The breath of an accordion. Three people seated in a row playing drums, who couldn’t stop smiling at one another and the musicians around them. A warm, distorted guitar. A soaring violin. A swirling dance floor.
All that could be experienced on a 50-yard stretch of State Street Monday night as Cafe Nine hosted Lil Sluggers, Elison Jackson, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, while a few doors north, a State House Show featured The Lost Tribe and Orquesta El Macabeo. All the musicians played to packed, enthusiastic houses, in a four-hour stretch that showed just how good a night in the Elm City could be.
The night started with the Hartford-based Lil Sluggers — Andy Tucker on vocals and guitars, Daniel Rice on accordion and backing vocals, Jacob Ott on bass, and Dan Deutsch on drums — who played a short, exuberant set to a house at Cafe Nine that was already crowded at 8 p.m. Lil Sluggers’ songs, written by Tucker, combined clever arrangements with an earnest, direct energy that gave the audience something to cheer about at the end of every song. In between songs, Tucker proved quite adept at a particular style of deadpan banter.
“Our EP is called Second Life,” Tucker announced toward the beginning of the band’s set. “What I want to know is, what happened to first life?” Only a moment later: “My mom sent me a picture of a beef jerky outlet. I don’t know why she did that. There’s a lot that goes unsaid in my family.” And toward the end of the set, announcing that the band had albums for sale, Tucker added, “there’s some Halloween candy in the back. Please have some, because otherwise I’ll eat it all, and then I won’t go down for my nap, and it will be a disaster.” Lil Sluggers’ set most definitely wasn’t.
Elison Jackson used to be based in New Haven. As of this year, both vocalist and guitarist Sam Perduta and bassist Greg Perault have relocated to Philadelphia, but their warm reception from the Cafe Nine crowd showed that they haven’t been forgotten, as the duo’s set interspersed newer material, like “Caught One in the Jaw,” with old favorites.
“This is an old song for us about old New Britain,” Perault announced just before launching into the aptly named “New Britain Song.” “Anyone know New Britain?” he asked.
“Live there!” someone from the audience said. “Yeah!” Perault said, and engaged in a series of name drops of New Britain landmarks (”Capitol Lunch, dude”). But the song lost none of its poignancy as Perduta sang out the opening lines: “I was born in a town where everyone frowns and my name is carved on the wall / in the basement there down the hall / and the cops don’t come when you call.”
Meanwhile, at the State House, Middletown’s The Lost Tribe was ready to play. Percussionist and bandleader Jocelyn Pleasant wished everyone a happy Indigenous Peoples Day — the theme for the evening at the State House. Her band was opening for Puerto Rican stars Orquesta El Macabeo. In the corner, Feliz Pop Ups was slinging pernil with arroz con gandules and other snacks.
“I had to work today, but I’m not crying, because I’m here now,” Pleasant said, and meant it. From the very first drop of the beat, The Lost Tribe was off on an Afrobeat-inflected ride. Pleasant and her bandmates could not stop flashing each other smiles. Their joy proved contagious, as the crowd began to sway and then to dance.
Soon the floor in front of the State House stage was full of bobbing, moving heads. And the smiles kept coming.
Back at Cafe Nine, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based A Hawk and a Hacksaw — Heather Trost on violin and Jeremy Barnes on accordion, cimbalom, and percussion — was showing just how far the duo had traveled since Barnes’s days as drummer in the seminal indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. Since 2002, Trost and Barnes have taken deep dives into the music of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and on the Cafe Nine stage, it showed. Barnes created waves of sound on the cimbalom that he got the melody to emerge from through subtle use of dynamics, creating a harmonic cloud, a partner, and counterpoint for Trost’s violin, redolent of the same styles of music in the way she trilled, bent notes, and pulled textures out of her instrument that ranged from glassy and fragile to full-throated.
“We’re happy to be here in New Haven,” Trost said early in her set, explaining as so many visitors had before that “I had some really good pizza here.”
“Where?” said someone from the audience, a little skepticism in his voice.
“BAR,” Trost said.
“All right,” the voice said, in begrudging acceptance. For a moment the crowded room filled with cries of the big three — Sally’s! Pepe’s! Modern! — before most of the room was silenced by Trost’s and Barnes’s utterly sympathetic playing as they gave the rapt Cafe Nine audience a tour of the music that changed their lives, and showed that in some ways songs have always been about the same couple of things.
Trost introduced one number as a song from the 1930s in which a girlfriend sings about her boyfriend, “who likes to drink and smoke hash, so — problem.” The audience appreciated the humor, but the music even more. By the time Trost and Barnes plunged into heavy instrumentals, people stood there with rapt smiles on their faces, or sat on the floor close to the stage to hear.
Back over at the State House, Orquesta El Macabeo was making a triumphant return to New Haven, as fully half of the large crowd assembled to see them had come to dance, and began to do so as soon as the music started. Maybe a half hour in, though, something happened. A connection was made between musicians and dancers, and the second halves of all the songs got longer and sweater. The rhythms dug deeper. The horns developed an edge. The bass strode across the beats the drums were laying down, providing its own delicious counter-rhythms. And this reporter forgot to take any more pictures or keep writing things down, instead just drinking it all in. Orquesta El Macabeo turned the State House into a straight-up dance club that didn’t close until an encore was given and it was only a couple minutes to Tuesday — just enough time to reflect, as Pleasant had mentioned, on the way the day’s meaning has been changing as the city moves into the future. If the next few years sound like this Monday night did, there’s nothing to be afraid of.