They don’t call him the Sheriff of Greenwich Village for nothing.
“I live three blocks from MacDougal, and hung out in the Village when I was in high school–and when it was the center of the music scene in the ’60s,” says Sheriff Bob, whose real name is Robert Saidenberg. He’s also known as Sheriff Uncle Bob when he leads The Sheriff’s Bluegrass & Goodtime Jam Wednesday nights at the Grisly Pear on MacDougal Street, in the heart of the Village.
He also heads Sheriff Bob’s Gaslight Revival across the street at 116 MacDougal Street–the name of a club that back in the day was the famous Gaslight Café, the coffee shop where the likes of Bob Dylan played and beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso recited.
“I call it the Village Gaslight,” says Saidenberg, a dobro player and guitarist. “My first New York gig was there, playing behind the beat poets and Wavy Gravy–who was then Hugh Romney. He was doing poetry. So was Gregory Corso. But by 1962 there were no more poets and it was a folk club. Everybody played there. Bill Monroe played there.”
The Sheriff cold just have easily been called the Mayor of MacDougal Street, but that honorific went to folksinging great Dave Van Ronk, “who was the center of the scene when I was growing up,” continues Saidenberg.
As for Dylan, “I met him at the next door Kettle Of Fish bar. He was using the apartment above it and Wavy took me to meet him. I heard him and immediately fell in love: After Pete Seeger, he was writing folk music that mattered.”
Phil Ochs was there, too, and a lot of other now-legends, of course. But Saidenberg feels that the overall quality of players in New York now is better than in the ’60s.
Last night’s intergenerational mix at the Gaslight suggests he might be right. He fronted harmonica ace Trip Henderson, a Sheriff Bob regular, along with upright bassist Max Johnson, one of the town’s top young jazz players. Guitarist Rick Snell and mandolinist Elio Schiavo of New York’s premiere bluegrass band Six Deadly Venoms were there, too, and on the local acoustic music superstar end were old-timey/bluegrass fiddler Kenny Kosek and banjo master Marty Cutler.
The musicians played old-timey, bluegrass and country classics in old-time bluegrass style, surrounding a single vocal microphone and stepping up to it to take a vocal lead. Songs ranged from Jimmie Rodgers (“Muleskinner Blues”) to Bill Monroe (“Body And Soul”), Ernest Tubb (“Thanks A Lot”), Hank Williams “Someday You’ll Call My Name” and even ’60s rock band The Boxtops “The Letter.”
Saidenberg notes that other players on any given night might include seminal “newgrass” band Skyline’s guitarist Danny Weiss, all-girl string band Calamity Janes’ Mimi LaValley, Six Deadly Venoms banjo player Bennett Sullivan and dobro player Todd Livingston, jam band Soulfarm mandolinist Noah Chase and Demolition String Band’s Elena Skye and Boo Reiners.
“It excites me to play with such terrific players, from being in their twenties to sixties to me in my seventies,” says the “about 73” year-old. “And it’s free!”
It was in the mid-1990s that he first “put the badge on,” he recalls. He was playing bluegrass at Carpo’s Café at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal.
“I said, ‘I’m the sheriff of good times,’ and got a laugh,” he says. “Everybody called me ‘Sheriff’.”
He became a regular part of Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry, which the Nashville/New York roots music pioneer established in the late-’90s at tiny East Village club 9C, then relaunched it for a brief run two years ago at nearby Teneleven. Garing’s loosely-structured gatherings of the cream of the area’s bluegrass and old-time country players developed the kind of hardcore traditional country scene here that he had originated in Nashville, and provided a model for Saidenberg.
“Greg taught us all a lot of the music the old-fashioned way, using one mic and generating a lot of excitement,” he says. “After he started his shows, I started Sheriff Bob’s Bluegrass & Goodtime Jam. We were at the Baggot Inn in the Village for seven years before they lost their lease, and we’re now in the fourth year at The Grisly Pear.”
He was at the Grisly one night when he learned that there were new owners across the street at the Gaslight. The Gaslight Revival has been occurring there the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month since last September.
“I put all the stuff in, and we’ve done over a dozen shows there now,” he says.”We’ll keep it going through May and hope to expand it next year to a weekly event. It’s good to have the two places, because a lot of people come to the jam that don’t come to the shows.”
And for those who don’t come to either–and those who want to relive the Gaslight Revival experience–Saidenberg has a popular YouTube channel with 17 videos from the shows so far.
“We’ve got another half dozen or so ready, and by the end of the season should have 40 up,” he says. The Gaslight Revival, he adds, offers “an unbelievable opportunity to have in one place on a regular basis the best acoustic players in New York–with a top level house band.”
“And I get to play along and sing my songs!” he adds.
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