Monday, March 28, 2011

What's A Scene Without a Home

Is a scene still a scene if it has no home? In the last week or two I've attended the Monday Night in Exodus at A Gathering of Tribes as well as shows at Brooklyn Tea Party, Project Parlor and Goodbye Blue Monday, all of which featured performers and audience members drawn from our world at Sidewalk.

It's interesting although a little abstract to think about what a "scene" actually is if it has no central nucleus. While it is comforting to see familiar faces at the various places where things are happening currently, Sidewalk has until now been the feeder system for the broader network, continually bringing in new creative energy that eventually flows out through other tributaries. I wonder whether the basic tribe would stay connected without Sidewalk there to kind of link us all together. Hard to say.

I may have given up on the Monday night in Exodus at Tribes merely because of the smokiness of the place. While I like the whole open vibe of that space, I really was not happy to be reminded of the days when smoking was common in bars and clubs and you would get home with all your clothes infused with that smell.

Joe Crow's day long extravaganza celebrating his new vinyl release started in the afternoon at Project Parlor a laid back bar in Bushwick with a nice backyard, which is where the performances were held. It would have been nicer if the weather had cooperated better--I think it was in the 30s or low 40s about the whole time. Joe Crow brought in a few groups who he knew from hanging out at Project Parlor and elsewhere, and regulars like Thomas Patrick Maguire, Justin Remer, Feral Foster, and Myron the Magnificent also performed. It was a fun afternoon.

Things then shifted over to Goodbye Blue Monday where Purple Organ was playing as many of us arrived. Lach, Jordan Levinson, Telethons, Dan and Rachel played, but unfortunately I couldn't stay for most of the sets....I really like GBM's new setup though, which I saw for the first time. It seems a lot more comfortable and the food I ordered was not bad at all. That steel tower in the back is quite a work of engineering. Impressive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sidewalk Talk Show - with Guest Brian Speaker

Hello and welcome to the online edition of The Sidewalk Talk Show. While these conversations originally were held as live talks from the stage at Sidewalk, during the time that the club is closed and the open mic is being held in exile, we are holding some of these interviews on this site.

My guest today is Brian Speaker, who is involved with the scene surrounding Sidewalk Cafe on many fronts. Brian is a songwriter and performer, proprietor of the music venue Brooklyn Tea Party, and operator of his own recording studio.

Anything else I'm forgetting, Brian?

I think that's a pretty good start.

First off, although I want to talk about a lot of other things, since you originally were going to be in charge of upgrading the sound system and backline at Sidewalk, I wonder if there's anything new to say about what's going on there at the moment in terms of the future of the music activities there.

Well, there is in fact an update. Before Pini got the can, Ben and I spoke in great detail about what the club’s needs were. We made a few lists, one being absolutes, one being upgrades, and one being the dream list. Since that time, many things have gone down regarding the Sidewalk employees and Pini, but the list makes sense to whomever is in charge, and as it was well thought out, it has been seen by the new GM and he agrees with our proposed assessment. We've been approved to go ahead with the negotiated terms we had with Pini.

Well, that's comforting to hear. So, I guess that means that the renovation is proceeding and the intentions are to keep things flowing in the back room.

The back room has long been in need of an overhaul. New clubs like Rockwood, or not so new now a days, are changing the game for live music in small venues in NYC. When I worked at Sidewalk it was always thought that the back room needed a lift, and now, after all of this, it seems we're finally going to get it. It’s not going to be an elite system, but it will be better than most people will be expecting.

Any further sense of how long the process will take from your end or from theirs?

I'm sure that information will find its way to people once the renovations get a little further along. I mean, by the looks of things, the place is being torn apart to the bare bones, to build it back up again. They want to eliminate any low grades from past health or city codes. They want the place to be respectable from the ground up. However long that takes, is up to the construction of the renovations.

Ok, so, now on to other things--Brooklyn Tea Party, the venue that you run from your home in Bushwick [and which has nothing to do with the similar-sounding political group]. I have enjoyed many shows there, and what I especially like is the combination of a party and performance. There's something so enjoyable about the intimate scale of the place and the feeling of hospitality that goes along with the music. I'm wondering, for those who might not be familiar with BTP, if you could give a short run down of its history.

BTP began with Dan Costello, Rachel Devlin, Brook Pridemore and Michael David Campbell. They moved in together with the intent on having a place to practice, perform and party. They built the stage in the living room and put in place the basic touches of wiring and sound so the place could be used for their own music. Later it became a venue, when they started inviting friends to play and perform.

And then how did you get involved?

I moved into BTP in the spring of 2008. Brook was out on tour, as the usual for him those days, and so I began to sublet his room. As I was living there, it was discussed that the other folks were ready to move out come August. The space was and is perfect for my recording studio set up, so Brook and I took over the lease until Brook eventually moved out. Scott Loving moved in sometime before that, and now he and I reside here with his girlfriend, Assylia.

So, it's great that you kept things going with the performances there. One of the things that I like about it is the underground nature of it--I guess really what that means is that yes, you have to know about it from friends, or whatever, but also that no one is really trying to make money from what goes on there. But I know it takes a lot of work for you to put on those shows. Can you talk about why you do this and what your general kind of idea or aesthetic for the place is?

Well, I too want and need a place to practice. It’s great to be able to have The Everybody Knows over in the middle of an afternoon and work on songs, or record an album in an environment where we're not watching the clock. But, first and foremost, I loved this place before I lived here. I got what those guys were doing and I knew coming into this space, it was meant to be used for shows. The vibe is good, the sound has been upgraded since I moved in, and I wanted to keep the place going. When I began doing shows here, it was costing us money, so we cut back shows from two a month to once a month. As the financials of the days began to get worse, we knew we had to make some changes to keep the place going. We began by putting a $5 donation at the door. This ensures we're going to be able to pay the bands something at the end of the night. Then, Scott and I decided to offer cheap beer for a donation in order to put towards our electric bill. That way, we can give the $5 donation tally to the bands, and we have a chance to put a small amount of money towards our bills. It’s not much, but in this day and age, every little bit counts.

Do you have any general overriding concept for the type of shows you put on? Or is it just that you look at who's out there and pick what you think you would like to hear?

Mostly, we want to put shows together that give a bit of variety. I mean, how many times have you been to a show of 5 acts and you can see that same show every month, or every other month? It gets old quick. Mixing and matching is fun, but in the end, Scott and I have to enjoy the night, because it’s our home, our party. We don't put ourselves on the bill at every show like the old guard used to do either. That was important for me to feel like we are doing this for others and enjoying it for ourselves. We also like to put new people on so our audience gets a chance at seeing someone we respect, who might not be very well known.

Are there any shows or moments that stand out as highlights for you either since you've been running BTP or before?

You know Herb, my favorite moments at any show, are those where I literally get lost in the music. It used to happen to me when I would come here before I moved in, and it still happens for me, more often here than anywhere else. I'll climb up to the loft area and sit behind the lights and just transcend. That being said, my favorite performers are the ones that are really, really good at music!

Why, how diplomatic of you, Brian.

But I know what you mean. There are definitely times at BTP where I've gotten totally caught up in the performances.

In my own case I remember some amazing Schwervon! shows, Debe's live concert recording, and the shows of that first July 4 extravaganza (couldn't make it to the second one).

The Fools, Toby Goodshank, Barry Bliss...
Debe's live concert, I just recently mixed and mastered after all this time, and it is truly wonderful!

I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Sometimes the openers are the best part of the night for me. Scott Rudd, Charles Mansfield, Emily Einhorn... I mean these are the beginning of the night and it’s like WOW, where do you go after that?

So, in Ben K's interview he said that he tries to stay aware of what's going on at other venues so as to not program events that will conflict. I have to admit that early on in BTP's history I was not altogether thrilled when they hosted Jeff Lewis on the same night I was playing at Sidewalk (because otherwise I'm sure my show would have been overflowing). I guess this is a little less of an issue now with fewer shows, but how do you feel about this question of "competition" within our community of performers and venues?

In my opinion, its not competition. This is NYC, and this is Brooklyn. You are swimming in a sea of things to do, shows, arts, culture, fireworks. There are always going to be other things going on, and sure, attendance will vary because of that. That being said, BK and I do talk about upcoming shows, but we try not to be concerned too much if someone else is having an event on the same night.

Any specific plans for the future with BTP you'd like to mention or anything else you'd like to say about it?

Yeah, I would like to say, we need community support. We need people to support our shows because, it’s such a fragile thing. The world is in such a financial shut down, and we feel it here. We try to keep this place going, and allow folks to have good nights with great music for not a lot of money. Places are closing down, and we don't want to.

Also, there is a magic that happens here and I don't want that to end. My favorite part of any night is when a performer takes me aside and is awe of what just happened. They thank me and say, when and if they can play here again, they would like to, and that makes me feel great!

Well, you've got a great show coming up this Friday which I'll bet a lot of people will attend: Rebecca Seatle, Crazy & the Brains, Prewar Yardsale--and a special unannounced guest, right?

Yeah, that's this weekend!

Any hints about the special guest???????

It’s going to be fucking amazing!!!

Prewar Yardsale hasn't played together in front of an audience in over one year. It’s like a reunion show.

So... no hints!

Ok--well, I think you summed up the BTP experience well when talking about the magic of the place, and I hope anyone not familiar with it will come out and see for him or herself. I want to move on and talk a little about what you do during the day there--which includes running a full-fledged recording studio, right? I know you recorded The Everybody Knows's album, and Debe's recording, and did some work for Eric Wolfson and others. How are things going with that?

Things are going pretty well. I am making, and helping to make some pretty incredible records. I've recently invested in some new pieces, including a 1959 Wurlitzer electric piano, that is absolutely amazing. And then I have this 1940's electric guitar amp that has such a unique sound. I'm currently looking for an analog tape machine. I've always wanted to be proficient on an analog machine, and now i have the chance to do that. i just have to find the right fit.

Maybe you should tell people about your overall setup.

I run Protools with wave plug-ins, a focusrite octopre, which means I can record 16 tracks simultaneously, and I have a few really nice mics and preamps. My main line is a Neumann U87 microphone through a Universal Audio LA-610 preamp. The live room has a lot of character and we can use the three bedrooms for isolation in recording full bands with very little bleed. You can check out some of the audio samples on the new bandcamp page...

Brian-when we first met--if you remember way back--it was when Eric Wolfson, Vin Caccione and I disrupted your work by taking over the stage at Sidewalk for a rogue photo shoot while you were maintaining some of the audio equipment there. So as long as I've known you--in addition to performing and running BTP--you seem to have had a fascination with capturing sound--Is there anyway to put into words what it is about this that you find so interesting.

By the way, I think you were pretty pissed off at us. I hope you've forgiven us.

Capturing sound, yes, I do have a fascination with that, but moreso I have a fascination with the sound and its source. When you hear a voice so unique as Julie LaMendola, sailing along in your living room, it’s magic. When you hear the incredible vibe of a Vincent Caccione's guitar leads, when you hear the slippery keys of a Preston Spurlock, or the abrasive smash of the perfrect snare, you want to capture what you hear. You want it to sound on record the way you hear it in your ears and reverberating around in your head. That is truly awesome and I want to capture it!

I vaguely remember that the Sidewalk back then was truly a fucking disaster. The lack of maintenance of their system and the dirt and gunk, made it hard to fix things and to do my job. You guys coming in to disrupt that was also something I learned was part of the gig. 

So, it's not a matter of playing around with cool gear?

Of course its about the gear too! I LOVE gear, but more than anything I LOVE knowing how to use it, and how, when someone tells me what they hear in their head, I can make said thing happen. Sometimes it’s gear, sometimes it’s experiment, sometimes it’s accident, but the sonics must be represented. The process is also the best part.

Well, from what I can tell you've been doing a good job at that. I'm looking forward to hearing more of your work--although  the snippets I heard of The Everybody Knows's album the other night sounded really good.

Also, check out Boo Hoo's record, Afghan Hounds. That is still one of my favorite records to be released that i've ever been involved in.

Cool. I will....So, thanks for hanging on with me through this with all the typing and everything--I'm sure I could go on for a while--but I do at least want to get to your songwriting, especially The Mars Chronicles. You put a ton of work over a long period into creating what is essentially an opera or a musical having to do with exploration of Mars and a cast of characters from earth and space. I think you've presented it in full at least twice with a large cast and a quite lovely sequined costume that you wear. For one, I was suprised to realize that you must have an affinity for musicals to some extent--but in any event can you tell me what inspired you in creating The Mars Chronicles?

The Mars Chronicles began with my song a day project, Spiral Notebook. I guess about 25 songs in, I thought it would be fun to have a story to continue if I felt like it. Also, I was watching the NASA rovers land on Mars. This was big news at the time, so the story was based on the idea that folks have talked about for a long time: "when are we going to Mars?" As the story continued, it took different turns and began to become something in itself. After 13 songs, I had to set the project aside because it was very apparent, it needed its own head space and some time to find the rest of the story. Once I finished Spiral Notebook, I came back to The Mars Chronicles and began performing it as a concert Space Rock Opera. Now, it’s in consideration for the NY Fringe Festival, and I'm working with two partners, Dan Costello and Jason Surratt to try and complete the story so it can be ready for full production by this summer.

So, you guys are writing more songs?

I've written and finished two other songs for the album, which I plan to release sometime later this year as a concept record. There are several other songs that I've written, but Dan and Jason are helping primarily with the story. But, yes, there are going to be several other songs written for the show. In the end, it will be a full length musical/space rock opera for the stage.

So, I recently learned of your involvement as a teenager with a hard rock band that played around at fraternity parties, etc, but did you have any previous experience or interest in using music theatrically. Or did you you secretly spend a lot of time listening to Evita and Cats and stuff as a kid?

After my high school rock band broke up, I was a little lost and in search of something that wasn't going to fall out beneath me. I mean the band breaking up was something i did not want to happen, and I had absolutely no control over. So, being a bit of a choir nerd, I loved singing in our high school shows and such. I began to take voice lessons and even took a role in a community theater show in my home town. I decided to study theater at Purdue University, where I absorbed as much about lights and sound as anything else. I did listen to and learn to sing a lot of rock musical tunes and still love them to this day, but more like Chess, Les Mis and Tommy. On a whim I auditioned for Busch Gardens, Williamsburg and got the job. I spent the spring/summer doing 635 performances as Northrup, a one man, musical magic show in Virginia.

Man-musicals and magic-you and I should go on the road. I'll have to talk to you more offline about the magic stuff.

The magic was the mutli-million dollar theater.

I have to admit that in the past I've had mixed feelings about "rock operas," which is kind of weird in a way since I'm such a big fan of musicals. I've always liked Tommy because I love The Who and I think some of those songs are great, but then again there was a point where some of the stuff that followed Tommy got to be pompous and overbearing-I can't think of any specifics at the moment but you probably know what I'm talking about. But then again I loved Rent, although I consider that more of a musical than an opera. I guess some of the lines are blurring really, but where this is leading is to whether there's anything you can say as to what it is about the form of the piece--the idea of a "rock opera”--that interests you--and also if there are any specific themes in what you've written that you are trying to deal with or if it is just kind of what it seems to be about on the surface. Yikes--a long question....

The Mars Chronicles is about Love and Inter-Galactic Peace on the "surface," but it also has some deep rooted social and political currents that are very much in step with what's going on in our world today. The rest of the show, was always part of the plan. Finding exactly how to say it and where to take it, has been the windfall. Barry Bliss recently asked me if I was ever going to be "finished" with it, or if it was something I would be working on for the rest of my life. I think if you ask anyone today working on, essentially a novel set to music, the word "finished" isn't in the vocabulary for the first five years. Just ask Phoebe Kreutz who has been immersed in a team of writers on her musical which I had the good privilege of seeing in a showcase. Amazing! It’s been years in the works.

I do, however, plan on releasing the record as its own piece, like Tommy was a concept record before it became a "complete show.” But unlike Tommy, The Mars Chronicles was meant to be a full story. I just haven't finished the entire songwriting part of it yet 

Yeah, it would be good to have a recording of it. I'm looking forward to that. Although I'd like to see more performances of it too. I just had a flash of Ariel singing that song about the United Nations Space Organization.. Also that whole press conference section I really like--just to name two parts--Anyway, good luck with the NY Fringe Festival--that's cool to hear it's up for consideration there. By the way, in the course of this you mentioned your song-a-day project--which was a very cool thing. I remember thinking at the time that it would be hard to keep writing good songs under those kind of circumstances, but I remember any number of very interesting pieces that you devised and sang at Sidewalk around then. Anything you want to say about that experience.

It was a challenge, it was hard, it was frustrating, it was time consuming and it was worth it. I think experience is the key word. It taught me a lot about myself and it changed me for the better. I plan on releasing that catalogue as an all in one DVD very soon. It’s long overdue.

Wow, we're covering a lot of ground here.

Ok-one more thing-I know that earlier you were working doing professional voice over work--then I heard you on TV as the voice of a fruity drink--are you still doing any of that kind of stuff?

I partake in the occasional audition and even a job from time to time, but the truth is, that industry, like so many others, has changed dramatically over these past few years. I used to go to casting offices all over the city, where I was up against 25 of the the top guys in NY. Now I go to my agent’s office, where I'm up against 10 guys in my office along with 10 guys in every office from NY to LA. I'm now up against upwards of 500 people for one job. Big or small, experience does not matter in that realm. It’s only if your voice matches the voice in someone else's head. It’s frustrating, but that world gave me the gift of being able to afford a comfortable life in NYC for so many years, and honestly, 6 years of voicing that juice drink, bought my recording studio, which is where my life is headed. I will do voice work as its available to me. I really do love it. I've had the chance to be in some AMAZING recording studios and work with superstars. It’s a privilege.

OK--well, I know we've been at this a while now--and thanks so much for your time--My last thought is something I come back to all the time and it is about the community of folks connected to our scene. I have a feeling that connection to a community of that nature is something that also is of value to you and so to finish things up is there anything you'd like to say about that or anything else before we sign off.

In a place like NYC, where there are so many people scratching out a life in art and  music, it is nice to feel like I'm part of something. This is a tough scene to understand sometimes, just like its name, it's hard to define. But, the littlest bit of support can mean a whole lot to a lot of people.

OK Brian--thanks a lot for your time and the thought put into this. See you soon.

Cool, thanks for your interest Herb. I'm glad to take part.


Friday, March 11, 2011

More news..

See Ben Krieger's post over at OJ for a new wrinkle on what's up at Sidewalk.

While Ben still feels that the music scene in the back room will continue, these latest developments seem to open the possibility that anything could happen. Of concern is that all the members of the Sidewalk service staff have lost their jobs.

I hope that the back room in fact does continue as the home of the scene that this blog documents. In the best case scenario the restaurant will reopen with a nicely renovated and more comfortable space for the performers and audience. However, it is interesting to conjecture what might happen if that doesn't turn out to be the case. The scene on which so many of us thrive is not inherently dependent on its venue, but for it to continue in approximately the same manner things would have to fall into place the right way. It will be interesting to see how things build at A Gathering of Tribes.

It is, by the way, easy to imagine the Sidewalk space being turned over to other purposes. I'm sure that someone could come along who feels that the value of the real estate could be maximized through other means. Again, I really hope this doesn't happen, but we've seen numerous cherished places close in recent years and anything is certainly possible.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

American Songwriter Piece on Antifolk Fest

I was in touch with Evan Schlansky, who was at one time a regular at Sidewalk and is now an editor at American Songwriter magazine based out of Nashville. I asked Evan about the possibility of shooting photos for the publication and he invited me to submit shots of the Antifolk Fest along with some captions. Well, the captions swelled some into a photo-essay type deal. It's all online here. I was glad to have a chance to do this story and to get some publicity for Sidewalk, the Fest, and those featured. I was also sorry that for a variety of reasons it was impossible to include absolutely everyone who performed in the Fest. In any event, I hope you enjoy the piece. Here it is.

(That's Brook Pridemore in the photo above, one of the shots included in the American Songwriter piece).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sidewalk Talk Show Online - with Guest Ben Krieger

Thanks for tuning in everyone to the first online Sidewalk Talk Show. We usually do these live on stage at Sidewalk Cafe, but during the club's renovation, I thought we could try some online interviews.

I'm very pleased to have as my first online guest Sidewalk's very own head honcho, Ben Krieger. Welcome Ben.

Hey Herb, glad to be here!

First off, I want to say that I think we solved the problem of finding an appropriate catch phrase for the talk show.

We did?

You brilliantly came up with it last night.

Wait, what did I say?

“Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go”

Heh! You know, that's actually a pretty good one. Let's use it!

Definitely. So, that gets us to the point that the Monday Night Open Mic is now operating in exodus from A Gathering of Tribes on East 3rd Street, and last night was the first night it was held in this new temporary location. How did you feel it went?

It went well. There were 15 performers, which is small compared to what we're used to, but I felt like all the key elements in terms of personalities were there. We had a bit of everything, and people from each "generation" of the Sidewalk scene. I've already had a bunch of inquiries re: next week, so I can't wait to see things build.

I thought it was lots of fun and I liked the intimate feel last night. Because of the people there, in combination with the setting, I really felt comfortable, which enabled me to try some things I might not have with more people around.

That was a great new song. It really opened up the feel of the evening.

Thanks. I always wanted to write and perform a song in the same night and I was glad I was able to do so last night....but really, I just wanted to say that there was a good feeling of comraderie and ultimately some wackiness last night. You guys ended up with an inspired Crabs on Banjo set.

Yeah, it really worked! I really hope the tape Bernard made came out.

So, can you talk a little about what is actually going on at Sidewalk. Any details for us?

I don't know too much. Pini (the SWalk owner) is working on the renovation plans now, and Brian Speaker (sound tech) has been in touch with him regarding upgrades to the backline and sound system. Other than that, I'm trying to keep out of the loop for a few weeks. It's not often that I get to NOT think about the Sidewalk much. I haven't felt like this in almost 3 years.

OK--but I need to ask this because I think some people have been wondering--is there any chance that Sidewalk will close altogether?

No chance at all. There is no way Pini would be spending any amount of money if he wasn't planning on reopening. More importantly, Pini is pretty straightforward about things like this. If he says we're renovating, that's what we're doing.

Cool--let me get back to what you said above--you haven't felt like this in almost 3 years--what do you mean by that?

Booking a music venue is exactly like Tetris. I've talked with other bookers about this and they feel the same way. There's always another week on the horizon, always a potential snag on a particular night, maybe a last-minute cancellation. To be free for 4-6 weeks and know that there is nothing I need to worry about at 94 Avenue A is a huge weight off my shoulders. I care about the club a lot but can't help thinking about it. It never turns off. And right now I feel a bit more relaxed than usual because it's closed.

So, this is a good chance to ask you about what it's like to run Sidewalk, both on a day to day basis and more broadly.

From what you wrote above I see-and it's probably only the tip of the iceberg--that you have lots of day-to-day details to deal with. Do, you also get to think more broadly about how you want to shape things? In other words, do you think about what you want the overall flavor, image, feel of the club to be and do you try to move things in any direction.

The day-to-day can be pretty overwhelming, so it's hard to think about how I want to shape things, but I've been getting better at that. Keep in mind that before Sidewalk, I had never booked a club more than one night a week. So I've grown a lot as a booker, and I've started to put together systems where I keep track of the acts better and can begin to shape events/evenings that are regular, cool events at the club. This is in addition to the antifolk activities. When I started, it was antifolk/not-antifolk. Over the past year I've started to focus more on all of the talented acts at the club who aren't part of that scene, putting together bills that are more cohesive. One act recently told me that the bill I put him on in February was the best bill he's ever been on. I had made a conscious effort to assemble those acts and it felt good to get that feedback. I'm trying to do much more of that.

I just want to run a good club and try new things. That's my basic MO. And I try to maintain the most unique open stage in the city.

I'm not sure what you mean by the "antifolk activities." What is that exactly vs. not-antifolk?

When I got to the Sidewalk, there was this active antifolk scene with festivals, alumni, a history, legacy. I spent a lot of time working with acts on the scene, trying to put together events like I Heart U to maintain the momentum. I booked other acts at the club, but I wasn't as familiar with them. Keep in mind that sometimes I listen to an act online and within 30 seconds I know I want to book them. 3 months later they play their show and it's great. They play again, and again. And if they are consistently playing on nights where I'm off, then 2 years later there are some great acts at the club whose sound I don't know at all. I just hear about it from the sound crew. Meanwhile, I'm catching the Purple Organ a zillion times all over the city simply by hanging out with my friends. So for a while I felt like--especially with my commitments as a father--that there was a large group of amazing acts coming through the Sidewalk who had nothing to do with the antifolk legacy. They were getting booked, but not as thoughtfully as I would have liked. About a year ago I started to focus on changing that.

OK--I see, so it's not just that you're booking acts that you discover at the Open Mic, but other people who approach you or you find elsewhere, or whatever? I guess I never really thought too much about how you book acts other than people you see at the open mic.

A lot of acts approach me online and get booked that way. Sometimes they bring their friends on a bill and I end up booking the friends regularly and separately.

There are some great acts--some of the best, actually--who have never come through the open stage.

Cool. So, I certainly can understand your sense of relief at having a break for a few weeks, but now that you have been at this job for almost three years, how do you feel about it? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Some of both? Do you feel you are providing a service? Do you think that you are contributing something to the world...or what?

I love it. I feel like I'm contributing a service to the people who chose to play there and show up on Mondays. While "draw expectation" is one of those things that artists grumble about, I also feel a huge sense of responsibility towards the staff. I'm in charge of the revenue for a third (symbolically) of the club, and also a lot of the bar traffic. I want to see the staff be able to eat and pay rent. I think performers should have a great place to play. In terms of the sound crew, I think we should always make the artists sound good.

It can be really exhausting. Sometimes the toughest thing about Sidewalk is that I care about it. Because I also care about my family, my health, my art. And when you care about everything in your life, when there isn't anything you are willing to walk away from, it can leave you pretty exhausted. There are times where I wish I made my money cleaning toilets. Because then I could walk away easily if I wanted to. But I'll settle for exhausted.

What do you love about the job?

I love the music and I love bringing people together in positive, meaningful ways. More than anything else, I love those two things.

When you took over the job you were following in the footsteps of He Who is Known as Lach--who certainly had a following and his own style. The Sidewalk had a reputation for hosting the City's leading open mic and we all know of the names of notable artists who emerged from there over the years. When you took over were you intimidated by all this? And, while this may be similar to some of the other things we've already covered, do you think your style is different from Lach's and how?

Lach and I are different in several ways...

First of all, Lach has an incredibly healthy ego and a rock-star amount of confidence. He's really good at talking with pretty much anyone, no matter who they are because, hey...he's Lach. I approached this job a little less confident than that, particularly in terms of the performers who were now notable artists. I certainly felt I could do the job, but - and here's an example - when Regina Spektor used to show up, I was a little nervous talking with her. For Lach, or for anyone who has known her for a long time, she's just Regina. I was nervous. It's taken me a few years to deal with that. Now it's no longer an issue.

I don't see too much of a difference in the way Lach and I run the open stage, but this is because I mostly experienced a post-child, milder Lach. I'm about the same age Lach was when he started things at Sidewalk. I get a sense like he was a bit more of a devil back then.

(The good thing about conducting an interview via chat is that you can take a break when your subject needs to go pick up his daughter.)

Hey there....

So, picking up where we left off... I understand when you talk about nervousness with individual well-known performers, but I wonder if you were ever concerned about the whole thing, i.e. the obligation/challenge of carrying forward something that had been so well-established at that point.

Initially I was nervous about it, but it becomes easier as time goes onwards. You start to notice the patterns: new people coming in who connect with the scene, people moving on, leaving the nest after a few years and playing out more, coming back. Once you start to recognize the ebb and flow, things become more manageable. You start to understand what you have control over and what you don't, and you dive in to the opportunities you have.

This gets into what I wanted to talk about next, which is the community aspect of Sidewalk. I guess it may be preaching to the choir to talk about this here, but my experience has been, as has that of so many other folks I talk to, that while so many performers turn up at SW for the opportunity to play, they often get caught up deeply in the community aspect of the place. There are so few opportunities these days to really interact in a common setting with like-minded people that Sidewalk can be enveloping in that way. This isn't so much a question as a comment, I realize, but maybe you can respond as to your own perspective on this.

One thing that I've gotten better at is playing meet-and-greet. The community is there, but it's my role to make sure that people don't leave without brushing a few shoulders. This way, they have a reason to come back. The community definitely needs to be nurtured.

Another thing that changed during the last year or two that Lach was at the helm was the development of the Brooklyn Tea Party. There was some resistance at first on Lach's part, some concern that the BTP was taking away from the scene at the Sidewalk. One thing that I did when I took over was try and get out to events all over the city where the Sidewalk community had spread to. It wasn't like you had to twist my arm - it's fun to go to the BTP and Goodbye Blue Monday! But I felt it had to be done. And that was hard at times. Trying to be at Sidewalk, trying to catch a show at BTP, trying to be a family man. This is no ordinary booking job. But it has been worth it. Lach, post-retirement, has embraced the BTP much more readily. I think it's nice that the community has spread all over and that people come back to the Sidewalk to play a comfortable show or the festival when they feel like it.

Yeah, and there are other offshoots too, like everything that Matt is doing with OJ, and other similar endeavors, but I feel that in some respect it all links back to Sidewalk, even in cases in which the connections to it are floating further out there than they once did.
It's interesting, because sometimes I come across people who haven't been on the scene in a long time and who I've never met, but if I explain that I hang out at Sidewalk, it immediately gives us a common basis for conversation.

I should add that in some ways, if I'm not careful, the BTP and other events DO take away from Sidewalk from a business perspective. An ill-timed birthday party can cut attendance at an antifolk-related event by 20 people. That could be a $200 loss for the club that night. There's only so much I can control, but I do try and keep tabs on major events like BTP shows, Huggabroomstock, major OJ events, to make sure that there isn't a conflict when I put together nights at the club.

Like I said, no ordinary booking job.

So, you just finished up with the Winter Antifolk Festival, and I'm wondering what your thoughts were about that both in terms of the duration and format this year and the performances.

I am glad that it was limited to a week. When I booked my first festival back in 2008, I had basically looked back at Lach's old calendar, counted how many days the fest was, and tried to fill that up. It was usually 10 or 11 days, not including the Monday. That got to be incredibly exhausting. The festival wasn't always that long. It seems like at some point it was a lot smaller but kept growing over the years. I'm glad I scaled it back. For one, it still felt pretty damn full, with amazing performances. Secondly, after such an exhausting first week, if we had to go through 4 more days, we all would have dropped dead.

I liked the format...I think people should have a little more time and I'm going to continue with that.

With the shorter Festival it felt more like what I originally thought was its intention, to highlight the performers who stand out on the scene at the moment--to put a special focus on that group--In any event, were there any particular performances or moments that stood out for you?

Crazy and the Brains have really come a long way. Their show was amazing. Emily Einhorn is always great. Isaac Gillespie just keeps getting more interesting. I was really happy with the Penultimate blowout, the Timothy Dark section in particular.

Those were some good highlights, although I didn't get to see Isaac's set, unfortunately. Crazy rocked the place. I was really glad to have been there for that, and I thought Emily was amazing. The Penultimate Blowout was a combination of your sound/art stuff with other performers. I wonder in respect to your own work are you focusing more on that kind of "noise" stuff or are you actively writing more traditional songs or are you doing some of it all?

I try not to think about it too much and just go with whatever seems to be inspiring to me. I would say that while some of the noise and sound collage that I've done has been inspired by the records I have soaked up over the past few years, it's also a reaction to hearing so many singer-songwriters on a daily basis. I haven't felt the need to express myself with verses and choruses over the past few years. And I have so many songs in that vein as it is. I do write a lot, but many of the songs are studio creations and don't translate well live.

One more thing about your stewardship of Sidewalk--is this something you see continuing with well into the future or do you ever mull over thoughts of doing other things--making a living-wise that is?

I don't see an end at this point. It's been a great ride so far. When Sidewalk does eventually end for me, things will definitely get even more interesting, that's for sure. I mean, unless I needed to, how could I take a job that sucks after this?

Well, I have finished with all the grueling 60 Minutes like questions, so I'd like to say, as someone who has benefitted very much from all your efforts at Sidewalk, thanks for all your work at keeping our little club house going in such a vital fashion.

You're welcome.

Oh wait, one more intensive question--any clearer sense of when SW will open again?

I was told that the renovation was planned for 4 weeks, but because it's a renovation and things happen, 6 is more realistic. The Sidewalk is being booked from May 1 onward. There are some late April dates already booked and as March moves onwards I'll have a better sense of how April is shaping up. Definitely no performances before April 10.

So, that's getting to be it for me. Is there anything else you want to add about anything?

I think that's about all I can muster for now. 

OK--that about does it. Just to circle back, Crabs on Banjo last night played a song that had to do with Gilligan, among other things and Ben came up with the refrain "Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go." So that is where The Sidewalk Talk Show's new catch phrase came from. Ben, thanks for doing this. I hope we'll have more of these online chats, but in the meantime, see you soon, and "Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go."

Later, sir, thanks for doing this, it was fun.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sidewalk in Exile

While renovations are underway at Sidewalk Ben Krieger is bringing the Monday open mic to "A Gathering of Tribes," the same location that hosts Catweazle.

While Ben suggests in his email (run in its entirety below), that he needed something to keep him occupied, I think also there is an organic need for a place to accommodate the intense energy of mass personal expression that has filled Sidewalk week after week on Monday nights.

Here's Ben's email:

Hey Everyone,

Bernard King is right. I lasted exactly 24 hours doing nothing before I lost my mind.

While the Sidewalk is closed for renovations (I was sent some crazy demolition shots that I'll post soon), a "scaled down version" of the Monday event will be held at A Gathering of the Tribes. Many of you know this place as the home of Catweazle and the exiled Post Script Coffee House. Steve Cannon has been gracious enough to host us for a bit while the SWalk is being refaced.

You know the part in Goodfellas where they are all in jail, cut off from their normal life, but still making do with what they have and stirring the sauce? THAT is what this will be like.

Sign-up is at 7:30. The event will start at 8pm, one song for all, and we'll start around the list again if we need to. The event officially ends at 10, but people usually hang out to enjoy themselves for a good bit after that.

There is no cover for performers. The tip jar will support Steve-and I strongly encourage you bring some money to support this great guy-with non-performers encouraged to donate $5. There is no liquor license at this apartment and I will have cans of PBR in a cooler for guests. If you would like to have someone hold your beer while you throw me a few bucks to support my temp unemployment, that's cool. Please don't plan on partaking if you are under 21.

If you really stick it out to the end, there will be hot tea as usual.

Please spread the word to any regulars or SWalk alumni you know who may be interested. It will be over before you know it, so say you were there!

A Gathering of the Tribes
285 East 3rd St, 2nd Floor
(between Avenues C and D)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Breaking News...

Just got word that Sidewalk will be closed for 6 weeks and all acts in that period will be cancelled. Evidently the issue has to do with renewal of the club's liquor license, and while that is being worked out Sidewalk will take the opportunity to conduct renovations. This will include some updates to the sound system and backline as well as some new decorating work by Mr. Krieger. I'm pleased to hear he will be conducting research at the Bernard King Antifolk Archive (BKAA for short) in search of historic Sidewalk posters to decorate the club.

Here is the email announcement from Ben that summarizes the latest news:

Hey Everyone,

As of today, Tuesday March 1, the Sidewalk is closed for renovations and will be open again in mid April. ALL shows and events until mid April are CANCELED. This email is being sent to all acts who are affected by this sudden news. It was sudden to me as well (I found out last night).

We will be upgrading the club's backline, sound system and back room. Heavy renovations will be done to the bar and restaurant area.

I am actively answering my emails, booking May onward. If you need to contact me in order to reschedule your show for the spring, please do so.

I can also provide you with a fuller story regarding this news if you are curious.

UPDATES WILL BE POSTED ON THE SIDEWALK WEBSITE, including any news regarding Monday's regular open stage.

On behalf of the Sidewalk, I am sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you. Believe me, I can sympathize - I'm out of work and pay for 6 weeks I wasn't planning on.

Let's be in touch and I'll see you on the other side. The silver lining on this is a big one - renovating and upgrades are always fun.