By the '90s, I was on MTV and able to score invites to some unforgettable nights at Webster Hall, including Madonna’s 1995 pajama party to mark the release of her “Bedtime Story” music video and an especially unhinged trash-rock Halloween party featuring the late great Karen Black. For most of the '90s Webster functioned as a nightclub and party space—but just after the turn of the millennium the club re-embraced live concerts, and it’s since then that I have my greatest memories: Bright Eyes in 2005; Sleater-Kinney and Wu-Tang Clan (not together) in 2006; my first Vampire Weekend show in 2007; The Mountain Goats, Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco, Ty Segall with The Men; Fabolous with Jadakiss and Young Jeezy, DNCE, Rae Sremmurd, and too many more to remember. And although I wasn’t there, Mick Jagger filmed a solo show at Webster in 1993, as did the late Chester Bennington and Linkin Park in 2007.
“The End of an Era” is how Webster Hall billed last Thursday’s (Aug. 10) final show before renovations started that could last more than two years. I spent the venue’s last 10 days talking to the people who made it run, the artists who played there, and taking in the old hall a few more times.
It’s late morning, and Heath Miller is feeling good. “Last night was epic!” he exclaims. Last night, you see, Miller, Webster’s VP of Entertainment, pulled off the none-too-small feat of hosting the mighty Nine Inch Nails at Webster Hall. Booking a band the size of NIN in a 1500-cap room and keeping it a secret until tickets went on sale that very morning is just the sort of challenge that Miller, who’s been booking at one or more of Webster’s three rooms for six years, relishes. “I kept their name off everything on our group server so that there wouldn’t be a leak, and kept references to it off email. I had very specific instructions from the agent that if it leaked, it wasn’t happening anymore.” As for a favorite night he’s booked at Webster? “There’s so many,” he replies. “So many shows with bands that five, ten years ago I never thought I would have had the opportunity to work with. In the last year alone I’ve gotten to book Metallica, LCD Soundsystem, Nine Inch Nails last night, booked Green Day twice, one of those in the [400-capacity] Studio. I’m probably the only independent promoter in the world that can say that in the last year I’ve booked underplays [shows in rooms smaller than the artist typically fills] with Metallica, Green Day, Halsey, Ed Sheeran and Nine Inch Nails. And it’s crazy that being an indie in New York, one of the most competitive markets in the world, that I’ve been able to secure the level of talent that I have at Webster Hall.
As synonymous with Webster Hall as its owners (the Ballinger family) is longtime Director of Operations, Gerard McNamee, more than any one individual the public face of Webster. Working out of a bunker-like, memorabilia-chocked office in the bowels of the venue, McNamee is a charismatic Irish-American who’s had two stints with the club—the first from its opening by the Ballingers in 1993 through 1998, and then from Halloween of 2008 until its closing. That’s a lot of years, and plenty of stories. Some of McNamee’s mid-'90s greatest hits include escorting President Bill Clinton during a reelection campaign event at the venue, getting “checked out” by Madonna at that 1995 pajama party, and helping Trent Reznor and MTV VJ Kennedy make a low-key exit out a “treacherous” back entrance. The tense nights have been few, but none was more so than last summer, when Kanye West’s aborted plans to stage an impromptu late night show at the venue following the cancellation of his set at Governors Ball last summer created one of the more epic crowd control situations in East Village history. McNamee was charged with getting thousands of people crowded onto East 11th St. to peacefully disperse. “I got nervous,” he recalls. “I’ve seen it all as they say, but that night was hairy, man. I was afraid people were gonna get trampled to death. It’s 1 in the morning, I’ve got thousands of people chanting “Kan-ye!”, neighbors and cops calling me, and I have to tell them there was gonna be no show.”
No such out-of-control crowd situations this next to last week, though heavy hitters are on full display. A Wednesday night headlining set in the ballroom by the UK’s soulful Rag’n’Bone Man is followed on this Thursday night by hip-hop royalty—improbably in the 400-capacity basement Studio at Webster Hall. A private party by Converse starred Tyler, the Creator, who only hours earlier had learned his Flower Boy had been edged out by Lana Del Rey for the top spot on the Billboard 200, but against a sunflower-bedecked backdrop and matching jacket, Tyler is in great spirits—even getting momentarily nostalgic. “My first New York show ever [with Odd Future] was in this building,” he says. “I was 19, and I had 20 dollars. This is crazy, six years later!” He rips through “Deathcamp” from Cherry Bomb and sends the room into a frenzy for “IFHY” from Wolf, but he focuses understandably on tracks from Flower Boy, including the more wistful “See You Again” and “Boredom”—which has the small room singing along. There were guest stars too—Frank Ocean, who crowd surfs and joins in on “Where This Flower Blooms,” and A$AP Rocky on “Who Dat Boy.” As the room went predictably bananas, Tyler and Rocky tell a story of an old beef between the two—one long since buried.