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Thanks for the Memories, Lakeside Lounge

Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.

Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.

As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.

But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.

There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.

Old Favorites and New Ones

Last night was all about discovery, and rediscovery. The first was five-piece rock band the Downward Dogs, who ripped through a smart, diverse, energetically jangly set of southwestern-tinged rock at the National Underground. Fronted by an animated guitarist who goes by the name Joe Yoga, the band puts a unique spin on Giant Sand style desert rock via an excellent two-piece horn section (tenor sax and trumpet) with some neat, terse charts by the sax player. Backed by an imaginative, tight drummer and a nimble bassist whose tensely rising, trebly lines enhanced the suspenseful ups and downs of the songs, Yoga led the band through a mix of big swaying anthems and quieter, more brooding material. Every single song in the set was good. The lyrics were intriguing. This being the National Underground, it wasn’t easy to hear them: between the dodgy sound mix and the noisy yuppie puppy crowd who’d come in from Long Island to see the whimpering wimps who played beforehand, it wasn’t easy to hear anything, particularly the pensive, sometimes smoldering sax parts. Random, ominous images cut through the roar: the only thing left standing on 93rd St. (yikes!); someone waiting for something awful to happen; the impossibility of getting away with something, “a couple of years after the war.” A refreshing social awareness made its way to the surface: “I am revolution, and I am dead, but I never felt better,” Yoga hollered sarcastically over the dramatic whoosh of the cymbals at one point. The songs ranged from punchy, syncopated mariachi-flavored rock with swirling trumpet, a couple of warmly bouncy Wallflowers-style soul-rock tunes, a couple of pensively expansive anthems that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oxygen Ponies catalog, and a biting garage rock number to close the set on a high note.

After the Downward Dogs, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys played Lakeside. Clark is an artist in the purest sense of the word. Was he going to wait til eleven to hit the stage like most of the Friday night acts here do? No way. He went on early so he and his tight-beyond-belief four-piece band could take their time and mix a few choice covers into the mix along with some new material and familiar crowd-pleasers. Clark isn’t unknown to an international audience: among New York musicians, he’s universally respected . As one audience member remarked, astonished, he manages to play lickety-split yet soulful lead guitar and sing at the same time, and write excellent songs, with good lyrics. It was good to hear that he’s finally going back into the studio next month for a new album, because the new material is characteristically choice. A lot of the songs were upbeat highway rock tunes, but the band varied the dynamics, breaking one down unexpectedly into an almost reggae interlude. The biggest hits with the crowd were New Toothbrush on Your Sink, with its wickedly catchy Flamin Groovies vibe, and If That’s Country Music, I’d Like to Know What Country It’s From, a viciously spot-on commentary on what gets played on “country” radio these days. In between verses and choruses, Clark spun off one lightning-fast solo after another, switching effortlessly between bluegrass, staccato Buck Owens riffage, blue flame Rolling Stones vamps and incisive janglerock. Lead guitar might be a dying art – for the prissy boys of Bushwick, guitars are decor for fashion shoots – but then again, it was ten years ago when Clark was packing crowds into Manitoba’s to watch his fingers fly. The covers were great, too – Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains in Southern California, with the excellent bassist doing the original riffs note-for-note; a similarly edgy, uneasy take of Danny O’Keefe’s Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues and “a song Elvis Costello covered,” an understatedly intense Good Year for the Roses. Clark is upstairs at 2A this Sunday the 16th at around 8 with Lenny Kaye playing pedal steel, plus an expected cavalcade of similar NYC rock luminaries.

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