A History of the NJProghouse

by James Robinson:

I. It all started in …
II. The Central New Jersey Progressive Rock Series
III. The Metlar-Bodine House Museum
IV. Schoolhouse, Forum, and More
V. Rock’n Joe, Crossroads, 10th Street Live, Roxy & Duke’s Roadhouse, and Beyond

It all started in …

… early 1999. I was antsy to do something related to music. I am/was a frustrated musician who had simply stopped playing my instruments. But I wanted to stay connected somehow.

After two wonderful trips to Progday (PD) and a resurgence in my Kansas concert-going I was inspired. To do what? I did not know … something.

I had chatted with Rob LaDuca at PD and over the phone. I told him I was really needing to do something on a smaller scale compared to PD and the upcoming NEARfest (NF).

So Rob and I thought that it would be nice if I hosted the pre-show for NF 1999. I went about finding a nice venue and found one. It was in a rehabbed hotel bar and club—a great space with a small stage. I booked it for the Friday before NEARFest. My friend Don Kennell built an extension to the stage and we got going.

I figured I might as well not wait ’til then to host shows. The club was still not open in January so I went to another local club and got a night. I asked Crucible to headline and Hidden Agenda to open. I was able to finance this show thanks to a township worker who destroyed my beautifully restored car because he did not stop at a stop sign. Boy did that suck.

Anyway, the first show was cool (originally called The Central New Jersey Progressive Music Showcase). Nobody knew much about the series although I tried to get to advertising. I had no idea what to do but I plugged ahead.

I did a second show at this same club with Nepenthe and North Star. They (“the club”) ripped me and the bands off and barely tried to hide the fact. Oh well.

So I waited and then THE club opened. I booked a really cool April show for the night of my birthday with Ozone Quartet, The Hand Farm, and Bon. Great night. The manager of THE club was stoked. It was a good crowd, not a bunch of dumb asses, etc.

I was also booking bands for THE club that would be bringing in drinkers in exchange for my monthly progressive show.

In May I hosted PLP and Alaska. Great night but a bit frustrating turnout. The OWNER of THE club was there. Drunk fucking bastard. Told me it was over. No more shows. It did not matter regardless of what I told him about the drinking bands I hired for him or the fact that we had a show for June. There was not enough drinking going on at my prog shows so fuck you it is over.

I waited and talked to the manager. He said don’t worry about it, we are still on for June.

The week before NEARfest and I get a call from a bartender who was always looking out for me. She was worried as a phone call came about my show and the caller apparently had the wrong date … well, no, he did not. She said “uh oh.” Filled me in that THEY (the club) had the date for my show on Saturday. Well that was wrong because I contracted months ago for the Friday as I very well knew where I would be on Saturday … at NEARfest.

So the manager hid for two hours while I waited in the bar, drinking nothing but Coke. I was pissed. He finally came down. “Sorry, man, but we have a ‘summer jam’ booked for Friday and we are expecting hundreds of people. I had you down for Saturday.” I told him, “You are lying. You are double-booking and trying to get out of it with me.” Well, we could probably work something out. I could do my show earlier in the night upstairs. As the summer jam went on downstairs on the stage I built. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

Whatever, I will work it out. I salvage it. The bands (Mastermind and Ice Age) play upstairs while the summer jam goes on. Hundreds of people? HA! 15-20 showed up for their pathetic summer jam.

I had nearly 100. DRINKING! Sweet justice. So my show started a little early, and continued late. They actually triple booked the night and the final blowout with me, the manager, and the owner was glorious and quite entertaining, but I will save that for a conversation if you ever want to hear about it.

Anyway that soured me for a while and I started doing folk shows at the Metlar-Bodine House Museum. Had great mid-level talent coming in and doing wonderful shows. For about a year I did this, losing money every month and counting on the folkie crowd to get it in gear and come out. Well they are a fickle bunch and rather annoying. Seems they don’t like to come out to shows until there is a well-established series. Well, how the HELL do you establish a series if the people don’t come out!!!? More frustrated I started the Proghouse series again this time called….

The Central NJ Progressive Music Series

January of 2001 started with a BANG. I had Symphony X, and Mastermind with October Thorns open the new series. The shows took place in a former Harley-Davidson dealer and shop that was converted into a REALLY nice sound and video studio.

I used a large live recording room for the shows. I arranged the show in November and the stage would be finished by January. So to start this very cool show off I arrived to find NO STAGE. OK, so that was horrible. The show was amazing, nonetheless, and the fellas at Inside Out were very supportive of this whole night.

Damn, was it miserable not having a stage. But I’ve got to tell you something: My right arm truly hurt for a couple days because of how many people shook my hand and thanked me after the show. Now I understand why politicians change up the hand shake while politicking. That made it all worthwhile.

So I had a show with Digital Ruin/Paranoise/Etheria and then another with Salem Hill and Under The Sun. All the while still running the folk series at the museum. So September 8th, 2001, I was scheduled to host a show with The Flower Kings at the studio.

About two weeks before the show, I was contacted by RollingStone.com to do an interview—juxtaposing the giants and the little guys. Yes at “Radio City” vs. The Flower Kings at my place. When the interviewer wanted to talk about the studio I figured put the owner in touch and he can do it justice. He never returned my calls. A whole week went by and the Friday of Labor Day weekend he calls and says “I can not do the interview and you can not do the show.” BAM.

Ok so I had sold 120 tickets in advance. I was fucked. I was pissed. He would not tell me why. He just said goodbye. Click. I call my partners who know him. They try all weekend to get something out of him. He refuses to talk to them and when they go to his house he does not even acknowledge their presence.

So my Labor Day weekend is ruined. I am freaking out. I call Jim Pitulski to tell him what is going on. He says “Dont Freak out.” He reassures me that he and the band know I am not screwing them. I have to wait ’til Tuesday to try and secure something for the coming Saturday. So Tuesday I try numerous Rutgers venues for a show. 15 different clubs, no good. Churches, no good. “I am done, I have failed.”

I drive past the George Street Playhouse. Nothing to lose. I park go in and ask to see the house manager. We meet. He asks me what date. He checks. “No, not next Saturday, this Saturday.” “Oh.” He checks again. This Saturday looks good. If you don’t hear from me by 3 PM today, we are good. Come in and sign a contract tomorrow. I call to make sure that the label and band knows the scoop. They say OK. I wait ’til 6 instead of 3 before I allow myself to breathe. Next day I sign.

On Saturday Sept. 8th, After The Fall opens the night and The Flower Kings play their hearts out.

The Metlar-Bodine House Museum

I figure I am done. I can not take that anymore. I will just stick with the folk shows. February of last year I get a call about The Flower Kings. I don’t want to say no right away, so I said give me 24 hours.

10 minutes later I get an idea. (Really did feel like a light bulb lighting up.) I run it by the Metlar-Bodine House management. What about a specialized show with The Flower Kings, 30-35 people, $50 seats—a very intimate and special evening of the Flower Kings in the museum?

“Go for it.” I sell out in one day. After that I hosted NDV, The California Guitar Trio, Echolyn, Frogg Cafe, and IZZ. (Various costs for each show.) Each sold out. Each one AMAZING. So I will still be doing a show or two in a larger venue but for the most part we are sticking with the museum. The Red Masque, MMS and The Strawbs in the museum. The Flower Kings again, this time in a club. Too hot to do shows in the museum in the summer.

About three weeks after our show with The Flower Kings at the end of June 2003, the worst fear of an old house museum came true for us at the Metlar-Bodine House. Fire. We lost a great deal in that fire. Most of the structure survived, contrary to the first reports in newspapers which said we lost everything. We did lose about one half of the 1870s section, two thirds of the roof, and about 10% of the 1840s section. The oldest section survived intact. Everything had smoke and/or water damage of some sort and we lost 50% (at least) of our collection. Photographs, documents, antiques and such. The piano which Dave Cousins of The Strawbs jangled on was destroyed by heat and water. I spent a good 10 days following the fire at the museum assessing the collection and determining what should be done with each piece. It was long and exhausting, as well as overwhelmingly draining. It could not have been anything else and I would not have it any other way. I was able to do the work and so I did it.

Now we have been slowly rebuilding, restoring, collecting, and cleaning, and the museum will survive. Like the proverbial phoenix….

Schoolhouse, Forum, and More

So what of the music series? We kept going. I searched for venues that would keep the tradtion and aura of the museum and provide us with the chance to keep doing it right.

We found a great historic one-room schoolhouse called The Old Franklin Schoolhouse and in the August following the fire we hosted Nick D’Virgilio. Since then we have had a slew of great acts come through, including Salem Hill, Frogg Cafe, IZZ, Neal Morse, Mats-Morgan Band, Ray Weston, The Erik Norlander Trio w/ Lana Lane, Peter Biedermann, Orphan Project, Wishbone Ash, Mahavishnu Project, Land of Chocolate, Skeletonbreath, and The Strawbs (which saw the beginning of their reunion with John Hawken). Many more as well and many more to come. Also hosted a few theatre shows at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen. We had Spock’s Beard and Pinnacle, Neal Morse with Mike Portnoy, Happy the Man with Frogg Café, Flower Kings Fan Day, and Proto-Kaw (Kerry Livgren) with Frogg Café.

We entered the 2005-2006 season with Adrian Legg and Jon Hicks, followed by a return of Wishbone Ash, and much more after that.

After two more glorious years at the schoolhouse the bottom fell out—again.  Seems that the blue-haired ladies at the place did not take kindly to rock ‘n’ roll at their place.  They made up some excuses and forced us out to find our way once again.

Rock’n Joe, Crossroads, 10th Street Live, Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse, and Beyond

What next?  I was ready to pack it in … for a few minutes anyway.  But no, along comes Greg Jones. Greg suggests I look into the groovy confines of Rock’n Joe in Kendall Park NJ—a cool little place with music as the theme. Introductions are made and we are at it once again. Some seriously great shows happen. We have an IZZ record release party. We have the reunion of local band Stretch which includes the mighty Dave LaRue (The Dregs/Steve Morse Band) on bass. We have the pleasure to witness the emergence of The Tea Club—and Mörglbl, who absolutely rock the shop to its very foundation. District 97 rips the joint to shreds. So many great shows blew the doors off that little coffee shop. That is not all as we also had two outstanding shows at The Crossroads Theatre with Riverside and guests Pinnacle, followed a year later by the “Power of Two” tour with Karmakanic and Agents of Mercy.

Alas, Rock’n Joe closes their doors, first to live music and finally to all as they go out of business. But we had a show there with a great band, Piktor’s Metamorphosis, before the end and they turned me on to a place in Union called Soundwaves Recording Studio. They planned to open a new club called 10th Street Live (in Kenilworth) with music and were interested in having us bring in some stuff. We also make a nice connection with another Crossroads, this time in Garwood. Again we have some real sweet shows at these two venues including Mörglbl and Freak Kitchen, Advent and The Tea Club, and another awesome record release party with IZZ.  These two venues are very cool and they treated us well. I encourage you all to go and have a great time at either place.

(2012) Now we have the great fortune of a new and wonderful relationship with Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse  in Dunellen, New Jersey.  We kicked things off there with Hasse Fröberg and the Musical Companion with Bryan Scary and followed that up with Beardfish and The Tea Club—two of the most enjoyable shows I have had the pleasure of being a part of. Next on the docket is a show with Mike Keneally followed by a show with the return of District 97 and IZZ.

The most important thing that needs mention is the fact that the Proghouse keeps going because of the fans, and on the strength of all of the “staph”—and I could not do it without you. The NJP Staph whom I consider my family are: Jon P. Yarger, Alan and Amy Benjamin, Ray and Noreen Loboda, the Marones (Bony and Michy), Karl Eisenhart, Greg Jones, Kenny Lesko, MikE Emerson, and my wife and son, Sharon and Jacob.

Off we go and see you at a show….

Keep progressive music live and alive by attending a show!