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Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Bishop’s Lounge house band reunites for one night only

  • Smack My Bishop

  • 7-14-06 DSC_0079 lollis Ken Maiuri



Wednesday, February 24, 2016
When the Northampton address 41 Strong Avenue used to house the Bay State Hotel, back in the early 1990s, you could stand at the bottom of the building’s badly lit three-story stairwell, look up at the faraway ceiling and sometimes see bats flapping around in the dim beyond.

Later, when the building got revamped, the spooky scene on the top floor was replaced by the friendly bustle of Bishop’s Lounge, a favorite spot for many a local musician, including trumpet player Nick Borges. He and his musical pals started a house band there circa summer 2011, which got stuck with the punny name Smack My Bishop (mashing up the venue’s name and the title of an early 1990s hit by The Prodigy).

For more than four years, Borges and his bandmates hosted an open mic every Tuesday night — a full four-hour event, for which the musicians had to be at the top of their game, ready for anything, whether it was accompanying a new performer or jamming with visiting stars. As invigorating as it was, it was also hard work (and it didn’t make their Wednesday morning day jobs any easier), so they called it quits in 2015.

The close-knit musicians created lasting friendships, and they’ll return to action for one special night of original tunes, cover songs and improvisation at Bishop’s Lounge in Northampton Friday at 10 p.m.

Borges spoke with Clubland earlier this week, explaining how he and the gang — saxophonist Steve Yarbro, guitarist Dan Thomas, harmonica player Andy Soles, keyboardist John Corda, bassist J Witbeck and drummer Colin Jalbert — were really an “open musical workshop” rather than a plain ol’ band during those open mic years at Bishop’s.

“Collaboration was essential,” Borges said. “When someone walked in and signed up, one of us would go over and get to know them. Some people would want to sit in with [us] and call songs. Others were singer/songwriters trying out material. We would say to them, ‘Would you like a band?’ Some of my best memories were the look on their faces when they’re in front of a 6-plus-piece band, singing a song they wrote last night. I know that feeling well, because I would occasionally bring in sheet music of an original song I made for the band. The guys would glance it over while sipping a beer and give me a nod. They would always play it better than I did in my head.”

Borges was in awe of the collective’s chemistry. “I personally have never been with a group of musicians who can communicate so well through music, with little to no preparation. We quickly developed a musical hive mind,” he said.

He recalled how the ever-increasing popularity of the Tuesday night open mic forced the start time to continually be pushed earlier to fit everyone in — and the clientele was enjoyably unpredictable.

“There were rock bands, poetry readings, an orchestral harpist singing death metal, members of Toto sitting in, even someone who mic’d a house plant and hit the branches with twigs (and it was really good, too!),” Borges said. “I can’t count the number of good friends and close musical acquaintances I remember meeting for the first time at Bishop’s.”

Those years are full of stories, like the night dentist Steve Lipman walked through the door.

“He had a passion for singing, which he was just starting to pursue. He asked us, ‘You guys know any Sinatra?’ ” Borges recalled. “Guitar player Dan Thomas jumped into action, coaching the band and getting a few songs together. Many months later [Lipman] hired us to be his band for a recording session, complete with music video!”

More than a few attendees over the years appreciated Smack My Bishop’s “hive mind” and hired the group to assist on projects, including albums, sound tracks to independent films, narrations to children’s books and more.

The crack band even used leftover studio time to track five of its own songs in less than four hours, resulting in an album-length self-titled instrumental EP, which will be available at the Friday show.

Every track is a tribute to the Bishop’s scene, like the bubbly, rollicking funk of “The Ballad of Tom Schack” (“hands down the greatest dancer ever to grace the Bishop’s open mic”), “Out of Brown” (a song using a stuttering stop-start groove to help depict Borges’ stunned disbelief when Bishop’s once ran out of his favorite on-tap beer) and the late-night Latin shimmy of “Hot Purple Lights” (an ode to the venue’s blazing bulbs aimed at the stage).

“We’re very excited to be back at Bishop’s on Friday — so excited that we may actually rehearse! We have so much history there and with each other,” Borges said, happy that the planets (and people’s schedules) aligned so everyone was free to get together again.

It’ll just be a one-off visit — each of the musicians is now busy with multiple bands of their own (Borges himself is in six) — but they’re already predicting they’ll cross paths at their old haunt in the future, since vocalist Anders Warringer, who used to frequent Bishop’s Tuesday night open mic, recently re-started the weekly event.

“We look forward to being the ones to sign up for a change!” Borges said.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.

When the Northampton address 41 Strong Avenue used to house the Bay State Hotel, back in the early 1990s, you could stand at the bottom of the building’s badly lit three-story stairwell, look up at the faraway ceiling and sometimes see bats flapping around in the dim beyond.

Later, when the building got revamped, the spooky scene on the top floor was replaced by the friendly bustle of Bishop’s Lounge, a favorite spot for many a local musician, including trumpet player Nick Borges. He and his musical pals started a house band there circa summer 2011, which got stuck with the punny name Smack My Bishop (mashing up the venue’s name and the title of an early 1990s hit by The Prodigy).

For more than four years, Borges and his bandmates hosted an open mic every Tuesday night — a full four-hour event, for which the musicians had to be at the top of their game, ready for anything, whether it was accompanying a new performer or jamming with visiting stars. As invigorating as it was, it was also hard work (and it didn’t make their Wednesday morning day jobs any easier), so they called it quits in 2015.

The close-knit musicians created lasting friendships, and they’ll return to action for one special night of original tunes, cover songs and improvisation at Bishop’s Lounge in Northampton Friday at 10 p.m.

Borges spoke with Clubland earlier this week, explaining how he and the gang — saxophonist Steve Yarbro, guitarist Dan Thomas, harmonica player Andy Soles, keyboardist John Corda, bassist J Witbeck and drummer Colin Jalbert — were really an “open musical workshop” rather than a plain ol’ band during those open mic years at Bishop’s.

“Collaboration was essential,” Borges said. “When someone walked in and signed up, one of us would go over and get to know them. Some people would want to sit in with [us] and call songs. Others were singer/songwriters trying out material. We would say to them, ‘Would you like a band?’ Some of my best memories were the look on their faces when they’re in front of a 6-plus-piece band, singing a song they wrote last night. I know that feeling well, because I would occasionally bring in sheet music of an original song I made for the band. The guys would glance it over while sipping a beer and give me a nod. They would always play it better than I did in my head.”

Borges was in awe of the collective’s chemistry. “I personally have never been with a group of musicians who can communicate so well through music, with little to no preparation. We quickly developed a musical hive mind,” he said.

He recalled how the ever-increasing popularity of the Tuesday night open mic forced the start time to continually be pushed earlier to fit everyone in — and the clientele was enjoyably unpredictable.

“There were rock bands, poetry readings, an orchestral harpist singing death metal, members of Toto sitting in, even someone who mic’d a house plant and hit the branches with twigs (and it was really good, too!),” Borges said. “I can’t count the number of good friends and close musical acquaintances I remember meeting for the first time at Bishop’s.”

Those years are full of stories, like the night dentist Steve Lipman walked through the door. “He had a passion for singing, which he was just starting to pursue. He asked us, ‘You guys know any Sinatra?’ Guitar player Dan Thomas jumped into action, coaching the band and getting a few songs together. Many months later [Lipman] hired us to be his band for a recording session, complete with music video!”

More than a few attendees over the years appreciated Smack My Bishop’s “hive mind” and hired the group to assist on projects, including albums, sound tracks to independent films, narrations to children’s books and more.

The crack band even used leftover studio time to track five of its own songs in less than four hours, resulting in an album-length self-titled instrumental EP, which will be available at the Friday show.

Every track is a tribute to the Bishop’s scene, like the bubbly, rollicking funk of “The Ballad of Tom Schack” (“hands down the greatest dancer ever to grace the Bishop’s open mic”), “Out of Brown” (a song using a stuttering stop-start groove to help depict Borges’ stunned disbelief when Bishop’s once ran out of his favorite on-tap beer) and the late-night Latin shimmy of “Hot Purple Lights” (an ode to the venue’s blazing bulbs aimed at the stage).

“We’re very excited to be back at Bishop’s on Friday — so excited that we may actually rehearse! We have so much history there and with each other,” Borges said, happy that the planets (and people’s schedules) aligned so everyone was free to get together again.

It’ll just be a one-off visit — each of the musicians is now busy with multiple bands of their own (Borges himself is in six) — but they’re already predicting they’ll cross paths at their old haunt in the future, since vocalist Anders Warringer, who used to frequent Bishop’s Tuesday night open mic, recently re-started the weekly event.

“We look forward to being the ones to sign up for a change!” Borges said.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.