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The clamorous Technicolor buzz of the metropolitan Oz has faded into soft sepia-hued urbanityminus the steady pulse of cars and cabs, the intermittent howl of sirens, and the background human detritus of panhandlers and homeless people. No, Toto, we aren't in Manhattan anymore, but the burgeoning music mecca just across the East River in Brooklyn, where scenesters, bohemians, and the curious alike are flocking like moths to the nascent flame of Williamsburg's rock scenewhere bands like Circulatory System (featuring members of The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel) and Quasi are playing this week.
Walking along Bedford Avenue on a Saturday night, Juliana Nash, co-owner of Pete's Candy Store and a Williamsburg resident of seven years, is reminded of the youthful crush of St. Marks Place: "I see the throngs of girls in black backpacks and wonder, where's the dorm?" Jon Weiss, General Manager at a new venue called Warsaw, senses the same edgy dynamic and vitality as was found in the East Village some 20 years ago. What they're experiencing is the transformation of this neighborhood into a suddenly trendy nightlife destination. The emergence of new clubs is both the catalyst and by-product of this growth.
Displaced by rising rents in Manhattan, musicians and artists have been migrating to the predominantly Polish confines of Greenpoint and Williamsburg for several years, bringing with them an aesthetic that's served as the foundation for the area's renaissance. Yet even while new bars and restaurants have been appearing, seemingly, every other week, it's only in recent months, since three new rock joints opened, that this once sleepy burg has metamorphosed into a stop for national touring acts. Among the clubs leading the charge are Northsix, a converted warehouse-type space perched near the shoreline in the shadow of Manhattan, and Warsaw, a bar and ballroom cum music hall housed in the tradition-steeped Polish National Home.
Steve Weitzman, a onetime booker for Chelsea's much-missed Tramps who is now putting shows into Warsaw, describes it as "an unused gem of a venue." That's no exaggeration. The vaulted ceilings and gilded walls imbue a stately hue comparable to the Hammerstein. The adjoining pub is spacious and beguiling, with big bay windows, rich natural woodwork, and a mural depicting the cities along the banks of Poland's Vistula River on the overhang above its absurdly long bar. Its kitchen also serves native Polish delights, making it one of the only places you can enjoy a pierogi or kielbasa while drinking or rocking out to your favorite band.
The ballroom of the Polish National Home was built in 1914 and serves as the hub for this tight-knit community ("the densest Polish population this side of Warsaw," Weiss says), hosting socials, local political rallies, and neighborhood functions such as Boy Scout meetings. Six months ago, Weiss, a veteran of the Manhattan rock scene, and fellow GM Mark Chroscielewski approached the Polish National Home's officers about branching out, and serving the area's hip new inhabitants. The officers were receptive, and sprung for the ballroom's renovation as well as new state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems.
Its dimensionsa capacity of nearly 1000and its association with Weitzman, who's booked bands for 13 years, nearly assure that Warsaw will draw the caliber of artists that might usually play at the Bowery Ballroom or Irving Plaza.
Further south, and a few blocks west of bustling Bedford Avenue, Northsix doesn't seem a likely locale for a rock club. Hidden away in a commercial district a stone's throw from the East River, Northsix's sidewalk isn't coursing with people like the streets in front of most Manhattan bars. But inside, owner Jeff Steinhauser has fashioned a comfortable venue whose square-thrust stage and opposing risers gives it the feel of a school auditorium. Steinhauser envisions Northsix as "a combination of the Bowery Ballroom and Knitting Factory, in that we want to bring in midsize national acts and also have some eclectic artists."
Luxx, the third recent interloper to Williamsburg's rock club scene, haswith its crush of colors, reflective wallpaper, lights, and tubingbeen compared to a Coney Island bumper-car ring. Luxx manager Angela Cefaratti promises wide-ranging lineups, from rock to jazz to dance music.
Easily forgotten in this crush are those venues that have been serving the area for a couple of years, such as Pete's Candy Store and Galapagos. Pete's hovers a little off Bedford Avenue's beaten path, on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, like the nearby Warsaw. An acclaimed local watering hole (Zagat's 2002 named it the best bar in Brooklyn), Pete's features live music seven nights a week, including the occasional little-publicized appearance by artists such as Beth Orton, Loudon Wainwright, and Will Oldham, who enjoy the room's small stage and cozy ambience. Galapagos, next door to Northsix, is a stylish bar with exposed beams and ducts, as well as a marvelous, bird-shaped mobile that continuously flaps its wings in the huge front-window display. To Chris White, who directs showcases for CMJ's annual music marathon, the presence of rock clubs in Williamsburg is a natural. "What's more viable than Brooklyn, where you have all this empty space and all these hipsters and artists and rockers, and a seemingly supportive scene, because you already have all these people out there?" he asks. "The community is out there for these places to exist, so it really makes sense, and more so in Williamsburg than a Park Slope or a Fort Greene, which are much more residential."