Five Great Musical Artists from New Jersey that Aren’t on a Major Label

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how New Jersey is currently home to a bustling indie music scene. There are many venues for independent artists to play throughout the entire state. Now, when most people think of great music from New Jersey, they often think Springsteen or Bon Jovi. What many fail to realize is that there are a handful of other great artists to have come from the Garden State. This post explores musicians that are either still currently based in New Jersey or have originated from here and have gained notoriety in the scene they are a part of.

5. The Ugly Club – Union County

The Ugly Club has existed in various incarnations over the past few years, and each time they redirect their musical identity, they only get better. Though they’ve since hopped on the train to Brooklyn, I’ll always first remember them as a local New Jersey band that captured the hearts and ears of listeners in venues throughout the Union County area. What’s the best way to describe their sound, you might ask? Think of their sound as smooth indie rock that takes cues from a plethora of psychadelic influences – and the best part: they deliver a great live performance. This is a band that is not afraid to be different, and each time they’ve released new material, no two songs of theirs end up sounding the same (in a good way!). To get a taste of their newer material, check out their singles “Passengers” and “The Lonely”. 

4. The Gray Company – Union Township, NJ

Union Township-based quartet, The Gray Company, are a recent favorite of mine in the local scene. A couple of years ago, I was involved in a band with drummer Josh Howard and guitarist Jason Fandino. At the time, Jason was our keyboardist, and I am now positively blown away by the incredible songs he’s written for the Gray Company on guitar. Josh has always been an excellent drummer, and he’s gotten even better. Vocalist Zebeeb Awalom and bassist Adrian Kabigting are also great musicians as well. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my old bandmates play with their new bandmates in The Gray Company a few times over the past few months, and I knew that The Gray Company was the perfect band for them. The music is best described as a highly-dynamic indie rock that boldly experiments and never falls flat. When Josh told me they were planning a tour, I only got more excited to see where that adventure will take them.

3. Steve Kelly – Cranford, NJ

Steve Kelly is another old bandmate of mine who played in the same group I played in with Josh and Jason from the Gray Company. Steve is just one of those special musicians with a natural talent that can’t be taught in a music lesson. With just his voice and an acoustic guitar, he’s able to fill out the room without the aid of a backing band. His music teeters on a fine line between old school emo and modern indie rock, but in a way that doesn’t sound played-out one bit. His live performances often feature a mix of creative covers and superb originals with a bunch of great deadpan jokes in between. Since he’s a very active performer in the Union County scene, you’re bound to find him playing at a venue on any given night.

2. The Front Bottoms – Woodcliff Lake, NJ

Over the past couple of years, The Front Bottoms have exploded in the touring scene, perhaps thanks in part to Say Anything’s Max Bemis taking a liking to them. Their danceable, catchy indie rock coupled with singer/guitarist Brian Sella’s witty and humorous lyrics have catapulted the band into international popularity (many of their lyrics refer to their home in the Garden State, too). The most impressive part? They’ve done all of this without any help from major labels. This band is as DIY as DIY gets in music.

1. Into it. Over it. – Cherry Hill, NJ

Though Into it. Over it. – a.k.a. Evan Weiss, has based most of his musical career out of Chicago, he has mentioned his South Jersey roots many times during live performances and media appearances over the years. While growing up in Cherry Hill, he formed his first touring outfit, the Progress, and the rest has been history for him. Since moving to Chicago, Weiss has led the charge in the current re-emergence of real emo music and has successfully played a large part in ridding peoples’ conception of emo music being played by kids in Hot Topic skinny jeans and Warped Tour t-shirts singing about how sad they are all the time. Instead, Weiss delivers a very sophisticated and intriguing sound layered with very intricate guitar and drum work coupled with honest lyrics that explore a large catalog of thoughts and tell a library of personal stories. While I imagine it is a special treat to see Weiss and his live band perform in his adopted hometown of Chicago, it’s always been a great experience seeing him play in the Garden State.

Jack’s Music Shoppe: A Wholesome Garden State Record Store

Jack's Music Shoppe exterior - photo courtesy of Sound And Vision

Jack’s Music Shoppe exterior – photo courtesy of Sound And Vision

Right across from Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, you might see another storefront that once appeared in another Kevin Smith film. Jack’s Music Shoppe, a location featured briefly in Smith’s Chasing Amy, is a one-stop shop for all aspects of music.

I’ve gone to Jack’s for a number of years now. I always consider it a treat to visit there, and it’s great that a music store has such a prominent presence in a thriving downtown neighborhood.

Jack’s has it all. Vinyl, CD’s, DVD’s, and even sells musical instruments. Their selection of both new and used music is very thorough and fairly priced. While Jack’s is a great place to indulge in everything music, I’m not writing this blog post to solely praise the store’s vinyl selection or anything like that. Jack’s is a rare breed of quality music shops that are a prominent fixture in the community.

Anyone can acquire music over the Internet. Point, click, and in some cases, actually pay for the music to be downloaded directly to your device’s memory. Jack’s is one of those few places in the world that decide to say “NO” to the digital age and they do so with class. There’s just something different and better about purchasing a physical copy of your favorite music and taking it home with you.

Jack's interior facing the front entrance - Photo courtesy of The Lavender Luxury

Jack’s interior facing the front entrance – Photo courtesy of The Lavender Luxury

For a budding vinyl collector, Jack’s proves an excellent place to acquire a few staples you’d need as a base for your collection. They have a great selection of old, used records in the back where you can find some classic albums for less than even 5$. I acquired many a Zeppelin and Springsteen albums there when I began collecting.

From there, I moved to the front of the store where they featured all the new vinyl records. I bought a good chunk of many of my modern albums from those racks. Amongst those records, you won’t find the watered-down, substance-less pop and dance music that you’d find at the Urban Outfitters’ vinyl selection down the street. Jack’s is a great shop dedicated to real music and spreading it to the customers.

Vintage Vinyl: Where You Meet the Music You Buy

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(Image courtesy of Paddyrock.com)

Situated in the midst of a modest strip mall off of Route 1 in Woodbridge, NJ lies a storefront bearing a sign simply reading “Records” in all-capital red letters. Many cars pass by the establishment each day, not knowing that they are passing perhaps the greatest record store in the state. This store is called Vintage Vinyl, and those cars might just be passing by a well-known national touring act making an in-store appearance that day.

The store features racks and racks of CD’s at its center with rare/out-of-print vinyl records to the left, new and used vinyl to the right, and a small stage against the back wall. Not only is the vinyl selection superb and expansive, but they have promotional in-store events where patrons can attend an intimate performance and meet and greet with their favorite artists. Their website features dates various artists are appearing in-store to promote their newest releases. If you want to attend one of these events, simply pre-order the album at the store, get a wristband granting entry to the event, and that’s it. Sometimes, you can get a copy of the artists’ albums early and the artists will almost always sign it for you when they’re done performing.

In my middle school years, I used to visit the store to acquire my favorite artists’ CD’s and did not venture out to the store for a number of years until I went to college and developed an interest in collecting vinyl my freshman year. I then began visiting Vintage Vinyl at least once a week and quickly built a record collection I am still adding onto. Their selection of new and out-of-print vinyl allows collectors to both revisit their favorite classics and discover new artists to add to their collections. Sometimes, they’ll even have rare finds hiding amongst the racks. The last rare record I happened upon was a pressing of The Movielife’s This Time Next Year, and you better believe I bought that.

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(Into it. Over it. Performing at Vintage Vinyl, photo courtesy of store website)

The last in-store I attended was for Into it. Over it.’s event promoting his newest album Intersections. Into it. Over it. is the one-man musical project created by Cherry Hill, NJ native Evan Weiss. Not only is Evan a fantastic musician, but he is also one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people in the current touring circuit. Meeting him and watching him play in such an intimate setting was one of the greatest shows I have ever experienced.

Vintage Vinyl has also hosted a number of other reputable names before, including Fall Out Boy, Circa Survive, Coheed & Cambria, Ozzy Osbourne, and many more.

With Vintage Vinyl, not only do you get an incredible selection to explore, but you also have the chance to meet the people that make the music you love. Certainly, it is one of the most unique places to experience in the Garden State.

Crossroads: New Jersey’s Indie Music Mecca

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(Image courtesy of Crossroads Website)

Crossroads sits just outside Westfield’s popular downtown neighborhood in a smaller suburb called Garwood. While it may appear as just a small bar on the outside, it is one of New Jersey’s longest-running music venues and is a central fixture in the thriving Union County indie music scene.

I remember playing there many times in high school and early in my college career. Some of my friends and ex-bandmates still perform there with their current acts, and I’ve found myself in the crowd more recently these days. Not much has changed there since I’ve last played, except for now the casual crowd has grown larger with more people coming to see local musicians play.

The bar begins right next to the front entrance (pictured above) and wraps around to face the window looking out towards the main road. In the far left corner sits a small stage where thousands of musical acts have played their instruments to those seated at the tables before them.

The stylish wraparound bar is the building’s main fixture when there’s no musical performances. Patrons can enjoy a wide variety of beer from classic staples to obscure craft brews. While I must admit I’ve never tried their food, the menu certainly looks like it’s been improved since I used to play there. The grilled alligator tail and crawfish bourbon bisque sound like dishes I really would like to try.

The new menu appears to draw heavily from New Orleans-style influences. With this menu, Crossroads has begun to build a more concrete identity for itself. Their primary logo features a cartoon figure holding a saxophone and their interior decor has some jazz music-inspired aspects. A New Orleans bar in Central New Jersey might sound a bit outlandish, but with an oversaturated nightlife market in the area, it helps the bar stand out.

So the question that stands is: Why visit this place? Well, the answer is not one that can be said plainly or simply, so here’s a few reasons why this place deserves your patronage:

  1. As stated before, the current menu looks fantastic. New Orleans-style food is a rarity in the area, and it allows visitors a taste of the city without having to travel all the way to Louisiana. The bold, daring menu beckons patrons to try something unfamiliar to most peoples’ palettes in the area.
  2. The Union County music scene is excellent, and Crossroads is at the heart of it all. Van Gogh’s Ear Cafe and 10th Street Live are two other big music venue contenders in the area. While both those venues are also excellent, neither have the same longevity and reputation as Crossroads. Crossroads is just that venue that every New Jersey act plays at. With the thriving indie scene, standards for local artists’ songwriting and performance have skyrocketed, so patrons will be in for a treat with some great original music.
  3. The bar is close to Westfield’s downtown area, but does not share the downtown bars’ posh atmosphere and outrageous prices. An person who makes an honest living can buy a drink and a quality meal there without feeling like they’ve just burned a hole through their wallet. It is a great place to both see an excellent live show and to grab an affordable beer and meal with friends.

Crossroads is located at 78 North Ave. in Garwood, NJ. For information regarding specials and live performances, check out their website.