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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Clubbing in New York City

What's it like in Gotham City these days? RA's Todd L. Burns goes out for seven days straight to find out.

At first, I called it an experiment. Then, an endurance test. By the end, it was simply drudgery. The concept: Go out for seven nights straight in New York City to as many different club nights as possible. Report back about "the scene" and its relative health.

At the end, I hoped to be able to answer a few questions: How much does it cost—mentally, physically and, most importantly, monetarily—to go clubbing in New York City these days? Is the city actually suffering from the anti-nightclub laws put in place by Mayor Giuliani's administration that we all hear so much about? Who's up? Who's down? Who cares?

The answer, by the final night, was most assuredly not me. But while I didn't get a chance to attend some major promoter's parties (Basic NYC, FIXED and Minimoo come immediately to mind) or hit venues that are integral to the clubbing culture in the city (Webster Hall, Sullivan Room and Pacha NYC to name but a few), what follows is as comprehensive of a snapshot of the city in late August 2008 as I can provide. There's house, techno, disco and drum & bass to be had in the city—and I tried to find it, while fighting vainly to stay awake on the subway on my ride home each night.

My first stop in the seven day clubbing journey was the West Village's Le Royale to check out Justin Miller, Jacques Renault and Holy Ghost. Le Royale was once called Luke & Leroy's and home to MisShapes, a night that the New York Times aptly called the "ur-hipster party." Tonight, though, there were no block-long lines outside. (The fact that it was 11 PM probably helped.) Instead, the crowd that floated in and out of the upstairs room where Miller and Renault traded off DJing duties was a mixed one that seemed to have little concern for who was behind the decks. It could be argued this was the same case with MisShapes, but here people weren't really checking each other out as much as they seemed to simply have come to a bar. With music. And dancing. That last part didn't start until around 12:00, but by the time that I left thirty minutes later, the dance floor was full, enjoying the likes of Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" and Hercules & Love Affair's remix of Aeroplane's "Whispers."

derek plaslaiko
Quite possibly the best local DJ
in New York: Derek Plaslaiko /
Credit: Seze Devres
The biggest decision you can make in New York—if you're going to try go to different shows in one night—is transportation. In an attempt to keep costs down as much as possible throughout the week, I tried to only use cabs when there was no other reasonable option. That meant, tonight at least, I went on foot over to Bar 13. After 20 minutes, I arrived at the upstairs bar at the Union Square venue to find that I could have probably crawled: At 12:50, opening DJ Eric Cloutier was playing to a listless crowd of about 12 people. Well, listless aside from the couple passionately making out in the middle of the dance floor. Blk|Market Membership, the group responsible for the night, had flown in Frankfurt's Markus Fix as the headliner and while I was excited to see him, I certainly had my doubts going in about his potential to pull a sizeable crowd. Sure, Cécille and Oslo may soundtrack much of minimal techno's sets these days, but does anyone really know or care about anyone beyond Johnny D or SIS? It didn't seem like it at Bar 13. Blk|Market has put on a number of great parties in a variety of spaces, most notably Bar 13, Love and Cielo, but this night seemed oddly quiet.

At 2:00 AM, I went over to Brooklyn to catch the tail-end of Akufen's set at The Bunker. I will always have a place in my heart for the party, as it was my proper introduction to electronic music when I moved to New York in 2004. Back then it was held in the basement of an experimental music venue called Tonic. The dark, seedy confines of the tiny club—if you could even call it a club—was exactly the sort of entry point that I needed to get acclimated to live electronic music. (I'd been listening to electronic music long before that, but Columbus, Ohio didn't offer many options for clubbing at the time.) Spinoza has been the major player behind the party for the entire time that I've been in the city, and he's put on a show every single Friday night for more than five years. Spinoza and current resident DJ Derek Plaslaiko make it easy to take the party for granted and, as a result, there's often a week (or two, or three) that I don't make it out, but I always keep coming back.

This night, it seemed like everyone else did too. Similar to my worries about New Yorkers caring about Markus Fix, I wondered to myself whether anyone really cared about Akufen (AKA Marc Leclair ) anymore. My Way, his defining moment, was released in 2002 and he hasn't put out anything under that particular alias since his Fabric mix in '04. When I got to Public Assembly, though, it was as crowded as I've seen it. My notes on the night tell me that the music wasn't all that great until Derek Plaslaiko came on for the last hour in the evening and bothered to play something aside from the bog-standard minimal. He's pretty much the best local DJ as far as I'm concerned, and on this night he didn't disappoint, closing the night out with minimal techno that actually had a bit of personality to it. If I remember correctly, there may have even been a breakbeat or two. As I left at 4:00 AM in search of a slice of pizza and some reading material for the long ride home to South Brooklyn, I couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't going to be the best night of the week.

water taxi beach
Water Taxi Beach on a Saturday night
/ Credit: Victor Franco
Saturday went much like Friday. Start with the soft house stuff, move on to the harder, more unforgiving techno. I began my night at Love, home to one of New York's finest soundsystems, and it was put to good use by Eamon Harkin and James F!@.$%^ Friedman who tag-teamed in advance of Todd Terje's headlining set. Harkin and Friedman prefer a genre-hopping style that never really fully locked the crowd into their vibe, but it seemed exactly the type of set that should be proffered in advance of the Norwegian. Personally, I'm still not completely sold on Love—the line-up of the club is too varied to quite figure out. Their calendar of things like a night of "dramatic belly dance and dance interpretations" is an honorable one, but I fear that it rarely finds itself with a crowd that isn't there for the exact purpose of that night's event. (Admittedly, not always a bad thing.)

Secure in the knowledge that I'd be seeing Terje play on Monday, I went to the subway to go to Queens and Water Taxi Beach. While I had been extremely excited about the party earlier on the week, Efdemin canceled at the last minute over fears about customs and Troydon was drafted to fill to in. After initially being turned away at the door—the Water Taxi Beach stops letting people in at 2 AM, even though it officially closes at 3 AM—I was let in under the pretense that I was to drive one of the DJs home. (The more implausible the story, the more likely a door person will believe it.) Inside, Justin Carter was winding down the night with some soulful house music that turned into straight-up old-school R&B by set's end. Carter, who was one of the guys responsible for bringing in the likes of Omar-S, Moodymann and My Cousin Roy to the weekly Water Taxi Beach party this summer, obviously learned well from the DJs that he booked: Eclecticism is key. At a party like this one, where there is a built-in audience that will come simply for the novelty of a beach in New York—an advantage Love can't claim—you can get away with almost anything.

After a short car back to Brooklyn, I found myself at ReSolute, wherever that was, in some sort of abandoned warehouse space with the offer of an open bar and plenty of minimal techno provided by Someone Else, Kyle Geiger and Connie. The event, run by a pair of Eastern Europeans with a penchant for secret locations, operates in a similar fashion to the famed Minimoo parties, yet maintains a slightly more inviting stance to the outsider. To be honest, I don't remember much about the music aside from the unrelenting dedication to the build-up…and comedown…the build-up...and comedown. But it's a neat trick to play one song for what seems like three hours, and I was in the frame of mind to enjoy it. After a brief stop at an afterparty, I somehow found my way home. But not before forgetting to tell the driver my address was in Brooklyn and enduring a lengthy detour as a result.

On Sunday night in New York, there frankly aren't a lot of options. And that's probably the way it should be. But over the past few months, there has been one significant and stable destination for clubbers looking to wind down the weekend properly: Nicky Siano at Santos Party House. Siano has said that this will be his final hurrah, and on this evening it seemed very much like a victory tour. It was hard to tell if there was a track played that had been made after 1985 throughout the night. (Talking Heads was the closest we got.) To the guy wearing the fisherman's vest, the lady with the white gloves, the girl with the "music defines me" t-shirt or the guy literally pawing one of the pillars, I'm pretty sure this was exactly what they wanted to hear anyway. I came in just as the entire crowd was finishing up a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to a guy decked out in a cowboy hat. He carried around a tambourine throughout the evening, and sounded out accompaniment when appropriate. And not. A throwback? Sure. But this sort of un-self-consciousness was a welcome change to just about anything I'd ever experienced before in a club in New York. Hell, there was someone even dancing barefoot for much of the night.

"Anybody that's crazy enough to be out on a Monday night is going to be there for the music." So says Francois K, in reference to his long-running early week shindig at Cielo. It helps that the club has a prime location: Inside the heart of the meatpacking district, young professionals flock to its confines, fat from a nice dinner with their significant other and ready to "go to a club." To its credit, given its location and that crowd, it could easily book cheesy, increase its bottle service and make tons of cash, but it doesn't. Nicolas Matar, the owner of the club, has a true passion for music and seems eager to take chances with one of the best soundsystems in the city. On this night, the skinny, nerdy Norwegian Todd Terje played deep and diverse to the half-there-for-the-music, half-there-because-it's-Cielo crowd. Like Francois, Terje mixed well, but when the opportunity to switch gears came around, he gladly took it: His edit of Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" and I:Cube's remix of "The Feeling" were highlights, but Leon Haywood's "I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You" closed out the night in typical fashion. I don't think Terje has ever met the word irony. I hope he never does.

The mighty Cielo has one of the best soundsystems in the city
Much is made of the comedown that is Sunday and Monday, but for my money it's Tuesday that suffers most. As I surveyed the RA event listings, I found myself wondering whether club music simply didn't exist on this particular day. After some digging, though, three NYC weeklies seemed to be the best bet for the evening, so I began the night at Sapphire for Deep See, an underground house party featuring EMan, Lola and DJ Spider. Sapphire is what apartment brokers in New York call "cozy": The red-tinted interior consists of four tables, a dance floor ready for about 10 to 15 and a bar. As a warm-up for the rest of the night, it proved to be a good choice, but I couldn't help but wonder what a busy night might entail. With two guys doing some acrobatic dancing, the floor was nearly taken up entirely and my friend and I remained content to sit on the sidelines listening to the old school deep house that flooded the speakers.

Next up, so we thought, would be 205, which for many months held a DFA-related party thrown by Justin Miller. What we didn't realize, though, is that the bar's liquor license had been taken away and that it had been ingloriously featured in that month's Radar Magazine, as the home to hipster hookers. That the club had chosen to print up their schedule on enormous posters featuring the high-class prostitute that brought down New York governor Eliot Spitzer's career seemed colossally funny. Or stupid.

Whatever the case, 205 was closed as we walked by, so we made our way to Sin Sin, the city's longest-running 21+ drum & bass night. To be fair, I stopped listening to drum & bass after Photek went house, and thus have little frame of reference for talking about the genre. That said, the tiny dance floor (perhaps even cozier than Sapphire) rarely got more than three of the club's 20 or so denizens going throughout the night. RA scribe Colin Shields, who was in town earlier that week from England, confirmed to me that drum & bass is still a huge deal in his country, but judging by this evening's musical offering, I can't see that happening over here. Stuck in the ghetto of Volvo soundtracks and incidental music, this music never hit over here and is clearly for the diehards only. The real highlight of the evening, instead, was the guy who made a sign with the words "stand on carpet," wrapped himself in a carpet and deposited himself directly in front of the bar. After 90 minutes of watching people stepping on him—and not stepping to the music—we called it a night.

It's hard to say what happened on Tuesday at Cielo, but when we arrived at the venue on Wednesday night for Louie Vega's Roots party, the vibe was completely different from the relaxed Deep Space crowd of Monday. The normally aloof door people seemed on edge and as we entered into the club, signs were hung prominently that let us know that drug use was illegal and that it would not be tolerated on the premises. Fair enough. After Loco Dice's "Pimp Jackson" and an hour of tribal house, though, the drunken stumble/lack of apology/"relax, relax, relax" crowd got to be a bit much and we headed over to Santos for Special Disco Version.

Ah, yes, disco. Ask any magazine trend piece writer and they'll tell you it's the hot new thing in New York. And while I have little doubt that the music coming from DFA et al. devoted to celebrating—and updating—the sound is fantastic, I have a hard time believing that there is a real revolution afoot in clubs in New York. James Murphy will always draw a crowd. He's James Murphy. But to see if a scene is really taking off, you need to look a little bit deeper. That was the thinking, at least, as we walked into a nearly empty Santos basement at 2 AM. Granted, it was Wednesday, but it was hard to believe that Nicky Siano had drawn a larger crowd on a Sunday night. We heard from reliable sources that things were packed for The Juan Maclean, who had played earlier on in the evening, but as Tim Sweeney played a set that touched on post-punk, classic house and the usual DFA-related tracks, it was hard to tell exactly why nobody was there. Sure, it could've been the bad sound, which left me dancing in one particular area of the club for the hour-and-a-half that I was there, but one wonders if James Murphy had been there how many kids would've stuck around.

Tompkins Square Park

A quick guide to New York City's East Village
A quick guide to New York City is a quixotic task at best, which is why we've chosen to focus on the East Village, as it's central enough to allow easy transportation to the club of your choosing.

Records & DJ gear
Other Music, A1 and Etherea are the best that the area has to offer with the latter being the most dance-centric. Make it over to Brooklyn, though: Halcyon is the best for vinyl fans on the minimal tip, while Dope Jams stocks a more Detroit-heavy lineup.

For pitchers of beer and a dive bar feel, Grassroots may be your best bet. Grab a $1 dollar basket of popcorn, as well.

Quick bite
Pommes Frites offers up cones of—what else?—french fries and Caracas may not be exactly quick, but it offers up some of the best arepas this side of Venezuela.

Authentic local fare
With an enormous hamburger outside, Paul's Da Burger Joint should have one the best hamburgers in the city. Luckily, it does.

The MudSpot prides itself on its coffee, but most people like its garden just as much.

Book a room at the Rivington Hotel—even if it isn't in the East Village. It has one of the best views of the city.
Club life is full of twists and turns and I've done my best since becoming a writer to try to block out all of the gossip, inside baseball and exterior stuff out of my mind when talking about parties. That said, it's hard not to notice how far APT has fallen since Justin Carter stepped down as the main booker of the venue. While some crucial nights remain, I could only find one night in this week that I was interested in—when it might've been three only a few months before. I can't say for sure what the situation is at the club, but all of the minor quibbles that once seemed manageable in the face of a set from Maurice Fulton or Stefan Goldmann are much bigger deals now that the music isn't quite as interesting on a regular basis. The weird, awkward rectangular space for dancing seems to be wasting the awesome power of the Funktion One soundsystem, the drinks are overpriced and the vibe suffers as a result.

That's what Still Music's Jerome Derradji is up against as he soldiers on at APT. And I have to say I wasn't hugely surprised that as I entered the basement at 12:00, there were a grand total of five people sitting and enjoying drinks. Things didn't get much more busy in the hour that I stayed there staring intently at my phone and wondering when—and if—a crowd was going to materialize.

I doubt that any of the packed crowd at Alan Braxe's appearance at Santos for the Été D'amour party would've been all that interested in Derradji's eclectic and soulful set. Instead, Braxe set 'em up and knocked 'em down pop house style. Braxe's brand of fun is one that I admittedly have little time for—it reminds me too much of my childhood radio station's "Dance Remixes of Pop Hits" show that would come on late Saturday night when people were headed out to clubs. I can appreciate the craft that goes into it, but I'll take Derradji and an empty room any day of the week. Like many times during the seven days, I simply wished that instead of party hopping throughout the night to fulfill some self-imposed journalistic duty that I could've simply stayed in one place and enjoyed myself. Perhaps more than anything else, that's the most important lesson of all: If you see grass in New York City, treasure it: You may not see it again for a long while amid all the concrete.


So...was it worth it? Monetarily, I'm not so sure: Clubbing is expensive—and the venues I went to were among the least expensive in the city. If you don't want to lose more than 13 hours of your life sitting on the subway, it'll cost you even more. Physically, it hurt as well. If you go hard on one day, it'll ruin you down the line, no matter how many drugs you may take to stave off the inevitable comedown. On Sunday night, for instance, I bought a gin and tonic, had a few sips and had to throw it away. (My liver seemed to be puckering just as much as my face.) Mentally, however, it was most definitely worth it. I spent the week hearing music that I loved, music that I hated and music that I would have never knew existed otherwise.

New York isn't perfect, but anyone who tells you that everything was better years ago is lying. The government, concerned citizens and others have always gotten in the way of people having a fun time, and the fact that Studio B—one of Brooklyn's most popular venues—was closed throughout this week due to license issues is among the many that have suffered as a result. But despite the fact that I didn't see a lot of music that I genuinely loved, I can't help but be optimistic. Small venues and offbeat places are becoming more common, and parties like Resolute are only going to benefit. Besides, plenty of people were loving what they were hearing. If you can't find at least two parties each week in New York that you're interested in going to, you're simply not looking hard enough. Or you need to start your own. With the world economy collapsing around us, there's no better time to begin.

Gin & Tonic at Public Assembly: $6
Gin & Tonic at Bar 13: $8
Gin & Tonic at Le Royale: $8
Gin & Tonic at Love: $8
Gin & Tonic at Cielo: $12
Gin & Tonic at APT: $10
Gin & Tonic at Santos Party House: $10
Gin & Tonic at Sapphire: $8
Gin & Tonic at Sin Sin: $8
Total Time Spent Traveling: 13 hours, 30 minutes
Total Spent: $257, admission to each night plus one drink