Both touring bands and local music fans (aka members of an aloof subculture that you wouldn’t understand) have probably felt a shifting tide. Over the summer, a huge wave of closings washed into Bushwick, sweeping away DIY spots like Palisades then Aviv while making its way through Greenpoint. When it finally crashed into downtown, it showed no mercy to even longtime establishments like The Stone (which plans to close in February of next year), and Cake Shop, with its perfectly legal bar and ten-year lease. Meanwhile, Market Hotel is treading water after cops conducted a “gotcha” raid in October. It might seem like from here on out the only alternatives (start going to Terminal 5? move to New Jersey?) are pretty grim, but at least one still-standing Brooklyn establishment is taking advantage of the vacuum to reimagine themselves as a venue.
Once upon a time Bar Matchless actually was a real venue, with real bands and a real audience to boot. But that all went by the wayside recently. “The bar just kind of fell off, it lost its way over the years,” explained Jack Drury, co-founder of Motorcycle Film Festival, who was recently hired on as the do-everything venue guy (“theoretically, the dude in charge of the calendar”) after convincing the owners to revamp their booking situation. “A few of the staff were like, Dude, what the fuck, why haven’t we had a good show here in years?” he recalled. “Then I realized that I haven’t seen a good show here in five, six years–like, what the hell is that?”
Drury, too, felt the need for another venue on the scene. “Over the summer, ABC No Rio, Acheron, Grand Victory, Palisades, Black Bear, and Aviv closed. Cake Shop and Over the Eight are closing too,” he said. “All this shit closed, and there’s no more DIY venues–I mean, we lost Glasslands, DBA, the original Party Expo, Market Hotel. I don’t even know what the venues are now, all I know is there’s just nowhere to play.”
When Matchless opened 15 years ago, it was one of those funky Williamsburg (well, Greenpoint) spots that made a point of keeping the old facade, which in their case is a sign that reads “Shocks & Struts.” The place quickly won the approval of the neighborhood and visitors too. As New York mag declared, “the owner has already gotten in a street fight with high-schoolers on PCP, which in this neighborhood counts as an initiation ritual.” Eventually, the same four business partners would go on to open several more local staples, including No Name and Park Luncheonette— nice places that know how to have a good time, and can play up Ye Olde Williamsburg charm without being super annoying about it.
While plenty of other venues around town and especially ones in the immediate area (Death By Audio, 285 Kent, Cameo Gallery) were drawing the crowds, Matchless had shifted toward other kinds of programming, some of it cringe-worthy for the honest drinkers who just wanna have their beer with a side of talk-talk rather that engage in playtime trivia-night hoopla or fiddle with experimental card decks found in the latest mildly-offensive tabletop game for “adults.” According to Drury, one particularly irksome event involved a weekly turnout for Living Social beer pong tournaments (shudder).
These were cash-generating schemes to be sure, but, as Drury sees it, they started to alienate the regulars. “We’re trying to make it a regular bar again,” he explained. The solution was simpler than you might think: he cut out the broey events, pushed karaoke to the back room, minimized the number of slots that went out to “pay-to-play” promoters, and best of all, revived extra space that was otherwise “going to waste.” Oh, and he started booking great bands too– local and touring alike. Drury named several staff members–including Leigha Mason, Claire Ramsli (of Conspiracy and Subversive Rite), and bar manager Amanda Johnson– who helped bring in a lot of the bands. “I was so outta touch, they really jumpstarted all the punk shows for us,” he said. “They’re the DIY warrior queens making shit happen.” And just like that, Matchless was back.
Thankfully, the good stuff stayed: Monday nights are reserved for the excellent Broken Comedy showcase, and karaoke was simply consolidated to once a month and moved to the backroom.
Remaking the venue part was another story. It took some serious work to clean out “about 15 years of trash,” but after replacing busted-up gear and a worn-out backline the place looks sparkling– well, as fresh as a gritty box with exposed brick can be. In other words, the place is perfect for the kinds of punk bands and metal acts they’ve already started drawing. “Having played in bands for a long time, I wanted to make it into a venue that I would wanna be at,” Drury said. Matchless even started booking DJs again for the first time in many years.
Admittedly, another venue’s loss made for the “biggest show we’ve had.” After Williamsburg punk venue Don Pedro was raided, Matchless scooped up a sold-out show they had booked with a punk band from Austin called Impalers (highly nasty, would recommend). But it was hardly a swoop-in-and-steal kind of thing. “One of the really cool things going on right now is that [all the venues] are thinking–maybe for the first time– as a whole unit. So it’s really circling the wagons,” Drury said. That means that if one venue, say Sunnyvale, is booking a big show, Matchless will probably avoid lining up a major show on the same night. “There’s no point in competing— we’ll lose money on a show here to make sure they gain money there,” he said. (Don Pedro has since reopened.)
Like many venues around town, Matchless has made extra room for benefit shows following the elections. Drury estimated that they’ve raised $15,000 since November 7, nearly $10,000 of which went directly to Planned Parenthood thanks to a November show organized by Rally + Rise.
“It’s really expensive to live here, rent is so expensive, practice spaces are so expensive, everything is so expensive, the reason we all spend this money is to be a part of this community, this scene, and to have interesting people from all over the world,” Drury said. “Shit runs down hill and at the bottom of the pile is New York and we’re all here to bring more to that.”