A Scene Grows in Brooklyn

Live Rock Finds a New Home Across the Williamsburg Bridge

The clamorous Technicolor buzz of the metropolitan Oz has faded into soft sepia-hued urbanity—minus 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 scene—where 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 dimensions—a capacity of nearly 1000—and 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, has—with its crush of colors, reflective wallpaper, lights, and tubing—been 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."

As White points out, Brooklyn's become a hotbed of new musicians, with local artists such as Les Savy Fav, Radio 4, the Mink Lungs, Champale, and Longwave proudly calling the borough home. Brooklyn-based label Arena Rock recently put out a two-disc compilation, This Is Next Year, featuring more than 40 Brooklyn-based artists. "It's the same kind of grassroots, real-music-loving vibe that existed in the East Village in the late '80s," says Tee Pee Records' Tony Presedo.

This community vibe manifests itself to Steinhauser in the fact that "many of the people I see at shows in the city live out here." Besides cheap beer and proximity to the homes of many touring musicians' friends, Williamsburg offers visiting acts a less frenetic pace and easy parking, making load-in less stressful, claims Susanne McCarthy of Chicago's Flower Booking Agency. "Bands come into Manhattan," McCarthy says, "and unfortunately one of the first things they have to think is not about the show but, 'is my gear going to get stolen and is my van going to get towed?"'

For booking agents, the new venues provide added leverage when bargaining with promoters. "The word is on the street that these places exist. It's only a matter of time before the word gets to every other booking agent," says McCarthy. "You're going to have agents calling buyers and saying, 'Well, I can play one night in Irving Plaza. Or I could do a night at Northsix and a night at the Bowery.' "

CMJ's White says competition benefits the local music scene as a whole, because "the more places to play, the more bands get to play, which helps those bands develop as musicians and artists." Knitting Factory's Guy Compton supports the competition, and suggests it will just make clubs work harder. Others may not be so magnanimous. According to Northsix's Steinhauser, "I know that some of the other clubs in the city have a huge issue with us booking bands that are playing their club that week."

Yet, the question of Williamsburg lies deeper than in the inevitable backroom skirmishes over acts and dates. "The hipsters and artists tend to always have to emigrate somewhere else and move to the next cheap, cool neighborhood. In that sense, those venues are kind of chasing a trend or a scene, which is to their detriment probably," says Compton. "But in the short term I am sure they will get their sea legs beneath them, and it will benefit live music in New York."


Related story:
"Push Push in the Flatbush: Brooklyn Dance Clubs Pick Up the Cabaret Law’s Slack" by Tricia Romano

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