Thursday, November 22, 2012

NYC live

By far and away the best thing in NYC is my sister. Following her is the shit to do at night.

First though the bad news. For the foreigner unused to prices displayed not reflecting how much you will actually be required to pay, New York can be annoying. So you buy a ticket to see an internationally acclaimed artist at BB King's Steakhouse on 42nd street and think it a bargain at $28 where in Australia you would pay something like $80. You take a seat in the seated section (closest to the stage) and the table informs you the club policy is a minimum spend of $10 per set, plus you have tip 20% and your credit card charges you $3 for the transaction, so your bargain kiind of diminishes.  And even for smaller live venues, it's pretty common to have cover charge - per set eg. you don't just pay to enter the band room, but they kick you out between the support act and the headline and you have to pay to reenter, then have waiters that seek you out and inform you of $10 minimum spend rules again.

I mean if you aren't used to it, it just feels like the old scammola or false advertising. But it applies to any meal where you sit down and have a waiter, in the US's convoluted low minimum wage - social obligation to tip system. So that when you see a $16 meal on a menu, American's I'm sure read it as a $20 meal because that is what you end up paying. I find the American level of service annoying, but I have to admit, it is almost universally better than the fucking disgruntled people you are forced to deal with in Australia, it's just overbearing.

So! The NBA is just... it's just fucking incredible, and yes I may have a different impression if I had just returned from 3 weeks in Minnesotta or Cleveland or one of the small market teams, but I went to see the Nets host Celtics in Brooklyn, at a brand new stadium and it was fucking incredible, even though the Celtics lost, Rajon Rondo was out and Kevin Garnett played hardly any minutes. It is incredible. Just fucking amazing. This was 50,000 people packing out a stadium on a thursday night one month into the season. The flags were marched out, the American Idol runner up did the anthem, fireworks flew up towards the ceiling and then it was game on.

My sister and I were second row from the back, up in the nosebleeds and the only thing ubstructing our view were the tall guys incessently standing up in front of us. Which the tallest actually apologised for. Here is another downside to US live events - Americans are fucking annoying audiance members. An inability to stay in one spot, my sister and I paid $55 for our seats, which given dollar parity and wage rates in our respective countries, if I find it expensive Americans should too. But that didn't stop heaps of people from missing 3 quarters of the game and turning up after half time and often in the 4th quarter having watched the game from the refreshment stands elsewhere in the stadium. And it's always the people with seat in the fucking middle of a row that do this, so you are constantly standing up to let them pass.

But seriously, I know Melbourne hosts some 8 AFL teams, but they only play on weekends, and it's actually rare for the MCG to sell all 60,000 seats. The NBA has 30 or so teams, sells out stadiums (at 30,000 or so capacity) on the norm and plays an 80 game regular season, with best-of-seven 4 round finals series. The money, the attendees and the sheer availability of world class sport is mind blowing. And sport is fucking great, as improvisational as jazz, as emotional as a drama and community based, sport is fucking great and not the enemy of live music that say - facebook or itunes or youtube is. I would just about kill to have season tickets to an NBA team. I fucking love that game.

NOW! it was also NYC's equivalent of the comedy festival, and nobody gave a shit and you couldn't really tell it was on. Melbourne's comedy festival takes over this town when it is here, it is great, a great, great cultural event. But here's the thing. NYC doesn't need a comedy festival, unless it was a 'british comedy festival' because apart from Ricky Gervais, there's no brit-comedians really in New York. But yeah, as I just wrote, NYC doesn't need a comedy festival.

When the north-easterly hit, my sister and I braved the snow and went to the Comedy Cellar (as seen in Louise) on a wednesday night, we saw mostly Letterman-appearance comedians, but there were hosts of TV shows, SNL writers the works in the one and a bit sets we stayed for. I would compare it favorably to the comedy gala, instead of having 30 comedians though do 2-3 minutes of their safest material in what is really a promotion for their festival shows though, 8 comics did between 10 and 15 minute of material. And they were generally the Melbourne Comedy Gala standard or better, albeit all American. But it needs to be said, this was available to us during a snow storm, on a wednesday night, with no booking and a $14 cover charge plus two-item per head minimum order quanitity (plus tip for the waitress). So it's like a $25 per head night out. For a better night of comedy than the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. The Comedy Cellar I presume is probably the best comedy club in NYC because Louise CK features it all the time in his HBO show, and Louise CK is the reigning best stand up comic in the world. The tables are all dotted with signs pointing out the two-item minimum purchase requirement, but also signs indicating that you do not fucking heckle the comedians. That is great, because hecklers are shit.

When my sister and I walked in, the host asked us if we wanted to sit up the front, to which I instantly replied 'I'd prefer not to' and it was a wise move, the only thing to be wary of, is that the MC that hosted between each comedian did the picking on the audience thing. And he was funny, but it would be embarassing. Still he pointed out much of what exactitudes studies - how remarkably good people are at putting on uniforms, the MC managed to pick 'Pat' who recieved most of the ridicule all night long from the MC and the comedians as a Romney voter, and my favorite was when he asked this guy 'did you enjoy vegan yoga in the village today?' and he got all pissed off and the MC said 'what you dressed that way.'

If I lived in NYC I would hit the comedy cellar like at least once a fortnight. It was fucking great, extrapolating on the quality of comedians would be approaching plaguarism, so just trust me, it is definitely one of the highlights of NYC.

As for live music, that's the tricky one, I went to jazz clubs, an 'after broadway' gay bar where the broadway actors come and sing showtunes and I guess Indie-clubs. I also went to see internationally acclaimed artists, though many of the big acts managed to time their performances around my visit, I saw Gran Wizard Theodore along with Black Sheep and ATCQ spin-off 'Evitan' at the Zulu Nation 39th anniversary concert, and that was a combo of local hip-hop show and international standard, but overwhelmingly depressing and dissappointing too. I saw Victor Wooten, who is a virtuoso Bass Player, and Ani Di Franco.

I only really have two things to say about NYC's access to big international acts. 1. It isn't much different to seeing the act in Melbourne, there is simply just far more opportunity to see said acts, in a 2 year period of living in NYC you could probably cross every 'to see before I die' performer off your list. 2. There's a 'localising effect' that is hard to describe, but the thing is that Dres is a hip-hop icon in Melbourne, but just another fucking MC in NY. Just as Q-tip suddenly has all the lustre of say Powderfinger when you are in Brooklyn, because he grew up here. Your gods become mere mortals in NYC, and I don't really know the truth of it, but the other thing is that you never quite know with an artist like Q-tip whether you are paying to see him do an actual solo performance or whether it will just be his dj-set.

Jazz though was fucking great, and it's so quintessential to the look and feel of New York, yet I suspect a fuckload of tourists (and residents) can go to NY and never here any other jazz than what a cafe plays for them. But there is certainly a lot more Jazz to be had than I suspect is in Melbourne. And here is the thing, just like I almost never go to the NGV yet will go to 2-3 museums and galleries a day in NYC, I have only been to Bennetts lane once. I have a bunch of friends who play jazz to varying degrees of avante-guardness, but I can only speculate that the $20 monday night lineup at smalls jazz club in the West Village is of a higher standard than the $30 Bennetts lane friday/saturday night line ups. But I don't know for sure because I never go to Bennetts lane or check out jazz really in my hometown.

The Stone, does avante garde jazz, and it is my kind of venue. Pitch black, $10 a set, it serves no drinks and you can just take a seat quietly in a row of fold up chairs. It would definitely be my 'go to' place for any weeknight where I faced the prospect of checking facebook at home or going out and doing something. As it turned out, I did so much this trip, I never needed to fall back on the stone. The East Village, I suspect if I had more time, would be where I spent most of my time in NY if I lived there. It has all the indie venues. And the stone, and it is dark and seedy still.

But the stone is avante garde jazz venue that has 2-sets a night every night of the year just about. And it's affordable, and has incredible musicians. I don't know what Melbourne's closest equivalent would be, but I suspect it is just something that genuinely doesn't exist, the closest perhaps is Bar-Open's Make It Up Club on tuesdays every week. But Make It Up Club stands a better than 0.5 chance that you will just see god awful noise generating crap.

The only Indie venue I got to was Arlene's Grocery, which is a very cool retrofitted Grocery store. The indie scene is the most similar to Melbourne's live music scene, the producer of the band who's album launch I stumbled into was in fact an Australian, but from the one set I saw, I really couldn't comment on NYC's indie scene, except that I don't think Indie, Alt-rock and Pop is NYC's strong point, I think the West Coast kind of owns white people music in America, with notable exceptions like the Ramones, the Drop Kick Murphy's and of course, country music, the California Bay Area up to Seattle was where America's kingdom of white rock stars where born and bread for their heyday in the 90's.

The only thing was that the band I saw played a 2 hour set. When I got to the place, there was a sign saying 'Men and Whales 9pm' and then the next act were on at 11 or something, and I thought 'well at least they are honest about their soundchecks' but the band got started at ten past 9 and played right up to 11pm. For a $10 gig in Melbourne that is unheard of, and I didn't really have the stamina to cope with it. But 'Men and Whales' I doubt will be setting the world on fire, though it was nice to fucking hear regular guitar solo's this decade and can only hope this is the next big thing to come out of the NY music scene - music where the skill is in composing and playing, rather than producing and mixing. The crowd too was annoying here.

But my rational deconstruction has to come in at some point. A couple of months ago I was walking with my friend Sarah along Smith st and she commented that 'in what other city in the world can you walk down a street and see bands playing in the window' I don't know, but Melbourne is one of the best gigging cities in the world, and for the amount of times I heard Gotye on the radio and stores and speaker systems, I suspect he is more popular there now than here, but here is the thing.

The basic human stock is the same where ever you are. I believe this. A person born in Shepparton is just as capable of being a shit hot world class jazz saxophinist, pianist, drummer etc. as one born in Buffalo New York. Greatness can come from anywhere, this too I believe. It is hard for me to knw though whether for a genre like Jazz that I don't really understand, you need a population hub as large as New York to actually support it. My same friend Sarah yesterday told me Texas has one of the world's leading Jazz schools though, so I suspect that it is also true that if you support something (as a community) it can succeed anywhere.

NY doesn't need to bread a lot of home grown talent, it's contentious yes, but not by much as to say that New York is where Hip-Hop began, I don't know where Jazz began, whether it was New Orleans, Chicago or New York, I don't know. But the vast majority of New York's great talent migrates there or is called there. There is nothing special in the water, there is simply a market.

The comedy scene is clearly robust and strong, numerous and popular enough that New York can produce world class comedians in sets of 8 three times a night in at least one club, every fucking night of the year.

But I hold that Melbourne is still an amazing city, and I resent people who claim to be bored in it. I suspect but only have the Lonely planet as my guide - that when it comes to Indie/Folk etc all the music that is similarly popular here, New York with it's population of 8 million plus has about the same number of music venues for this genre as Melbourne does with 4 million less. And the thing is, that every night in Melbourne some thousands of performers are performing, and they may not pack houses, but tens of thousands of people are out supporting them. That is fucking amazing.

Melbourne's two real drawbacks are this - most of our talent wants to be somewhere else, they aspire to hit the hubs of New York, London, Berlin etc. they want to be in the center of the action, feel unloved at home or more likely simply fetishise the offshore market, that sucks that we cant keep them here greedily and selfishly. The second being that Melbourne artists, if they don't want to move overseas, look to New York, London, Berlin etc for inspiration and to imitate, there is an inferiority complex, even though nobody is putting anything in the water that makes Grand Wizard Theodore develop scratiching techniques on the turntable, or African Americans to reinvent the way we approach english, they are simply doing it because they ARE creating rather than watching what New Yorkers will do and imitating them.

That's it. My father came out at some point with the mathematical truth that 'Success = Failure - A Good Excuse' and I think too many Melbourne artists don't appreciate this equation, the real advantage New Yorkers and Londeners have over Melbournians isn't a better scene, but the fact that they don't blame the fact that they don't live in a 'World City' for their lack of success/creativity/community support. They don't know they have an excuse to be anything less than world class (and probably a more realistic appraisal of how obtainable 'world class' is) and so they get on with the business of being world class.

The day I arrived back in Melbourne, I went to the VCA graduate show which was not up to the standard of previous years and previous exhibits I have seen there, but still any of those artists could have work purchased by the Guggenheim based on what I saw in NYC, and then that same night went to see the debut of Margeret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert, a new and frankly Broadway standard (but not broadway budget) musical developed here in Melbourne by people by and large under the age of 30.

NYC is an amazing fucking city, but so too is Melbourne, for different and perhaps less glamorous reasons, still you have no excuse to be bored, and no excuse not to succeed in this town. Could I live and work in New York?

For sure, but I think I am going to wait till New York calls me. That's what makes sense for me. It may be different for your chosen medium of creativity.

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