Fans bid final farewell to beloved N.J. band

Please forgive them, they want to go home.

All past and present members of River City Extension returned to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., for their sold-out, sixth annual Simple Gifts Thanksgiving Eve show. The evening marked the last time the indie-folk unit from Toms River, N.J., would play together as a band.

River City Extension’s sundry compilation of guitars, basses, violins, keys, a cello, a viola and percussion has proved to be a powerful presence across the band’s eight years, propelling it from the shore scene onto the national stage. In a performance that was both heart-rending and wildly exuberant, the longtime friends wasted no time once they began their show on Wednesday, Nov. 25.

The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ, is packed with hundreds of fans for River City Extension’s farewell show. (Sydney Shaw)

“We recently put out a record called ‘Deliverance,’” frontman Joe Michelini told the crowd. “And here it is.”

With that, the band launched into its latest LP, playing all 10 songs in order.

“The right thing to do was to play ‘Deliverance’ all the way through,” Michelini said in a phone interview with The Signal after the show. “We felt like that record’s cycle got cut short, but it’s not like that, either… I think it ended at the right time.”

The first track, “Something’s Gotta Give,” is reminiscent of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll, complete with electric guitar and a toe-tapping rhythm.

“Ohio” was a standout as a raucous singalong, while “I’m Not There” opened with Patrick O’Brien’s melancholic keys and Michelini’s crooning.

“I watch my family growing older, I brace my body for the tide,” he sings on the track.

Enter Shane Luckenbaugh on drums as the song builds, while Megan Yost’s elegant viola playing provides a beautiful backdrop through the bridge.

Notwithstanding its artistic strengths, “Deliverance” failed commercially, a contributing factor in the band’s decision to call it quits.

“If the band had seen some sort of wild success, then we would continue to play every song on ‘Deliverance’ for years, but that wasn’t the case,” Michelini told The Signal.

A more significant blow, however, struck in December 2014 when 27-year-old drummer Steve Tambone died suddenly. While Yost played a soaring salute on the viola, the rest of the band placed their respective instruments down and turned to face the vacated drumset.

“Everyone has their own demons,” Michelini said through tears during the show. “But my memory of Steve is perfect. I hope you all remember him that way.”

Michelini announced the band’s final show via social media on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

“This is just the end of our first big art project,” he told The Signal. “We did River City Extension. We put out four records and toured the world. Now it’s time for us to do something else. Calling it ‘River City Extension’ was hurting us more than it was helping us because so much had changed.”

Throughout the evening, a pensive Michelini reflected on the band’s history, from breaking into the scene to pouring his heart into the band’s fourth record. Years back, River City Extension opened for the folk rock outfit The Avett Brothers, a show Michelini remembers as a pivotal point in the early years of his music career.

“I heard their songs and I was blown away,” he said. “I thought, ‘I could write a song like that,’ so I went home and wrote this song.”

Michelini was right. When he stepped up to the mic and began “If I Still Own a Bible,” the track reduced hundreds of fans to tears.

“I wonder if I still own a Bible,” he sang. “If my fingerprints still sit on that page — the one about love, and why it’s so patient, and why I have lost it with age.”

Throughout the set, Michelini reflects on the band’s history. (Sydney Shaw)

Over the years, 15 members have performed under the umbrella of River City Extension. At its largest, in 2010, the band released its third record, “The Unmistakable Man.” That LP was released between the “Nautical Sabbatical” EP in 2009 and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger” in 2012.

“Elephant” was the only track off of “Nautical Sabbatical” to sound through the Stone Pony during the second part of the show, but an even mix from their other two records sent fans into a rock ‘n’ roll rave. It was also the band’s final song before the musicians disappeared backstage.

Asbury Park wasn’t ready to let them go so soon, though. Chants begging for “one more song” summoned the folkers back for an epic encore.

“For the first time ever together on stage, please welcome the Unmistakeable Band,” Michelini said, using the affectionate nick-name bestowed upon the band after the release of its third record.

The encore included, appropriately, “Ballad of Oregon,” as Michelini sang, “One more time, singing over the line…” The familiar vocals of Sam Tacon dovetailed against Michelini’s, for just one more time.

The penultimate performance of the evening was “Everything West of Home/Brooklyn Reprise,” a poignant song introduced with passionate “hey-hey-heys.”

“I have promises to keep,” Michelini sang, “and miles to go before I sleep.”

For the finale of their final show, the band joined hundreds of fans on the concrete ground for an unplugged singalong of “Bone Marrow Twist and Shout,” an unrecorded track.

“Not every band gets closure like that,” Michelini told The Signal after the show. “We were lucky enough to get it.”

When all was said and done, River City Extension stepped outside into the freezing November night. One fan approached Michelini with an extended hand to thank him for all he’s done. “Tonight was an experience,” he told Michelini.

The musician smiled and shook his hand. “Thank you so much,” he said, “but it’s time for a new experience. It’s time for a new adventure.”

For Michelini, his new adventure comes in the form of American Trappist, his current musical project.

“I’m not trying to reach for something in my songwriting that doesn’t come naturally to me, so some of it might… sound similar to River City,” he told The Signal. “I feel an artistic freedom doing this.”

River City Extension fans will earnestly be waiting to see what new adventures lie in store for the rest of the bandmates, but in the meantime, they have no doubt that the Unmistakeable Band will be OK.

After all, in the new song “White Blackmail,” Michelini sings, “And when the curtain finally falls, it won’t have bothered me at all.”

This story originally appeared in The Signal.

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