Positively 3rd Street
Reminiscing is a human trait. No other animal has the ability to pay such homage to the past as we do. There are memorable dates in history and then there are not so memorable dates. Many dates in history are owned solely by one event that took place or by one person's accomplishment.
Take March 2, 1962 for instance. Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, playing for the lowly Philadelphia Warriors, scored an insane 100 individual points in a meaningless game against the New York Knicks. It was played in Hershey, PA where the paid attendance was exactly 4,124 people.
The still unsurpassed feat was historic and has been since the final buzzer. Over the years, thousands more would claim to have been there, too.
On that day, Paul Paulson headlined a less memorable booking at Gerdes Folk City.
Historical claim to the 15th, 16th and 17th days of August 1969 belongs to a music festival visible from space called Woodstock. Big, little Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY hosted the unforgettable event where an astounding 186,000 tickets were sold and an even more amazing 400,000(!) people were estimated to have seen Gerdes Folk City alumni Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and Jimi Hendrix perform. (yes Jimi played the Village) Probably a million more folks have claimed to be at this watershed moment in American history.
That week, the (in)comparable Will Street played a(n) (un)forgettable 12 set stint at Gerdes Folk City.
Incidentally, Gerdes' owner, Mike Porco, was less than 3 months away from meeting his 7th grandchild, Robert Jr. As it turned out, forty years later this same Bob Porco would coordinate appearances by 40 former Folk City performers in a music filled tribute to his late grandfather and his night club.
June 7 of this year brought us a game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Flyers and Blackhawks; a record breaking 8 three point shots by Celtic Ray Allen in the NBA Finals against the Lakers and a record-tying 11 one-run games in Major League Baseball. But Gerdes Folk City, which has lain silent for 23 years, once again came alive with perhaps one the most memorable concerts ever to take place in New York's Greenwich Village.
Its been Fifty years since Mike Porco first invited aspiring singer songwriters to come in from the cold to perform for a paying gig and a warm meal at his Italian restaurant on 4th and Mercer. On a gorgeous night this past Monday, some forty Folk and Rock dignitaries came back to the Village's former headquarters to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Porco's eatery morphing into what Bob Dylan called in his autobiography, Chronicles, "the preeminent Folk Club in America."
Bobby Dylan would know. He began his career at Gerdes. As did countless others like Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, José Feliciano, Tom Paxton, Steve Forbert, Suzanne Vega, John Hammond Jr., Rod MacDonald, Willie Nile and a host of others.
None of the performers there on June 7 would dispute Dylan's claim. Nor would the roughly 200 patrons who came to what is now The Village Underground to witness a gathering of Greenwich Village royalty not soon to be forgotten.
That's right. Just around 200 (musicians included!) got chance of a lifetime to see and hear some of the living breathing legends of the New York Music Scene from the 1960s and 70s perform in the flesh on stage. Hardly a ripple was felt in the mainstream news wires but organizer Bob Porco said it will be looked back upon as one of the greatest evenings 3rd Street has ever seen.
"It would simply be impossible to duplicate. I'll never be able to pick a date in the future that would just happen to fit into the schedule of such busy musicians." When asked how it took place, Porco quickly answered, "An inner muse opened my eyes and inspired me to seize the moment. The planets aligned for this reunion, no question,"
The daunting task of recruiting so many performers (not only musicians as spoken word artist Poez and comedian-poet Steve Ben Isreal also took the stage) for one night was made easier by the living memory of Bob's grandfather. He felt that there was an immediate level of trust formed between everyone he contacted because Mike was fair and honest with all of them when they were starting out.
"I was shocked at how accessible they all were," Bob said adding that social networking website Facebook was essential in finding several luminaries. "So many of them simply replied back with their home phone numbers and addresses. Suze Rotolo said I had a magic name. I was inspired to keep going. "
The Porco name had been useful when he began to work on his original project back in November of '09. "I had already been at work conducting interviews for a bio on Mike Porco. I just had to backtrack and contact everyone again to tell them of the possibility of a reunion." Many of the performers responded with firm confirmations right from the get-go. Porco was confident that he could make something of the artist's offering of their time.
Like his grandfather 50 years before, opportunity fell into Bob's lap. Perhaps channeling Mike Porco's fortuative nature, Bob gladly took the ball and ran with it.
He recalls the moment the plan took shape. On February 19th of this year, he sat upstairs at the corner of the bar in the very space that was once Folk City, The Fat Black Pussycat. "I met Vincent Vok for a drink before going to watch Richie Havens at Carnegie Hall. We thought it would be cool to just get everyone together again. Then we thought it would be better if they brought their guitars".
Vok, along with Emmylou Harris and sisters Maggie and Terre Roche, had the distinction of not only performing for Mike Porco, but of also once being on the payroll as employees. A friendship between Vok and the younger Porco budded quickly. Stealing a line from the movie, Field of Dreams, Vok told Porco, "if you build it, they will come." Laughter ensued but, in their minds, the Anniversary party had been born.
The very next morning, the venue for the reunion was tentatively secured via an email exchange between Bob and Fat Black Pussycat/ Village Underground proprietor Noam Dworman. Noam was well aware of the musical provenance of his W3rd Street bar and offered his space to be a part of history. Dworman's late father, Manny, was an acquaintance of Mike Porco when they were both booking acts in their respective clubs.
Originally touted as a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of the stars that made Gerdes what it was, the 50th Anniversary Reunion certainly lived up to its billing. Porcofest, as it was dubbed by the show's last scheduled performer Erik Frandsen, filled the Village Underground with a slew of traditional and original songs all performed one-by-one by the super star line up.
The audience was first wowed by the parade of arrivals into the downstairs venue. Porco recalls his time spent at the ticket booth when the doors opened:
"I didn't anticipate the rush of volunteers, artists and concert goers all coming down at the same time wanting to say hello. I had communicated with many of them by email or phone only." With a robust chuckle he adds, "hardly any of them knew what I looked like."
Some performers were known to Bob from his days conducting face-to-face interviews. Eric Weissberg, Happy Traum, Terre Roche, Frank Christian, Jack Hardy and Rod MacDonald were a few of the early arrivals to receive a hug from the party's host. Many others who had been in contact with Porco frequently had still only learned what he looked like upon arrival. Some were greeted by happenstance.
"I just happened to be walking upstairs when Sylvia Tyson strode in. I stood up and said, 'you're Sylvia!' and she said 'yes. And YOU are?'" A mandatory hug followed between past phone interviewee and host. Bob then carried her guitar case and escorted her to a comfortable place to sit.
"I knew this show was a big deal when people stopped to see her come through and I overheard folks whispering her name. By then the place was packed. I couldn't believe it!"
Vince Martin, Richard Chanel, Jonathan Kalb, Willie Nininger, Biff Rose, Sally Spring, Nick Holmes and several others finally put a face to the name at the bottom of those stairs. When Judy Gorman approached, she politely asked "are you Bob?" before handing him flowers. "I never got flowers before. I was humbled."
Bob also had a little fun with his anonymity. "I teased Bev Grant that she had to pay to get in and she looks at me like 'who is this idiot?!'
Five minutes before showtime, everyone figured out who the host was as he took to the platform stage to say a few opening remarks. The show started with a brief warm welcome complete with audio played on the house speakers from a radio interview Mike Porco conducted in that very same space some 31 years earlier when it was his small office.
In it, Mike accepted the label of being the "father" to many of the Village musicians while cheekily admitting, "I may be their father but I never met their mothers". Many in attendance listened with looks of satisfaction to hear his voice once more.
In closing, Mike's grandson predicted that Folk City's finest moment has yet to take place. "I think we're all about to witness it tonight and experience it together as it happens."
A few dozen die hard music lovers were still there to hear Rod MacDonald pay tribute to Phil Ochs with a tranquil and heartfelt "Pleasures of the Harbor" and David Massengill perform his timeless masterpiece "Road to Fairfax County." The evening finally wrapped up some 6 hours from showtime- forty five minutes after Mr. Frandsen left the stage- with a seven person rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a song written by Gerdes' favorite son.
It's likely that none of the guests that night will argue with Bob Porco's earlier claim about Gerdes Folk City carving a new place for itself in today's world. Vince Martin, one of the night's many highlights, said that it satisfied a long time itch. The scores of patrons who got wind of the event are likely to never forget it. It was as joyous and cheerful as many a year at the old Folk City was said to be.
Only time will tell how many others will claim to have "been there" to witness the magic as it unfolded. And the few who know the truth won't mind their inclusion. It was something special and should be shared with everyone- both those who couldn't make it and those who could no longer be with us in person.