Column 167 — New York Minuet; Grand Ole Party tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:52 pm April 3, 2008

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Column 167: New York Minuet
Searching for sound in the city.
I spent last week in New York, and had intended to write a column about the vast, exciting world of music swaddled within the dark nightclubs of a city that never sleeps.

Unfortunately, I never made it to any clubs, which kind of puts a damper on the whole column idea. What happened?

There are dozens and dozens of music venues in New York. The best ones all seem to be located in the once-seedy area called the Lower East Side (LES), just a handful of subway stops below the Empire State Building. When I visited New York a few years ago (on the exact day of the infamous eastern seaboard blackout) I took the 6 train from the glimmering clean streets north of Times Square and south of Central Park down to LES in search of a club called Sin-é.

I emerged from the urine-scented subway surrounded by high-rise housing projects and people angrily pushing shopping carts loaded with empty aluminum cans. The cart pushers glared at me with suspicion as I unfolded a subway map, vainly trying to locate Attorney St., their heads encrusted in dried sweat under wool stocking caps, out of place in the August heat.

I never found Sin-é. I did find the Mercury Lounge and Katz’s Deli before heading back underground to the 6 Train uptown and the embrace of a thousand street vendors selling knock-off Fendi hand bags and Rolex watches.

Five years later and the Lower East Side has changed. The army of bent-over street people has been replaced with sunglasses-wearing urban hipsters, their hair mussed and tussed just so, faces framed by colorful knotted scarves tied over jet-black pea coats. There were urban hipsters on the LES years earlier, but I never really noticed them. Last week’s walk along Houston St. was like a runway show for American Apparel’s fall/winter collection, with all the girls dressed either as tortured ’80s art school punks or Holly Golightly stand-ins. If I looked like a tourist five years ago it was because I was dressed too well in my jeans and hoodie. If I looked like a tourist last week it was because I was dressed too slovenly in my jeans and hoodie.

In an effort to find something musical to write about (this is a music column, after all), I mapped out all the records stores in Manhattan. Other than Virgin and Barnes and Noble, there aren’t many north of 14th St.

But a quick walk through Other Music on 4th St. and I realized there was nothing here that I hadn’t seen in Omaha — bins of CDs and a small selection of used vinyl. There was no way I was going to buy anything and haul it back on the plane, so I looked to see how well Omaha was being stocked in the bins. I found a single copy of Cursive’s Happy Hollow and a copy of The Faint’s Danse Macabre (I didn’t bother looking for Bright Eyes). No Ladyfinger, no Little Brazil, no Tilly and the Wall.

That scene was repeated at a couple other stores, most of them tiny with limited stock. It took me a half-hour to find The Sound Library way down on Orchard St., and when I did, the shop was shuttered on a Friday afternoon.

For music, that left live shows, but a glance through Time Out New York (which along with the Village Voice is the best guide to what’s happening) revealed nothing worth risking a late-night ride alone on a subway. The Heavenly States, a jangly, fun indie band from Oakland, was doing a three-night stand at Pianos on Ludlow St. But the States are slated to play at The Waiting Room in May with Head of Femur.

It reminded me why I don’t go to the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Every year around March, SXSW comes along, and every year I’m offered a free all-access pass by The Reader. But when I see the list of bands, I’m always compelled to just stay home. All the best acts either have been to Omaha or soon would be. Why spend a thousand dollars in air and lodging to wait in line for bands I can see in the comfort of The Waiting Room or Slowdown, venues with better sound and sight lines, and that are certainly bound to be less crowded?

The same holds true for New York and Lower East Side clubs. I could take a subway and wander the streets with a map looking for the venue (or take a $20 cab to the club) just to see a band that will be in Omaha in a few weeks. After a day of walking, it just didn’t seem worth it.
Instead, I spent last week watching the Knicks at The Garden, “Spring Awakening” at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, “Cool School” at Cinema Village and eating, eating, eating.

There were, however, two musical memories that stood out: The continued deification of Sinatra and swing, heard in almost every bar and restaurant like a desperate attempt to hold onto a stereotype of a city that passed away 50 years ago. And the ubiquitous subway and street buskers playing for your spare change — everything from a small stringed symphony to a guy with a guitar — it’s an ever-present soundtrack trying to be heard above the traffic and train brakes.

I love New York, its streets, parks, buildings and subways, and I’ll be going back again, probably this fall. But not for the music.

Tonight, San Diego indie trio Grand Ole Party plays at Slowdown Jr. with local sensations Honey & Darling and Talkin’ Mountain. GOP sounds kinda/sorta like Chrissie Hynde or Grace Slick fronting a very mild garage band. They’re too laid-back to be compared to Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs (though vocalist/drummer Kristin Gundred does bear a striking resemblance to Karen O). GOP spent the last part of ’07 opening for Rilo Kiley (Blake Sennett produced their debut, Humanimals, on DH Records). $8, 9 p.m.

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