“This is our neighborhood joint — we want to make the best of it!” Such is the brightly unpretentious way Jessica Dessner, the show booker for the bar/tiny concert space/flower-shop-by-day The Sycamore, describes the motivation behind the venue (which her architect husband, Ole Sondresen, designed). Sycamore, located on the still-developing Cortelyou St. strip in Ditmas Park, opened in September 2008, and last March, Dessner started booking artists to play it its tiny basement. She lives around the corner, in one of those big, beautiful Victorian houses you read about last year and immediately added to your long mental checklist of life-changing investments you should have made six years ago. Dessner’s brothers are Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National, who live in another such house down the street from her; Alligator, she says, was recorded in her living room. She also drew the cover art for the upcoming Sufjan StevensRun Rabbit Run album. Dessner is too self-deprecating to say so, but all of this adds up to a “neighborhood joint” that is probably considerably cooler than yours.
The Sycamore is cozy and earth-toned, boasting a handsome, heavily whiskey-stocked bar (the “Whiskey of the Day,” when I was there last, was some very serious-sounding 1792 cask-aged shit) and a surprisingly spacious backyard seating area. The basement feels like the wine cellar of some French country cottage — wooden plank steps, white painted brick walls, low ceilings, votive candles everywhere, a faded rug, vases of flowers in the corner behind the stage. A few months ago, the Icelandic folk naif Olof Arnalds played there to an audience of about twenty people. Somewhere in the middle of the third all-audience singalong, it began to seem possible that we would all be invited back to her place afterwards to make papier-mache animals together.
A more recent show, with the Australian country-folk duo Luluc opening for the tropicalia-pop outfit Helado Negro, vibrated with the same intimacy. Luluc played glowing, softly hypnotic country songs to six people sitting four feet away. The Sycamore basement is the ideal space for this sort of experience–though somewhat less so, regrettably, for Helado Negro. The band’s pleasant-but-undistinguished debut Awe Owe recently came out on Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty label, meaning that shortly after Luluc stepped offstage, the basement began to fill up with the curious. The 55 or so bodies that surrounded Helado Negro’s six-piece outfit ended up being about fifteen bodies too many for the space, and our cell phones kept disrupting the amps. But then, midway through “I Wish,” the xylophonist began to beat out counter-rhythms on the hot water pipe, the audience began clapping along, and there it was again–that ineffable, charmed sense of community that defines Dessner’s little “neighborhood joint.”