A million years ago in the 1990s, there was a very famous rock club called Brownies. It just turned 20.
Mike Stuto, foreground left. (All photos by Kyle Reinford)
A million years ago in the 1990’s, there was a club on Avenue A called Brownies. This Brownies, New York pedants, is not to be confused with the afterhours cocaine bar on East 13th street where Cecil Taylor reputedly hung out and you could do hard drugs for 36 hours at a time but if you swore you’d be immediately tossed. No, this Brownies was a music venue. Swearing was encouraged and if you wanted to do coke, you had to stand in line for the bathroom like a peasant or do it in the basement like an Interpol.
Brownies began in 1989 as an Irish bar with a small stage, and didn’t become Brownies as it’s remembered today until 1994 when current owner Mike Stuto (a stocky, bespectacled mensch who I remember seeing, me not knowing his exact job, nodding with stern approval at every VUE, Bluetip, and Death Cab For Cutie, etc. that came through Brownie’s doors) became one of the bookers there and Brownies became the Manhattan venue to catch non-terrible indie rock. Mercury Lounge was also in existence back then but it’s always, despite its consistently swell staff, been more antiseptic and, with its hodgepodge bills, more and a place for label showcases. Brownies, while certainly not averse to the occasional bullshit showcase, was where you could see four off-kilter guitar bands at a time for 6 bucks, all of whom made sense sharing a stage. And, unlike Mercury with its divided rooms, there was no place for industry types to hide and schmooze. If you went to Brownies, you had to watch music.
Recently, Stuto threw a twenty-year anniversary party for his beginnings at the venue (using parachute money from a “disastrous” run as an A&R guy for Columbia, he became an a partner in the club in 1997) and invited a number of old-timers back to perform. (My old band played there multiple times but I’m really more in the d-lister/footnote to footnote/amiable hanger-on category in NYC rock history so I wasn’t invited to perform.) But, being both a regular DJ at the Stuto-owned bar HiFi, where Brownies once was and, being a much-beloved writer for a much-beloved music section of a reasonably-beloved magazine, I rated an invite. Take that, history!
Unlike most anniversary parties thrown for the sole purpose of self-congratulation and teary eyed nostalgic, the ever-pragmatic Stuto used the occasion as a way to raise money for one of the HiFi bartenders, Rhea Buckner, who lost more than a year’s worth of wages while battling colon cancer. It was $40 a pop—even for the minor celebrities—and there was no list. Very true to the Brownies spirit of no rock stars and no free rides.
The night leaned heavily in the singer songwriter/powerpop troubadour vein. Starting with the evening’s house band, Boy Morgan made up of staff (HiFi has continued to employ a number of musicians; members of Hold Steady, Little Killers, Sheer Terror, and Turing Machine work or have worked there) and regulars, playing garage rock standards and a few originals. They then backed up NYC stalwart Don Piper, who did songs from is Capital Records debut that, in that most ‘90s New York sort of way, was never released, followed by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, who performed a great “Cruel To Be Kind” to a room full of divorcees who, you know, felt him. New Pornographers’ Carl Newman came next, doing a bang-up version of Wings’ “Mrs. Vandebilt” despite having “only practiced twice, and it was great…which doesn’t bode well.”
Mike Doughty. The record walls at HiFi are great because even if your phone is dead you can look at stuff and still not have to interact with humans.
Mike Doughty of Number One Inspiration For That Band Cake, Soul Coughing, performed next and I’m sure it was very good but I got drawn into talking to other old people outside. Will Sheff and I discussed how lame smug hatred of religion is and a publicist who shall remain nameless took me to task for some very hilarious tweets I had made about some of the bands on her roster. I would say more, but my distaste for these bands doesn’t quite extend into me wanting to get their publicist in trouble. I don’t actually care about the bands; I just like to be very amusing on twitter. Mike Doughty sounded like Mike Doughty from the entrance.
Ted Leo with his eyes closed because emotions.
Ted Leo, whose album this year with Aimee Mann is easily one of my top ten so far, then took the stage and performed “Band on The Run” and I later embarrassed myself by asking him what the medley was. Apparently “Band on the Run” is a longish song with more than two parts but, as someone who has only heard the music of Crimpshrine, I don’t know why I would be expected to know this.
Mike Stuto himself did an energetic version of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” and then introduced Rhea who said, “Mike took a night about him and made it about me. A bar family is sometimes the best family there is.” And with that utterly sweet and incredibly dark statement…Bob Mould was next.
Bob Mould, who has a reputation for being a bit prickly, was an abrasive high point of the evening. Walking a razor thin between “rock should be loud” and “willfully obnoxious” his guitar, entirely devoid of low end, was more akin to the Japanese hardcore of The Swankys than the jaunty mod rock that had preceded him. He asked for requests and then handily swatted them away. “I can’t do ‘If I can’t Change Your Mind.’ How about some new stuff?” Mr. Mould, with all due respect, and without rationalizing or justifying our laziness and fair-weather fandom, nobody in this room knows anything past your Sugar albums. That being said, I loved it. I’m going to buy some new Bob Mould I fucking swear it. He ended his solo set with, upon a request for “Hardly Getting Over It” with “I can’t play that! I’ll wreck it. I’ll ruin your memory of it!”
Then he played “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.”
This was immediately followed by Mould being joined onstage by Ted Leo for a ramshackle and perfect cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device.” Being a poser and a fraud, this is the only Stiff Little Fingers song I really love so (I’m a far bigger fans of those they influenced, like Leo and Against Me!), though lyrics were forgotten, mangled, and wholesale thrown to the wayside, I was grinning from wall to bar, just like everyone else in the room and just like the men on stage.
Ted Leo and Bob Mould (!) performing “Suspect Device”
Next up was The Figgs, the first band Stuto booked. The Figgs, continuing the night’s trend of both unpretentious craft and being dropped from Capitol Records, have always been and continue to be one of the best live bands around for that anachronism of non-sub-genre rock and roll. They did originals and covers and had Ben Smith (of Sweet Diesel and the world’s greatest Southern rock band out of Queens, The Brought Low) sing Small Faces “Son of a Baker.” Smith’s plaintive tenor has always been a favorite of mine and I was moved despite my not giving a shit about the Small Faces since I trimmed my mod rooster to a respectable balding hipster do.
Jesse Malin (of D Generation and singer songwriter-dom) went next, doing a cover of Rolling Stones’ “Heartbreaker” that was, man…look, I have nothing against Malin; D Generation had a couple great songs, which is a couple more than most, and I always had a pleasant and gross time at Coney Island High…but, I’m trying to be diplomatic here: Young People Who Are Made to Feel Bad About How Awesome New York Was Before You Were Alive, please know that when the Jesse Malins of the earth ran New York City, everybody wore cowboy hats and there was a band called Helldorado and Honky Toast was HUGE. Look it up. And then go dance to some EDM in Bushwick. You and your friends are fine.
Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon
The night ended with Steve Wynn, of Dream Syndicate, who did the best VU rip ever, and his wife joining The Figgs for a cover of “Coney Island Baby.” It was very sweet. Old rockers in the dotage slow danced. I talked to an old friend who girls used to call “Epic Proportions” for reasons I’m unable to verify (New York will always rule in the nickname department) and then I bummed a cigarette even though I quit and then I went home. It wasn’t midnight yet.
I may be, as Noisey’s token old dude who didn’t die/leave NYC, a nostalgic by trade, but I am not one by inclination. I am on record for shedding less than zero tears when some place I haven’t set foot in since Bloomberg was still somewhat likable goes to that Alphabet City in The Sky to play and frolic with all the other Coney Island Highs. I’m a cold, unsentimental heel and I wouldn’t be writing about this night if the majority of the musicians who played weren’t still making relevant music and if HiFi wasn’t still a good bar that employed musicians and NYC mainstays, while not retreating or wallowing in some sort of “last man standing” romanticism. HiFi just continue to exist, and be a reasonably cheap, and (reasonably) friendly and be a place that people that love slightly below the radar music can go in the East Village without fearing for their immortal soul. My failure to cry at every damn thing closing doesn’t preclude me realizing what a rare and essential thing a good bar in a sea of gentrified East Village shit is. So, fuck it, I celebrate HiFi, I celebrate its perseverance and its refusal to stay static, and, while keeping in mind all I’ve said about the inevitability of the past’s washing away and the importance in not standing still, I celebrate a Brownies anniversary.
See more photos from the event below.
In Which Will Sheff’s look achieves peak Night Moves.
Carl Newman with his eyes closed because emotions.
At this point, do we even know if Ted Leo, or any of these guys for that matter, have eyes?
Mike and Rhea. This part was very sweet so I don’t have a joke.
Ben Smith and The Figgs
Jesse Malin performing Heartbreaker sans dreads. RIP Jesse Malin’s dreads.
End of the night. Being old is fun I promise. Your tattoos age better than you’d think and you only have to spend time (outside of work obvs) with people you actually like. Look how happy everybody is. Don’t die. Don’t leave New York. It’s cool.
Zachary Lipez grows more relevant by the day. He's on Twitter - @zacharylipez