First Person | At the Sidewalk Café

IMG_2126Kim Davis Sidewalk Café, 94 Avenue A.

Sidewalk Café, nestled on the northeast corner of Avenue A and Sixth Street, looks like an unassuming bar with the usual dingy decor, cheap happy hour, and constant huddle of smokers at the door. But the backroom boasts a different sort of history, one filled with battered guitars, risky performances, and a tidal wave of eccentric entertainers looking to pick up a fan or two.

This East Village staple, around since the late 1980s, has long been home to an almost overwhelming roster of young musicians. The Café boasts free live music every night of the week, as well as some comedy shows, but the cost is hidden in the two drink minimum (not a problem for most attendees).

The café’s Monday night open mic is one of the oldest in all of New York City. It’s also one of the longest and most competitive, always running through the entire list of available artists, starting at sometimes ending as late as 2 or 3 a.m. The rest of the week is stacked with “name” acts, many of which started in the open mic circuit, but ninety percent of whom remain completely unknown to the general public.

It is these acts — four or five a night—which are the life-blood of the bar and its gift to the neighborhood. Sidewalk Café has a decent bar menu and an agreeably priced drink list, but its true value is in the tightly knit community it fosters between artists. While many of the acts that hit the small stage may remain as unknown as the day they first played to a crowd of four or five people, they form part of a community of artists.

A blog dedicated to Sidewalk musicians and their pursuits is a source of mutual encouragement and is also used by performers to bolster attendance at each other’s shows. It’s dynamic and optimistic community, even if the career path it reflects is difficult and for many a dead end.

Ben Krieger has been hosting the open mic show the past two years. He is familiar both with Sidewalk’s interactive community of artists and the New York “anti-folk” scene.

“I usually ask people to come hang out,” Mr. Krieger says. “By the time they’ve seen 30 or 40 acts, they get the experience.”

Sidewalk Café is noted for its association with the “anti-folk” movement, hosting a bi-annual festival. The “anti-folk” label covers a variety of troubadours who would generally be categorized as “folk” artists by fans of popular music, but who bring oddness, whimsicality, and anything which would spice up a set, to the cause of combating bland and tired preconceptions about the genre.

Sidewalk Café is a hub for eccentric troubadours, but most of the time the venue is just trying, as Mr. Krieger says, “to book good music.” 
Mr. Krieger also spoke of the benefits of young musicians getting to play with their heroes. Some musicians who grew up watching people like anti-folk musician and graphic artist Jeff Lewis at the Sidewalk now get to occupy the same bill.

“The whole idea is that everyone plays together,” Mr. Krieger says. “When people come to the Sidewalk, everyone is kind of stripped of their status. It’s more of a homecoming, where everyone gets to meet each other. It’s that kind of scene.”

Joe Puglisi is the Managing Editor of, a music video programming site focusing on indie music.