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 wouldnât 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 venueâs 10th anniversary celebration, an event thatâs being marked with over two weeks of shows presented nightly and continuing through April 4. To celebrate the clubâs 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 clubâs origins are simple enough. Gilson first opened the Living Room in a former fried chicken joint a few blocks from the current location. âI was working at Sin-Ă© when it closed, and I was doing booking and I knew many of the musicians,â she recalls as we chat about the clubâs modest beginnings. âSo, 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.â 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 venueâs 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 loungeâthough 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 venueâs stellar cast of regular musicians and itâs casual but intimate setting helps perpetuate a remarkably convivial atmosphereâevidence that the clubâs 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 disappearâlike 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 âthe greed of landlords,â making a point of emphasizing that her
situation seemed relatively stable.
âItâs incredibly sad to see so many places closed, like Tonic which was also a âfamily operationâ run by people who love music,â says Gilson. â When youâre renting a space and donât own the building, as most clubs do, youâre always at the mercy of the landlord. My lease is safe for a while, so Iâll worry when itâs time for renegotiating the lease!â
Without the fear of imminent closing, thereâs 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.
âThereâs a real variance of styles, but the common thread is that itâs honest music,â 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. âI was just at South by Southwest, and I didnât really enjoy it. There was a band every 30 yards playing really loud.
It all just seemed to yell âBuy me, buy me, buy me, buy me!â I felt like there were a lot of corrupted artists. The common thread here is that people play music thatâs sincere, humane, that transcends genre: And thatâs the Living Room.â Several other longtime regulars echoed Campilongoâs sentiments.
Gilson, in particular, is largely responsible for the venueâs reputation for nurturing young and unknown artistsâas 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.
âThough it takes a little longer to get back to them now,â she explains. âSometimes Iâll call people back and their band has already broken up. But I do listen to everything.â
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 âthe 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.â
With around 10 acts per night, itâs hard not to find something to like here. And if all else fails, itâs 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.
-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...
"...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, BarbĂ©s in Park Slope, or the Living Room and the Rockwood Music Hall on the LES..."
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.
By Nate Chinen
Published: April 2, 2008
âIâve never played solo here, ever,â Norah Jones said just after midnight Monday on the Lower East Side, surveying a capacity crowd with a flicker of a smile. âMuch less on guitar,â she added, fiddling with the strap of her cherry-red Fender Mustang. âBut I figured in the spirit of the Living Room, Iâd try something new.â
...The venue was a hub in New York City's tightly knit musical community, where friendships were formed over similar tastes in music and beerâand 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.
By Paste Staff
on May 29, 2007 12:00 AM
"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"
...On reprend le mĂ©tro, arrĂȘt 2nd Avenue. Le Lower East Side a gardĂ© son aura rock : il suffit de compter le nombre de personnes que vous croiserez, un Ă©tui de guitare Ă la main. Pour la recherche de la nouvelle star du quartier, câest Ă Ludlow Street que Ă§a se passe. Trois bars-clubs sont disposĂ©s lâun Ă cĂŽtĂ© de lâautre : comme lâentrĂ©e est gratuite, on peut passer de lâun Ă lâautre pour se rafraĂźchir les oreilles...