Star City – Start spreadin’ the news
Could the best twang-informed roots band you’ve never heard be alive and thriving in, of all places, New York City? It could well be.
The outfit in question is Star City, named not for the Russian rocket base, but for a town in West Virginia, home state of its founder. Don’t assume, however, that this band figures to pull extra twang “authenticity” from that Appalachian background; the name also nods in the direction of that enduringly seminal rock band Big Star, and in many ways, Star City’s present incarnation is a product of New York. The standout quality of this quintet is its tendency to defy expectations, in fresh new ways.
They are, heading into the summer of 2001, a band on the verge, having just undertaken a Midwest jaunt that included an appearance at St. Louis’ annual Twangfest and a show with the Blood Oranges at Chicago’s renowned Schubas Tavern. Their second album, Inside The Other Days, is being shopped to major labels, but is ready to hit stores across the country in self-released form through a distribution deal with Redeye.
Star City’s 1999 self-made, self-titled debut disc sold into the thousands at live shows around New York, through the Miles of Music mail order site, and via a few stores on both sides of the Atlantic, largely on word-of-mouth and a handful of reviews. That album showed both promise and clear influences, from the infectious Jayhawks-like jangle pop of “Kissed A Girl” to the take-you-by-surprise turn of “Fruit Of The Poisonous Tree”, which takes off from Uncle Tupelo dirge territory into ascending flights of vocal drama unheard in those parts.
Indeed, the first thing audiences tend to notice about Star City is the singular, booming, wide-ranging voice of lead singer and songwriter Jason Lewis. The rest of the lineup has evolved through many phases during the band’s six-year existence. Recently, however, Star City has meshed into a group of regional alt-country all-stars, their talents clearly evident on the startling new album and at electric recent shows.
David Chernis, on sweet lap steel and soaring guitar, arrived in New York from Miami, combining jazz licks that made him a staple at the Knitting Factory with lap and pedal steel expertise from working many of the same stages as the early Mavericks.
The rhythm section has been noticeably jacked up several notches in the past year by infectiously enthusiastic and imaginative drummer Nancy Polstein (who’d previously backed such local heroes as Walter Salas-Humara, Will Rigby, and Bob Woodruff, and was recently assigned the part of Mo Tucker in a Velvet Underground tribute show, with Tammy Faye Starlight as “Nico”).
Bassist Scott Yoder — a veteran of such New York alt-country mainstays as the Blue Chieftains, the World Famous Blue Jays and the Delevantes — is also a member of the distinctive folk-rock/ambient experimenters Tandy.
On keyboards and assorted string instruments is Kevin Karg, who manages to hold down key roles with fellow New Yorkers the Hangdogs and Philadelphia’s Rolling Hayseeds at the same time.
But the undisputed leader of Star City is Lewis. A notable choirboy at age 3, raised with 8-track country tapes and Beatles as equal influences, he was forming experimental indie-rock bands at West Virginia University at the start of the ’90s, even as he majored in classical voice there. But make no mistake: This is a band that speaks pure, vernacular American, producing both intense drama and jangling, pumping rock rhythm, not Meat Loaf operatics. Then again, if Lewis sometimes sounds like a Pavarotti of punk, with a range that shifts from baritone on up the scale at will, it’s no accident. Neither was Star City’s step-by-step evolution into a band with demanding voice and instrument dynamics at its very core.
Pursuing a writing career (and the career necessities of the woman who would become his wife), Lewis arrived in New York in 1993 and was soon performing original songs within the lively East Village “anti-folk” scene that spawned Beck. “But acoustic solo was not where my heart was, and neither was the tongue-in-cheek anti-folk style,” he says in retrospect. “If you’re going to write a song, I say, then write it.”
The discipline of undiluted twang songwriting and the interests of sometime partner Erik Kristiansen (Disciples Of Agriculture) soon drew Lewis into a New York alt-country rock scene livelier than many might imagine. “A lot of the audience was made up of college kids who’d come here from St. Louis or the South, loved Uncle Tupelo, so a place like the Rodeo Bar was an oasis for them,” Lewis says. That musician-friendly Manhattan institution, with its bar made from an in-house touring bus and buffalo heads crashing through the walls, became home to the early versions of Star City, as well as fellow locals such as the Hangdogs and regional visitors such as D.C. guitar great Bill Kirchen, who adopted the place for a protracted stay.
Along with early-version bandmates Errol Kolosine and Todd Nicholson, the seemingly mind-melded Lewis and Chernis presided over epic Star City stands at Rodeo Bar in the mid-to-late ’90s — increasingly polished, if loose and amusing, four-hour sets that mixed originals with engaging covers of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Neil Young, and snappy onstage patter. They opened for the Old 97’s and Richard Buckner, were eyed by major labels in performances at CMJ, and were invited to England for a stand at the Borderline, London’s top roots-rock nightclub.
Today, Lewis points to The Band as a model, even though Star City’s sound adds up to a much different groove. “They were a roadhouse band, an R&B band, even in their own mind,” he says, “but they arrived at that confident, singular noise of their own, built on their own vision.”
The model applies in the sense that Star City has digested their many influences so well by now that they no longer really sound like any of them. Not content to stay a popular local honky-tonk band, and with Lewis focusing on finding refined, professional ways to present new original material, Star City evolved into its current all-star lineup and approach.
The result — which Lewis, if pressed, simply terms “country rock” — marries unabashed mainstream 1970s Neil Young/Allman Brothers/Eagles rock with later indie sounds, and that dollop of country, in a unique, contemporary blend. The one-two punch of musical/lyrical prowess and from-the-gut, real-time power of the current lineup is much in evidence on Star City’s ambitious and fluid new disc.
Inside The Other Days was produced at Brooklyn’s Mission Sound by Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken and Dave Amels, who also has been working with Lenny Kravitz. Hook-driven, mid-to-uptempo original rockers such as “Still Be Wild”, “Come On Down” and “Town And Country” mingle with the goosebump-raising ballads “These Little Pills” and “Again”, and the autobiographical twang of “West Virginia Hills”.
“Again” and “Come On Down”, the latter almost John Lennon-like, both begin as quiet confessions of someone caught in drink, cigarettes and other traps (“Yes, this is what happens all the time”) but build in intensity, step by step, in different ways — the rhythm section kicking in, vocals doubling, flowing guitar solos sprouting at moments unexpected but right. This is original, intelligent and intense pop music.
Recent live performances have been marked by startling instrumental virtuosity and tight musical interchanges, and an intense, exuberant group dynamic that suggests everything is ready, right now — and that everything depends on this very show. At a pre-tour mid-May show at New York’s Mercury Lounge with the Hangdogs and Tandy, Star City poured out a dozen originals from both discs, with a dozen rhythms and tones to match.
One clue to the way it works: The tone of the number tends to get set by the band member assigned the opening beat, whether it be Polstein’s ominous tom tom on “Little Pills”, Karg’s silence-breaking out-of-gospel piano intro to match the “Go to church on Sunday” opening of “Come On Down”, or Chernis’ surging lead picking on “Still Be Wild”. On this last one, it sounds like one of Chernis’ pedal steel intros but isn’t — it’s guitar this time — and it chugs that high-energy screamer into the set piece of the evening.
They finished off with a right-on, rockin’ version of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”. But from the night’s opening chords, you could see an audience unfamiliar with what was coming take on that smiling, jolted, “We didn’t expect this!” look. Star City has shown that you can expect more of that.