Stars of the AVT #2: Howard Fishman
This post is one of a series profiling the hundreds of performers I’ve presented through my American Vaudeville Theatre in celebration of its 15th anniversary. Don’t miss the American Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza in the New York International Fringe Festival this August!
In recent years, old time music man Howard Fishman has gotten himself a national profile, performing extensively on NPR, locally on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, and in high profile venues like Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note.
He first performed for me at the American Vaudeville Theatre at Surf Reality back in 1998, and later came back and did our Show Boat vaudeville on the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge in 2007. A quick snatch of the former performance is viewable here
I wrote about him pretty extensively on this site a few months ago here, so I’ll let that stand as my encomium. But I also unearthed an interesting artifact, an article I wrote about him in 1999 for the now defunct Williamsburg publication Waterfront Week. (Ironically he was playing at the Algonquin at that time, one of his first big breaks) Herewith, that text:
THE HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET
If you were twenty years old when the newest song in Howard Fishman’s repertoire was brand new, you’d be 100 now. Fishman’s a familiar sight to anyone who rides the L train. I first caught him at the Bedford Ave stop about two years ago. astraddle a kitchen chair, his porkpie hat and aviator sunglasses making him resemble an unsettling combination of Buster Keaton and Lou Reed.
Getting back to roots is Fishman’s whole deal. His band (Howard on guitar and banjo, Russel Farhang on fiddle, Jaspn Cypher on bass and Peter Eckland on cornet) specializes in giving life to popular songs from the first two decades of the 20th century. Fishman’s quest became so intense that he actually made a pilgrimage to New Orleans where he studied blues, ragtime and early jazz at the feet of numerous old-timers like the late Danny Barker, a guitar and banjo player who played with Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.
Foshman emerged from this schooling transformed. There are plenty of people who have continued to play this style of music throughout the decades, but few of them seem to live the part. His band isn’t just copying old records, they are making music that lives and breathes NOW. It is a high-velocity music, frequently as hyper as punk, but enriched by an intoxicating profusion of chord changes that can sweep you off your feet or put a chill up your spine. His band’s flawlessly accurate arrangements of 20s classics strive above all to make interesting music and this is what makes the time trip so convincing. Because that is all a band playing 80 years ago would have done.
Best of all, there’s nothing even remotely corny about the way the band does these numbers. There’s no bogus nostaglia trip, no insufferable “remember when?” drivel of the type one must endure, for example, at a doo-wop concert, mostly because, of course, no one DOES remember songs with titles like “I Got the World on a String”, “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” and “My California Sunshine Gal”. But even Fishman’s version of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” blows most top 40 rubbish out of the water.
Why would a bunch of guys in their twenties immerse themselves in the styles, the sounds and attitudes of their great-grandfathers? I think I found the answer in an original tune of Fishman’s: “All My Best Days are Behind Me”. In an era of rampant cynicism, apathy and incompetence such as this, no one dast blame the young for looking backward.
To learn more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.