L.E.S. is More - Music on NY's Lower East Side

WXPN Most Memorable Musical Moment #6

New York's Lower East Side in the last decade has developed a music scene that is as varied and vital as any in the country. The activity on the sidewalks even late at night is as busy as it is inside the many music venues, bars and restaurants, living up to New York's reputation for being the city that never sleeps. Within a few square blocks there are many rock oriented clubs such as Arlene's Grocery, Pianos, The Mercury Lounge, Cake Shop, and the recently departed Sin-é club. When the weather is nice, it's an easy walk to The Bowery Ballroom, The Canal Room, The Cutting Room, The Bitter End, Cafe Vivaldi and the other clubs of Greenwich Village, and Joe's Pub on Lafayette. In the last few years I have spent an inordinate amount of time at two clubs in particular on the Lower East Side that are the heavyweights at presenting up and coming singer-songwriters among a great mix of quality artists and bands of all musical styles, the Living Room and Rockwood Music Hall.

I first ventured to the Living Room almost ten years ago to see Rebecca Martin, a singer-songwriter who frequently blurs the lines between pop and jazz with a very subtle style of songwriting. I first heard Rebecca when WXPN played "Stardust and Snow" by Once Blue in 1995. After attending Once Blue's record label showcase performance at the Bottom Line that year, I was hooked and would willingly go anywhere at any time to hear Rebecca sing. Rebecca's solo work may be too low key for XPN, but her artistic integrity has never wavered and when she returns to play the various venues of the Lower East Side, it's totally worth the drive from Philadelphia. Recently she's been booking strings of dates at a club called Banjo Jim's which is essentially a small bar with the band set up in one corner of the room.

Rebecca Martin - Banjo Jim's, 2/21/07

The format for live performances at the Living Room and Rockwood is that the night is booked in one hour blocks. You can look at their schedules and see a different artist listed for each hour. The net result is a 40 to 45 minute set, with the remaining time used for setting up the next artist. Both clubs are free but require you to buy one drink per set. Occasionally there will be a cover charge for a major name artist, but that is a fairly rare exception to the normal free admission policy. During each artist's performance, a bucket is passed among the audience and while the suggested donation is $5.00, you are free to pay more or less as you see fit.

Devon Copley of The Animators guests with Kristin Hoffman - The Living Room, 9/20/06

Sometimes artists who know one another book consecutive time slots so they can guest with the other artist, as you can see above. The Animators' excellent pop/rock songwriting and performance skill led Lelia Broussard to call on them to be her designated opening act for a time, appearing at both Milkboy and the Steel City Coffeehouse in the Philadelphia area. Kristin Hoffman got good exposure when she was selected to open for Tina Dico on an east coast tour early in 2006. Kristin apparently so impressed the powers at the World Cafe Live when Tina's tour played the upstairs venue that she was invited back a few days later to open for James Hunter downstairs. Kristin plays the New York clubs a lot, favoring Cafe Vivaldi the most, with occasional appearances at the Living Room and other venues. Her songwriting and dynamic performances place her way beyond the Interscope label limbo that has limited the release of Real, her excellent second album to download only. When she sings "Falling" live to the recorded backing track, it never fails to bring chills.

Richard Julian - The Living Room, 4/17/07

While the sets may seem short compared to a conventional concert, the magic happens when you discover someone really great who you never heard before, playing either before or after the artist you came to see. One night at the original location of the Living Room (Stanton and Allen Streets, now an unrelated lively bar) arriving early to see Rebecca Martin, I caught an excellent set by Richard Julian who although his name was familiar at the time, his music was not. I've seen Richard many times since, including a headlining show at World Cafe Live downstairs in 2005. Richard is a gifted singer-songwriter who, in addition to his solo career, has worked with Norah Jones in the Little Willies, and currently spends a lot of time in the company of Sasha Dobson, another great singer-songwriter; lately both of them show up whenever either has a show and will often guest with each other at some point during the set.

Sasha Dobson - Rockwood Music Hall, 7/17/07

The Living Room moved about five years ago to its current location at 154 Ludlow Street which gave them a much roomier performance room, separate from the front bar. More recently they have been running simultaneous shows in a second floor performance space called Googie's Lounge. The Rockwood opened several years ago and is a bit smaller and even more intimate than the Living Room. Both clubs have superlative sound and offer a live listening experience that is something special. The lighting is a little more varied at Rockwood as compared to the constant orange light that characterizes The Living Room.

Tina Dico - The Living Room, 9/27/05

Tina Dico first came to the attention of American audiences as one of four singers that British band Zero 7 employed in the making of their second album, When It Falls (2004). All four singers made the trip with Zero 7 that year to play a superb show at New York's Irving Plaza. Shortly thereafter, Tina Dico (or Dickow as it's spelled in her native Denmark) began playing clubs to support her solo career which at present consists of one excellent internationally released album, In the Red, and two early albums plus a superlative live DVD released in Scandinavia only. Her new album is finished and it will release shortly in Denmark, followed by worldwide release hopefully soon after. Tina has played World Cafe Live and Joe's Pub and has such an amazingly strong voice that she can dominate a room with no backing musicians. That ability combined with exceptionally well written songs made for a totally jaw-dropping set when I first heard her play solo in 2005 at the Living Room. It was one of those magic moments when an artist can seemingly make time stand still.

K.T. Tunstall - The Living Room, 11/09/05

After reading about K.T. Tunstall getting booked to play Glascow's big New Year's Eve Hogmanay Festival supporting headliner Texas and checking out her music which had yet to be released in this country, I had the pleasure of seeing K.T. perform at the Living Room in a label preview/showcase performance in the fall of 2005. An XPN favorite, she has since performed at WCL both upstairs and down, and is about to release her anxiously awaited second album.

Melody Gardot - Pianos, NYC, 5/23/06

Some of Philly's favorite local artists have made their way to New York. Shortly after first seeing Melody Gardot at WCL, I unexpectedly found her playing at Piano's upstairs venue (two doors down from the Living Room on Ludlow Street) with fellow Philly Local Seth Kallen. On this particular magic night the timing just happened to work out to see Melody in between sets by Jackie Allen at Joe's Pub and Holly Palmer at Arlene's Grocery. Melody has since played frequently at various Philadelphia venues, but she has also established herself as a steady favorite at Rockwood, getting coveted mid-evening slots on Friday and Saturday nights.


Melody Gardot - Love Me Like a River Does, Live at Rockwood

Lelia Broussard - Somebody Else, Bitter End, 4/26/06

In addition to performing often in the Philadelphia area, Lelia Broussard has become a regular at the Bitter End, bringing her great songs and amazing band to the good folks of NYC. Lelia is so loaded with talent that when the music industry finally realizes it, we'll miss the days when we could see her in clubs like this.

Jim Boggia - The Living Room, 6/25/07

Jim Boggia, long a fixture in the Philly local music scene did a June residence at the Living Room; a residency is generally four weekly slots at the same time on the same day. Jim attracted quite a good following of New Yorkers and the Living Room was packed for the fourth and final show of his residency. In honor of Paul McCartney's birthday, Jim pulled out an excellent piano and vocal version of "Penny Lane" which is not one you hear covered very often. In addition to his well written originals, Jim also did similarly great versions of "Handbags and Gladrags" and "Waterloo Sunset".

Chiara Civello - The Living Room, 12/11/06

Chiara Civello is one of those great finds you come across before or after someone else that you came to see at the Living Room. Chiara was born in Italy, lives in NYC, and loves the Bossa Nova. She released an excellent debut CD, Last Quarter Moon in 2005, and is now preparing her second album, The Space Between for fall release.

Elizabeth & the Catapult, Rockwood Music Hall, 3/02/07

Elizabeth Ziman is one of the most engaging and thoroughly enjoyable performers I've had the pleasure to see at Rockwood. Performing with her band, the Catapult she has released a wonderful EP and her live set makes it clear that more great things are in store for this amazing singer-songwriter.

Kate Havnevik - Mo Pitkin's, 3/06/07

Originally from Norway, Kate Havnevik came over from Britain earlier this year to set up shop in NYC to assemble a band and prepare to tour opening for Air. Here she gave the band a workout and played tunes from her then just released CD Melankton at Mo Pitkin's.

Crescent and Frost - The Living Room, 3/21/07

Named for an intersection in their native Brooklyn, Crescent and Frost formed around the singing, songwriting, and instrumental talents of Maryann Fennimore and Daniel Marcus (right). They play a compelling mix of guitar based folk/pop/rock with a bit of bluegrass in their well written original tunes. They recently released their third album, Make It Home. Rich Hinman (left) adds a great dimension to the group with his amazing electric guitar that meshes perfectly with Daniel's acoustic.

Jimi Zhivago backing Kim Taylor - The Living Room, 4/17/07

If you frequent the Living Room with any regularity, Jimi Zhivago will be a familiar sight. He's an immensely talented producer and musician who makes everyone he works with sound better. As a backing musician his subtle and tasteful contributions are hugely welcome. He's done great work producing a number of artists such as Martin Walker and Kim Taylor for whom he produced and played on her second album, I Feel Like a Fading Light (2006) and again on her forthcoming third album.

Kim Taylor - I Feel Like a Fading Light, live at the Living Room

Blomdahl - The Living Room, 6/26/07

Mattias Blomdahl (center) and Lisa Ekdahl, two superbly talented Swedish singer/songwriter/musicians came over from Stockholm to New York earlier this year to experience the culture here while writing and recording their first records in English. After meeting them at the Living Room after a Kim Taylor show, Jimi Zhivago assisted Mattias to cap off his three month stay in this country with a live set at the Living Room, which he also recorded for XM's From the Living Room to the Loft radio show. Sharon Vaughn wrote lyrics for Mattias and sang backup (above left). Pinky Weitzman guested on a few songs to add some lovely violin. The songwriting is excellent and Mattias is a talented singer and guitarist and although he has worked with Lisa for many years, this will be his first album. Lisa is one of the biggest selling recording artists in Sweden with a career spanning over ten albums varying from Swedish pop to jazz and Bossa Nova. Her project will be her first album written by her in English. Although Lisa didn't perform while here, the one demo song of hers that I had the privilege to hear makes me eagerly anticipate the release of both of their records when completed.

Jennie Abrahamson - Rockwood Music Hall, 5/04/07

The Swedish L.E.S. connection is really worthy of it's own article, but the short version is that Dave Curtis who publishes Direct Current and works for the Decca label, made contact last year with Ebba Forsberg, another amazing Swedish singer-songwriter who released one of the best albums of 2006 (with a little bit of trans-Atlantic encouragement). Dave volunteered to webmaster Ebba's MySpace page which gave rise to contact with a number of Swedish artists including Jennie Abrahamson who has been posting works in progress to her MySpace player all year while recording her first album, scheduled for release in Sweden next month. She came over to NYC in May to contact record labels and at Dave's suggestion, played live sets at both Rockwood and the Living Room. Jennie sounded great performing solo, and both she and her friend Anna (also a singer from Sweden) were a delight to meet as well.

Jane Kelly Williams - The Living Room, 7/26/07

Jane Kelly Williams is currently writing and recording some of the most beautiful songs I've heard in many a day, for her forthcoming fifth album. Although Jane now lives in northern New Jersey, her native Georgia never seems far from either her accent or her southern charm. She recently sounded great at the Living Room, performing a few tunes, both old and new, accompanied by her husband on upright bass. Her last album, The Patchwork of Lost and Found (1999) is an uncommonly beautiful piece of work.

Serena Ryder - The Living Room, 5/07/07

Serena Ryder is a Canadian singer-songwriter with two excellent albums under her belt. Her first album, Unlikely Emergency, with original songs was released only in Canada. Her second, and her major label debut, If Your Memory Serves You Well is an immensely well selected, well produced, and well sung survey of the history of Canadian music. Three bonus track originals by Serena hold their own quite well alongside the best Canadian songwriting ever. Serena's voice is so strong and her guitar style is so natural that she can easily command a room even in the solo acoustic format. Although her set was short, her talent was quite extraordinary.

Grand National - The Living Room, 6/25/07

Not to be confused with The National, Grand National is a British band that plays a very appealing mix of acoustic and electric folk/pop/rock. It was an acoustic three piece version of the band that played the Living Room back in June, they also perform in a larger, more electric ensemble, and are well worth checking out. KCRW sponsored their tour, and this was another perfect example of going to hear someone else (Blomdahl) and discovering someone new who sounds great.

Schuyler Fisk - The Living Room, 7/17/07

Schulyer Fisk has a well rounded career in the making, both as an actress in movies and television and as a most appealing singer-songwriter. She's released one EP thus far, with a full length CD in the works. As a Californian by way of Virginia with a substantial following, this was one of those rare ticketed shows at the Living Room, selling out on two consecutive nights. Frequent companion, singer-songwriter Josh Radin guested on one song. Schuyler sounded great and left no doubt that she's got a great recording career ahead.

Sharon Little - Cafe Vivaldi, 7/24/07

While not technically L.E.S. (it is an easy walk to the Village on a nice evening), I must leave you with this pic of the totally captivating Sharon Little. Having never heard her before a singer-songwriter showcase this past July at Puck in Doylestown, PA, I've enjoyed her performances very much, there, at the WXPN festival, and at this show at Cafe Vivaldi, another small room with a bar where the band just takes one side of the room. Her performances with partner Scott Sax are revelatory, and her songs are well written. She brings her own period style microphone and what she does with it in performance does not lend itself to verbal explanation. Sharon is one of the great finds of 2007.

Cafe Charbon, Stanton & Orchard Streets

I can't end this piece without a word about the great food on the Lower East Side. While there are bars, clubs, and eateries to suit every taste, budget and trend, there are a few worthy of special mention. The $5.00 happy hour burger at Pianos (comes with excellent fries and a little salad) can't be beat at any price, except for maybe the $7.95 burger at Cafe Charbon. Charbon is strategically located exactly half way between Rockwood and the Living Room. Charbon is a classic French cafe with bistro food (steak frites, mussels, etc.) that is as good as it gets. The waitstaff at Charbon is as delightful as the food, and the French accents are the real thing. It doesn't get better than their burger special which comes with frites and salad, and the $7.95 price is good all the time, not just at happy hour. Also worthy of mention is the excellent soup at Charbon; summer nights go down especially easy sitting outside with a bowl of their delicious cold gazpacho. In colder weather, the French onion soup is executed in the classic style.The French bread that they bring to every table makes waiting for your meal a treat unto itself.

Creperie, 135 Ludlow Street

Down the block from the Living Room is Creperie where you can watch your crepe being made on an authentic griddle just like in Paris. Just across Houston Street between Allen and Orchard is a great little Thai restaurant called Tai Thai at 78 East First Street. The food is consistently excellent and the service is good, just keep in mind that the room is tiny and it's cash only. And finally, when nothing else will quite fill the bill before a late night trip home like a slice of pizza, Rosario's at Orchard and Stanton (diagonally across the corner from Charbon), is as good as it gets and it's open till 3am every night but Sunday (when they close at midnight).

If you go...
The Living Room (154 Ludlow Street)
Rockwood Music Hall (196 Allen Street)
Pianos (158 Ludlow Street)
Arlene's Grocery (95 Stanton Street)
Banjo Jim's (9th St. & Avenue C)
The Bitter End (147 Bleeker Street)
Cafe Charbon (Orchard & Stanton)
Cafe Vivaldi (32 Jones Street, off Bleeker)
Mo Pitkin's (34 Avenue A)
Rosario's Pizza (Orchard & Stanton)

Here's a nifty link to XPN's 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments site that will bring up a random moment from the archive of submissions. Voting starts Monday, the countdown playback will be in October.
View one of the 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments at random!


Charlie Ricci said…
WOW! from what I read here it appears the Lower East Side may be the live music capital of the world regardless of what Austin says. You've certainly seen some great shows.
Winston said…
Wonderful entry. The audio bits are really wonderful, too.

[So, how come I've never heard of most of these artists? I've got to start listening to some new music!]

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