Performance Artist

Performance Artist

Tim Palmieri plays his guitar at New Haven’s BAR on semi-regular Wednesday nights. He’s played in the same spot for 13 years. Tonight, he points from the table where he’s nursing a pre-show beer. “I met my now ex-wife in that corner. Now I have a child because of that corner. And I made a lot of great friends because of that corner. And I made other people marry each other because of that corner.” Palmieri’s corner abuts one of the glass bay doors that mark BAR as a former fire station, so when it’s time for him to set up–when it’s Tim time–he unlocks the door and opens it partway, temporarily opening the bar out onto the street.

“I’ve got it down to a system. I pride myself on my economy of motion. I wheel my shit in. I can lug in my whole PA on a cart.” Pulling the cart in from the back of his car and turning the aforementioned corner into his stage takes 15 minutes. Besides his guitar, pedal board, microphone stand and speakers–including a foldback monitor–he’s got a tip jar, a little lighting rig of color-changing LEDs, an industrial-type tabletop fan (“my biggest fan,” Palmieri quips, “always there to support me and help me stay cool”) and a tablet on a music stand. On the tablet, he can quickly and seamlessly dial up the lyrics to any song his ears and fingers have already memorized.

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When he’s plugged in and ready, he might or might not know what he’s going to play. This is the luxury that comes from soaking up songs for 25-plus years. “Granted, I have songs that I know are more popular,” Palmieri says. “But never is it planned. It’s just, ‘How am I feeling? How’s my voice? How are my fingers? Do people want to rage? Do people want to be mellow?’ Then you just sort of let it fly.” In his experience, holiday or near-holiday crowds don’t have to be encouraged. But if the crowd is small and subdued, eyes on the TV or nose in their beers, he opens with something “subversive.”

“My niche is certainly pushing the boundaries musically. So I’m going to cover the Willy Wonka theme and ‘They’re Coming To Take Me Away’”—a novelty single from the ’60s with sped-up, echoplexed vocals that both anticipate and signify a trip to the funny farm—“then I’ll play ‘Layla,’ the end piano section. I’ll play ‘Fade To Black’ Metallica. Stuff where you’re like, ‘How is this happening?’” On this particular Wednesday night, he made the point about the vastness of his repertoire by playing none of those songs. Enough of an attentive buzz had settled over the crowd—perhaps at the sight of his Lite Brite-like lighting rig—that he opened with “I Won’t Back Down” which, like a lot of Tom Petty, can be as subversive or as straight as the singer wants it to be.

Palmieri likes playing at BAR. “It’s the size of it. It’s the looseness of it. It’s got a blue collar vibe, but it’s artsy.” He also understands that BAR crowds–and bar crowds generally–don’t always come to hear music. But their attention can be nabbed. Late in the second set, he swerved from “Boris The Spider,” a song by The Who about spotting and eventually squashing a spider, to Radiohead’s “Creep,” which has nothing to do with spiders. But the endless repetition of “creepy creepy crawly crawly” in the former put Palmieri in mind of the latter, so off he went.

One of Palmieri’s best tricks as a solo performer is his sophisticated looping. A pedal activates a recording of his guitar as he’s strumming it. Then, as one part of the song transitions into another, he hits the pedal again to activate the recording he just made. He can then solo or add a new guitar figure on top of it.

It’s a measure of how nimble he is on stage that he can arrange and engineer songs without skipping a beat. A loop created during “Spirits In The Material World” was left to play out while he improvised something that transformed it into the opening of “You Can Call Me Al.” Meanwhile he was activating effects pedals that change the sound of the guitar—like “Jerry Garcia sound, distortion for rocking licks, spaceship effects”—and singing while occasionally glancing at a line on his tablet’s touchscreen. Customers walking two or three pint glasses back to their table would slow down to look, suddenly aware that the guitar player had somehow jumped out of his own skin.

As is his standard arrangement at BAR, Palmieri played a roughly 90-minute set, followed by a break to relax with a beer and talk to people he knew, followed by a roughly 75-minute set that turned Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Parties which had seemed entrenched at their tables disappeared. The pool table stood abandoned after midnight with balls still in play. At one point in his stage patter, Palmieri said, “Call in late for work. Blame it on me. It’s cool.” It was a gentle tease from somebody who had never himself been distracted into working banker’s hours. “I knew at an early age that I was going to play guitar,” he says. “Clearly this is my calling. This is the best thing I’m best at. I’m not going to get paid playing Dr. Mario or Tetris.”

Growing up in East Haven, he picked up the guitar for the first time at the age of four and was already getting paid to perform by the age of 12 or 13. “I joined a band that actually made money playing churches and dances and town greens and beach pavilions and boardwalks. My father had to drive me everywhere.” He first played Toad’s Place in 1995, at the age of 16, as part of a smooth jazz outfit called The Magic, which later changed its name to Mocha Jam. He was also on “a steady diet of classic rock” which is what had taken over his musical sensibilities by the time he formed Psychedelic Breakfast—later The Breakfast—at the age of 19. He then joined a band called Kung Fu in 2009 “when Breakfast was taking a natural pause.”

Palmieri estimates that 50% of his time is spent as the guitarist for Kung Fu. Offering a live experience it describes as “seventies funk-fusion meets modern dance party,” the band has a manager, a booking agent and a touring schedule of 100 to 120 dates a year. They play mostly their own music all over the country, but also return every year to do a holiday show at Toad’s Place, raising money for Toys For Tots, playing special tribute sets and bringing on special guests. For the funk-fusion layman, it’s a measure of their seriousness that the 2014 Toys For Tots show had them playing all the songs from a classic Steely Dan record with that album’s actual drummer: the then-already legendary Bernard Purdie. The eighth annual Toys For Tots show, this time featuring a Stevie Wonder tribute set, will take place at Toad’s on December 21 and will also have special guests, although Palmieri was unable to spill those beans with weeks of negotiating to go at the time.

Meanwhile, he happily circulates through New Haven and greater New Haven with his cart, “filling in the cracks” in Kung Fu’s schedule. “Local gigs keep me local where I can see my daughter during the day and gig at night and do what I have to,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful balance.” In addition to the recurring gig at BAR, he’s performed in all-Frank Zappa sets with a band called The Z3, all-Beatles brunch sets by himself in Bridgeport and regional revival tours with the still-serving Breakfast. The night after the BAR show, he was due to play as part of an acoustic guitar trio at Pacific Standard Tavern.

Late in the second set at BAR, the crowd had reanimated itself, new people walking in, stopping in mild surprise at the sound of Palmieri shredding, nodding along, forgetting to take off their coats. Another midnight reveler stood just outside the bay door, drawn by the tasty riffs leaking onto the street. Palmieri had just finished a solo in the middle of Grateful Dead’s “U.S. Blues” when a girl sidled up to his corner from nowhere. She took the trucker’s cap from his head, set it on the floor, then proceeded with her friends to dance around it and fill it with small bills. When they left, Palmieri transferred the bills to the tip jar and put the cap back on his head.

He hadn’t stopped playing during the entire episode.

Tim Palmieri
(207) 333-8764 |
Website | Gig Schedule

Written by David Zukowski. Images 1 and 4 provided courtesy of Tim Palmieri. Images 2 and 3 photographed by David Zukowski.

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