December 14, 2007
Live Rock on a Small Bankroll
By BEN SISARIO
THE name on the marquee was Air Supply, and the line went halfway down the block. It was Saturday night at the B. B. King Blues Club & Grill on 42nd Street in Manhattan, and I had no ticket. But I walked right in.
Snob that I am, I was not there for Air Supply. (Although, in truth, “Lost in Love” gets heavy play on my iPod.) I was there for the band at Lucille’s, a restaurant within B. B. King’s that often has notable blues acts and doesn’t charge for entry. The attraction this night was neither bluesy nor very notable: a pedestrian local covers group. But as I bobbed my head to Bad Company and Black Crowes songs, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I was warm, I was being entertained and I hadn’t paid a dime.
New York is a paradise of live music, but much of it can be discouragingly expensive. Tickets for the major concert halls typically start at $40 or $50 and rocket upward from there. Even in clubs it’s not unusual to pay $25 or $30 to see a hot touring band.
But in a kind of alternate universe for the modestly compensated (and the merely stingy) the city also has a vast network of bars and restaurants that waive a cover charge. At most you may be asked to buy a drink, but as I found in seven nights of budget-conscious concert hopping, waitresses and tip jars can be avoided, if you can bear the guilt. In 27 sets at 22 rooms, I paid a total of $30 for drinks and donations, and only $18 of that was compulsory — a few times I was just thirsty.
If you’re lucky, you might even get that drink free. After B. B. King’s I went to Hill Country, a barbecue restaurant on West 26th Street where the Doc Marshalls, a first-rate Cajun and country band, were celebrating a new album with three rug-cutting sets. At the end of the first, at 11, two waitresses climbed on the bar and asked for attention. It was easily gotten. For a moment I think every man there thought the same two words: “Coyote Ugly.” Instead we were treated to free shots of bourbon, with a request from one of our cowboy-hatted hostesses.
“At the count of three,” she hollered, “I want to hear the biggest Texas ‘yee-haw’ you can muster!”
No yee-haws or any other hoots or yawps were held back a few nights earlier at a show by the Defibulators at the Rodeo Bar on Third Avenue, which styles itself a honky-tonk oasis in Manhattan, with Lone Star beer, peanuts by the basket and free country and rockabilly every night. The Defibulators, from Brooklyn, are quintessential Rodeo Bar. Like a hoedown band from a Warner Brothers cartoon, they played raucous and slightly surreal “whackabilly,” as they describe it, and featured two washboard percussionists, one in crimson long johns, the other in a Viking helmet.
When there is no charge, you sometimes get what you pay for. An “Old Time Jam” at Freddy’s Backroom in Brooklyn was too sparsely attended to live up to the advertised hootenanny. And while I have enjoyed previous editions of Cross Pollination, a series in which two acts perform separately and then collaborate for a third set, an unrehearsed-sounding version of R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” by Bess Rogers and That Fleeting World fell flat.
But Cross Pollination, Tuesdays at Pianos on the Lower East Side, is an impressive feat of indie gumption. Run by two young musician-promoters, Jay Goettelmann and Wes Verhoeve, it has been going for three and a half years, with some big names passing through — big for the indie universe anyway — like Nicole Atkins, Cloud Cult and Jaymay. (I saw installment No. 169.) Its success owes much to the central financial axiom of gratis entertainment: If you don’t charge, they will come and might even spend more than they would have otherwise.
“It just makes more economic sense,” said Mr. Goettelmann, a St. Louis transplant. “It’s better for the audience. The artists frequently make more money in the tip jar than they would after the venue has taken a cut, and we’ve taken a cut. We frequently make more with our percentage off the bar than we would after we take our cut off a ticket. And the bar is making more off the bar.”
Establishments that don’t charge at the door are dotted throughout the city, but the Lower East Side is the capital. Within two blocks of Pianos — which usually has paid shows in its main space but free events upstairs — there are 10 or so such bars. Expand the radius a bit and you have dozens of choices. The Living Room is the Bottom Line of this sphere, packing in four or five singer-songwriters a night. With a similar average of sweaty rock bands, Arlene’s Grocery is the no-cover CBGB.
Wandering from gig to gig I was repeatedly reminded of the embarrassment of musical riches in New York available literally for nothing. At the 55 Bar, a Prohibition-era sliver in Greenwich Village, Julie Hardy, a breezy young jazz singer, announced that she had written lyrics to a Wayne Shorter song. Then she added, “Wayne Shorter approved my lyrics,” and began “Song of the Iris.”
One frigid night on Avenue C I was too early for a set by Eli Degibri at the cozy Louis 649, so I ducked into Banjo Jim’s across the street. There Terry Waldo, a pianist and historian who studied with Eubie Blake, was presiding over a leisurely ragtime musicale.
That night my wallet never left my pocket. But it’s not always so easy, and no cover doesn’t necessarily mean free. Many clubs, like the Living Room and the nearby Rockwood Music Hall, have a one-drink minimum per set, and even at places that never charge a cover, like the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B, musicians often pass the hat. They all deserve to make a living of course.
A few lessons learned: First, the more crowded the club, the easier it is to hide from the wait staff. This was evident at an early set at the Zinc Bar on West Houston Street, where I was the third person present, after the bartender and the performer: no way to avoid buying a drink there. Second, sitting at a table is the international sign of willingness to order. And third, waitresses will not forget if you promise to get something later.
For any veteran concertgoer tired of the familiar club circuit, seeking out free shows can be like rediscovering live music in New York. One of the best performances I saw was an appearance at the East Village record store Other Music by Tinariwen, an African guitar band that put the tightly packed crowd into a wonderful state somewhere between trance and dance. (A video of that show will be posted on Dec. 28 on the store’s Web site, othermusic.com.) Sound Fix, an indie record store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, also has a live series — free of course — in a spacious bar in the back.
The strangest location of all, though, I almost missed. I spotted a listing for Joel Frahm, a saxophonist whose records I like but whom I’d never seen, at an unfamiliar place, “The Salon at Arthur’s IP,” on East 13th Street. Clutching the address, I wandered up and down 13th Street and was about to give up when I noticed a jazz trio playing in the window of Arthur’s Invitations and Prints, a stationery shop.
Turns out it wasn’t Mr. Frahm, who has been playing there once a month for the last year or so but couldn’t make it that night. Filling in was John Ellis, another saxophonist, and as I wandered the sales floor, pretending to browse through the Christmas cards and wrapping papers, I enjoyed 20 minutes of surprisingly intimate music.
Speaking by telephone this week, as he prepared for his regular Tuesday-night show at the Bar Next Door on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village (cover charge: $8), Mr. Frahm — who has recorded with Brad Mehldau and played at places far more illustrious than Arthur’s — explained the benefits of the engagement. Each musician gets $100; it’s a relaxed atmosphere; and it’s early enough that he can easily fit in another show the same night, he said.
“And if you’re a jazz musician in New York City,” he added, “a gig’s a gig.”
But for a fan, it’s just a little sweeter when it’s free.