Red Rooster

Introducing Blue Grass Blues To N.Y.C.

Finding a great new band performing a sound which combines folk, bluegrass and blues into a modern update of a classic vibe would be a pleasure to most music fans. To find that band playing around in the underground clubs and venues of the hipster New York City scene is not only a credit to the band's inventiveness and persistence, but also gives hope that the scene is open to whichever musical styles call it home.

Created in the fall of 1998, Red Rooster has been playing their form of Americana, along with fiddles, banjos and Dobros, to audiences across the city. Their shows combine the elements of a great jam band, solid blues standards and slices of jazz and rock that march, meander and mozy for as much as three hours a show. The band's debut album, "Porch Songs", was released in early 2002 and represents just a portion of the band's collective sound, and a glimpse of their potential.

Guitarist and vocalist Jay Erickson, the creative force behind Red Rooster who also produced "Porch Songs", answered these questions for Chorus and Verse, giving us an insight into a band that is getting ready for act two. They have met the challenge of the local scene, in one of the most difficult local scenes in the world, released their debut album, and found an audience. They're setting out to expand all of the above, break out of their local scene, and prove to everyone why the only difference between man and chimp is acoustic blues and folk, with the occasional bluegrass.

Let's start off with an introduction to Red Rooster. Who are the members of the band and how did each of them come to become a member of the group?

Right now the members of the band are me [Jay Erickson, guitar and vocals], Nat Zilkha [guitar], Matt Dellinger [vocals], Jamie Forrest [bass and mandolin], Ted Shergalis [fiddle], and Miles Crawford [drums]. We recently lost Brian Keane [banjo] to Austin, TX where he is really going after his music career. Most of us have been friends before being bandmates. Nat and I went to kindergarten, and then college with Jamie, together. Ted and I went to high school together. Matt and I live on the same block and we were both friends with Miles through other circumstances.

In the band's four-year history, you've played at a number of New York City's historic venues. Go back a little bit, and describe your first live gig. What was the band's first big break, when you were able to start playing larger and more important rooms?

Our first live gig was at a bar called ReBar, now Suite 16, in Chelsea. I was bartending there and I convinced the owner to let us host an open mic night which was a lot of fun. At that time, we were playing all cover and the band consisted of Dan Moore on guitar, me, and Jon Howe on harmonica. Those two guys eventually moved out of New York and new guys came in. We have had the chance to play better venues as our audience size has grown, we have developed original material and deliver well-recorded demos to bookers.

Any venues that you particularly enjoy playing? Any place you haven't had the opportunity perform at yet that you're hoping to do so in the near future?

We have had great experiences at Fez and the Village Underground. They both have large (for us) stages, great sound systems, sound engineers who give a shit, and healthy audience spaces. We have also played the Back Fence regularly for three years and it is just a great relaxed place - sawdust on the floor, free peanuts - to hang out with friends and play music. The next venue I would like to get into would be the Bottom Line. It is a very warm, but large room and always has performers that I want to see.

Let's switch gears a little bit. Your music has been described as "blue grass blues". Neither of those terms are usually associated with New York City. Even the name of the band, Red Rooster, seems a little out of place in a city that probably hasn't had a farm in almost two centuries. How receptive are crowds in the city to your musical style and are there other bands performing similar types of music? Is there an advantage to performing something different from anyone else, or does it make it more difficult to build an audience?

I find that people are really receptive to our styles of music. Our sound, I think, offers a refreshing alternative to what you may typically find in New York City. There has also been a resurgence of interest in more traditional folksy music that is not confined to farm country as evidenced by the success of the O Brother soundtrack. I think having a unique and different sound is always an advantage. It's what makes people listen and get curious. People are always looking for new music.

Blues and bluegrass are usually associated with rural areas, more roots and folk-oriented. Do you find that living in the most urban of areas affected the themes of your music, and are your original songs more influenced by living in the city, or by traditional themes of those musical genres?

I think while our sound may smack more of country than city, our lyrical themes are either universal or have to do with life in the city, and the desire to forsake that life for life in the country.

Have you found that the success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack album had a positive effect on the band? Did the fact that the album became a mainstream musical success, without mainstream airplay, make a statement about the interest among the general public in bluegrass and other forms of folk and roots music?

I have not been able to see a direct influence of the effect of the O Brother success, but I am sure it has opened many minds to our style of music and its roots - which can't hurt. I think the success of that album was part of a cycle. There was a wave of interest in "traditional" music in the 50's and 60's. It went away and when people needed to rediscover their roots and were given a film to catalyze that interest, it came back, although in a much smaller and less sustained way. I think people will always be interested in bluegrass and blues the same way they are in classical or jazz. They are fully developed art forms that are rooted enough in history to stand the test of time.

Talk about your live shows for a little bit. Red Rooster has been known for playing three-to-four-hour shows, which would be a challenge for almost any band. How does the band prepare to be on stage for so long? Are set lists for the shows prepared ahead of time, and how much flexibility does the band allow itself when picking songs throughout the show?

How do we prepare? Not well enough. We really need to practice more. But a lot of our songs are not and do not require strict arrangement. Here's the key, here's the tempo and go. We are working towards a more practiced sound. In terms of set lists, we do make them, but I don't think we have ever followed one 100%. We like to call audibles and I think you need to be able to gauge the mood of the audience at any point and give them something that's right for the moment.

In addition to your original music, Red Rooster shows include a number of covers and standards. What are some of the covers the band most enjoys performing, and what criteria do you use to determine when to add a new one to the set? How adventurous does the band get when taking on more well-known songs, and interpreting them in your own way?

Our most consistently played cover is that of Willie Dixon's blues standard, "Lil' Red Rooster." Besides being our namesake, it's a great song. There aren't any criteria for selecting covers. Someone suggests something and we try it out and either we like it or not. We do like to play songs that we bet people have not heard a lot and thus introducing them to some great songs, but we have also been getting a little more adventurous in playing country-style covers of "Purple Rain" and the like.

Red Rooster released your debut CD, "Porch Songs" in 2002, a work that was almost two-years in the making. You originally intended to use live tracks when putting the album together, an idea that was eventually scrapped in favor of studio recordings. How faithfully do you feel the album captures a live show, and would the band eventually like to release a live album for fans?

There is no question that we sound different live than we sound on "Porch Songs." We did try and get some live recordings to work but the sound quality was not good enough. You can also be more creative, although less spontaneous, in many ways on layered recordings by arranging the music more and allowing for overdubs. There are really no blues songs on the album and I think playing the blues live is one of the things we do best and to which the audience really responds. Publishing some live blues tracks is something we should really do when we can.

"Porch Songs" contains 14 tracks, which represent a small number of the songs that you must be able to perform during such marathon shows. How were these fourteen songs chosen, and have you found any that have become fan favorites?

We originally had a lot more songs slated for the album, but we cut it down to 14, which is still a lot. They were chosen on their individual merit, but also how they fit into the rest of the album both lyrically and musically. Some of the favorites have been "Mexico", "On My Mind", "Linda Lou", "Carmine Street" and "One More Round".

Red Rooster has played at a number of MurphGuide's Weekly Music Series events at McGee's. How has the band enjoyed working with MurphGuide? How would you describe the state of the New York City music scene these days, and how easy or difficult it is for original bands to find rooms to play in?

Working with MurphGuide has been great. It is always wonderful to be supported and promoted. Unless you are signed with a label and they decide to promote you, you are really on your own and it's not easy. Having groups like MurphGuide bring awareness to your music and bring you into new venues is a blessing.

One of the band's upcoming gigs is the World Hunger Year (WHY) Hungerthon show, taking place at Connolly's on November 27th. Want to pitch the show a little bit to our readers, and talk about WHY's mission?

This event should be a lot of fun - there is a lot of great talent and it's a good cause. WHY was founded in 1975 to combat hunger and poverty in the U.S. and around the world. But the great thing is they don't just donate and move food and supplies but they work to bring communities to self-sustaining levels.

How do you see the band progressing over the course of the next twelve months? Do you plan to tour outside of the New York City area, record a follow-up to "Porch Songs" or undertake any other projects that you can share?

Right now, except for a few benefits, we are not playing out much. We are working on developing new material and evolving our sound - experimenting with samples and loops that can be played live and on recordings. At first glance you may wonder what a band that is rooted in traditional music is doing playing around with loops and samples, but I am pretty excited about it. I think, ideally, we will develop some new material, start gigging again in New York and the surrounding areas aggressively, record a new album and then really hit the road with two albums to promote.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.