In the mood to hear some live music the other night, I ventured over to New Brunswick to find out what was happening at the Court Tavern. Four local acts played the night I was there, and my favorite discovery was the band, Those Mockingbirds. New Jersey based (well, one member is originally from Connecticut, but shhh, we’ll let that go), Those Mockingbirds are energetic, professional, and best of all, their music is really good.
I met Addam Bird, the band’s lead singer who plays guitar and piano, while hanging out in the main room of the Court Tavern where on the walls there is an eclectic mix of decor including Christmas cards, baby pictures, and a gold record from The Smithereens. Next to the bar there is a foosball table, a couple of pinball machines, and plenty of people singing along to old songs played on a jukebox. One small TV sits at the end of the bar, but the focus here is obviously on the music. Bird ordered a pitcher of beer for his band and we chatted for awhile about the band’s history, the new single they are releasing, and how fabulous New Jersey is.
Downstairs, bands were beginning to play so our conversation ended and I went to see the show. The first two bands were a lot of fun to watch because they both seemed so excited to be on stage and have the opportunity to play their music for a crowd. Those Mockingbirds played third and I was expecting that the band’s performance would match Bird’s charisma and energy, and of course, it did. The previously sleepy crowd came alive when the band smoothly took over the stage to play their songs. I instantly liked the catchy rhythms and was drawn in by their lyrics that were insightful and self-reflective, wanting to sing along even though I had never heard the music before. Towards the end of their set, Those Mockingbirds performed an awesome cover of a Fleetwood Mac classic, “Never Break the Chain” (and I sang my little heart out with them for that song).
This performance at the Court Tavern kicked off a two month tour for Those Mockingbirds that will take them through seven states including Massachusetts and North Carolina and will end in Jamaica at the Rock Saga Fest. Lucky for us, the tour will bring them back through New Jersey on May 8th when they play in Hoboken, so check out their website for details: http://thosemockingbirds.com. You can visit their MySpace page to listen to Those Mockingbirds music as well as subscribe to their humorous blog: http://www.myspace.com/thosemockingbirds.
The gritty and moody, yet homey Court Tavern with its scuffed tile, red paneled walls, and a black bar stretching through two rooms on the ground floor level, is the only remaining music venue of its kind in New Brunswick. The Court Tavern has an interesting history and right now, an uncertain future.
Bob Albert and his wife, Eileen, are the owners of the Court Tavern. Albert’s father opened the bar on Church Street back in 1961 and shortly after, in the 70s, the area became known as somewhat dangerous and was a place most people wouldn’t visit after dark. Businesses in that area had a high turnover rate and it was simply not a place where people came to hang out for any length of time. In those days, the Court Tavern found its success as a daytime bar serving lunch to local judges and lawyers and because they loved the place so much, the judges and lawyers themselves advertised the Court Tavern to the jurors as a great place to eat. Albert, who grew up in New Brunswick, had no intentions of getting involved with his father’s business, and had instead planned on becoming a reading and writing teacher. However, Albert explains he didn’t have much of a choice when, “My dad begged me to come back and help him.” So in the early 80s when the location of the Court Tavern was moved from one side of Church Street to the other, where it stands today, Albert began working in his father’s bar during the day and in another New Brunswick bar at night. It was at this second bar where Albert met a lot of local musicians who shared with him their frustrations in finding a place play their music. Though he admits he “can barely play a record” himself, Albert loves music and opened up the Court Tavern to the local musicians, providing a place for them to perform and rehearse.
For a while, the music scene in New Brunswick was really strong and you could find several bars like the Court Tavern where live bands would play on a regular basis, but today those other bars have all closed or left the area. Albert says that his bar is the “last man standing” and while many people might expect that would be good for business, he explains that it is actually the opposite, “We don’t really have that music scene in New Brunswick anymore. One bar certainly doesn’t make a scene.”
The changes in New Brunswick haven’t been the only struggle for the Court Tavern. In 1997 Albert’s father passed away and Albert officially took over the business. Along with the bar, his father left Albert tremendous amounts of debts that he wasn’t prepared for. In recent years Albert has struggled to make ends meet, and a few times the Court Tavern looked like it would be closing its doors for good. “Every time it seemed like the place would go under, there was a public outcry to keep it open,” Albert says. In fact, when they had trouble paying their city taxes, Albert’s wife sent out an email to friends and patrons explaining the situation and within a few hours, people came by the Court Tavern to bring the owners money. Albert was astounded by this support, insisting that they he and his wife would pay everyone back. The public support that the Court Tavern receives has forced Albert to change his own approach towards his dad’s old bar and see it for the historical music landmark that it has become. He is determined to keep the Court Tavern open. “This town needs a place like this where creative musicians can get together,” he says.
Albert and New Brunswick residents are not the only ones interested in the Court Tavern’s future. Patti Smith, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, learned about the bar’s financial struggles from her current bass guitar player and a longtime friend of Albert’s, Tony Shanahan. Smith, who is known by many for the song “Because the Night” which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, suggested that she participate in some way to help the Court Tavern stay open and the idea for a benefit concert was born. A benefit concert for the Court Tavern will be hosted by Matt Pinfield and Leslie Fran at The State Theater on April 30th. In addition to Patti Smith, The Smithereens (who I’m sure would like to see their gold record hanging on the wall at the Court Tavern for a long time), and the Slaves of New Brunswick, with Glen Burtnik, will play. Tickets can be ordered through the State Theater here. Following the concert on Saturday night, 30 bands will continue to play through Sunday evening at the Court Tavern, honoring its history and hoping to save its future.
Rock on and save the Court Tavern!
The Jersey Girl
Court Tavern INFORMATION:
124 Church Street, New Brunswick, NJ
Cover charges for shows are $10 and under. The Court Tavern only takes cash, but there is an ATM located inside.
The Court Tavern is open for lunch and holds shows featuring the work of local artists about twice a month.