Stories produced by St. Peter's Journalism Students
BY KYLE MURRAY
Chipped paint on the walls and an unfinished floor lead you downstairs where the sounds of a beating drum fill the room. An echo of a voice scatting bounces off the walls, harmonizing with young singers in the front row armed with mics.
With the sweat dripping down her face, Grammy award winning singer Chrisette Michele holds a mic in one hand, while swaying to the upbeat sounds of the live band behind her. People in the crowd are dancing in corners, clapping their hands, or simply nodding their heads to the rhythm. You soon begin to realize, this is no typical New York City nightclub.
Greenwich Village is home to the Village Underground, a historic location for live music that dates back over 50 years. Surrounded by naked brick walls and black leather lounge chairs, the dimly lit stage is ready. Monday nights at the “VU” are home of Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley’s ‘Black Velvet Mondays’ open mic event.
“I’m an avid goer of the Underground since 2001. I love this place, and always have,” professed singer Chrisette Michele, after coming off stage and taking her seat joining a small group of friends amongst the crowd.
Signed to major record label Def Jam Records (alongside artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Kanye West, Ludacris and many more), Michele has worked with Hip Hop royalty such as Jay-Z and popular newcomer Drake. Winner of a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2008, and headliner of two national tours, Michele finds her way back to the intimate stage of the Underground on a consistent basis.
“This is the root of the music industry. This is where it all begins for many artists,” said host Toni Menage.
A Harlem native, Toni has sung backgrounds for Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and toured with numerous major record label artists. She now acts as CEO of her own management company, and is co-founder of “Project Orange”, a touring “Event Band”.
Black Velvet Mondays is unique in many ways, chief among them their ability to showcase talent in not only aspiring singers, but musicians as well. Unlike other open mic events, musicians can sign up to play and rotate places every few songs.
“I love the fact that new artists get an opportunity to showcase their talent here. A lot of stars are made this way,” added Toni.
Lovers of music with all levels of experience credit the Underground’s “jam sessions” with helping them grow as artists. Having toured with Josh Grobin, Linkin Park, and Sinead O’Connor, New Jersey native David Jackson is an accomplished artist in his own right. Jackson has been attending the Open Mic event since 2002 and credits the Village Underground for teaching him “the importance of not only being able to sing, but being able to entertain.”
“To me, it’s like the school of music. If you are an artist, you will make your way to the Underground someway somehow,” Jackson said.
Some singers perform ballads by artists like Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, while others take a more upbeat approach and cover songs by Cee-Lo and Beyonce. With clapping and occasional outbursts, audience members participate the whole way through.
“Let the lord use you now” yells one audience member as a singer begins their ballad.
“Not every singer is great, but it’s such a positive and supportive environment that everyone is still having a good time,” added Jackson.
The energy at the Village Underground on Monday nights is like no other. This is a place where lovers of music can be crafted, learn new things, or simply be entertained. The amount of talent and the overwhelming feeling of positive energy make Monday nights at the VU feel like a Friday night concert at Madison Square Garden.