Volume 18 • Issue 35 | January 13 - 19, 2006

Amateur musicians with a reason to believe
Six acts vie for the honor of best Springsteen soundalike—and a $500 purse

Photo by Bruce Cohen
Participants in the Nebraska Project Preview, from left to right: Danny Cohen, M. Key, Arlan Feiles, Douglas Nelson, John Birdsall, David Post, and members of the Awful Band.

By Frank Farina

In the early 1970’s, it was never uncommon to see an unknown Bruce Springsteen stun the crowd at The Bitter End with just one guitar and his tainted suburban swagger. Riding in from Asbury Park, roaming around Greenwich Village: it’s how he initially gained a tight following.

It’s been a while since he’s returned for a set, but as I entered the New York City landmark club last month, and immediately heard a close-to-identical capture of his weathered growl on “Highway Patrolman.” I had to think twice of who was on stage. It couldn’t be? Could it?

It wasn’t.

But the spirit of The Boss happened to be hovering in the air as 20-plus local musicians took the stage at The Bitter End on Thursday, Dec. 1 to compete for a spot at the Nebraska Project Preview at the Winter Garden.

Celebrating the picturesque album “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen released in 1982, The Nebraska Project will serve as the opening event of the 2006 New York Guitar Festival, and will feature such top musical acts as Michelle Shocked, Laura Cantrell, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Vernon Reid, and Marc Ribot.

The Nebraska Project Preview, featuring all of the finalists picked from The Bitter End, kicks off at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, January 13th at the World Financial Center Winter Garden.

Fans who found their way to the contest on Dec.1 were treated to an impressive night of inspired music, so much so that the group of judges, comprised of members from The 2006 New York Guitar Festival and The Studio, a midtown musicians networking club, had a difficult time selecting the best of the bunch. 

The preconceived five winning slots were ultimately changed to six, to better accommodate the grand pool of talent.

The same group of judges will reconvene after Friday’s event to award a $500 prize to the act that best represents both Springsteen and themselves. The winner will also get a chance to play a second song from Springsteen’s landmark album at the end of the show.

“I had such a good time listening to everybody. I was amazed at how each person had something about them that was interesting, and really entertaining,” said Danny Cohen, 35, who resides in Murray Hill and was one of the six winning acts.

Cohen, one of the few contestants who chose the Springsteen staple “Atlantic City,” helps out at The Studio, coordinating weekly open jam sessions.

“I first heard Springsteen’s music when I was in Kenya, it was 1974- 1975, and a very good friend of mine sent me a copy of his first 2 albums,” said David Post, conjuror of Bruce’s sound, and professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University by day. “I like his story songs, I think he’s a great story teller.”

In the end it was Post and John Birdsall, along with The Amazing Mule Band, Arlan Feiles, Awful Band, David Cohen, and M. Key who proved the most worthy to deliver their own personal take on Springsteen’s material.

“This contest is all about people’s different interpretations of ‘Nebraska,’ and how they lend their own sound to such a distinguished album,” said David Spelman, co-founder and artistic director of the New York Guitar Festival.

Armed with such timeless songs as “Atlantic City,” “Nebraska,” and “Highway Patrolman” they all earned their spot to play at the Winter Garden and pay their personal tribute to one of rock and roll’s living legends.

Springsteen, whose lyrics on “Nebraska” read like moody short stories, has always been a part of the contestants’ musical lives, but most admitted they didn’t know the album well.

“I wasn’t familiar with that album in particular, but I’ve seen Springsteen a few times live; I’m a big fan,” said winner M. Key, 35.

“ ‘Nebraska’ was not high on my list of his albums I liked. But when I revisited it for the purposes of this contest, I appreciated it much more,” added Post.

Post, a double-winner, played both a version of the gloomy “Highway Patrolman” with his brother-in-law Birdsall, and also joined in with The Amazing Mule Band on “Reason to Believe.”

“I thought there was a great atmosphere at The Bitter End. The acts that were picked were all very good, and it will make this Friday a great show.”

If it’s anything like the special night at The Bitter End, The Nebraska Project Preview will be a charged environment, full of unique performances.

Danny Cohen says he is used to such experiences from his days at The Studio, and also from playing in weekend jams at Washington Square Park. But the city of New York, while saturated with top-notch music, can sometimes be too high-strung and exclusive.

“It made me feel great to be a part of an open, fun community like that. In New York City, you don’t get to be in that situation too often.”

The 2006 New York Guitar Festival runs from Jan. 14 through Wednesday Feb. 8, and features guitar-heavy events at many famed New York City venues including Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, Merkin Concert Hall, and BB King Blues Club & Grill. Visit nyguitarfestival.org for information on tickets and show times.

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