Albhabet Song Downtown's
former no-go zone
becomes indie music's last refuge north of Houston
When was the last time
you saw a good show in East Village? With Brownies
a distant memory, CBGB's in trouble well before the
current sad skirmishes, Continental turning into a
museum of itself ("All Photos Were Taken Here!")
and even Lit getting a tad long in the tooth, the
birthplace of punk is left virtually without music.
After the club scene up and went south and east, into
the tenements of the Lower East Side and warehouses
of Williamsburtg, Manhattan's formerly trendiest neighborhood
is looking more and more like, say, Park Slope: a
nice bedroom community.
But wait a second,
you will probably counter. Just last week I caught
this fantastic gypsy-funk act at NuBlu. And a great
shoegaze night at Scenic. And a country-thrash thing
at Lakeside Lounge. And John Zorn just opened his
Yeah, well. You're
right and you're wrong. All these places are not in
East Village, or at least not in what has been historically
defined as East Village until enterprising realtors
started blurring its borders. They're in Alphabet
"Avenue A, you're
Avenue B, you're brave.
Avenue C, you're crazy.
Avenue D, you're dead."
If you have spent less
than twelve or so years in New York, this charming
mnemonic tidbit probably doesn't make any sense to
you. Avenue B is lined with French bistros and enviable
parkside real estate; Avenue C is home to cool design
shops and crowded watering holes. I hear you can still
get a tolerable deal on an apartment between C and
D -- if you hurry.
Congratulations, I guess: you have missed out on a
couple of heady decades when walking from the numbered
into the lettered avenues was inadvisable at best
and suicidal at worst.
The early '80s gestalt
is captured pretty well in the otherwise minor 1999
flick "200 Cigarettes," set in East Village
in 1981. In the film's perhaps most authentic scene,
Gaby Hoffmann and Christina Ricci, playing vapid Long
Island girls, tread dangerous waters on the edge of
the Village: "Oh my gawd, you're crossing the
B! You're crossing the B! I'm calling my mother."
(The film also boasts a great Elvis Costello-as-younger-self
cameo, but I digress). Hell, in 1995 – *1995!*
-- NYPD rolled a tank – *a tank!* -- onto Avenue
B to quell a squatters' revolt.
Skip forward a mere
decade, and the only reason to call your mother from
Avenue B is to tell her you saw the cutest throw pillow
in the window of Amaran. And that Ikue Mori is on
at the Stone. Provided your mom's into Ikue Mori.
Address: Ave C between
4th and 5th St., unmarked door with colorful characters
hanging out on the stoop.
Vibe: Cosmic junkshop
bachelor pad. Around 8pm, when the lights are up,
the place is unspeakably ugly – a moldy '70s
rec room is the kindest description I can muster.
But wait till the lights dim; wait till you
discover the smoking terrace, with its view to a green
lot and a gigantic willow; wait till that girl who
looks like a young Pam Grier (and knows it) struts
by. Then we'll talk.
Typical band: NuBlu's
first breakout stars are Brazilian Girls, a quartet
that, as journalists love to mention, contains no
Brazilians and only one girl: Sabina, a lady of extremely
complicated international provenance that enables
her to write and convincingly sing in five languages.
Sounding somewhat like Manu Chao with a better producer
and on more expensive drugs, Brazilian Girls put dance
textures in the service of well-written verse-chorus
songs, ladling on inventive samples and the occasional
ethnic flourish. They don't quite qualify as a typical
band any more, though -- they're a bit too big for
the joint. NuBlu's current staples are French chanteuse
ElodieO, who's assembled a crack team to back up her
gentle disco (the rhythm section of Spielerfrau plus
a laptop) and the trio Kudu. Both could very well
become the next Brazilian Girls; my money is on Kudu.
Led by a big-haired, big-everything singer channeling
both Siouxsee and a banshee, the trio bash out a tough
hybrid of New Wave and live breakbeats. Seeing them
is a revelation of the "why hasn't anyone thought
of this before?!" kind.
Prices: Part with a
fiver whenever a live performance is underway or imminent.
Nobody stops you from coming early and getting in
for free; the wait, however, may take a while. It's
not unusual for the first act to start plugging things
in and testing mics around, oh, midnight.
the progress of NuBlu's own music label, these guys
haven't even started. There will be a NuBlu South
Beach, NuBlu St. Bart's and NuBlu Moscow by the time
they're done. And this one will still not have a sign
Address: 25 Ave B,
between 2nd and 3rd St. (646) 536-3654
Vibe: Fratboy chic
upstairs, indie hang downstairs. The decor of Scenic's
first floor is slightly hampered by the place's daytime
function as a burger joint. As a result, it tends
to draw an after-work yuppie crowd in full corporate-casual
gear; braver souls who descend an ill-lit flight of
stairs, however, will find themselves in a radically
different space with a great sound system and, more
often than not, an interesting artist onstage. Better
yet, the bar in the music room appears even better-stocked
than the upstairs one.
Typical band: Haven't
found one yet. Any given week may contain a punk night,
a breaks-and-beats shindig, and Antifolk queen Kimya
Dawson of the Moldy Peaches infamy. The scope, and
fame level, of the names Scenic is pulling right now
roughly corresponds with Pianos; the guys in charge
are veterans of the Knit.
Prices: $8 for the
whole night (which usually features at least three
enough hipsters learn to traverse the button-down-Oxford
crowd on the way downstairs, Scenic's stage looks
like a long-term addition to the downtown rock scene.
Address: Ave C at 2nd
Vibe: Austere. Artistic
director John Zorn (of Masada and Tzadik Records fame)
runs the place as a non-profit, and a pretty straight-laced
one. Compared to Tonic's occasional touch of whimsy
-- those casks, that foyer -- there is zero frivolity
about the Stone. Everything is concentrated around
the stage and the music, with no vulgar pleasures
like alcohol to dilute your experience. There is no
bar -- a shocker for many visitors but good news for
teenage fans of experimental jazz, if there is indeed
such a demographic (there should be). The place is
not only all-ages but gives serious discounts to everyone
Typical band: For the
first months of the Stone's existence, the lineups,
perhaps unsurprisingly, resembled Tonic's greatest
hits: Ikue Mori, Elliott Sharp, Zorn himself. This
may change, as Zorn lets different musicians curate
different months. As is the case with Tonic, there
is virtually no use sending in your demo. Make good
noise, and your number will be called.
Prices: $10 per set.
Ages 13 to 19 pay $5. 12 and under get in for free:
it's never too early to get Jimmy hooked on skronk.
Forecast: Tonic was
pulled from the brink this year, but should the trouble
recur -- heavens forbid -- this place looks poised
to pick up the baton. To earn its own permanent place
in the neighborhood, however, the Stone could afford
to relax a little: the no-refreshment policy smacks
of the classroom.