Positively 42nd St: BB King’s Bar and Grill Goes Jam
Don’t be surprised if Disney decides to open Mickey’s Hippie-Hideout. After all, these days a venue’s location and dr don’t necessarily dictate its cliental.
Just look at New York’s BB King’s Blues Club and Grill, one of New York’s most successful midtown venues and, recently, a frequent jamband stomping ground. Nestled in the heart of New York City, smack in the middle of 42nd St, and just steps away from central Time Square, BB King’s Blues Club is an unassuming successor to former independent music Mecca, Wetlands Preserve. Located across from an Applebee’s and Madam Tussaud’s wax museum, the club’s neighborhood is part of the "New 42nd, a geographic gentrification that aims to bring safe nightlife back to central Manhattan. And, at first glance, BB King’s is the perfect club to host the nearby theater district’s trademark adult-contemporary cliental. Equipped with an eclectic kitchen, plush seats, and rather helpful bathroom attendants, BB King’s razzles and dazzles like Disney. But in recent months the club has also hosted some of New York’s most exciting jam-oriented events, thanks to club’s Director of Marketing and well-known Wetlands denizen Chris Zahn.
"I said I’d never work above 14th street," Zahn says, wearing an army-green jacket while sitting at one of BB King’s cushioned tables, "But here I am."
A New York based booking agent and promoter, Zahn helped develop many third-generation jambands while serving as talent buyer for Tribeca’s famed Wetlands Preserve. After leaving the Wetlands, Zahn managed trance-fusion quartet the Disco Biscuits. Though Zahn continued to book shows at Wetlands during his tenure as the Biscuits’ manager, he started actively seeking full-time club employment around the club’s closing in September 2001. Though he initially applied for a job at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Zahn also began discussions with Ari Elberg, BB King’s head talent buyer. Despite his strong affiliation with lower Manhattan’s independent music scene, Zahn found himself working mere blocks from MTV Studios by October.
Opened in June 2000, BB King’s Blues Club is one of several music venues named after the legendary blues-rock guitarist. King opened in the first BB King’s Blues Club in Memphis several years ago and has since franchised the name to independent owners, including the Bensuan Family who own the New York club and others like the Blue Note. Even though seventies jam artists like Dickey Betts and Melvin Seals’ JGB made appearances during the venue’s initial year, the club’s lineup mostly consisted of aging rockers and revival acts like Eric Burdon’s The Animals and Jefferson Starship. BB King’s never intentionally limited its audience, yet original talent buyers and name recognition helped draw older patrons and middle-aged musicians. Some of these musicians hadn’t played New York in years and were looking for a venue larger than the village’s club circuit, but smaller than mid-town’s ballrooms. With low ceilings, air conditioning, and a flexible capacity of between 500-1000 people, BB King’s took on a Vegas showroom style, complete with a classy bar, neon signs and gospel brunches on Sunday.
But things started to change shortly after Zahn’s employment. The promoter’s background and connections opened up the door for a wave of jam-oriented musicians searching for a post-Wetlands stomping ground. Combined with the club’s independent outlook and grassroots promotions campaigns, BB King’s featured a communal vibe lost at many like-minded venues. For instance, while selling tickets through Ticketmaster, BB King’s is not affiliated with media-conglomerate Clear Channel. As Zahn says, "Clear Channel’s mind set is buy, not create."
Open seven days a week, Zahn says BB King’s is forced to host al types of music, including private parties and always popular Wetlandsesque "tribute bands."
"We have to create from scratch," Zahn says, a mentality that has allowed many bands to grow along with the venue. With a young staff of music fans, the club also fosters a sense of community akin to the former club. Though Zahn still says "people have to get over their Time Square hang-ups," many lower Manhattan musicians began playing BB King’s in late 2001 and many Wetlands basement dwellers soon resurfaced within the Times Square club.
Working full-time as the club’s Director of Marketing, Zahn also began booking shows at BB King’s. Zahn’s first show was moe. side-project Ha Ha the Moose, cementing the club’s continuation to the Wetland’s tradition. Wetlands’ stalwarts Reid Genauer, The Machine, Zen Tricksters, and member of the New Orleans funk scene have also made BB King’s a New York address, along with lower Manhattan clubs like the Bowery Ballroom, Tribeca Blues, and the Knitting Factory. Voted the City’s best unassuming bar by The New York Press, BB King’s is also a strong contender for best unassuming hippie-hangout.
Another popular feature Zahn helped bring to BB King’s is the Wetlands-style power jams. Since Zahn’s tenure at BB King’s began, the club has hosted the Relix 30th Anniversary After-Party, the Jammin’ For Salmon Benefit, and the 2002 Jammy’s After Party (featuring Particle, moe. and special guests Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes, among others) and many other springboards for late-night collaboration. Annual Wetlands attractions like the multi-band "Bob Dylan Birthday Celebration" were brought to BB King’s, along with appearances by frequent out of town Wetlands visitors like surf-guitar legend Dick Dale and George Clinton.
Despite Zahn’s ability to draw jam-oriented bands, BB King’s still features an eclectic array of artists each night of the week. Elberg, Zahn, and outside promoters still book the established musicians that originally brought crowds to BB King’s, along with Latin, swing, dance, hip-hop, and even Madonna tribute acts. Non-jam acts that frequented the Wetlands like the Pilfers have recently played BB King’s and the club has made an effort to fill its lineup with a diverse collection of artists.
"People were going to the Wetlands to go," Zahn says. "Allot of bands got developed through that and it spearheaded [many artists’] careers."
Two years after September 11th, its true that New York is still scrambling to recreate the communal spirit that grew in lower Manhattan. While BB King’s staff and service is similar to clubs of years past, Zahn says it’s wrong to try and recreate the appeal of the Wetlands. Legacy must be earned, not bought.
In many ways, Zahn describes BB King’s as being more akin to Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky’s The Bottom Line than the Wetlands, given its size and mixture of mainstream and independent-minded musicians. One of the Village’s original counter-culture hangouts, The Bottom Line attracted both national and up and coming acts in a relatively intimate setting. It also offers both early and late performances by many acts, a tradition many BB King’s shows have adopted. But BB King’s fresh feel and sharp advertisement campaign (which include a weekly full, color ad in The Village Voice While BB King’s Blues Club has become a frequent stomping ground for established acts, its size is less conducive to hosting emerging artists than it’s downtown peers. Elberg and Zahn have made an effort to book local acts as openers and to feature up and coming acts in Lucille’s, the club’s adjoining bar and grill. Yet a sense of intimacy is lost in the club’s slightly larger setting and grand ambience. But Zahn hopes to change this through the "Headliner" music series this fall, which will give local bands a chance to compete for opening spots major national acts and their own headlining show.
BB King’s expanded lineup has been greeted favorably by its staff, many of whom frequently request to work portions of the club’s diverse lineup. Rena Siwek, who handles public relations for the club, says BB King’s welcomes its jamband cliental, though jam-fan’s day-of-show ticket-buying tendencies took a little getting used to.
"Jamband [audiences] aren’t exactly advance sales types," Siwek says. "But they’re seasoned concert-goers."
For many of the club’s youth-oriented events, tables and chairs are cleared to make room for a sizeable dance-flood. The makeshift area is proof that it is possible to pack all types of music into one club.
Given Times Square’s bazaar bustle, a sense of irony does fill the room during long, relaxed Dead-like jams. But it is one of many surprises associated with a club known partially for its BB King-style ribs. After all, the King of the Blues himself is a vegetarian