[Editor’s note: New York–based folk singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato posted about the perfect “New York” day he had last week on Instagram, and we were intrigued by his impromptu performance alongside Marah and renowned guitarist Lenny Kaye on the night of April 16 — so we asked him to write about it. Below, D’Amato elaborates on a brilliant music moment that could only have happened here.]
Some days New York, it’s all hot garbage and stale piss. There’s mice living in your stove and (hopefully) dog shit smeared under your shoe, or ankle-deep slush puddles off every curb and a special kind of gusting wind and rain designed specifically to invert umbrellas. But other days, you sit and eat an ice cream cone and watch boats go by as the sun sets on Manhattan, and you can’t imagine a more perfect time or place to be alive. The glass faces of the skyscrapers change colors with the reflecting light, and you experience one of those golden New York moments where you can’t help but just follow the city wherever it leads you, until the next thing you know, you’re onstage performing a song you’ve never played before — with Lenny Kaye, the celebrated guitarist of the Patti Smith Group and New York musical icon. This happened on April 16, the most New York day I’ve ever had.
As a touring musician, I visit cities all over the world — and I’m privileged to do so — but I’m working, and those trips aren’t recreational. Most days I get to town in time for soundcheck, dinner, and the show, but if I’m lucky, I have enough time to play tourist for a little bit (I spent my last two off days at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, because I’m 27 going on 12). I sleep on lots of couches in friends’ apartments and get little day-in-the-life glimpses into their worlds. Coming off a brutally cold winter, it’s been hard not to fantasize about relocating somewhere warmer and cheaper.
After returning home from a gig in Chicago the night before, I spent that afternoon catching up with my manager at the Brooklyn Roasting Company in DUMBO. It was too gorgeous of a day to go back underground and wait for the subway when we finished, so on a whim, I decided to take the East River Ferry home for the first time. With a half-hour to kill, I picked up a chocolate waffle cone at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (again, 27 going on 12) and sat by the waterfront, watching ferries and barges and water taxis float past as the sun went down over the city and subways clattered across the Manhattan Bridge. Countless tourists posed for selfies with the Brooklyn Bridge and the skyline in the background, and when the boat finally arrived I thought about Walt Whitman:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
Dude might not have been able to predict the use of selfie sticks in all that enjoyment, but he clearly knew how special that view would feel even centuries after he was dead and gone.
Gliding north under the Williamsburg Bridge with the last rays of the sun, I finished my cone and decided that this was not a drill, that I was in fact experiencing one of those rare, perfect New York days, and I’d be a fool to let it end. So I said yes to an unexpected invitation to go see Marah, one of the most formative bands of my adolescence, play an acoustic duo show at Bowery Electric (named, I believe, for Whitman’s “body electric”). How could I pass it up? I stepped off the ferry at North 6th Street and took the train into the East Village to keep the day alive.
Outside of Bowery Electric I spotted Marah frontman Dave Bielanko smoking a cigarette. I first met Dave when I was sixteen and trying to figure out how to become a professional musician. I listened to Marah’s album Kids in Philly on a daily basis back then, and over the next few years, I saw them dozens of times and sought out all their bootleg live recordings, all taped during sweaty rock club shows and house concerts and a stadium appearance with Bruce Springsteen, who was one of their biggest champions. Dave was cool enough to let me hang in the studio with the band and visit his apartment to talk about songwriting and recording. He gave me feedback on my early demos, which meant the world to me.
A few years back, it seemed like Marah had more or less broken up and disappeared for a while, but Dave and his musical partner Christine Smith re-emerged last year with Mountain Minstrelsy, a brilliant collection that reimagined long-forgotten folk tunes from western Pennsylvania that they’d discovered in an old book of the same title in the small Amish country town where they’d relocated.
I loved the record, and it turns out Lenny Kaye loved it, too, because he showed up at Bowery Electric to watch and stomp and cheer and sing along just like all the other fans that night. The first half of the set was stripped-down and intimate, including a gorgeous rendition of their song “Walt Whitman Bridge,” but as the night progressed, Marah morphed from an acoustic guitar-and-piano-duo into a full-on rock ‘n’ roll band, with Christine now on drums and Blue Mountain’s Cary Hudson and Lenny Kaye jumping onstage to play electric guitars.
“Does anybody here play bass?” Dave Bielanko asked into the microphone.
The room was quiet.
“Anthony, get up here!”
And just like that, I was onstage holding a bass while he launched into “The Catfisherman,” one of my favorite songs from Kids in Philly. I looked to my left and there was Lenny Kaye. I looked to my right, and it was Marah and Cary Hudson. The song lasted about five minutes, and then I was back in the audience with my beer. Shortly after that, the show was over and everyone was back out on the street so the room could turn over for the DJ/dance floor crowd.
I don’t know that there’s a moral to the story, other than that despite its flaws and drawbacks and the seemingly endless parade of minor indignities it asks of you, New York is capable of tremendous magic if you just say “yes,” and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that. Who knows what other adventures that night held? (A small group had gathered next door outside the Bowery Hotel because there were murmurs that Bob Saget would be walking out. He did not.)
I’ll curse New York the next time I’m stuck waiting 40 minutes for a D train and question my sanity the next time I’m forced to see what my rent could get me in another city, but I won’t be leaving any time soon. I’m under no illusion that my relationship with this place is unique in that regard, or that I’m not extremely lucky to be able to survive here and do what I love for a living when poverty and the skyrocketing cost of living make life in far too many parts of the city a bitter struggle. I also have no illusions about what I did up on that stage, either; the song is pretty much just one note on the bass. But as I looked left and then right and then out onto the crowd and thought about the twisted path of ferries and subways and sunsets and ice cream and Walt Whitman and high school dreams that all led to it, I knew that it was for damn sure the most fun note I’d played in years.
Anthony D’Amato recorded his latest album, The Shipwreck From the Shore, with members of Bon Iver, Megafaun, and Josh Ritter’s band, and released it last fall on New West Records. For music, tour dates, and additional info, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 21, 2015