Thursday, March 24, 2005

Requiem For A Club: Fez 

The seats were practically on top of each other, the service was spotty (only place I ever stiffed a waiter on the tip, and he deserved it), and every ten minutes the sounds and vibrations of the Lexington Avenue subway line shook that cramped basement. Still, for my money—and they took a lot of it—Fez, which closed its doors as a performance venue Wednesday night, was the best small room in New York City for live music.

It wasn't the most rock room, no. But the small downstairs space that straddled the line between cabaret and rock & roll had, really, everything. It had some of the trappings of a folk club, but none of the stereotypically tired singer/songwriter performance styles or musically conservative attitudes that tend to go along with that. It was the right size. The sound was always, always good. The bookings were stellar, despite a recent turn in a more cabaret/comedy/drag direction that fit the room but didn't compel me to spend my money there. And most of the time, except maybe on a CMJ night, people in the audience generally kept their mouths shut and paid attention to the acts.

Fez was everything that so many jaded Manhattan rock venues are not: it was a music venue that was actually dedicated to the listening of music. Above all else, this is probably why I appreciated the place most.

I'm all for nights out at Irving Plaza spent mainlining $6 Heineken keg cans, hanging near the back, and making catty comments about the latest buzz band. But variety is the spice of life, and that's why I will sorely miss the evenings I enjoyed sipping cocktails or Red Stripes in the cozy confines of Fez, where over the years I intently watched memorable sets by the likes of Martin Sexton, The Loser's Lounge, Michael Penn, Rogue's March, Colin Blunstone, Lucy Kaplansky, The Mingus Big Band, Charlotte Martin, Richard Julian, Morricone Youth, Armen Ra, The Aislers Set, Future Bible Heroes, The Cover Girl All Stars, Cardinal Woolsey, Joshua Tyler, Edward Rogers & George Usher, and The Mingus Orchestra.

I think I saw Hamell On Trial there three times, including my last Fez experience, back in January. I believe I saw The Aluminum Group play the room four times, before one of which I spent a nice chunk of the afternoon interviewing them there while Stephin Merritt and Future Bible Heroes ran through a sound check a few yards away. I saw Dave's True Story at Fez at least five times, including the memorable night when singer Kelly Flynt and bassist Jeff Eyrich eloped on stage. There was also the time they dedicated their song "Blue Nile" to me, and the time Kelly playfully worked my name into a rendition of "Kiss Me Quick."

It's a minor travesty that Joan Rivers got to close out the place last night. The original plan was for The Mingus Orchestra to play the venue's final show last Thursday. That would have been apropos, since The Mingus Big Band, which recently moved over to Iridium, played Fez's first show in 1992. But for whatever reason, the plastic-surgery-laden comic's last show got rescheduled for this week, and thus Fez goes out with a wimpy whimper.

Word is the club's owner is renovating. I have no idea what is planned for the space. The Mingus Orchestra is moving across the street to Joe's Pub, which is nice, but more upscale and less intimate. If Fez does not return in a form similar to what it was for the past 13 years (and yes, clubs can return from the dead—witness Maxwell's), it will be awfully hard to replace.

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