When I first set foot in the place, it was called The Ritz. It was kinda busted and rickety—still is, of course—and that’s always been part of its charm. I saw The Replacements there, Jane’s Addiction and The Pixies. It doesn’t get much more ’80s than that. By the early ’90, The Ritz had closed and reopened under new ownership, Canada’s Ballinger Brothers, and reclaimed the name that it had for most of its life, for more than a century: Webster Hall.
Getting too attached to anything in music is a dangerous business—least of all music venues in ever-gentrifying New York, where impermanence is a given. I’ve seen the great CBGB become a clothing store; said goodbye to Wetlands, Luna Lounge and the original Knitting Factory; old dance club haunts became an NYU dorm (Palladium) and a hybrid shopping mall-gym-and-pizza-joint (The Limelight). In recent years I’ve attended the closing weeks of beloved Brooklyn DIY spaces 285 Kent, Glasslands and Death By Audio. But still, when word came in June that, having sold its lease, venerable Webster Hall would be closing its doors this month for “extensive renovations,” with rumors afloat that it might even not retain its 130-year old name—that one stung.
As many iconic music spaces as New York has produced, none has as long and storied a past as Webster—a history recounted in a photo gallery on display above its creaky old main staircase. From an 1890s society ballroom to a gathering place for early 20th Century labor unions and leftist groups, to serving as a speakeasy and hosting drag parties in the 1920s to a recording space for RCA Records in the ’50s and ’60s, and finally from the ’80s on as either a dance club or live music venue, Webster Hall’s past is a mirror of the evolution of downtown New York—up through and including its impending spruce-up at the hands of new corporate owners Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment in partnership with The Bowery Presents and their parent, AEG Live. Welcome to 21st Century Manhattan, where there’s a bank on every corner and bottle service in nearly every club. It was perhaps only a matter of time until independently owned and operated Webster succumbed.
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.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the ballroom it is an emerging hip-hop star holding it down, though calling 070 Shake merely “hip-hop” is probably reductive. When I speak to her earlier in the day and remark on the variety of genres people ascribe to her music, including “trap soul,” she replies, “I don’t even know what that is. People get too specific! Just chill and listen to the fucking music!” And when you listen her smoky, powerful voice on this night—she sings more than she raps though she’s often called a rap artist—you’re blown away by the way Shake excels whether it’s a hip-hop track, a soul jam or a genuine rocker. Highlights include breakout “Trust Nobody,” complete with its moody romance-crime spree video; the rousing, dance-happy “Honey,” accompanied by aerial projections of Shake’s beloved New Jersey; the defiant and celebratory “Stayin’ Alive”—a “song about a revolution,” she calls it; and closer “070 Freestyle” on which Shake is joined by her entire 070 crew and then some. In less than a year, Shake graduated from Webster’s 600-cap Marlin Room to the ballroom, more than twice the size. “I know a lot of people are definitely shook about it closing,” she says. “Cause Webster Hall has always been the spot where you wanted to see your favorite artists. For such a long time. I even remember when I was a little kid people talking about it.”
I’m sitting in the balcony of the ballroom, reconnecting with some old friends, Benji and Joel Madden, of beloved good-guy pop-punk perennials Good Charlotte. As the day crew is cleaning up the detritus from the night before—Webster’s last Gotham Saturday headlined until the wee hours by Skrillex—three veterans of what some might call the “TRL Era” discuss the news that MTV will soon resurrect that video countdown warhorse. The Maddens applaud the move, if it means the return of more music to MTV. But soon enough, talk turns to the storied venue we’re sitting in, and the fact that GC is headlining its final Sunday night. “For me, personally, it’s my favorite venue in New York,” says Joel, and GC have played numerous NYC spaces from CBGB to Madison Square Garden. “For whatever reason, as a performer, the closeness of the crowd, the sound, the staff—Webster Hall just a real, true rock n’ roll experience in all the best senses of the word.” Good Charlotte took a near-five year 2010’s hiatus from recording and touring “to discover who we were” and reunited in late 2015. It was a show at Webster that helped convince them that the decision to come back was the right one. “We didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Benji. “Because we came back to a different world. Like, who will come to our shows? Who are our fans? And then we came here and it was one of the best shows of our career I think. We were just overwhelmed by the love and the crowd was full of first-timers!”
That claim is borne out a few hours later, when on stage Joel Madden asks for a show of first-timer hands. Sure enough, a large majority of the 1500 sold-out crowd are GC virgins. For a 20-year-old band that sustenance. They rip through the nuggets: “The Anthem,” “Girls & Boys,” “Life Changes,” “Lifestyles Of the Rich and Famous” and underdog paean “Little Things.” “This is a sentimental night,” says Joel, addressing the crowd. “We wanted to come play Webster Hall one more time with you guys.”
Of all the artists that played Webster in its final week, none had more genuine, palpable affection for the place than Good Charlotte. As for the future of the venue, once it’s renovated? “All we can do is be optimistic that they try to preserve some of its integrity and history and maybe do something cool,” says Benji. “I would love that. But the incarnation of what it was now was incredibly special, and we were really honored to be asked to come play one of the last shows and help close a chapter.”
Two nights later it’s yet more nostalgia, as an artist who took an even longer break than Good Charlotte—Michelle Branch—is commanding the ballroom stage. Branch returned in 2017 with her first album in an incredible fourteen years, Hopeless Romantic, and she’s radiant. She’d been at Webster earlier in the year, for an album release show in the smaller Marlin Room. But tonight, she’s in front of a giant sparkling curtain peppered with pink and blue pin spotlights and playing with a band that includes members of Band of Horses, Torres and of course, fiancé and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. Branch channels her pop and country sides—“Breathe,” recent single “Best You Ever” and an encore of “Goodbye To You” are highlights—but most remarkable is the rock she and the band bring to newer tracks. Live renderings of Hopeless Romantic standouts “Fault Line” and “Living a Lie” are notably more muscular than on record. But it is without the band, alone with an acoustic guitar that Michelle Branch closes out the night, as nearly every voice in the room joins in with her on “Everywhere.” No, she’s “not alone.”
Earlier in the evening it’s a hotshot with far fewer years in the game who packed the downstairs Studio, though from his cheeky poise as a performer, you’d never guess Declan McKenna is a mere 18. Buoyed by a string of singles that’s won him the sort of diehards that know every single word of the songs from his recently released debut LP, What Do You Think About The Car?, McKenna owns not just the stage, but also audience hands, crowd surfing twice in his white jumpsuit and silver eye glitter (the Studio, with its low-sitting stage, is particularly well-suited to those inclined to surf). He dances on the bar, cracks pre-song jokes and takes three presumably thorn-free red roses from the audience and holds them in his mouth. The irresistible “Isombard,” “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home,” “Humongous” and “Brazil” delight.
Days before the show, McKenna tells me he’s proud to be playing one of Webster’s final dates, and as a near-Londoner (he grew up in neighboring Hertfordshire) he’s all too familiar with gentrification’s impact on nightlife. “In London we’ve lost a lot of clubs, and in particular youth clubs, which I think have always been vital to our music scene,” he says. “I know things must change and things must move on, but I think we shouldn’t just take the closing down of the night scenes in cities lightly. I think we should ensure that scenes are protected. Because if it’s not important to you, it’s probably important to someone else.” Indeed.
So this is it. “The End Of An Era” proclaims the old marquee outside, a final night headlined aptly by a true New Yorker, Queens’ own Action Bronson. Inside there’s an undeniably different vibe—part wake, part party. There are plenty of cap-wearing Bronson faithful on the main floor, but also an uptick in suits upstairs in VIP, noticeably more photographers, and a documentary film crew capturing the farewell night for posterity. No one in the house is unaware that it’s historic.
Before Bronson takes the ballroom stage though, there’s a special gathering down in Webster’s Marlin Room: a goodbye gathering for friends, family and employees of Webster Hall past and present. I stop by at McNamee’s invitation, though I feel like I’ve crashed a family reunion. I don’t see tears, but there’s plenty of emotion. Under a spinning disco ball, McNamee takes the stage and pays tribute to those who made Webster special: “The unions, the politicians, the activists, the Dadaists, the artists, the musicians, the Galicians, the misfits and those of the alternative culture.” He’s followed by patriarch Lon Ballinger, with a black derby and white beard, every inch the nightlife veteran. Ballinger thanks everyone who worked for or came to the club, “even the Yelp critics…who were so damn mean!” “I think we represented a different time and a different era, and now another era is coming in,” he says, even striking a charitable note regarding the venue’s future under corporate owners. “Because they love Webster Hall and I think they recognize the good will and the reasons why we left things the way we did is because it was about retaining the history, and they’ve assured me that that’s important to them.”
Back upstairs it’s showtime. Action Bronson proclaims it a night “to celebrate”—not only Webster, but also his upcoming album Blue Chips 7000. From it he offers up “The Chairman’s Intent,” “My Right Lung” and 90 minutes of the big man’s best. But of course, too soon, it’s over.
Exactly how long will Webster Hall be closed is uncertain, though don’t be surprised if renovations take more than two years—late 2019 or early 2020 has been a reported re-opening date. “The length of the renovation period has grown drastically from the original projections,” says booker Miller, who may retain a similar role under the club’s new ownership, but who remains optimistic about the future. “I’m sure it’s going to emerge a much cleaner and shinier place, which is good on many levels, like the bathrooms. I hope the energy, character and vibe that makes Webster Hall special remains intact.”
And what about its name? McNamee says he can’t believe the rumors that the new suits plan to take that away for a big naming rights payout. “I don’t see how it would make sense to change the name—what, ‘Spectrum Center’ or ‘Spectrum Hall’ or ‘Barclays Hall’ or ‘Bowery Hall’?” he says. “I’d be surprised—but who the hell knows?” He does know that he’s been honored to be part of a place that’s left an indelible mark on New York. “We’re a unique entity. We’re a historical and cultural landmark,” he concludes. “Whatever New York City brings, we have always been a major part of it.”