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Dixon Place to make LES Music Fest an annual happening
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | You know how it is. All day long, the August sun broils and bakes the steamy concrete of the Lower East Side — and by the time you arrive at that sweaty dive bar, you barely possess enough energy to navigate the punk rock moshing frenzy that precedes the contemplative acoustic act you showed up for.
Cover charges, short sets that leave you wanting more, drink minimums and bills full of musicians with wildly contrasting styles: It’s not so bad if you’re feeling adventurous, pleasantly buzzed or on a mission to support a friend’s band. But imagine how much better your summertime music experience would be in an air-conditioned concert setting with comfortable seats, great acoustics, likeminded performers and the promise of free booze for early birds (the first 25 to show up get a free Pabst Blue Ribbon).
This isn’t a theoretical scenario. It’s happening from August 9-26, when Dixon Place hosts the First Annual Lower East Side Music Festival.
Having long functioned as a Downtown theater and dance incubator, Dixon Place’s 2009 move from the Bowery to its current Chrystie Street incarnation occurred at the tail end of a decade-long seismic shift that rocked the Lower East Side performance circuit. As the formerly dicey area became highly desirable, skyrocketing rents caused many longtime venues to shutter or move to Brooklyn (as did The Knitting Factory). With Dixon Place’s new digs came a larger space and better equipment — which inspired more music programming.
Curator of the Dixon Place series “Writer’s Bloc,” which pairs songwriters up and tasks them with finishing each other’s uncompleted works, Jonny B. Goodman has brought that same flair for unconventional thinking to his role as Director of the Lower East Side Music Festival.
“The Lower East Side,” notes Goodman, “has a very high concentration of music venues: Pianos, the Living Room, Arlene’s Grocery.” The economic necessity of packing in as many customers as possible on any given night almost always translates into a long list of acts performing a short list of songs. “You might play for a handful of friends and fans,” says Goodman. “You’ll be an indie folk band that goes on at 9pm. Then you have a death metal band at 10, and none of your friends stick around for that.” Good news for the folk act…but for the death metal band, having a full house exit the room as their set begins is a demoralizing experience (and bad business; bands who can’t draw aren’t likely to be asked back).
“At Dixon Place,” says Goodman, “what they’re trying to do is create a setting where people pay attention to your music. They’re doing their best to market this as an intimate space where people will see the band they came for, and also stick around.”
To retain audiences, the festival evenings are programmed with stylistic consistency in mind. So whether you gravitate towards jazz, folk, pop/rock, R&B/soul, indie or alternative classical, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Although scheduled by genre, says Goodman, “Within that, we’re trying to represent a true spectrum. On the folk night [August 17], we’ve got Sarah Banleigh who has, over the last few years, sung modern original arrangements of ancient British Isles folk music. This will be her debut as a songwriter. She’s followed by Stacy Rock, whose influences include Tom Waits and Tori Amos. But there’s a very folk narrative to her lyric writing. Personally, as a musician, I’m very motivated by strong lyric writing. So some of the curation of these lesser-known performers is based on my taste, my opinion that they are really stellar songwriters.”
Asked what accounts for so many under the radar performers in a festival whose talent comes from the city’s most music-friendly neighborhood, Goodman says that “some of it is their work ethic. They’re so perfectionist about their craft that they’ve not gotten out [to play live] much, because they’ve been at home honing their craft; sometimes for years.”
Noise & Rhythm (August 18), Mary Westlake (August 10) and A.C. Lincoln (August 16) all fit that profile. “He’s very craft-driven,” says Goodman of Lincoln. “And Danny Chait [August 23], too. He’s recently been honing the same catalog for years and all of a sudden he’s starting to get noticed.”
Firmly established festival acts that have a solid following include Corn Mo (August 24) and The Nat Osborn Band (August 25). “And some of the alternative classical acts,” notes Goodman, “have already had their Carnegie Hall debuts.” Although they’ve got bills of their own to pay, Dixon Place isn’t as interested in their bottom line as they are in expanding their creative boundaries. “We want to have folks who can bring their own draw,” admits Goodman, “but we don’t want to be 100 percent business about that.”
In a further nod to altruism, Goodman didn’t require much prodding to rhapsodize about other LES venues worth patronizing. “The one that I most frequently cite as an example of a place that’s really committed to quality programming,” says Goodman, “is Rockwood Music Hall. They’ve set themselves up in a great way by working with artists regularly and giving them residencies. You can go there any night and be pretty sure you’re going to see a great show.”
The First Annual Lower East Side Music Festival takes place Aug. 9-26, Thurs.-Sun., at 161A Chrystie Street (btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.). For reservations ($15), dixonplace.org. At the door, tickets are $18 ($15 for students/seniors). For a full schedule of performances, visit lesmusicfest.tumblr.com (podcasts available for download).