Mid-sized clubs stage a major comeback

While New York has long enjoyed a reputation as a live music mecca, the city’s club scene has been sparsely served for a good portion of the ’90s. A decade before, Gotham was peppered with mid-sized clubs offering full slates of performances, but escalating rents — as well as increasingly formulaic booking policies — shuttered all but a handful of stalwarts.

In the past 12 months, however, a number of nightspots have opened their doors to largely positive response from both the industry and consumers. Clustered, for the most part, in sections of the Lower East Side that have yet to experience the gentrification that drove many spaces out of the East Village, these spaces offer adventurous booking, comparatively relaxed environments and — what may be the biggest draw for many — inexpensive (if not free) admission.

Perhaps the most notable of these openings is the Bowery Ballroom, a 500-capacity room that opened in June, filling a long vacant niche in middle-tier clubs. Falling between the smaller showcase rooms and the Big Apple’s multiple thousand-plus capacity venues, the Bowery (owned and operated by Michael and Brian Swier and Michael Winsch) is particularly attractive in that it can be easily reconfigured from seated to standing-room form.

“New York has plenty of functional small rooms, but you were kind of stuck if you had an artist who could draw 500,” says David Viecelli,, owner of the Chicago-based Billions Corporations, which routes several dozen tours through Gotham each year. “the Bower Ballroom not only holds that number but does it comfortably. When I saw that, I knew people would be lining up to playa there.”

A wide variety of smaller rooms have also opened their doors in the past year, mostly within a stone’s throw of below-Houston Street pioneer Arlene Grocery. That club, a no-cover spot operated by the former owners of the Sin-e coffeehouse, has become a popular showcase venue for major label acts, although some local musicians have protested the pass-the-hat payment policy.

Just down the street from Arlene (which is housed in a former bodega) stands Tonic, a unique room carved out of a still-operating beauty salon. The club — which currently serves no alcohol — opened its doors to live music in June, and immediately attracted a following among avant-garde aficionados.

“The informality of the place is certainly appealing to a lot of people, since it seems to bring out the most creative instincts in players,” says guitarist Elliott Sharp, who has played Tonic several times and is curating a series in October.

Tonic, which initially booked shows only one night a week, has now expanded to a seven-night slate, the most recent addition being a Sunday singer-songwriter series booked by former American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel.

Perhaps prodded by the new competition, a wide range of older spaces have undergone renovations — some minor, some dramatic. CBGB has recently opened a downstairs lounge, with separate cover charge, while Roseland, under the auspices of Delsener/Slater, has overhauled its interior to create a balcony area with sightlines.

Just across the Hudson, in the de facto “sixth borough” of Hoboken, Maxwell’s — the launching pad for such artists as R.E.M. and Nirvana — has just reopened its doors after a long hiatus. Booker Todd Abramson has coaxed such large-hall draws as Fugazi and Yo La Tengo to the 200-capacity room in its first few weeks of renaissance, which bodes well for the future.

“I’d say things look really healthy in New York right now, healthier than they have for a long time,” Billions’ Viecelli says. “There’s a wide range of clubs catering to all sorts of tastes, and theaters like Roseland and the Hammerstein are very attractive. About the only thing that’s missing is something in the 1,500-capacity range. With that in place, just about every artist I can think of would have a place to play.”

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