From behind his drum kit on open jam night at Freddie’s Tavern in Ewing, Joe Falcey leads a band affectionately known as The Three Joes. That’s Falcey, along with Joe Kramer on guitar and Joe Vadala on rhythm guitar and vocals.
Other musicians play literal musical chairs with them from time to time, like local rock guitarist John Bushnell or George Price—production coordinator at Snipes Farm—on blues harmonica.
Falcey doesn’t only perform in town every Tuesday night, though, he’s also a long-time resident.
Outside Falcey’s home studio sits an unfinished A-frame structure in the backyard that’s soon to be his workshop.
To the right of that is a monster pile of firewood that he chopped himself. His kitchen is custom redesigned, and his music studio where he offers guitar, piano and drum lessons is chock full of custom touches and special instruments he’s collected over the years.
A huge Ludwig drum set is set up so the kids he teaches can see the big kit. Falcey has fixed the pedals and bass drums so it can be played with the right or the left foot.
Sitting beside the 1891 Steinway piano that he just replaced the bass strings and the hammers in, Falcey talks about his beginnings, his education and his career in music.
“My mom played records when I was little that I listened to,” he says. “She’d come home—she worked at the state hospital—and I would play on the floor with my Lincoln Logs. She’d have her scotch and cigarettes after work and read her book.”
She played an eclectic mix, Falcey says. Rachmaninoff, Cat Stevens and big band music, for example.
Falcey, 47, says his very first instrument was a euphonium (a brass insturment similar to a small tuba), that he learned to play in the third grade music class at Lore Elementary School.
He simply wanted the biggest instrument he could get his hands on, and probably would have chosen the drums if he had thought of it at the time.
It was when he got to Fisher Middle School and saw a drum kit for the first time that he was awestruck. But his mom wouldn’t buy him a drum set back then because it was way too loud, and it wasn’t until high school that she finally gave in.
“My brother rented out my grandparents old house on Perry Drive to a bunch of his buddies before it sold. There was this old drum set in the basement and I kept hitting and playing it until they told me to take it home. Then mom broke down and got me lessons with Dave McGraw,” he says. “Then I studied with Tony DeNicola at Mercer County College who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.”
Falcey was hooked from there. While attending Ewing High School he participated in battle of the bands events at Stevie T’s and worked at the old Silo appliance shop in Hamilton selling stereos and other electronics.
The store had CDs they would give the salespeople to present stereos to customers, and some of them were high end fusion jazz recordings.
Falcey says that he didn’t understand some Jazz music at first and then Steely Dan started bending his ear in that direction. Soon after that, when he heard Miles Davis for the first time, everything clicked.
‘We live in a cultural wasteland here. I like NASCAR just fine, but we artists are outnumbered. We don’t need another Home Depot and another parking lot.’
Falcey then continued studying for his music degree at Kean University. He says he values an education in music, even for non-classical musicians.
“You better learn music theory and everything you can learn,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you? I have people tell me they don’t want to learn to read music or do scales. They just want to learn by ear. It’s like, ‘I want to learn calculus, but I don’t want to learn to add or subtract.’”
Falcey says he put so much pressure on himself in his 20s to be better and began comparing himself to other people. “I used to be scared to hear other bands,” he says. “If I had a bad band gig I’d be miserable until the next gig and I had a chance to redeem myself. The minute I stopped caring about that, I started playing better.”
Falcey, who ran the music studio in the Glen Roc shopping center on Scotch Road with Tony Smith for 10 years, points out that there aren’t very many music teachers left in the area.
“We live in a cultural wasteland here,” he says. “I like NASCAR just fine, but we artists are outnumbered. We don’t need another Home Depot and another parking lot.”
Now, in addition to band gigs and private lessons, Falcey teaches at the Chapin School’s after school music program helping with piano, guitar and drums.
He also helps every year with the school’s musicals, like last year’s Hairspray, imparting his special brand of musical knowledge to teenagers who may want to pursue music and performance as adults.
A musician of Falcey’s caliber may entertain thoughts of living in the big city and ditching Ewing Township for bigger, sexier markets, but its not for him, he says.
“I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia for a while,” he says. “I dated a concert violinist that lived there, so I’d stay there a lot. But I’m not a city guy.”
The bands Falcey is currently affiliated with include Bears Choice, a Grateful Dead cover band, The Downright Down and the B.D. Lenz Trio—a hybrid electric jazz group with B.D. Lenz and James Rosocha.
Falcey will be taking a break from his weekly gig at Freddie’s to embark on its annual European tour. They’ll visit Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg during the entire month of July.
Falcey says that while The BD Lenz Trio isn’t a big deal here in the United States, in Europe they’re asked for autographs and given standing ovations. Falcey says he once had a European guy call him a genius and buy him drinks all night.
Falcey has a positive take on recording music, something many improvisational jazz musicians dislike, but marks a musician as legitimate in the eyes of others, he says.
“I remember I recorded a record with Tim Conley that he packaged really well and of course, it’s one of these weird jazz records that nobody’s going to ever listen to but we made it anyway,” he says. “I gave it to my sister and she says, ‘Oh, now you’re a professional musician.’”
There is, however, some local pride he gets from playing the open jams on Tuesday nights at Freddie’s Tavern, especially with his local friends dropping by. It’s meant to be intimate.
“Joe Vadala is a walking jukebox. I never see him take the lyric sheet out,” he says. “John Bushnell can shred on the guitar. If you want rock and roll, that’s the guy to call,” he says.
So Falcey will be back at it in the Freddie’s Tavern bar area as soon as he’s back from Europe, and…as long as there’s some direction to the night’s music, a pet peeve of his.
“Someone’s got to drive the bus,” he says. “When are we ending, guys? After a while, improvisational music like jazz and rock at its worst is a bunch of meandering and nonsense noodling and I don’t like that.”