Hill Country Brooklyn on June 25, Bedford + Bowery caught up with him to chat about Lakeside Lounge and live music in New York.When the Lakeside Lounge closed in April 2012, East Villagers mourned the loss of another quintessential dive bar in the rapidly changing neighborhood. For Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a musician, producer, and the former owner of the Alphabet City bar, the venue’s departure from NYC’s live music scene was a symptom of the greater economic forces at play in redefining the character of the city’s neighborhoods, and served as an inspiration for his newly released solo album, Lakeside, which takes its spirit from Ambel’s bar-owning days. With Ambel playing a live show of his record at
Lakeside Lounge, which was opened in 1996 on Avenue B, always managed to stand apart from other venues, Ambel said. “We established ourselves with having a great jukebox and a really good staff, and we had a live music component that was different than all the other clubs in that we would just have one band a night playing one set,” he explained.
Ambel was displeased with the rising trend among music venues of cramming in multiple bands and sets in one night. “I’ve been a professional musician since 1980, and that ‘five band a night’ thing is part of what made me want to open my own bar,” he said. “I can’t stand it, it’s horrible for the bands and it’s horrible for the people.”
What’s even worse, for Ambel, is the practice of replacing bands with nondescript DJ sets later in the evening. “There are a lot of clubs that bring in bands in the earlier part of the night and then switch to a DJ for the late-night part, which I find reprehensible,” he said.
It’s a story as old as time: rising rents in the East Village and Lower East Side make it more and more difficult for music venues to pay bands and attract customers. “They all say that they need [the DJs] for the money, but the way it’s done is really a drag,” Ambel said. “That’s kind of detailed in the song on my record, ‘Hey Mr. DJ.’ It’s about that DJ phenomenon. Everybody loves a good DJ, but there’s really no doubt that the record came first, and we made the records,” he said, referring to the plethora of bands still trying to bring their music to the stages across the city.
As Ambel sees it, one major factor in the more commercialized aspects of live music in New York is the increasing cost of maintaining a live music venue, particularly a small, dive-y one like Lakeside Lounge was.
“Years ago, when we opened our place, we were able to find a place, get the lease, and just open up. Nowadays, things are so expensive,” he lamented. Economic costs also forced Ambel to close down the beloved Lakeside Lounge. “The longest commercial lease that a person can get is for 10 years. After 10 years, if you have a successful business, then it’s almost like the landlord owns your business,” he said. “We managed to make it for 16 years, and at that point we were still doing okay, but the neighborhood was changing. A lot of people who were regulars didn’t live there anymore.”
He also acknowledged that it was simply difficult to continue keeping up with the day-to-day costs of owning a bar. “When you have a business like that, after 16 years we needed to upgrade everything, like the air conditioning, the restaurant gear, and so forth. We just figured it was time to end it.”
Now, four years later, Ambel’s first solo release in 12 years is an homage to the place he cherished. “I was working on the record before I even understand that the record really was about the Lakeside,” he reflected. “It took me a while to understand that. It was influenced by stuff we had on the jukebox. Our jukebox was really great, and it was just our soundtrack.”
For Ambel, the new record is also a way to mourn the closing of Lakeside Lounge, in addition to celebrating it. “When we first closed, it was a relief for a little while, but then I’d started to realize that we missed this place that was kind of unique,” he said. “I never thought that someone wouldn’t just come along and do exactly what we did, but that really hasn’t happened.”
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ambel expressed excitement about performing at Hill Country Brooklyn on Saturday, and sharing his new tracks with the audience. He explained that the album Lakeside will only be available in limited, signed and numbered vinyl, in homage to the vinyl records in the Lakeside Lounge jukebox, but will also include a visual component and downloadable music files.
Ultimately, there’s still plenty to celebrate about New York’s music scene. As the owner of a recording studio in Greenpoint (Cowboy Technical Services, which has seen the likes of Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, Regina Spektor, and Robert Randolph pass through its doors), Ambel was confident that the huge talent in this city would prevail.
“As far as I know, from owning a recording studio, there’s a tremendous amount of great players in town and great new bands. For a band, being in New York is just different than being in, say, Iowa or something,” he said. “There are difficulties, but there’s great music all over the place.”
Eric “Roscoe” Ambel at Hill Country Brooklyn, 345 Adams Street at Willoughby Plaza, Downtown Brooklyn. Saturday, June 25th at 8pm. Free.