Okay, I aged out of being a band groupie a couple of decades ago. But that didn’t stop me climbing aboard Michelle Lordi’s Bandwagon, a busload of jazz aficionados traveling with the local vocalist to a gig in Greenwich Village.
In addition to performing at top jazz venues across the country, Lordi appears in Philadelphia at South, Chris’ Jazz Café, and Paris Bistro. She also hosts a popular Wednesday-night jazz jam session at Abington’s Vintage Bar and Grill. So why schlep up the Jersey Turnpike by bus? I lived in Manhattan in my 20s, and for me, any excuse to get back to the city is a winner.
That’s a big part of the concept behind Lordi’s Bandwagon Excursions. Lordi says, “Philadelphians want to go up to New York to hear great music. But driving and parking is a hassle. We’ve made it easy and fun.” She started these monthly jazz road trips in August 2017 with her business partner and onetime high-school pal Jennifer Ann Ehinger.
“Our first trip was to Birdland to see Orrin Evans Sextet. At first, I thought we’d fit in a car. Then a van. Eventually, we needed to charter a bus.” In December, Lordi also bussed her crew to Nyack, New York, where she performed with Evans.
What made this trip even more meaningful was that Lordi arranged it barely a month after a fire totally destroyed the Abington home she shares with her husband and three children, who range in age from one to 15. Fortunately, no one was injured and Lordi’s fans came to her rescue with a Kickstarter campaign.
Magical mystery tour
Our meetup spot was as unsexy as you can get: the Panera Bread in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. But as soon as I climbed aboard the deluxe bus, I knew this was not an herbal-tea crowd. Lordi’s fans came prepared with enough wine to start a toga party.
The serious drinkers clustered in the back of the bus. These fans follow Lordi wherever she goes, cabernet in hand. They included jazz vocalist Geri Oliver, who often performs at Lordi’s jam sessions at Vintage and recently headlined at South.
Me? I sat up front with the slightly more sober passengers, engaging in quiet conversation. Lordi’s crew passed out gift bags containing bottles of water, chips, chocolate candy, and Kind bars. That’s a more gracious bounty than I received on my last transatlantic flight.
Our arrival into lower Manhattan just before dusk on a Saturday night was magical. Normally, I arrive via the Lincoln Tunnel into Midtown. But suddenly there she was, Lady Liberty, holding up her torch in the harbor. There was a collective “Ohhhhhhh” as we drove past.
We emerged from the Holland Tunnel and our gigantic bus navigated the narrow streets of Greenwich Village like a Thanksgiving Parade float gone AWOL. The night was young. Anything could happen — anything but finding a parking space for a bus on Bleecker Street. Parked illegally, we filed out, New Yorkers staring at us as if we had descended from a spaceship.
Comfort and surprises
We found our way to the Cornelia Street Café, a Village culinary landmark and music venue since 1977. Its genial owner, writer/director Robin Hirsch, greeted us and directed us to the cabaret downstairs, a narrow, dark, intimate room that alternately features music and poetry. It felt like taking a time machine back to the height of the beatnik era.
For $129, the BYOB Bandwagon Excursion tickets included transportation, the club’s cover charge, one drink, and a three-course meal. I ate black-sesame-crusted salmon; other options included chicken, pasta, and a vegan dish. Before my appetizer arrived, the room was already packed with Bandwagon travelers and locals.
Lordi opened her set with “The Lamp is Low,” a 1930s tune that appears on her 2017 recording Dream a Little Dream. Listening to her offers its own form of time travel, recalling Prohibition-era speakeasies and throwing a hazy veil over contemporary noise and pandemonium.
Lordi was accompanied by Matthew Parrish on bass, Michael Kanan on piano, and J.D. Allen on tenor sax. Allen is an award-winning composer and recording artist whose trio performs at the Village Vanguard.
When Lordi sings “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” you believe it, even though she didn’t start her singing career until she was in her 30s. I knew she could cast a spell over the most discerning audience, but I was still amazed by her ability to conjure up youthful romance, sensual longings, and giddy joy.
Lordi also provided a surprise treat, inviting 17-year-old Dylan Reis, a senior at Conestoga High, to join her on stage to play bass. “I met Dylan through Orrin Evans, who suggested we work together,” she explained. “He studies with legendary bassist Buster Williams and sometimes sits in with us at Vintage.”
Corralling our group back onto the bus was like dragging weepy toddlers out of Disneyland. Who wants to leave NYC at 8:30 on a Saturday night? For the revelers, the party continued in the back of the bus. I sat up front and marveled at our driver’s ability to calmly steer us through the night.