By Irena Choi Stern
The New York Times
August 19, 2001
On a recent August night, GrooveLily took the stage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, delivering an exuberant performance of songs described by the group’s founder, Valerie Vigoda, as “violin-laced smart pop.” The audience responded enthusiastically to the 10-song set, which included three cuts from GrooveLily’s latest CD, “Little Light.”
With her platinum blond hair and black vinyl pants, Ms. Vigoda, 34, took to the stage with her signature “Viper,” a six-string electric violin. The GrooveLily trio includes Ms. Vigoda’s husband, Brendan Milburn, 30, co-songwriter and keyboardist, and Gene Lewin, 39, drummer, although two guitarists were added for the night’s performance.
About 1:30 AM, Ms. Vigoda and Mr. Milburn returned to a wooded neighborhood of Mount Vernon and the beige motor home they have lived in since they gave up their Archer Avenue apartment in July. After a few hours of sleep, the group hit the road for its next performance outside Washington, followed by a performance in Ontario two days later.
GrooveLily will spend 100 days on tour this year, and plans next year to tour nearly twice as much.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ms. Vigoda said. “I’ve never worked this hard on anything in my life. It’s so all-consuming.”
Although GrooveLily has gained a devoted following since it was formed in 1994, it has yet to break through. Beginning as the seven-piece Valerie Vigoda Band, it morphed into a trio when, in 1995, the group had the chance to become the house band for an American comedy theater in Amsterdam called Boom Chicago.
“After we became the power trio of violin, keyboard and drums, it didn’t seem appropriate to call it the Valerie Vigoda Band, because the songs were coming from different people,” Mr. Milburn said. “Traveling on the subway to our day jobs, which we no longer have, I proposed ‘A Lilting Groovus’ and Valerie shot that down real quick. She was looking for something that described the sound in one word.”
Ms. Vigoda said: “I wanted something that was striking visually as well as aurally. The Groove and the Lily made sense to me. The dancing flower was fun, and groovy and funky and, we hope, beautiful.”
The three members come from varied musical backgrounds, with Ms. Vigoda’s classical violin training, Mr. Milburn’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and Mr. Lewin’s jazz training.
Ms. Vigoda was admitted to Princeton University at age 14, and graduated in 1987 with a degree in sociology. Mr. Milburn has his undergraduate degree from Pomona College and an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from New York University. Mr. Lewin also graduated from Princeton and has a master’s degree in jazz and commercial music from the Manhattan School of Music.
After playing the college circuit, the band took a break in 1997 so Ms. Vigoda could tour with Cyndi Lauper and then with Joe Jackson. Since regrouping, GrooveLily has changed direction, playing more festivals and gaining a following among folk music fans.
In 2000, Microsoft distributed 50,000 GrooveLily CD’s as part of its “Equal Access” virtual conference package. Previously featured artists were the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1998 and Santana in 1999.
“If there is cosmic justice, they’ll be ridiculously successful,” said Steve Wexler, a fan from Briarcliff Manor who has seen the band three times in the last two months, including performances in Valhalla and at the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson. “They’re incredibly good songwriters and performers.”
Mr. Milburn is grateful for such enthusiasm.
“Everything good that’s happened to us is because of a fan,” he said. “Amsterdam was because of a fan, and we had a fan at Microsoft.”
GrooveLily’s latest CD includes 12 songs written by Ms. Vigoda and Mr. Milburn with a mixture of melodies and rock tunes. The CD is available via the band’s Web site: www.groovelily.com. The title cut, “Little Light,” reflects the band’s determination to pursue its dream. “It’s about not giving up and doing what you love,” Ms. Vigoda said.
Their manager, Sanford Ross, of the New York City-based J. Gracie Enterprises, Inc., said: “What I want from them is a more pop-oriented direction. So if they can come up with that one great song, they can launch a career.”
When introduced to the group two and a half years ago, Mr. Ross was struck by the “extraordinary talent” but found they lacked direction and were “all over the place” with a hybrid of pop, rock, folk and jazz influences. This fall, GrooveLily will record several new songs with a more pop contemporary sound that Mr. Ross hopes to parlay into a record deal.
“You really need that breakthrough monster hit,” Mr. Ross said.
Ms. Vigoda agreed, saying, “The way to get GrooveLily out to millions of people rather than thousands of people is through the huge promotional push of a major label.” A record deal would allow the band to record and write half the year and devote the rest of the year to touring.
“Performing and the connection with people is one of the major reasons I’m doing this at all,” Ms. Vigoda said. “We come away from a performance feeling joyful and energized. What we do is not about spreading angst or sharing our depression about the world. We want to leave every show as a happier place than when we found it.”