A new twist on old harmonies
There were times when snatches of melody would break through. It could be in class, walking to the car, or standing in a store aisle. But they would come. And often.
“I constantly had songs running through my head, either my own or someone else’s,” said Matt Gelfer, who plays fiddle/violin, mandolin and guitar. “The roots music very much came from our father — he plays bluegrass — then it came to us as young adults and then falling in love with it on our own.”
The roots music came from Phil Gelfer — an accomplished fiddle/violin player himself — who teaches strings, is a sought-after conductor and is the founder and former director of the Brookhaven Youth Orchestra and Arts Academy.
Sometimes family genes carry on. Sam Gelfer, Matt’s brother, found his muse with the bass. Fellow performers iclude Justin Flagg, who sang and danced in Gateway productions at age 9 and took dance classes at Stage Door School of Dance; Briana Carlson-Goodman, who sang vocal warmups around the house at age 3 and whose mom was a voice teacher, and Jason Rosoff, an accomplished drummer who wound up modestly immersing himself with the others, who formed a band called The New Students.
Most know the Gelfers and Flagg as Bellport High School graduates. (Matt Gelfer and Justin Flagg are 2001 graduates; Sam Gelfer graduated in 2005.) Carlson-Goodman hails from Park Slope and Rosoff from New Jersey. They’ve gained respected fame singing and playing harmony via traditional folk songs and creations of their own that can be rollicking and joyous, soaring with longing, or addressing social issues. (Listen to “Sweet Corn,” a raucous invitation to roll in the hay with Loretta, Rebecca and Virginia and a bottle of whiskey. “We’re Not Going Away” is a protest song.) The mastery of their instruments and voices break through any troubled thoughts, coaxing lively toe-tapping or total concentration and Carlson-Goodman’s pure, clear singing would make anyone sit up and lean in.
How did the Gelfers and Flagg, who formed the first core of the group, initially come together?
“It was probably through Debbie Mayo,” said Sam Gelfer. Mayo, an actress and Stony Brook University associate professor of acting and director of undergraduate studies in theater arts, held acting classes for kids in her Brookhaven hamlet home for years.
“We liked outdated music and Monty Python and we wanted to sing harmony,” added Matt Gelfer of Flagg, mentioning that Simon & Garfunkel were idols.
It wasn’t a stretch to have Sam Gelfer eventually join them.
The young musicians currently play clubs and gigs between New York City and Long Island and are three albums into their careers. Additionally, Flagg performs a spinoff of concert tours, “Lone Traveler,” a history of folk music that sometimes includes Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul and Mary fame as guest performer. (They had just returned from an Easton, Pa. gig with Yarrow to play at the Brookhaven Public Library tea.) The local performances the group plays are varied; they include 89 North, the Congregational Church of Patchogue, as well as house concerts.
“We’re not a traditional wedding band the way people think of,” Carlson-Goodman said. Several years ago, the group played at a club in Brooklyn. The area they were to perform in was dimly lit. “Sam said, ‘why don’t we play outside in front for a couple of minutes as a way to get people in,’” recalled Flagg. “A young French couple came along and stayed to hear us and we eventually got an email from them [asking], ‘can you play at our wedding?’ They wanted folk music.”
“They asked for murder songs,” injected Carlson-Goodman.
Say that again?
For those not in the know, that would be songs like “The Ballad of Tom Dooley” and Johnnie Cash’s death ballads.
“They loved that style of music and it was romantic to them,” Carlson-Goodman added.
So, as Flagg pointed out, the wedding was in a German beer hall, singing American folk songs, for a French couple.
Matt Gelfer and Flagg do most of the songwriting, but the group as a whole contributes; their third album. “Endless Sea,” it was pointed out, has been the most collaborative. (The art on the covers was created by local Barry Rockwell.)
“We call Sam ‘producing Sam,’” said Carlson-Goodman of Sam Gelfer. “He knows when to add an instrument.” Flagg added that sometimes after composing a piece he wants to reject it, and then a band member comments, ‘hey, I like it and have an idea.’”
An anecdote about Jason Rosoff emerged. He wasn’t exactly enamored of the djembe drum, but bought one so he could perform with the group. “We were doing a theater show and he came to us and said, ‘well, if you could use me…’ I didn’t even know he had a degree from Eastman School of Music,” said Flagg. (Eastman School of Music is one of the premier music schools in the country.)
The group travels to where they need to be. Carlson-Goodman is married to Flagg and they live in Park Slope. Rosoff lives a block away. Matt Gelfer resides in Astoria, Sam Gelfer in Babylon. The Gelfers are also music teachers in schools. Carlson-Goodman acts; she played in Les Misérable on Broadway and will be in Patchogue Theatre’s upcoming show, “Hair.” Flagg works for New York State Sen. Liz Krueger. Rosoff is a sales manager at a premium television network.
“The folk music tradition has continued for generations,” said Carlson-Goodman. “So we sing old traditional songs and write protest songs. We love the sound of the music, but it’s also about social change and justice and we care about that.”
For more information about The New Students and their songs, visit
www.thenewstudents.com. They are also on Facebook.
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