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The National Underground

By UrbanAnthropod, May 29, 2010 12:15 pm

Friday night was music night. I was anxious to get down to the Lower East Side (LES) to check out some bands. Exiting the F at Second Avenue, I felt the immediate positive energy of the bustling city. To the right, I could spy landmarks like Katz’s deli and Russ & Daughters. All around I saw the posters on sign posts of musical acts at the nearby Rockwood Music Hall and Mercury Lounge. I was on my way to The National Underground to see some acquaintances play and the energy of the LES put me in a good mood. I’ve been on a slowdown this year with the live music, so I was excited to get out there on a Friday night in a really cool neighborhood.

The Venue

I’ve been to The National Underground (downstairs) before. The performance space is small. So it surprised me when I looked at the booking information and noticed that they required a draw of 20 people per act. 20 people is a lot, considering that would practically fill the space. On the previous visit, I sat through 4 performances and watched as a puddle formed from an unknown origin and slowly crept to the rug under the house drum kit. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the space given that it is hyped up as being owned by Gavin DeGraw and featured performers like Nora Jones (after she was famous) in the past. On that visit, one act was too large for the space. Little did I know that there was another guitarist hiding off in the shadows near the door to the restroom. To top it off, their sound was just too big for such a little venue. The only upsides to this venue are the location in the LES and the high profile associated with it. Though the latter doesn’t say much given the new Stage 2 at Rockwood Music Hall around the corner.

The Bands

After paying the absurd cover charge ($11 not $10 and not $12), I made my way downstairs towards the end of the set for a group called Jackpot, Tiger. It was a four piece featuring 2 girls (Claire McGinley and Colby Cecca) singing. The venue was sufficiently packed to the point where I was placed behind a pillar near one of the speakers, totally obscuring the dimunitive Claire. (I have no pictures of said pillar) Billed as sounding like “happiness“, the upbeat duo of power folk-pop vocalists effused an energy that had the crowd moving along. Colby and Claire traded off on harmonizing only to be ruined by recurring sound issues. Constant feedback (not the artistic type) made the fast moving pop stylings practically unbearable to listen to. This set the stage for the remainder of the night. Despite the audio issues with Jackpot, Tiger’s set, they had a huge and active crowd. The fact that they have nearby future bookings at places like the anti-folk establishment The Sidewalk Cafe and their large fan base makes them a promising act and they can soon put this performance behind them.

Next up was the three piece called For the Crown. Once again, the short set was plagued by audio issues and and a darkness unknown to me. I just didn’t understand this lighting set-up of one blue and one red spot aimed at the bass drum! The vocalist on guitar, known as Tree, had a strong voice and was ably backed by a bassist and a drummer who did double duty on the keys. The country two-step meets hard rock vibe of the band contrasted sharply with the feel-good pop of the preceding band. The set seemed extremely short, because before I knew it, it was over.
For the Crown
For the Crown

The following set proved to be a problem. Once again, the size limitations of the performance space would result in awkward crowding. The 5-piece of Grey Campaign (GreyC) was forced out in front of the designated performance area to avoid obscuring someone off in the corner by the restrooms. This was a positive and a negative since the red spot-light was aimed squarely on vocalist Andre Hunte but also placed him precariously in front of the PA system that would eventually add to the ongoing battle with feedback. GreyC put on a valiant effort of playing through their jazz/jam fusion despite the sound. Overall, their sound is reminiscent of jazz with a clear rock leaning. Deconstructed, a soul singer got together with a funk bassist and jazz guitarists and took a hard rock detour to create a fusion of different sounds that just works. Andre’s deep emotive crooning almost made up for the off sound of the venue. Once again, the band was just too big for this venue and that wreaked havoc on the outcome of the performance.

Not only was the sound bad at the venue, the lighting was totally off. I mentioned this before, but I felt like I was standing in darkness. The best lit area besides the bass drum was the bar in the back. This caused a lot of issues with the photographing. The red spot often caused huge issues with color balance.
Jon Kozodoy
The color balance issues were made worse when the blue spot would also fall in frame with the red one.
Andre Hunte
The fix is to ignore color altogether.
Jon Ryon, Andre Hunte & Tim Brown
Jon Kozodoy
Andre & Tim
Andre Hunte & Tim Brown
Grey Campaign

In the end, this is just a negative review of the venue since I was too distracted by bad sound to appreciate the musical acts. If The National Underground continues to milk small acts to feed their bar at the cost of decent performances, it will be a long time before I return. It’s really absurd to require 15 or 20 people per act since the venue cannot house it properly. And they simply need to fix that sound system and provide better lighting. For now, they seem to be getting by on the good location and famous ownership. Otherwise, the place doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Notes

Images shot with Canon Digital Rebel XTi 10.1MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens (Black) at ISO 1600 to compensate for the absurd darkness of the venue using Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens
or Sigma 24mm f/1.8 EX DG Aspherical Macro Large Aperture Wide Angle Lens for Canon SLR Cameras.

** Full Discloser: I went to high school with members of Grey Campaign. Since I didn’t particularly care for high school, it doesn’t mean I particularly care for these guys.

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