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South Jersey band Fat Mezz builds a following in extraordinary times
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South Jersey band Fat Mezz builds a following in extraordinary times

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It’s difficult not to notice Fat Mezz in North Wildwood.

The seemingly note-perfect electric band concentrating on classic rock with a few originals and funk covers has become the house band for the venerable Anglesea Pub. Since they’ve only been playing outside this year, they’ve washed the sounds of Cream, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, late-period Beatles and more across multiple blocks of the otherwise sleepy shore town on the cusp of winter.

They’ve also been steadily building a following.

In a time when live music has become scarce, the band has kept busy since launching in the spring. As temperatures cooled, their schedule has eased up, and members plan to spend some of the winter working on original material and new covers to bring to crowds next year.

The band has already got a packed schedule for the summer, said Kurt Foster, one of the two guitarists. They’ve played most shows in the Wildwoods, Cape May and nearby. Next year, they are booked across a wider swath of South Jersey, with some jobs in Philadelphia and Virginia.

Foster, 20, lives in Ocean City and spent some time in Nashville honing his skills and trying to break into one of the most competitive music scenes in the country. Back in South Jersey, he says, he’s playing music he loves with his close friends and things seem set to take off.

In a recent interview on an Ocean City front porch, band members said they saw crowds growing with each show.

Bass player Dom Levy, 21, of Deptford, started playing with the band’s other guitarist, Billy Thoden, 20, of Pittsgrove Township.

“I barely started playing the bass,” Levy said.

They heard something promising but needed a rhythm section.

“We were young. I was 13, Dom was like, 15,” Thoden said. They found drummer Corey Chodes online.

“My mom put an ad for me on Craigslist because she did not think I was making good use of my talents just playing in the house,” Chodes said. “They were the first guys I ever played with and the only guys I ever played with consistently.”

Chodes is the youngest member at 18. He lives in Columbus, Burlington County. He said he has not had formal training. He started out listening to music and trying to reproduce what the heard.

“That’s how we all started,” said Foster. “After a while, we all took lessons to further our playing, but that was all within the past year.”

The quartet had played with another band, but as they described it, that did not work out. In the spring, they formed Fat Mezz, named for Chicago jazz clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mesirow, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke and other jazz giants. He was not the world’s best clarinet player, the band members said, but is remembered as the era’s greatest marijuana dealer.

“We were definitely in favor of Ballot Question 1,” Foster said.

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The band convinced The Anglesea to give them a try this spring. They played all acoustic, with Chodes on bongos.

“They weren’t even congas. They were, like, his little brother’s,” Levy said. The venue was impressed enough to invite them back for an electric show, and soon they were playing there twice a week, with more steady dates at nearby Keenan’s Irish Pub on Old New Jersey Avenue and occasional slots at Mudhen Brewing Co. in Wildwood and other spots around the county.

Band members cite the Anglesea’s early support as vital for their building a name. Soon, they were packing the place night after night.

Band members take turns on lead vocals and harmonies, with Thoden and Foster trading between lead and rhythm guitar.

“We both kind of hand it back and forth, kind of like the Allman Brothers if you check that out,” Thoden said.

Their setlist includes a couple of songs written in the 21st century, including “Gravity” from John Mayer and “Best Part” from Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. But most of the songs in their repertoire were originally recorded decades before anyone in the band was born. They said they play the songs that connect with them, saying as a musician digs deeper into an instrument, he or she will find the songs they like.

The band recently added a Steely Dan tune, “Black Cow,” and each set is likely to include one or two songs from the Grateful Dead. Thoden is a dedicated fan, rolling up his sleeve to show a tattoo of the band’s distinctive lightning bolt and skull logo. The other members may not be full Deadheads but say they have come to enjoy playing the band’s improvisational style and deep catalogue.

It takes time to learn songs, and longer to write them.

“Throughout the summer, we played four or five nights a week with a few doubleheaders mixed in. It didn’t leave much time to learn any new songs,” Foster said. Some fans now come to multiple shows a week, he said, so they try to mix things up, keeping in mind the employees at the venue as well. “What we try to do is do every song differently than we did the night before. We’re trying to entertain ourselves and entertain the staff.”

It’s been a strange year for live music, Levy said. Members were not confident they would get any jobs as the spring began, with venues closing and strict limits in place. At the same time, with few bands actively performing, it made it easier to build a name, he said.

It was also a year for generous tips, the member said, saying they’ve heard similar reports from other bands.

The band members have tried to focus on social media and live streams as a means to reach a wider audience.

“With the winter coming and gigs slowing down, we’ve definitely been promoting on-line,” Levy said. “We’ve been doing live streams and posting videos.”

Keyboardist Colin Meyers often sits in. Foster described him as an auxiliary member.

“He does have a day job, and none of us do. He works and goes to school and has a busier schedule,” Foster said. “We do love playing with him and he loves playing with us. Anything that will mean a decent amount of change, we’ll put him on the gig when we can afford to.

“He does add a lot. With Colin we can do some songs that we could not do otherwise.”

Band members described him as the keyboard wizard. They said they met him at Guitar Center.

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