By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
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By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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Ben Lovett is wearing a letterman's jacket and shaking hands when a crowd begins to bottleneck at the back of the bar. At the Rockwood Music Hall, two of the venue's four rooms are connected by a narrow hallway frequently clogged with guitar cases and bouquets of mic stands that trip up the bartenders and performers as they rush through it. The passage is the only connection between Rockwood 2, the intimate room with the wrought iron balcony and the baby grand piano that descends from a ledge via an elaborate pulley system, and Rockwood 3, the vaster, newer space at the Lower East Side venue complex. The bright, bubbly, synthed-out sounds of Savoir Adore are pulsing through the closed doors between rooms, and the crowd — which Lovett will eventually have to make his way through — is stuck for now. Rockwood 2 is at capacity on a Tuesday night, and even though some fans are shut out from Savoir Adore's set, this is a very good thing.
Tonight, Lovett is bouncing back and forth between these stages, as he's booked them all for Communion's monthly residency, and this is only the second time the night has expanded across all of Rockwood's stages. The pianist and songwriter, most famous for his emphatic, key-pounding prowess in Mumford and Sons, isn't one of the talents taking the stage tonight, and that's OK by him, as he's got plenty on his plate as one of the event's organizers. "This is the second month that we've super-sized it," Lovett says, describing his backstage duties before the show. "I'm still a little bit in a back office role, where I make sure everyone's getting in all right and there isn't too much of a crowd crush. When things cool down and get into a rhythm, then, yeah, I'd love to sit in with some of these people."
Communion, the artist-led organization — the word Lovett and others use to describe the amorphous agency cum promotions and booking company — cofounded by Lovett to promote and release the music of musicians from all walks of genre and industry stature, started mounting curated residencies in London in 2006, which boasted Gotye, Laura Marling, and Ben Howard in the early days of their careers. Since then, it's established a presence in 25 cities worldwide, with New York City one of the first to host them in the United States. Public Assembly in Williamsburg and Park Slope's Union Hall were the first adopted homes of the monthly residencies, but Rockwood was the place where Communion's snowballing popularity and ambitions culminated in one of the biggest nights they've thrown yet, and is serving as the launching pad for their next endeavor. Savoir Adore, Tennis, and Nathaniel Rateliff's Night Sweats headlined November's Communion night, but the three bands won't stop at Rockwood: Communion is hitting the road and bringing this big-top residency approach to nine cities for a fall tour Savoir Adore's Paul Hammer refers to as a "traveling mini-festival" that banks on variety and quality more than anything else.
"It's always been really eclectic," says Lovett of the diverse bill for both the club nights and tour. Between the headliners alone, soul, pop, rock, dance, and folk are represented on the stylistic spectrum. "It's almost one of the main, guiding principles [of Communion], to keep it as eclectic as possible; otherwise, it becomes exclusive. We never wanted it to be something where a certain style of crowd felt like they could take ownership of it. That's how you pigeonhole a night."
"The entire music industry is in a constant state of flux and change," adds Hammer. "I feel like [the Communion tour] is such a perfect example of that, where you take four or five bands that really don't have any connection to each other through geography, label connections, or style of music. Communion . . . really is a representation of how much freedom there is in the music industry now."
So what brings people out, then, if there isn't a cohesive sound shared between a handful of moderately well-known bands? For Lovett, the commitment to producing events that focus explicitly on the music — as opposed to touring cycles, album releases, or industry priorities — is what keeps Communion club nights packed, and the standard that the Communion tour will inherit from the storied residencies before it.
"Nothing's really changed in its essence," says Lovett. "The more we grow it and the more we build it, and the more bands are involved and interact with Communion, the better it is for everyone, because it's a community-based way of just helping to shine light on contemporaries. From a musician's point of view, [the industry] used to be very competitive: You would never want that band to get that spot at that festival, or you'd be angry that someone had the big record label executive coming out to their gig instead of your gig. The past seven or eight years, [we've] been about dismantling that, and getting people to be more about encouraging fellow musicians. It's hard enough as it is without competing against each other. It's more [about] collaborating with each other."