For 25 years The Baghdaddios have churned along, trolling the seedier dive bars of New York City that were fortunate enough to have a sound system and a cabaret license. Occasionally they graced the spotlight of some higher profile venues (including their third-ever show at iconic punk birthplace CBGB). Somewhere along the way, between the indie CD releases, music videos, trips to other countries and criss-crossing various part of the U.S., they got a bright idea in their 5th year that resulted in the proverbial 'gift that keeps on giving'. They founded a musically-themed benefit for their home City's homeless.........
"We were a lot younger and naive back then", remembers front-man and Benefit founder Kenn Rowell. "We didn't even have plans for a second-year show until the very last moments of the first one, when I just looked at the few people who were left in the club and said 'See you all next year'. I remember walking off the stage and thinking to myself 'Uh-oh, what did I just promise'?"
But here we all are, 2 decades later and the little-Benefit-that-could is still rolling along, spawning satellite shows and still marshalling the best of the City's indie and unsigned talent to bring a diverse audience together at The Hudson House, a friendly little club in the New York City suburb of Nyack on Sunday, December 17 for what will be the twenty-first consecutive year for a worthwhile cause. When Rowell booked the first 5 acts back in 1997 there was no real blueprint, no primer - Hell, there was barely an internet - to lead the way. It started as a late-night post-gig barroom convo between he and fellow Blank-Fest founder (and fellow performer) Chuck DeBruyn where they hit upon the idea of mini-set performances by themselves, along with some of their friends. The price of admission? Just a blanket, any condition. These blankets, in turn, would be handed out directly to the City's less fortunate, spending Christmas Eve on the cold, dark streets. No middle-man, no huge organization (or red tape) to slow down their efforts and (here's the cool part) NO money involved. "We reasoned that if we made dime one, then we had failed", explains Rowell. "It was kind of a real hippie-type thing; we felt money corrupts - so let's dispense with that. Just give us the blankets and we'll get 'em to the people".
Growth was near-exponential in the early days. Blank-Fest's inaugural show netted 40 contributions - 20 of which came from DeBruyn's mother's home. Blank-Fest II in '98 yielded 70 donations. By the early 2000's the Benefit was pulling in over 600 donations for what was by now the flagship show. Early attempts at City-based shows, while well-intentioned didn't come close to matching the main event. That all changed after a full-page feature in the New York Daily News in 2006. New Jersey rocker Rich Kubicz approached Kenn about developing a Garden State-based Blank-Fest and within a few years was outperforming the original venue. A tour of England for The Baghdaddios the following summer inspired a few enterprising rockers in Nottingham to organize the first Blank-Fest UK, soon to be followed by shows in Canada, Virginia and Florida. Today Canada boasts Blank-Fest shows in multiple major markets and there are talks of pushing the show onto the mainland in Europe (Germany is one such-rumored locale). All-in-all the organizers have estimated that Blank-Fest has been responsible for raising over 15,000 total donations, the vast majority being blankets, since it's inception, 20 years ago. As always, Blank-Fest XXI will be featuring the best of NYC and the surrounding area's indie talent including ex-Misfit and current Undead frontman Bobby Steele along with EMI-alumna, singer-songwriter Patti Rothberg. The rest of the lineup is rounded out by some great local and regional acts - including a few surprise entries.
For Rowell, it's been a fun - if sometimes crazy - journey. But he's used to the up-and-down micro-dramas that come with the turf considering that The Baghdaddios - his band, the band that's hosted this show every year since its founding - has had an even crazier up-and-down history. Despite only releasing two full-length albums and a handful of EPs, music videos and online-only efforts, the group continues to record new material and play shows, albeit not as many shows as they were accustomed to 'back in the day'. "We're all older now and a lot of the places we used to practically live at are gone", says Rowell. "CB's, Kenny's Castaways, Wetlands, Continental - now even Hank's Saloon in Brooklyn is closing. It's just not the same anymore - and even if it were, the crowd we grew up with got older too. They've all moved on, gotten married, raised kids, moved away.........or died. It's sad but it's the circle of life. That's why we love it when we can bring our show to a new audience. We sometimes wonder if they're going to be able to relate to what we're playing up there but in the end it's just three chords, a lot of feedback and some good ol' sweaty rock 'n roll - and that never goes out of style!"
Which brings us to their latest release: a punked-up Holiday bauble called "Let It Be Happy". Written on Christmas Day, 2015, the song started as an acoustic encouragement for Kenn's partner, celebrated Lower East Side bilingual poet Yvonne Sotomayor. "She had just reached out to an old grade school friend on Facebook who didn't remember her and then blocked her. She was a bit bummed out like 'what did I do to her to deserve that?' so I said to her 'FORGET her - it's Christmas, let's just be happy for what we've got and to Hell with her - if she doesn't want to be your friend, screw her!' and I started playing the chords and singing "Let it be happy - let it be merry - let it be happy, it's a Merry Christmas" and it all grew from there!" In fact, they even recorded a homemade iPhone video of him singing the tune in front of their Christmas tree, the next day. With encouragement from bandmates and friends the group decided to electrify the arrangement and see how the recording would go. "It went a lot better than anyone expected. We were in-between drummers at the time so Count of Nine's drummer, good friend Joe Dugan sat in for the session." The rest of the band gelled behind him quite convincingly and Alice Donut guitarist Michael Jung lent his touch as co-producer/mixer to push the two minute and eleven second gem's final mix to release-worthy status. So buoyed by the final product, Rowell pulled together what was left of the band, along with some good rock 'n roll friends to produce a fun, festive music video. That video - shot mid-January of this year - is finally seeing the light of day with it's recent Holiday Season release. The timing of the release is two-fold in it's intention.
"We've been dying to drop this on an unsuspecting public for almost a year, now", relates Rowell, "but we also figured that with Blank-Fest coming up this gave us an extra incentive. Any buzz we could get from the video - which is pretty damned catchy, don't you think? - we could use to hype our latest edition of our homeless Benefit. We saw it as a win-win!"
Available as a YouTube-only release, the music vid is the latest of similarly-themed Holiday fare that the band is known for. Starting with the underground classic, "Christmas At C.B.G.B.'s" - complete with cool cartoon music video - in 2002, The Baghdaddios have not been shy about shamelessly combining their flare for punk rock bombast with Yuletide imagery. Their 2008 "Season's Beatings" Holiday EP featured such hummable staples like "Christmas Ain't For Lonely People", their high octane take on Feliz Navidad and their mosh-pit ready version of the Robert Burns New Year's traditional, "Auld Land Syne". Their 9-second oft-bootlegged outtake, "I Want To Kill Paris Hilton's Dog And Eat It For Christmas Dinner" found it's way to YouTube where it actually garnered 700-plus views despite no official release, promotion or even mention in band circles.
Meanwhile, Kenn and the rest of The Baghdaddios hope "Let It Be Happy" will exceed all past efforts: https://youtu.be/aTkGquFwgWQ
When pressed for a preference as to which vehicle he had higher hopes for, Rowell merely shrugged. "Look, in a perfect world I'd like to see both get the monster hype, but if you're going to ask me to choose then I'd say 'show up for Blank-Fest and help the homeless - we've got the rest of our lives to promote a Christmas song'. Bottom line: it's there when you're ready for it - IF you're ever ready for it?"
And if they're never ready for it?
His answer pretty much summed up his punk rock philosophy on life: "F it, man - at least we had fun!".
(You can always write to Kenn and the rest of The Baghdaddios at SurfVietnam@Hotmail.com - info and history for Blank-Fest can also be found on www.blankfest.org - Happy Holidays, one and all!)