Music at Charles Street Shul

By Jon Kalish (nudged by David Lerner)
Published May 2013

Music at Charles Street Shul

Music at Charles Street Shul

Twice a week, there’s a sign outside Congregation Darech Amuno on Charles Street that simply says “Bluegrass 9 p.m.” However, people who venture into the basement of the small Orthodox synagogue to hear the Andy Statman Trio perform, are in for far more than bluegrass. A fixture for more than 13 years at the shul, Statman is as likely to blow klezmer or chasidic influenced jazz riffs on his clarinet as he is to let loose with blistering bluegrass runs on his mandolin.

“We never really know what’s going to happen and the audience knows that as well,” says 62 year-old Statman who lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. “The music really takes people somewhere.”

Herman Lowenhar, the synagogue’s president, estimates that more than 19,000 people have come through the doors of the Charles Street Shul, as it’s known, since Statman started performing there regularly in 1999. The twice weekly concerts were on hiatus in April in observance of Jewish religious laws but when they resume in early May, by Lowenhar’s count, it will be concert # 656. Lowenhar, who lives in the Grand Street Co-Ops on the Lower East Side, reports that two couples married after meeting at the Statman shows and a third marriage took place after a man proposed at a Statman concert. Although the concerts don’t attract members to the synagogue, according to Lowenhar, “For those who attend, it’s a strong jolt of Judaism.”

The audience is offered a complimentary shot of scotch or bourbon, which, Lowenhar notes “gets them in the mood.”

Audiences have been treated to cameos every now and then by some of Statman’s friends, including mandolinist David Grisman, who met Statman in Washington Square Park in the 1960s and taught him how to play mandolin. The great bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs stayed in town an extra day so he could play on Charles Street. The shul has also been graced by the likes of banjo player Bela Fleck, fiddler Kenny Kosek and Charlie Giordano, the keyboards player for Bruce Springsteen. Statman was introduced to Giordano by his trio’s percussionist, Larry Eagle, who was the drummer in the band Springsteen put together to perform Pete Seeger songs.

Eagle invokes the Yiddish adjective haimish to describe the feeling of playing at Charles Street. The word means the essence of being at home.

“Charles Street has been our home for more than 13 years,” he explains. “The level of comfort derived from such a place enables us to take flights of fancy, experiment freely, go off on creative tangents – because no matter how far afield we venture, we know in our hearts that we’re home. It’s the most haimish music venue in New York.”

Bass player Jim Whitney credits the shows at the Charles Street with helping to develop the trio’s sound.

“It has had an enormous impact on my overall musicianship,” he says. “The shows at the Charles Street have been transformative.”

Statman recalls that two or three times over the years, no one has showed up at the synagogue to listen. Then there are spells when every performance will be packed for weeks on end. Dates are sometimes skipped when the Trio is on the road and on holidays. Information on upcoming shows can be found at andystatman.blogspot.com. A $20 contribution is suggested for attendees.

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2 Responses to “Music at Charles Street Shul”

  1. Carol F. Yost

    May 10th, 2013

    I have yet to attend an Andy Statman show, and yet it has been on my list for years as something I just have to do, have to find the time for, and I will do it! Thank you for such an interesting and informative article.

  2. [...] small synagogue is an unlikely concert venue, offering bluegrass and roots [...]

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