By Abdullah "T Kid" Saeed
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Around this time last year, we all panicked over the state of the NYC music-venue scene: Tonic is over! CBGB is over! Live Nation is taking over Manhattan! (Brooklyn, too!) But maybe the outlook wasn't as bleak as it appeared, because this summer, at least two new artist-run venues are accepting patrons, with philosophies probably even more open-minded than those defunct joints that meant so much to us. Both Santos' Party House (at 100 Lafayette) and (Le) Poisson Rouge (at 158 Bleecker) were conceived as "performance spaces," not mere music clubs. So though the former lives up to its moniker— and the latter, also living up to its moniker, is a bit more refined—both spots share the goal of nurturing current movements in the arts, especially cutting-edge ones, whatever their formats may be.
"People are able to say that they like a far wider range of stuff than that same person could have said 10 years ago," says David Handler, who co-founded (Le) Poisson Rouge with fellow Manhattan School of Music classmate Justin Kantor. Eager to break free of conservatory confines, the pair opened the space at the site of the old Village Gate, a legendary jazz, Latin, and rock club that reigned from the late '50s to the early '90s. Previewing with a few JVC Jazz Festival shows last month, the modular, cabaret-like LPR (think Joe's Pub, only loftier) will open officially in September, showcasing experimental music and art in addition to plain old jazz, indie-rock, and DJ sets. The emphasis, says Handler, is on a laid-back atmosphere and mixed-programming philosophy that strips away the historical elitism plaguing traditionally high-minded genres. In other words, dumb rockers can dig jazz (or avant-garde, or classical), too.
Meanwhile, over at Santos', the emphasis is on balls-out partying. The venue is owned in part by rock outsider Andrew W.K., who has done an awful lot of talking to the press about how he's not talking to the press about the venue. (The idea, he likes to explain, is to focus on the artists who perform at the space, not the demi-famous personalities who own it.) So far, the place seems best equipped for dance parties thrown by organizations like Vice magazine and DFA Records, though coolly obscure live bands are usually involved, too.
After ambling through a soft opening that lasted six months and sparked a blog-chatter frenzy, Santos' is now regularly packed with pasty, twentywhatever kids getting wasted and rubbing their thin, sweaty bodies against each other on the dance floor. For all its focus on organic development, Santos' Party House may as well be corporate-owned, and not in a bad way: Its 8,000 square feet of flooring, set up in multilevel, mega-club fashion, is gleaming, and there are new bathrooms with powerful automatic hand-dryers.
(Le) Poisson Rouge, too, bears an impressive enough renovation job to make it seem like maybe you don't need a ton of corporate cash to create a nice place to go out and see culture happen in Manhattan. Or maybe you do, and we'll find that out when these places shutter after less than a year.