The Cucumbers reunite in Maplewood to take a bite out of hunger

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — If you were a die-hard fan of independent music during the mid-1980s and you are the kind of person who scours local clubs in search of the next cool band to tell your friends about, then there is a good chance you’re familiar with the Cucumbers. The Hoboken-based power pop group was a favorite of the New York-area music scene, at its height even gaining national exposure with videos on MTV and favorable reviews in Rolling Stone and People. But despite critical acclaim and a cult following, the Cucumbers never managed to attain the mainstream success they would have liked, and eventually the core lineup of the group’s heyday dissolved.

While the Cucumbers never truly went away — two of the band’s founding members, South Orange native Deena Shoshkes and her husband Jon Fried, occasionally record singles under the Cucumbers name — the core mid-’80s combination has not played together as a unit since reuniting for Maplewoodstock in 2008. But that is about to change.

On May 13, the Cucumbers’ best-known lineup of Shoshkes, Fried and Maplewood residents John Williams and Yuergen Renner will reunite for one night only at the Woodland to benefit Rent Party, a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger in the South Orange-Maplewood area. As if that is not enough to please fans, the group is promising to play only the songs off of its early releases from Fake Doom Records — 1983’s “Fresh Cucumbers,” 1985’s “Who Betrays Me and Other Happier Songs” and 1986’s “All Shook Up” — which have just been released in digital format for the first time as part of The Fake Doom Years collection.

Being in the middle of a Cucumbers renaissance might seem overwhelming for musicians who have been largely removed from the group for so long, but singer-guitarist Shoshkes said it has been a joy to revisit the music with her old bandmates. And if rehearsals for the Rent Party show are any indication, the Cucumbers have not lost a step.

“We had to dust off the cobwebs, but it came back really quickly,” Shoshkes told the News-Record in a May 5 phone interview. “I think it sounds better than ever because we’re all better musicians now than we were then. And we played those songs so much back then that it’s sort of like riding a bike. You get back on and it feels really natural.”

Fried, who happens to be the son of famous film and television composer Gerald Fried, agreed that the group members got back in sync almost immediately. As a result, although they have not played some of their early songs since they were first released in the ’80s, he said capturing the essence of fan favorites such as “My Boyfriend” and their take on “All Shook Up” was both easy and enjoyable.

“We were young and we were hyper and we were a little frenetic,” Fried recalled in a May 5 phone interview with the News-Record. “And it’s fun to play that music again, to get to that place again.”

What undoubtedly helped the process was the fact that this particular group of musicians knows one another the best, having played together all over the world. Shoshkes, Fried, Williams and Renner toured nationally, playing in hundreds of college campuses and music clubs including New York City’s legendary CBGB’s. They even recorded their 1987 self-titled album in London for Profile Records, the label best known for introducing the world to Run-D.M.C.

With this time spent together came plenty of fun moments that the bandmates still remember to this day. That includes the time when the Cucumbers opened for the Replacements at a show in Nebraska, only to find that their dressing room had been “redecorated” by their headline act. More precisely, the Replacements had trashed the place — but not in a malevolent way. As Shoshkes recalled, the famous alternative rock group infamous for its hard partying turned the room into a precise disarray, doing things like overturning chairs in their place as a prank.

Fried remembered another show in Alabama when a drunken crowd had demanded that the Cucumbers continue performing despite the fact that they had already played through their entire set. Not knowing what to do, Fried returned to the stage and started playing the Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Wipe Out,” with Shoshkes and Williams joining in. Renner, originally from Germany, was unfamiliar with the song and eventually started to play along on drums, only to be surprised when his bandmates stopped playing upon reaching the iconic drum solo portion of the song. Realizing that he needed to play without knowing exactly what the drumming was supposed to sound like, Renner let loose with what Fried described as an insane solo of his own that had the crowd going wild.

Sharing moments like those forged a unique chemistry among the band members that exists to this day, according to bassist Williams. He told the News-Record in a May 5 phone interview that the bond is why this particular iteration of the Cucumbers both plays well together and likes being around one another so much.

“We spent a lot of time in the van driving around and seeing the country,” Williams said. “We were a second family.”

Reunion aside, that close relationship continues to this day. All four band members ended up living close to one another — Shoshkes and Fried live in Millburn, just a few miles away from Williams and Renner in Maplewood — so they have always remained friends even after Williams and Renner left the Cucumbers in 1989 and 1992, respectively. In fact, Williams said their children practically grew up together.

But even though the Cucumbers always kept in touch and will soon be performing together again, a permanent reunion does not seem likely.

“Nobody talked about it, and I don’t really foresee it at this stage,” Renner told the News-Record in a May 6 phone interview, explaining that Shoshkes is busy with her own solo career, Fried is pursuing fiction writing, and Williams and himself both are involved with bands of their own. “I would like to play. Now, after all these years it’s really fun to play with them. It’s always been fun, and now that we’ve come back together you realize how much fun it actually was and how good they are as people. It’s a real friendly situation. So from that standpoint I’d love to do some more, but I would probably believe it’s not happening.”

Even if the Cucumbers never reunite for good, fans can take solace in the fact that they can listen to the group’s first three releases in a digital format, as they had previously only been available on vinyl. Renner said he is happy to see the music finally available in a format that can allow longtime listeners to relive the past while also introducing new generations to the band. Plus, he said the remastering was exceptional because the sound quality of the songs is excellent.

Fans can also enjoy the Cucumbers reunion at the Woodland, thanks to Rent Party co-founder Chris Dickson. Speaking with the News-Record in a May 5 phone interview, Dickson said he has worked with various members of the Cucumbers in the years since starting his concert series of local acts raising money for local food pantries at Our Lady of Sorrows Church and Oheb Shalom synagogue in South Orange and St. Joseph’s Church in Maplewood. He even co-wrote the Rent Party theme song with Shoshkes and Fried, who perform it whenever they play a show for him.

Yet until now, the Cucumbers have never played collectively for Rent Party. The fact that they are willing to reunite for his organization means a lot to Dickson, who estimates that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for the area food pantries since the nonprofit was founded in 2009. Also significant to him is the fact that so many people in South Orange and Maplewood have embraced the concert series, which has allowed it to expand into creating a food garden at the Elks Lodge No. 1154 and establishing its BackPack Pals program that gives backpacks filled with food to children for weekends when they do not receive free school lunches.

Nothing Rent Party has been able to do would be possible without the people of South Orange and Maplewood’s generous support, Dickson said.

“This can’t happen just anywhere,” Dickson said. “We live in a community that, for lack of a better way to put it, gets it. The people here care about the people in their community.”

And as happy as the Cucumbers are to play for a great cause, Fried said they are also grateful to Rent Party for providing an opportunity to get together one more time.

“We’re going to be having fun, and I hope it rubs off on whoever’s there too,” Fried said. “It’s going to be one of the most fun 40 minutes of my life.”

For more information about the Cucumbers’ Rent Party show, which will also feature performances from Bern & the Brights and the Thousand Pities, visit http://rentpartylive.com/wp/. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.

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