on. Probably people are still writing that article— Oh yeah, they've written it several times about my show and Jalopy. It happens every other year. They're like, "Oh, there's a folk music renaissance going on" and I'm like, "Eh, there kinda has been and it's kinda over."
That's kind of my question: Did folk music ever go away, or do you see yourself as a torch-bearer for your generation or peer group? I don't know. I don't even play folk music any more. I do some things, but folk music is a horrible word that really means nothing and has very fascist overtones...not even overtones. I only play original music now. I have one or two covers, not necessarily folk music, but I'll do a Hank Williams song or a country blues number.
But I've played almost all original songs there for the last bunch of years. Starting out, when I had less material, I played less original stuff, but I've been playing mostly original stuff the entire time I've been running the show.
There was a little something. I think Jalopy helped foment that, I think giving people a place to go, people who play traditional music and roots music, songwriters with a—I hate the term DIY aesthetic; it's just a bunch of garbage. I can't really tell, is the thing. It did feel like there was a lot more going on a few years ago. But then again people older than me, 15 years, 10 years older, are like "Oh my god, things were so much worse in the late '90s. This kind of music, nobody was playing it. For years it was much more difficult to come across." From what I can tell, it became cooler again.
It had a very bad reputation, and a lot of it was played very boringly. That's not true either—there's a lot of great players who didn't get recognition. But to large amounts of the population it became cool. Whereas four years ago, banjos weren't cool, now they're used to sell pop music as being not pop music. Like somebody like Mumford and Sons is like Coldplay with a banjo, but people like the banjo. It's weird. People are fickle.
[Folk-tinged pop] is a gateway for people. They get into something that involves folk instruments or folk styles, and then they get really into learning about that music themselves. It's a good thing that there's some sort of visibility there within popular culture for more traditional music. What people like in folk music—I hate this fucking word—it's plaintive, and it's a very easy and accessible thing to get into. You don't need knowledge of music theory, and there's tons of stuff to listen to. It's a very interesting way to fall into a life of music.
Is there anything specific about the festival you're looking forward to? It's just going to be very cool to see how this format will work over several days. The thing that's scary about it is with other festivals you can judge how well your show is doing. You can track ticket sales, but this is like, we have no idea who's going to come. So we get in there and it's like, "Is everybody coming, or is it going to be empty?" God forbid it's empty.
Every big show that I've worked at Jalopy, every folk festival, we can tell how many people are coming already. We can judge how much we need to be screaming our heads off about it. This we have no idea what we're walking into. It's going to be fun to see all these people in the same place. I want it to be a big party, and to have people remember it and be like, "Oh, man, that was fucking great."
Roots 'n' Ruckus Fest at Jalopy Theatre and Music School. 315 Columbia Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Wednesday and Thursday, 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Donations encouraged. Supplement performers' tips here. Full lineup and schedule here.