Arlene's Grocery Turns 20 and Throws Itself a Three-Day Birthday Party
Photo by Paul Jung
For Lower East Side rock institution Arlene’s Grocery, 2015 marks 20 years of hosting live music, and the venue is celebrating this month in typical downtown, low-key style. Over three nights this week, Arlene’s Grocery’s stage will display the talents of eight different acts, among them Janita, Sharkweek, LuxDeluxe, Jennah Bell, and Tall Juan. Arlene’s really is that kind of downtown hamlet, a local bar where talented unknowns play their way to the top — or not. Not everyone can be a star, after all, but Arlene’s has seen its share of icons coming through its doors and onto its stage: Early on in their musical careers, Jeff Buckley, the Strokes, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, The Bravery, and Lana Del Rey have played here.
For Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, Janita, who is originally from Finland and headlines on Thursday evening, playing Arlene’s Grocery is like being home. It’s just so familiar she has to think hard about how many times she’s played there. She finds the answer something of a shock.
“I've actually played Arlene’s Grocery only once before, in 2010,” she announces. “I’m actually surprised to realize this because I was under the impression that I’d played there many times. My confusion is due to the fact that I’ve spent soooo much time there just hanging out,” she says. “I’ve spent all kinds of boozy nights with friends, or checking out bands, and at the legendary open mic-nights,” she recalls. “I know Arlene’s Grocery intimately, and I have a long history with it.”
Lasting 20 years is something of a success story in itself, and well worth celebrating, Janita thinks. “The change-over in venues tends to be rather swift in the city,” says the 36-year-old, who also celebrates an anniversary this year: “I moved to New York the same year that Arlene’s Grocery opened, so this is an anniversary for me, too!" she exclaims. "We’re both still going strong."
Arlene’s Grocery was named thus as it was originally installed in an old bodega on Stanton Street. It then expanded into a butcher shop next door, which allowed for both a band room and bar, and separate bar for folks who just want to enjoy a drink and not pay a cover charge. Along with the Mercury Lounge and the younger, posher Pianos, Arlene’s Grocery helps keep the Lower East Side rock 'n' roll scene, well, rolling. The music menu is mostly rock and punk with a late Seventies hangover – real rock, as some have it — but most genres are welcome.
Thursday’s show is a special night for Janita on another level, because she’ll be performing with the original musicians who backed her on her last record, the 2015 album Didn’t You, My Dear? The ensemble will include Andrea Longato, Blake Morgan (who produced the album), and Jonathan Ellinghaus. This time, Janita and company will debut new songs destined for a Didn’t You, My Dear?’s deluxe edition (release date soon, but TBA).
Arlene’s has not been without controversy in its two-decade-and-counting run. In 1997, some musicians proposed a boycott to protest the venue's lack of compensation for performances . But that’s history, and in the glass-towered new Manhattan, where more and more venues are corporate-tied, Janita thinks a ground-level venue with grassroots principles is highly valuable. When she considers what Arlene’s Grocery gives musicians in New York City, she’s a little embarrassed by her own enthusiasm.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m gushing, but I love Arlene’s Grocery. It’s rugged and it’s rock 'n' roll, but there’s also something incredibly down-to-earth and cozy about it. It’s not pretentious at all. The reason why I feel excited to perform there is that it’s all about the music. It’s not about trying to impress anyone or fit into a scene. It’s retained that authentic New York vibe that I fell in love with in the Nineties, and there’s not that many places like that left anymore.”
Arlene’s has weathered much in music, from the influx of Britpop to the garage rock revival of the early Zeros, which resuscitated the Seventies ideal of the gritty downtown rock scene, headed by the likes of the Ramones, whose leader, Joey, lived a few blocks away. But it hasn’t become a tourist attraction, partly because it is 20 years old and not 40, and because new bands playing night after night keep it present.
“It has a good vibe. There’s something inexplicable,” muses Janita about what makes a great music venue. “There’s an energy that clings to the corners, to its walls, and even in the air of a music venue. In trying to chart my way in this world I sometimes look at people and ask myself, ‘Is this person coming from a good place, or are they coming from a bad place?’ It’s a simplistic concept, yes, but, bear with me.” She pauses.“I can also ask that question about seemingly inanimate objects such as Arlene’s Grocery, and my answer is that it’s coming from a good place. I think that that’s why it’s lasted this long.”
Arlene’s Grocery’s 20th Anniversary Celebration runs November 19-21. For ticket information, click here.
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