Every year for ten years now, this blog’s predecessor has picked two New York venues as the best in their respective boroughs, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s time for this blog to take over that responsibility.
For those of you who follow concert coverage here, it won’t come as any surprise that the pick for best Brooklyn venue this year goes to Barbes.
On one hand, that this modest Park Slope boîte has been able to stay in business for fifteen years during the longest downward spiral that this city’s arts scene has ever experienced validates the argument that if you give people good music, people will come.
Hang at the bar long enough and you may meet locals who, when they were growing up, probably never listened to anything edgier than Bonnie Raitt. Yet they’re nuts about Slavic Soul Party. And have seen the band dozens of times – simply because Barbes’ management thought that giving a weekly residency to an oompahing brass band who love hip-hop as much as Serbian music would be a moneymaking venture. On a Tuesday night, no less.
And they were right!
For years, the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre – who probably deserve more credit than any other group for making cumbia the world’s default party music – packed the house on what otherwise would have been a dead Monday night. Had they played Saturday nights like every other band in the world wants to do, they could have succeeded at a venue ten times the size of Barbes. But this was a win-win situation. The bar made Saturday night money, the band did well, and the weekly residency eliminated the need for a rehearsal space.
Stephane Wrembel, the paradigm-shifting Romany jazz guitarist, has been playing there pretty much every week, practically from day one. He has a gig somewhere else in town, or out of town, most every other night. New Yorkers have more chances to see this guy than we do pretty much anyone else. And yet, if you don’t show up early enough, you won’t be able to get into the room to see him.
On a Sunday night.
A few weeks ago there was a klezmer band in the back, and it was impossible to get in to see them, too. This was at four on a lazy weekend afternoon.
Practically every night of the week, there is an act here worth seeing. The scene is global; cross-pollination is the name of the game. Bollywood cumbia; creepy surf art-rock; film noir dance music; Afrobeat psychedelia; Peruvian parlor pop, and one of the original and most popular mashups in the history of American music: latin jazz. If Barbes has found success in pushing the envelope, why don’t other venues do the same thing?
Obviously, a lot of them haven’t been around as long and are under considerably more pressure to pay the rent. In their circumstances, the hope of being able to weather a couple of down nights if an act doesn’t pull the expected crowd is a luxury they can’t afford. The opposite is true too: many of the new neighborhood clubs are vanity projects funded by rich out-of-state parents who want to give Junior something to keep him busy and off dope until his trust fund kicks in. And the trend at larger venues is to hand over booking to number-crunching poindexters who won’t work with any artist who doesn’t have the requisite social numbers – which are all fake, by the way.
Still, you have to wonder. What Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas are doing at Barbes is nothing new. Bill Graham did that at the Fillmores, east and west. Hilly Kristal did it at CBGB. You’d think that somebody, somewhere in this city beyond the elite echelon of Barbes, the Jalopy, Drom and Lincoln Center would see the value in niche programming – if only to eliminate the agony of having to suffer through one lame Muse or Beyonce wannabe after another.
Sure, there’s the magical Owl in Crown Heights. But as far as pretty-much-nightly music is concerned, that’s it. Barbes has at least another five years left in their comfortable former laundromat space at the corner of Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s a scene every bit as historic as what was happening at Birdland in 1957, or at CB’s and in the vacant lots of the South Bronx twenty years later. And it’s yours if you want it.
Tomorrow, this blog’s pick for best Manhattan venue.