Despite its claustrophobic dimensions, the Griffon in New Paltz (Neko Sushi for those who have only been here a little while; McGuinn’s or the Homestead for those who haven’t been back in a while) hosted a thriving, loud and smoky full-band open mic in the mid-’90s. I get a headache thinking about it. I played in the house bands: first Drunk Mother Haircut, then James Frazier Brody and his 84-Piece Blues Orchestra Supreme (which was the same lineup as Drunk Mother Haircut) and finally a very worthy and underattended band called Dr. Zeus, who effectively closed the place on the eve of the millennium – long, long after the open mic had lost its steam – and turned it over to the quiet, recuperative arts of the sushi specialists.
But you remember the ’90s. Rappers, jammers, janglers, My Bloody Valentine and Pixies acolytes, singer/songwriters, a few performance artists, some budding metal virtuosi who couldn’t understand why anyone would like R.E.M. and a very young, show-tune-belting Ludwig Montesa filled out the open-mic list – sometimes as many as 25 acts in a night. A number of the original New Paltz bands from that period – like the voluptuously fuzz- and echo-soaked Velouria (now Brooklyn’s Anilore, and with a brand-new album!), Hauler, Cat House, the voluptuously fuzz- and echo-soaked Fidoplanktonand the beloved quirky popsters Jonas Grumby – would come to break in new material or take a droning 20-minute pass at “Pale Blue Eyes.” Every now and then an Orange Country bar band would steal across the border and really emote with some Hootie & the Blowfish covers, as if to teach a college-town crowd what people really like.
At the commercial peak of the open-mic years, management decided to formalize it into a six-week, multi-round Battle of the Bands and really move some liquor. I hosted the event along with my Drunk Mother Haircut bandmate, the now-famous drummer and composer Martin Dosh. But at the Ultimate Champion final week, the Griffon’s head bouncer – the late, great Marine Kevin Sullivan – decided that it was his show to emcee now and benched us. When Kevin Sullivan benched you, you stayed down.
I remember the night that Mearth played: a ferocious, pummeling and passionate hardcore punk band fronted by the notable New Paltz painter Ryan Cronin in his younger years. I had a bit of the food poisoning that night (at least I think that’s what it was), but was determined to fulfill my duties. Between sets, I found a bench over in the deejay booth and meditated there, attempting to still my stomach with mind control while Mearth – a laser-focused, deep-pocket hardcore machine – pounded directly on my sternum with their precise, cathartic, caterwauling rock. I remember thinking, “I love this band…and they are going to make me puke right now.”
Mearth was really good – good enough to be signed to a national label and have a nice run in their genre, as I recall. But they didn’t win this Battle of the Bands. Hardcore bands, no matter how excellent, generally don’t. They are thought to be a specialist’s concern, a deep-but-narrow niche, and they do not fare well in populist tournaments because they are frightening and you can’t hum their tunes.
An unknown band on its first gig, Lost in the Sauce, won the battle in the end and walked away with Kevin’s giant cheque for…well, not much, but probably a good deal more than what you’d make for a winning a Battle of the Bands today. Lost in the Sauce introduced New Paltz to the inspired freestyle rap/sing vocalizing of Tim Sutton, from which it has never been fully free since. Upright bassist Jason Brunka and drummer Matt Senzatimore provided the MMW- and acid jazz-inspired quirky grooving. Lost in the Sauce was not influenced by G. Love and Special Sauce, but kind of arrived at the same idea at the same time, because the conditions were right for it.
And they thrived on the road and in the local bars for a good number of years, eventually dissolving and reforming in various other significant New Paltz bands including Wooden Rope (Wang wrote the riffs) and Ratboy. In the strangest twist, pedal steel legend and Dylan sideman Buddy Cage sat in with Lost in the Sauce frequently, even joining them on far-flung dates, blending his fluid steel lines with the avant-garde sonic textures of guitarist Geoff Gersh, who would go on the play in the Blue Man Group.
Strange bedfellows then and strange bedfellows now, Mearth and Lost in the Sauce reunite for a show at Snug Harbor in New Paltz on Saturday, August 2 at 10 p.m. Now, it’s just a celebration of a shared high time, not a competition. These were two of the leading lights on the ’90s New Paltz scene – which was the last time that old Main Street was quite as alive with new and original music as it is right now.
Mearth/Lost in the Sauce Reunion, Saturday, August 2, 10 p.m., Snug Harbor, 38 Main Street, New Paltz.