“I’ll drop everything.”
This, according to J.J. Abrams, was composer, actor and Hamilton-mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s initial response when asked to create a new cantina song for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Perhaps the busiest man on Broadway right now, Miranda, who was born and raised in New York City, won a Tony Award in 2008 for his musical, In the Heights, and was named a MacArthur Genius this past September. But despite Miranda’s penchant for reimagining history — currently rapping his way through the life and times of founding father Alexander Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street — that galaxy far, far away has largely existed as uncharted territory for the artist up until now.
A seedy, smoke-filled tavern, where severed limbs and blaster shootouts are shrugged off as everyday occurrences, the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine is perhaps one of the most beloved, oft-referenced locals of the entire Star Wars universe. And second only behind the film’s main overture, scored by legendary composer John Williams, the syncopated, swing-inspired backing track found in Mos Eisley is the movie’s most instantly recognizable melody.
Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes (yes, the cantina band has an actual name, and a killer one at that) fit in perfectly with the spaceport’s clientele of alien bounty hunters and intergalactic felons. But if one is looking for “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” as Obi Wan famously describes Mos Eisley in A New Hope, the five boroughs are filled with hundreds of wretched, scummy and all-around villainous places to get really drunk and watch bands play almost every night of the week.
So here, in honor of Miranda’s new cantina anthem for The Force Awakens, which opens officially today, is a 100-percent objectively correct list of the best successors to the Modal Nodes New York has to offer, as well as the cantinas they might call home. If you can’t get to Tattooine, you can get on the Subway and check out the following spots instead — or at least listen to these bands on your way to the theater.
Worriers at Suburbia
Star Wars is very punk and very much about smashing the patriarchy — the Galactic Empire is just a metaphor, you know? — and our guess is that Brooklyn’s Worriers would be pretty popular with the younger Rebel Alliance crowd that drops by the cantina on weekends. The band’s most recent album, Imaginary Life — which was released this summer on Don Giovanni Records and produced by Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace — is 12 churning tracks of smart, emotionally-impactful punk rock. And Suburbia, a basement apartment/concert venue that the New Yorker once dubbed “Bushwick’s Punk Paradise,” is the perfect setting for the kind of I-hate-my-dad teenage angst Luke Skywalker went through during his formative years on Tatooine.
Laura Stevenson at Shea Stadium
This fall, Laura Stevenson, of Bomb the Music Industry! fame, released her fourth solo record, Cocksure, also on Don Giovanni Records. And while it’s easy to picture Han Solo dropping an album with the same name — featuring the hit single “I Love You (I Know),” and B-side “Who’s Scruffy Lookin’?” — Stevenson’s LP is full of beautiful, perfectly crafted pop, folk and punk songs, as hard rocking as they are heartbreakingly honest. The small intimate space at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn — where Stevenson played a benefit show for the New York Cares coat drive with Mikey Erg and Cymbals Eat Guitars just last month — wouldn’t be a bad spot for a blaster dual, either. (Han obviously shot first.)
The Bothers at Otto’s Shrunken Head
It’s actually surprising that Otto’s Shrunken Head on 14th Street hasn’t already been indoctrinated into the Star Wars universe somehow, so bizarre and otherworldly are the furnishings in this tiki-themed East Village hideout. Up front, visitors can guzzle their way through tropical mai tais and volcano blasts at the beer-soaked bar; in back, there’s a small stage that can turn the joint into a raucous punk show given the right crowd. Last month, rockabilly revivalists the Bothers took the stage, packing the backroom and transforming Otto’s into some sort of mosh pit sockhop. Part Dagobah swamp, part Honolulu getaway, Otto’s Shrunken Head belongs on a different planet.
Be Yourself! at Cakeshop
Anakin Skywalker is basically the original emo kid. There’s the unhealthy, codependent love affair with Padmé; the deep-seeded, maternal abandonment issues; the long locks of blond hair brushed haphazardly over his eyes. But instead of murdering a bunch of padawans and becoming an evil Sith lord, it’s probably a better idea to get all your sadness and self-loathing out with Be Yourself!, New York’s live pop-punk and emo karaoke band. Though the group will play its first show at Webster Hall’s Marlin Room on December 19, over the past year Be Yourself! has made the basement at Cake Shop on the Lower East Side it’s own emo Alderaan.
Adult Dude at Saint Vitus Bar
To reiterate, Star Wars is very punk. So Brooklyn’s Adult Dude — and their new, aptly-titled album Adult Moods, out on Animal Style Records — would be a good fit for any cantina. But in addition to being very punk, Star Wars is also very metal, and it would be nice to pair the catchy, punk-inspired sounds of Adult Dude with Greenpoint’s favorite heavy metal bar/all-genre music venue, Saint Vitus.
Ratas en Zelo at Don Pedro
In A New Hope, C-3PO boasts that he’s fluent in over 6 million forms of communication. From Wookieespeak to Jawaese, one of those languages has got to be Spanish, so it would make sense to have Ratas en Zelo — perhaps New York City’s only accordion-fueled, Latina punk quartet — on the bill as the cantina house band. The group frequently performs in the monthly Riot Chica parties at Don Pedro, a dive bar and music venue on Manhattan Avenue in Bushwick. And as an added bonus, the bar’s kitchen is also know to serve up some burritos that are (wait for it…) pretty out of this world.
Landlady at the Bell House
Landlady’s avant-garde art rock might be better suited to the younger, hipper, urban crowds on Coruscant and Cloud City, rather than the salt-of-the-earth desert folk found at Mos Eisley. But the band put out an excellent record in 2014 titled Upright Behavior, and earlier this month lead singer Adam Shatz hosted his second annual Holiday Spectacular at the Bell House in Gowanus. The group also frequently performs and collaborates with Cantina, a musical project from Brooklyn’s Renata Zeiguer, which seems like pertinent information to mention here.
Ratking at Elvis Guesthouse
Given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s prowess as a rapper and lyrical savant, there’s no reason a cantina band has to be a band at all, at least in the traditional sense of the term. Earlier this month, Ratking’s Wiki dropped Lil Me — his first solo project since the Harlem hip-hop trio first began making waves almost three years ago — and the mixtape only reinforces the 22-year-old MC’s status as one of the most skilled rappers on this planet (or any other). Still, Wiki remains at his best when supported by the densely packed, glitched-out beats of producer Sporting Life and the strange half-rapped, half-sung verses from Hak.
Yeasayer at Baby’s All Right
Rumor has it that the Brooklyn experimental rock quartet Yeasayer will soon be releasing a new album, their first since 2012’s Fragrant World. And while many of the band’s music videos are already reminiscent of what it’s like to watch Star Wars on acid, Yeasayer’s synthesized arrangements and futuristic aesthetic would do well with an intergalactic crowd.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at The Beacon Theater
Though not a swing band per say, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings might be a slightly more traditional route when it comes to filling the shoes of the seven-piece Modal Nodes ensemble. This fall the band released its latest record, It’s A Holiday Soul Party, on Brooklyn’s Daptone Records. But regardless of what time of year it is, the group’s horn and sax-driven funk rhythms are perfect to get any cantina dancing. There’s eight members in Jones’ backing band — not to mention Bronx-bred “Dapettes” Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Lowe, a/k/a Saun & Starr — so the Dap-Kings already have the Modal Nodes beat in terms of sheer size and force. Jones also once worked as a prison guard, so chances are she can handle herself around a rough, heavily-armed crowd.