The Indefinable Party of Howard Fishman

“Tell them not to be scared,” Howard Fishman says when I ask him what his audience should expect. “The band and I will embrace them.”

It’s an unconventional sell but one fitting for Fishman, a most unconventional artist who will take the stage at the Door Community Auditorium with the Hot Holy Mess Friday, Oct. 28.

Howard Fishman.

Categorizing musicians in print is one of my least favorite endeavors (writers and PR folks tend to revert to a dull stable of generic labels like “singer/songwriter,” “crooner,” or “rocker,” words so over-used they’ve lost all meaning), but squeezing the multifaceted Fishman into any of those would be a disservice anyway, so I was relieved when Fishman gave me something new.

“I think of my sound as New Orleans/ Brooklyn music,” he told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Brooklyn Tuesday. “It has New Orleans rawness and soul and jazz. But from Brooklyn it has that urban grittiness, and the underground pop and rock thing. It’s exuberant, kind of like a party.”

His songs are full of horns, snares, piano, violin and Fishman’s endearing blend of Lou Reed’s cadence and Tom Waits’ storytelling.

He has taken turns at the fringe of the limelight – he’s a favorite of critics who has been profiled in the New York Times, Village Voice, and NPR’s Fresh Air – but categorizing his music is near impossible, and thus tough to sell to one who hasn’t heard or experienced it. It’s one part jazz, one part big band, one part gospel, one part rock, and a lot of parts of something else.

In 2010 he released three albums – at once. Better Get Right, a big swinging homage to New Orleans; No Further Instructions, a folksy, humorous travelogue about his experiences traveling with a friend through small Romanian villages in 2006; and The World Will Be Different, a quiet, pleading breakup album.

Try pitching that to a mass market.

“If someone could come up with a single phrase to market my music I’d give him a lot of money,” Fishman says. “So far nobody’s been willing to take on that challenge. People want me to choose. They say ‘You can’t have a brass band, and a rock band, and do an album about travels in Romania, and do an oratory’. I hear that word, ‘can’t,’ and I run in the other direction.”

So he went into the studio with a ton of material and came out a year later with three distinct albums.

“I wasn’t looking at the top of the mountain as I worked,” he says. “As I was walking up I was looking at my feet.”

Early in his career he went to New Orleans and in a city full of great music he had to work to get respect.

“New Orleans is all about authenticity, realness,” he says. “You can’t get away with anything phony or superficial there.”

Howard Fishman photographed during his travels in Romania.

That challenge helped him find his place.

“Honesty, directness, I feel like that’s what I have to offer,” he says. “I’m better off being me. Grounded to simplicity.”

His current tour with the Hot Holy Mess, a Brooklyn-based band as difficult to label as Fishman, peppers storytelling and intimate solo performances with the big sounds of a rollicking jazz/folk band.

No matter what label one prefers to slap on them, Fishman says the audience is going to get an experience at this show.

“Someone once told me, and I really liked this,” he says, “that my band brings a feeling of a reunion. By the end of the show we’re all friends.”

We’re so connected through devices today, he says, that there are few opportunities for people to experience anything together in the moment.

“There are few places to get that real sense of community today,” he says. “We’re all about creating that, even for just one night. That, to me, is as important as the music. Our cell phones are off, we’re in a room together, and we’re all here.”


Mexican Radio

Show Me the Way


Door Community Auditorium,


Oct. 28, 8 pm