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Our Story

10 Years After

The Living Room celebrates a decade of singer-songwriters

As I ducked out of the rain and into the Living Room one recent evening, it was a bit like stumbling upon a reunion of old friends. Musicians milled about making some final preparations for the Elvis Costello tribute show that was to unfold later that night. Co-owners Steve Rosenthal and Jennifer Gilson, who are also married, were busy finishing up some pre-show errands and re-connecting with old friends. While other musicians mingled, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, sitting in as the house drummer for the evening, lounged on a nearby sofa. But the casual and inviting vibe wouldn’t surprise Living Room regulars, who have been flocking to this charming spot on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side for a decade.

All the commotion comes courtesy of the venue’s 10th anniversary celebration, an event that’s being marked with over two weeks of shows presented nightly and continuing through April 4. To celebrate the club’s first decade, Rosenthal and Gilson are presenting a spectacular lineup of Living Room regulars, past and present, ranging from Norah Jones, who famously honed her chops here, to noted singer-songwriters like Ron Sexsmith, Jesse Harris, Joseph Arthur, Richard Julian and Chris Thile.

The club’s origins are simple enough. Gilson first opened the Living Room in a former fried chicken joint a few blocks from the current location. “I was working at Sin-é when it closed, and I was doing booking and I knew many of the musicians,” she recalls as we chat about the club’s modest beginnings. “So, I went looking to open up my own place and we found the place on Stanton. I knew if I called the people I knew to come play, people would come see them and the word would just spread.” And indeed, the word spread.

The Living Room quickly became a highly sought-after gig for performers and a favorite spot for fans to discover new talent and see old favorites. The original Stanton location, which seated about 40, was overflowing on a regular basis, with patrons jammed onto the windowsills and anywhere else they could find a place to sit or stand. The venue’s popularity, and rising rents, forced Rosenthal and Gilson to find a new home for the club in 2003 and its current Ludlow location boasts a main music room, front bar area, and upstairs lounge—though even the relatively spacious digs are still routinely packed, with latecomers relegated to standing room in the rear. And even in its new location, the venue’s stellar cast of regular musicians and it’s casual but intimate setting helps perpetuate a remarkably convivial atmosphere—evidence that the club’s moniker is no coincidence.

With so much change and development on the Lower East Side, not to mention the recent shuttering of several high-profile live music venues around the city, many wonder if small clubs like the Living Room will disappear—like Tonic did last year. When asked if she had fears of a similar fate befalling the Living Room, Gilson seemed confident that the club was not going to be overrun by a new bank branch or boutique hotel. She attributed the recent closings to “the greed of landlords,” making a point of emphasizing that her
situation seemed relatively stable.

“It’s incredibly sad to see so many places closed, like Tonic which was also a ‘family operation’ run by people who love music,” says Gilson. “ When you’re renting a space and don’t own the building, as most clubs do, you’re always at the mercy of the landlord. My lease is safe for a while, so I’ll worry when it’s time for renegotiating the lease!”

Without the fear of imminent closing, there’s more time to focus on the music. The Living Room is known for championing singer-songwriters; but, happily, Rosenthal and Gilson have never limited themselves to any one genre.

“There’s a real variance of styles, but the common thread is that it’s honest music,” observes Jim Campilongo, who has a long-standing Monday night gig at the club and plays with Jones as a member of The Little Willies, a band that debuted at the Living Room. “I was just at South by Southwest, and I didn’t really enjoy it. There was a band every 30 yards playing really loud.

It all just seemed to yell ‘Buy me, buy me, buy me, buy me!’ I felt like there were a lot of corrupted artists. The common thread here is that people play music that’s sincere, humane, that transcends genre: And that’s the Living Room.” Several other longtime regulars echoed Campilongo’s sentiments.

Gilson, in particular, is largely responsible for the venue’s reputation for nurturing young and unknown artists—as she did with Jones when Living Room regular Jesse Harris got her a shot at the club years ago. And Gilson still listens to every demo submission from bands and singers looking for a gig.

“Though it takes a little longer to get back to them now,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll call people back and their band has already broken up. But I do listen to everything.”

The Living Room is famous for its welcoming atmosphere and even the bartenders are part of the family. Karen Lord, a longtime employee who has tended bar at both Living Room locations, recalls that “the first time, I ever walked in it reminded me of someplace in Burlington, Vermont. It was cozy and warm, a great environment. Everyone always puts music first and they care so much about the people that play here.”

With around 10 acts per night, it’s hard not to find something to like here. And if all else fails, it’s easy to fall back on the good company and great atmosphere: all of which makes the Living Room feel very much like, well, a living room.

Matt Gewolb
-New York Press

Press Quotes

New York Magazine

Joseph Arthur Gets a Lot of Help From His Friends at Epic Show

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Early Years

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...The venue was a hub in New York City's tightly knit musical community, where friendships were formed over similar tastes in music and beer—and not, say, MySpace and Facebook. The cozy vibe was exactly what you'd expect from a place with that name: intimate and casual, a handful of tiny tables and chairs, Christmas lights for ambiance.
Jac Chebatoris

Time Out NY

"Excellent for both acoustic and rock shows... Best NYC club for singer-songwriters, mainly locals with some scene status...Recent move to Ludlow Street placed venue on city's A-list... artists love it here...intimate yet roomy... sofas throughout...date spot...Rating: A"
August 2004

The 'Grass Grows Greener on the LES

Village Voice

"...Lately, you can find shows and open jams any night of the week, anywhere: Paddy Reilly's in Murray Hill, Banjo Jim's (dedicated exclusively to bluegrass and country) and Joe's Pub in the Village, Iona in Williamsburg, Barbés in Park Slope, or the Living Room and the Rockwood Music Hall on the LES..."

Paste Magazine

America's 40 Best Music Venues

By Paste Staff
on May 29, 2007 12:00 AM

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New York Times

Ms. Jones and Guitar in the Spirit of the Place

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By Nate Chinen
Published: April 2, 2008

“I’ve never played solo here, ever,” Norah Jones said just after midnight Monday on the Lower East Side, surveying a capacity crowd with a flicker of a smile. “Much less on guitar,” she added, fiddling with the strap of her cherry-red Fender Mustang. “But I figured in the spirit of the Living Room, I’d try something new.”

Une plongée au cœur du New York indé

Metro

...On reprend le métro, arrêt 2nd Avenue. Le Lower East Side a gardé son aura rock : il suffit de compter le nombre de personnes que vous croiserez, un étui de guitare à la main. Pour la recherche de la nouvelle star du quartier, c’est à Ludlow Street que ça se passe. Trois bars-clubs sont disposés l’un à côté de l’autre : comme l’entrée est gratuite, on peut passer de l’un à l’autre pour se rafraîchir les oreilles...

New York Press

BEST ACOUSTIC MUSIC VENUE 1998

...if you've ever slogged an acoustic guitar onto a stage, strummed three or four bars and were brought down by chatterus interruptus, then you know why the Living Room is so great. People listen.

...it's a rare room anymore where 'acoustic song' isn't code for 'take a piss, order a Rolling Rock and get that chick's phone number.'

...there's still plenty of reverence for the simple quiet tune. There's nothing fascistic about it either. Nobody shushing you or giving you the hairy eyeball. Part of the reason is the booking policy...

No Depression

Jenni Muldaur: Dearest Darlin' Live

Last night at The Living Room on New York's Lower East Side, Jenni Muldaur debuted her new record, and celebrated by playing it to a sold-out crowd that included Lou Reed and David Byrne (with whom Muldaur has been on the road for most of the year as a back-up singer), as well as friends Teddy Thompson and Joseph Arthur who joined her on the record and onstage. The band at The Living Room included luminaries like Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron's musical partner, and Lenny Pickett from the Tower of Power horns section.

The Magic Shop NY - Celebrating 20 Years of Great Music
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