The Lower East Side - by Ed Gross
steals the scene

Baseball may well be America's national past-time, but here in the home of the Yankees and Mets, the game takes a decided back-seat to another type of spectator sport: neighborhood-watch. For any New York resident of more than several years, the rules of the game are simple: find a recent NYC transplant, ask them where they live, and exclaim in tones equal parts condescending and incredulous, "You should have seen that place __ (insert one of the following: 5, 10, 30, 250) years ago!" The advanced player will follow up with something along the lines of "When I moved here, this neighborhood was nothing more than ______ (insert any three of the following: junkies, drug-dealers, prostitutes, horse-thieves, mujahedeen, pirates) and me." Yes, before we recent transplants arrived, NYC was apparently an apocalyptic floating prison and interlopers such as ourselves had the nerve to RUIN it!

Currently, nothing inspires the contempt of veteran neighborhood-watchers more than the Lower East Side- a bustling, multiethnic immigrant community for the last two centuries. The last decade has seen the area transformed into the unlikely nexus of the local New York rock scene, with many of the city's best and trendiest live music venues springing up between century-old tenements and more traditional merchant-shops. Once known for its importation of foreign cultures and goods, the LES now serves as one of the main centers of exportation for New York's finest brand of rock and roll.

While New York has always produced its fair quota of exceptional rock bands, the proximity of the newer Lower East Side venues to one another has served to foster an insularity among music fans more often found in smaller cities. Indeed, the area with the highest concentration of venues is quite small. With the Bowery serving as a rough border on its Western edge and rapidly expanding towards the East River, the area housing almost all of the LES clubs falls within the three blocks between Houston street to the North and Delancey street to the South. As such, the Lower East Side has become a live music destination, and the competition by bands and clubs for the attention of an audience hungry for a musical and chemical buzz has raised expectations, as well as rent.

Perhaps the venue most emblematic of the Lower East Side's transformation into one of the city's hubs for youth culture is Arlene's Grocery. Located only blocks from the prime meridian of LES trendiness that is Ludlow Street, Arlene's derives its unique name from its former incarnation as a bodega. Established in 1997, Arlene's was one of the first venues to grace the LES, and it remains a popular destination for original indie rock and punk seven nights a week. Monday night heavy-metal karaoke also draws revelers with varying levels of ironic (or scarily earnest) appreciation for a bygone era of head banging, replete with a crack live backing band (The original members of said band have recently been replaced- not without controversy). Artists such as Jeff Buckley, Sahara Hotnights, and Elefant have gone on to larger success (and audiences) after starting out at Arlene's.

Like its neighbor Arlene's, Piano's on Ludlow Street also owes its namesake to the former use of its space - a piano store/warehouse (clubs re-using the old signs of their former occupants does seem to lend a homey touch to the venues and paint is expensive for new signs. Still, this trend has reached its nadir - nobody wants to see a new rock club called Katz' Deli or Sol Moscot Opticals). An homage to multitasking, Piano's features a live music stage, a working kitchen/ bar, and a second-floor dj booth/dance floor. Trendy and scene-ish, Piano's recently celebrated its two year anniversary (enough time to qualify as an institution in these ahistorical times). In its short run, Piano's has had the distinction of serving as the locale for Franz Ferdinand's first US performance and has also featured Stellastarr*, PJ Harvey, and Beth Orton.

Since New York bars and restaurants operate on dog years, the Luna Lounge can be considered the granddaddy of LES side venues, opening in 1995 in the shadow of Katz's Deli. Due to its free admission policy and relatively long life span on Ludlow Street, the Luna Lounge has had its fair share of recent rock history. Many NYC bands make their debuts playing free shows in the back-room of Luna, and some have gone on to much greater acclaim. Both the Strokes and Interpol played early shows at the Luna Lounge before embarking on careers that would become emblematic of "New York Rock" in places like Tokyo, Stockholm, and Des Moines.

If the LES scene represents a niche market (indie rock), several local establishments have raised this specialization to an art form. The Living Room (shockingly located on Ludlow Street), features expansive seating quarters and warm acoustics, setting the backdrop for gentle folk-rock and intimate show cases. Artists literally pass the hat to get paid, lending to the folkie ambience that sets the venue apart from the trashy-glitz and blaring amplifiers of its neighbors. Norfolk Street's Tonic also caters to the quieter and more avant garde tastes of aspiring scenesters. Tonic also serves as the only neighborhood outlet for live jazz.

Leading the Eastern expansion of the LES venues is a trio of relative newcomers: Sin-é, Rothko, and the Delancey. Nestled next to the auto-body repair shops of Attorney Street, Sin-é can claim the mantle of the most authentic "garage" rock location in the city. Opening with an immediate buzz, Rothko has quickly distinguished itself as a destination for local celebrities and national acts, featuring performances by Sum 41, the Secret Machines, Ambulance ltd, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Donnas, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Vincent Gallo in its first six months of operation (unfortunately, recent fire-code problems have plagued the space). The Delancey is notable for its large patio and summertime barbecues, as well as its controversial opening-night, which featured several dustups between bouncers and hipster patrons, with predictable results (word to the wise: the smart money always favors hired muscle over mojito-sipping waifs- behave accordingly).

The presence of so many live music clubs has created a deep farm team for NYC's big league clubs that feature national touring acts. Local bands literally make laps around the LES circuit hoping to break into the vertically integrated taste-making troika of the Mercury Lounge, the Bowery Ballroom, and Webster Hall. The irony of this progression is that the distinction between struggling and success is merely a matter of several city blocks- the journey of a few thousand feet can take several years. Nonetheless, the ability of local bands to make the aforementioned leap underscores the value of the smaller LES venues as places where bands can hone their sound and find an audience.

The roots of the current LES scene are both political and cultural, and the influx of new residents has generated its predictable share of hand-wringing over both gentrification and commercialization. Blame former Rudy Giuliani for making NYC palatable to the upper and middle class people who had previously abandoned the city at the expense of the civil rights of long time residents, minorities, and the working class. Blame the Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's for achieving mainstream success and throwing the spotlight onto Gotham rock. Blame the hyperbolic English music press for incessantly hyping New York "garage rock," a curious phenomenon in a city where most residents don't own cars, much less garages.

Or blame me. Blame me for setting up shop like so many others in the heart of the Lower East Side and for patronizing the venues that contribute to the scene's vitality and exposure. Blame me for being excited about the prospect of homegrown bands successfully competing with national acts for the hearts and minds of a fickle, jaded audience on the biggest stage in the country. Blame anyone you like, but please take a moment to look around and reflect. A few years from now, the scene might be dead, or declining, or moving to a new locale- and you can stand on a corner of Ludlow street and tell the next batch of NYC newbies "you should have seen this place 5 years ago."

The LES Venues

Arlene's Grocery:
side order = popsalad=folkburger = rocklemon = dissonancesalt and pepper = various influencesrow meat = punk/hardcore
Arlenes Grocery was one of the first LES music venues, opening in 1997. Philosophy: To showcase great new rock bands in a great sounding room. Give the musicians a fair door deal, keep the drinks cheap and live music 7 days a week. Type of music showcased: Rock, Pop Punk, Rock Singer/Songwriters. Famous bands helped through residencies or other means: The Bravery / Jeff Buckley / Sahara Hotnights / Elefant / Rich Robinson / David Johannsen Bands to watch: Have Her Home By Ten/ The Gaskets / Daddy / Pop Star Kids
Booking Tips for new artist + what they are looking for in a musical project: Originality, humility, talent, professionalism. Current State of the NYC music scene: Thriving! There's a sound coming out of NYC that is unique. It sounds like the musicians have just started playing their instruments......because they have! Its not about how good a player you are, its about your idea and delivery. Cool. Contact and address: Arlene's Grocery 95 Stanton Street NYC 10002 Phone: 212 358 1633 Fax: 212 995 1719

The Bowery Ballroom:

didn't reply to our questions... too big to bother?

The Delancey:

didn't reply to our questions... too trendy to bother?

The Living Room:

didn't reply to our questions... too acoustic to bother?

Luna Lounge:
burger = rocklemon = dissonancehot dog = lo-firow meat = punk/hardcorefish = electronic/experimental
Luna opened in August 1995.
Philosophy: Bring original alternative indie pop rock to the world. Type of music showcased:
See above... Famous bands the venue helped through residencies or other means: The Strokes, Eliott Smith and Interpol Bands to watch: Orange Park, The Mugs, and Fooled by April Booking Tips for new artist + what you are looking for in a musical project: A CD and email address Current State of the NYC music scene: Pretty good. Contact and address: 171 Ludlow St. NY NY 10002

Mercury Lounge:
didn't reply to our questions... too busy to bother?

side order = popbrownie = psychedelic influencesburger = rocksalt and pepper = various influencesfish = electronic/experimentalsalad=folk
"This piano showroom turned duplex club has a big following. Masses of the fashionably bedraggled have packed the back room for loud shows by indie-rock bands like the Thrills, A.R.E. Weapons, the Witness, and Gina Gershon, with Girls Against Boys. The club became so hot last year that it incited a backlash among its hipster clientele. “Anywhere But Pianos” T-shirts appeared across the river in Williamsburg (the club countered by starting “Anywhere But Pianos” events featuring Brooklyn bands. The club and its music live on, and the performance schedule is slated to get more diverse, with blues and world-music acts.” – Type of music showcased: Provide a home for musical acts who blur the line between Mercury Lounge and Tonic – a potent mix of indie rock and avant-garde soul. And feed them well while we’re at it. We’re not afraid to take chances. Famous bands the venue helped through residencies or other means: Morningwood, stellastarr*, Franz Ferdinand (first ever US show), PJ Harvey, Beth Orton Bands to watch: The Twenty-Two’s, Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, Mudville, Bastion, The Coastal Drag, Beetroot, Second2Last, Scary Mansion Booking Tips for new artist + what you are looking for in a musical project: Be seen in the scene – support other bands / looking for artists who are going for it from a different angle. Current State of the NYC music scene: as rich and robust as the late 70’s
Contact and address: 158 ludlow st nyc, ny 10002

burger = rockbrownie = psychedelic influencesfish = electronic/experimentalside order = pop
rothko opened in may 2004 and has hit the ground running with such prestigious acts as sum 41, the secret machines, ambulance ltd, jon spencer blues explosion, the donnas, ted leo and the pharmacists, and vincent gallo
philosophy: present a diverse mix of music across all genres with both established acts and up and coming acts. create a place with no attitude where music can become a scene to feel comfortable in again. type of music showcased: everything from indie rock, electronica, dance, to hip-hop famous bands helped: not applicable since the place is so new bands to watch: the izzys, benzos, the inmen booking tips: we except any submissions and look for original music. best tips to unsolicited submissions - give as much detail as possible current state of the nyc music scene: lots of great bands/artists, not a lot of great bills put together by the venues. too industry-oriented. people are too interested in being seen at the right place at the moment rather than seeing a kick ass show.
: 116 suffolk street between rivington & delancey

burger = rocksalad=folkside order = popbrownie = psychedelic influencesfish = electronic/experimental
Sin-é (pronounced shin-ay) has been an important music venue exposing many New Yorkers to vital talent since the early 90's. Sin-é gave wings to such performers as Katell Keineg, Jeff Buckley, and David Gray.
Philosophy: To have a few scoops and dig a few tunes.
Type of music showcased: All Formats
Famous bands your venue helped through residencies or other means: Inouk, On Air Library, Citizen Cope, Asobi Seksu, The Prosaics, Blood on the Wall, The Double, Tarantula
Bands to watch: Other Passengers, A Place to Bury Strangers, Soft, Heathers, Surefire, Ezra Reich, Bear in Heaven, Clap your hands say yeah, the Harlem Shakes
Booking Tips for new artist + what you are looking for in a musical project: Talent and Draw. Don' t play 225 capacity venues untill you can put some people in the room. There are many great 75 capacity venues to build your audience in. Music will impress the booking agent but numbers impress his boss.
Current State of the NYC music scene: Excellent. Never Better. The most diverse and interesting its been in years.
Contact and address:Bill Bronson 212-388-0077

fish = electronic/experimentalbrownie = psychedelic influencessalt and pepper = various influencesburger = rock
Tonic is housed in a former kosher winery called Kedem. In November of 1997 the founders John and Melissa Caruso Scott discovered the building and were inspired by the great acoustics and remaining giant wine casks. John and Melissa used as much of the old wine equipment they could while renovating the space, converting large wine vats into booth seating, a wine press into a DJ booth. Even the bar is made from the wine soaked wood. Famous artists helped
: The club opened in the spring with a weekly music series the couple had been presenting at their cafe on Avenue A, alt.coffeee. This first series was booked by accordion player Ted Reichman. That summer John Zorn launched an incredible 40 night festival that included some of New York's most creative musicians. Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, Vernon Reid, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Marc Ribot, Joe Lovano, Ikue Mori, Arto Lindsay, Derek Bailey – were all part of our first New Music series. A songwriter series was launched shortly after and included Chris Knox, Stephen Merritt, Mark Eitzel, Chan Marshall and Thurston Moore to name a few. Tonic quickly became a place for established musicians to try something new in an intimate setting and for many exciting first time collaborations. Type of music showcased Over the years, Tonic has evolved to include more electronic, experimental, pop and rock while continuing the jazz and adventurous music of the original series. Booking tips:: Our advice to newer bands is just to keep playing and working on original music. We rather hear a new sound than someone emulating another musician. Current state of the NYC music scene: Over the past year we have seen several really exceptional musicians develop their unique style and gain large audiences. The performances of Regina Spektor, Devendra Banhart, Roberto Rodriguez and Sylvie Courvoisier brought the house down. Expect more great things from them and bands like Calla, The Honorary Title and Heather Greene. New acts to watch: Keep an eye out for a duo with Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori and the world premiere of John Zorn's Masada Book Two in December.