The Duplex Songwriters’ Night with Neil Herman

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The Duplex Songwriters’ Night with Neil Herman

The Duplex, NYC, February 6, 2018

Reviewed by Chris Struck for Cabaret Scenes

Neil Herman, a former staff songwriter in Nashville, hosts an original songwriting event at The Duplex, now running for over 10 years. The gigs are every other month and tend to run a little long, as Herman and his five guest stars give their two cents on writing music and what it means to them. For a new or aspiring songwriter, it’s an excellent opportunity to watch people work through their music and pick up on some of the themes and challenges. The guests are always random as Herman invites songwriters to email him in advance of the show, and then picks their names out of a hat.

Joining Herman, in order of appearance, were Rob Schiffmann, Chris Brown, Brian Detlefs, Eliana Kraut, and Tony Hoylen. Each brought a unique sound to the show through mainly the internal structure of their verses and choruses, but not through the song patterning. The diversity of their voices, when added to the complexity of various refrains, made for an interesting, laid-back jam session.

Herman’s work seemed the most piercingly original as he went through some of his old favorites where he liked to utilize contrasting ideas to showcase an underlying pearl of wisdom. For example, during his “fishing” song, he focused instead on his daughter, with lines like “sitting in a boat, Marianne, night crawlers in a Folgers can.

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” To him, being out on the water with his daughter was more important than watching fish slip away.

Schiffman, comparatively, had a reminiscent style. At some points in his first song, about waiting in a hotel room for a former flame, this came off as self-conscious. However, in a touching tribute to his parents, he wrote, “the girl he met and felt they were a story to be told…and so he helps her from her chair, the taxi cuts them through the summer air…” as he found himself longing for what his parents would wake up and do all over again.

Brown had some fun songs that also had more than a touch of lyrical complexity. My favorite was his first choice about Cyrano de Bergerac and Juliet separating. As Cyrano comes to grips with the fact that Juliet is leaving, slowly devolving, and calling for her later and later, Brown wrote, “I know that I’m no Romeo as far as aging husbands go, but I swear to God, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wherefore art thou Juliet?”

Detlefs had a lot more of a fast-paced style as he tried out a set of songs written while taking a break from the world à la Walden in the Adirondacks. Not surprisingly, his choices focused on pining for genuine human connection, which was likely simultaneously lacking in the mountains as well as a major impetus for jettisoning the city life. His ability to get into his songs — as well as to hit home at points with lines like “He says it’s for protection, but the only one it’s walling off his him” — made his work resonate well.

Kraut, at 15, turned into the biggest surprise of the evening due to the developed nature of her lyrical structure and song style. She held her own amidst performers that were likely 40 to 50 years her senior, writing introspective songs about forgiving exes and capturing the moment. While her greatest skill was likely her ability to write short lines within sentences that ended in rhyming signatures, she did also bring a good voice and strong guitar to the table. My favorite example: “For a split second in time, the past is all behind, and before reality finds me, I forget how to be angry.”

Hoylen, in stark comparison, utilized far longer lines within a chorus to set up expectations for the song, which would then progressively change, creating a sense of growth. It made for easy listening and allowed him to play with the way he fit his verses together.

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Due to the fact that his songs centered on a clear theme, it became easy to follow. However, the length of his choruses does make his work difficult to quote here.

If you’re an aspiring songwriter, this is a worthwhile place to visit and pick up easy soundbites on how to approach writing music. Each performer had a slightly different style of how to get to an end result, but they each made it work, too. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Chris Struck

Chris Struck's debut novel, Kennig and Gold, is due to be officially published in June 2019. He's written reviews for Cabaret Scenes since August of 2017. For more information about the writer, see