Jalopy Theater: acoustic renaissance in Brooklyn

Yankee Folk in a Concrete Jungle

Underneath the gritty and obtrusive concrete shell of New York City, there is a place a stone’s-throw away from New York Harbor in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn named the Jalopy Theater. It is a brilliant epicenter for new and old music. NYC has always been hybrid, so it would be no surprise that very old and the very new music springs from the same fountain here.

But Jalopy is much more than a stage. It’s a music school, a record label, a dealer in antique instruments, a tavern and a restaurant. They even have their own radio station and their streams can be heard if you go to their website.

The Theater is an acoustic club. Beautifully laid out in two landmark buildings, the Jalopy Theater located next door to the Jalopy Tavern which is fully equipped has a nice outdoor courtyard that is frequently used for jam sessions.

When you first enter the theater you will notice all different species of banjos, ukuleles, and other stringed instruments of every shape and size on the wall as well as variety of CD racks filled with CD’s by local groups such as The Brotherhood of the Jug Band and the Flanks.  The stage has an incredible compressor mic in the middle of the stage, and that is all that is needed. This mic is so sensitive you can hear a pin drop on stage. It is the same space used for group music lessons. The theater is small and usually lined with wooden benches that are cleared away to create a dancefloor for the bigger events. Beer is the main beverage that is served, however, many opt for tea, coffee, or gourmet soda that Jalopy also offers.

The Tavern, which is next door is also small (performers stand against the wall of the narrow room) and has a small dining area in the back. Jalopy has a cook from New Orleans that delivered authentic Cajun flavor the table.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival, The Brooklyn Country Music Festival, Brooklyn on the Bayou are just a few of the numerous events that have been hosted at Jalopy. But Brooklyn?! You think Tony Monero (John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever) and Andrew Dice Clay! Not and hipsters doing covers of Lead Belly’s “In the Pines?”

There is a tremendous amount of musical talent in Brooklyn, and it is not uncommon to hear a millennial songwriter at the Jalopy perform old time blues number then hear them perform an original in the same set. I find it interesting that many people in their 20’s know so much about old time music written more than a half century before their birth these days.

Jalopy is a unique place. The atmosphere is very friendly and there is a sense of community among the patrons and staff. On any given Tuesday the small theater is packed with musicians of all ages. In front of Jalopy during the warm seasons you can see people from different generations of rehearsing together before they go on.

Their open mics, though free, would be worth paying admission to see. The range of talent that comes through Jalopy’s doors is always impressive. Many of these folks are working musicians trying out their repertoire, some are songwriters; some are just having fun.

I want to mention Jalopy Records, their independent record label. Much of the music on the label are compilations recorded live at the theater during various festivals. One band on the label The Brotherhood of the Jug Band. The Brotherhood which is practically a house band. Jalopy’s owner, Geoff “Mon Capitan” Wiley plays bass for the Brotherhood. He plays a washtub or gutbucket bass. These are homemade instruments with a single string.

One event that has been documented often is the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival. It is usual a three day event in which artists from all over come to play the Jalopy. Some of the tracks get play on WKCR, Columbia Institute’s radio station. It is primarily a jazz and arts station, but the have some great programming for bluegrass, blues, folk, and Americana. WKCR is how I discovered Jalopy; about six years ago when WKCR was playing artists that were participating in the Brooklyn Country Music Festival which was at Jalopy that year. I was amazed about how much music was being made in Brooklyn.

Last year I attended Jalopy’s Brooklyn on the Bayou festival. It was a three day showcase for dozens zydeco bands. Many of these zydeco bands, though some were from Louisiana, a large number of them came from Upstate New York. It was fun day, there were jam sessions in the backyard of the tavern. The theater was cleared for dancing. Not to be puritanical, but there were a few rock-a-billy bands that snuck in under the wire, but who cares, it was a blast!  In the evening they were selling Jambalaya for $10 a bowl that was out of this world.

If you are musician or an aficionado of American acoustic music, you need to pass through Jalopy if you happen to be in Brooklyn.




Photos courtesy of Jalopy Theatre’s website


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