Saturday, June 02, 2012

54 Below is a Cut Above.

Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
It was just a trial night, not even a soft opening. Some drinks were available; a sampling of (delicious) finger food. And a kick-ass band trying out the new stage, with its expert lighting design and perfectly balanced sound system that managed to be fully present without being too loud to hear every word and every syllable of the singer.

And when the singer is Terese Genecco and her Rat Pack era swing band (piano, bass, drums, sax, trumpet & slide trombone--The Little Big Band) expertly kicking ass, you don't want to have to worry about whether you can hear her. Or whether she can hear herself. You don't want the brass overwhelming the piano or the singer. And, by Jove, they've made a perfect listening space.

This night, Jim and I were just a few of the friends allowed to sit, watch, eat and drink in "54 Below," a stylish and sumptuous new cabaret space about to open, yesterday profiled in the NY Times. (Go there for more great pictures and to read more about the room).

It's my one bone to pick with most of the cabaret spaces and clubs in this city, aside from most of them being too expensive for regular show folk to hang out at: They simply weren't designed with music in mind. You either can't see or hear the band properly. The entertainment and stage area always seems to have been the very last thing they thought of. As if, all they were thinking about were table cloths and the bar, and "Oh, yeah. Why don't we put the band over there in the corner?" (At Feinstin's, for instance, the room is so narrow, the more than 2/3 of the audience is to the side and back of the performer).

But the owners of this club hired Broadway designers (Tony Award winning John Lee Beatty, designer; architect Richard H. Lewis) to both lay out the room and do the lighting and sound. The minute you walk into this place, you feel like you're in a movie set come to life.

As if a speak-easy from the Prohibition era had suddenly been liberated and given a once-over. The walls are filled with black and white photos of flappers and prohibitionists. Even the men's bathroom was black-tiled and filled with illustrations and cartoons from the 20s.

The rich woodwork and leather gave the room a comfortable, warm feeling. So much more welcoming than the industrial coldness or Japanese spareness that leaves you feeling like you can't lean back without breaking something. Oh, yeah. And the chairs are comfortable and padded, just like the table tops. No clinking of glass or noisy tops here.

Why doesn't every club owner think like this when they open a place? Why would you spend all the money it takes to launch a new club, and then neglect the one thing the people are coming there to see, the show? Because restaurateurs are used to thinking about the food and beverage service. It's what they know. For too many of them, they think of the entertainment as being that annoying part of the night where it's too loud to hear the customer's asking for more drinks. We're not even as important, to them, as the signage.

Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
So, you see, for me to be talking atmosphere and design is something. I know it counts. But, as a musician, the only thing I was concerned about was the band. The sound. The lighting.

And if I had only seen the stage and heard the band, that's what I would have imagined the club's owners to have most thought of. For instance, the ceiling is high enough that the band is elevated. You don't have to look around someone else to see the singer. No heads in your way.

Behind the band, is a textured wall with lights shining up, able to cycle through every color in the spectrum. There are lighting instruments in front, on the sides and providing back-light.

Next week, they open with Patti LuPone. If you are one of her many ardent fans, I would tell you to fly across the country to see her here. You will feel like you're in her living room, like she could lean down and whisper in your ear. 

They're also planning late night music with no cover, no minimum. Meaning, working show folk can drop in after their own shows, and can afford to come and hang out. In fact, the bar area is situated over to the side, so that you could have a great conversation with someone and never interfere with the entertainment or people trying to listen to the entertainment.

Because the club is situated right below Studio 54 (where the wonderful old Jimmy Stewart vehicle, "Harvey" is playing starring Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory"), it's in a perfect location. West side. Theater district. (Too many other spaces are stuck over on the East Side, where most show people don't venture).

The other secret weapon in all this is programming director Phil Geoffrey Bond. He brought the Laurie Beechman Theater to great heights, and knows who all the most talented people in this town are. But the Laurie Beechman, while I love it, too, is small and a bit cramped with a tiny stage. 54 Below is wide and tall. You never feel you're underground. There's air to breathe! And world class performers!

So, why am I telling you all this? Because New York City needs great cabaret performance spaces. That's why. It's an artform in flux, because today it encompasses so much more than just the classic American songbook. It's a place where songwriters who write words that matter can be heard.

Or, more, it's where audiences LISTEN. It needs great listening spaces.

I want people to come to this and hang out, and see shows. I want it to survive. Hell, I intend to play this room. As much as I loved Therese, what I really wanted to do was jump on that stage with a band and kick some ass. So, I will! (They're going to be featuring "up and coming songwriter" nights. Sign me up!)

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