Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village
It is difficult to figure out which angle to swoop in on the Caffe Vivaldi
open mic experience, that I went through last night. Although the Sidewalk Cafe open mic is often cited as the main one of Monday nights in New York City, while I tried to figure out where to go – to avoid the legendary No. #381 position at 3 AM at the Sidewalk Cafe – I kept on hearing from people about how I should go to the Caffe Vivaldi.
Located on Jones Street in Greenwich Village, I decided that I would go there and forgo the Sidewalk Cafe, but it was partly also because I had to run off to interview someone for my open mic film right in the middle of the open mic, and I figured I might succeed at the Vivaldi but would be too far away at the Sidewalk, among other considerations. So I went to the Vivaldi, and I had the most comfortable, wonderful night, beginning to end.
This is a phenomenon. It is run by Kate Sland, who is a fine singer herself, and an exceptionally talented organizer of open mics; she is authoritative without being pushy. She is fair, too, and kind and appreciative of her singers. In fact, the Vivaldi is one of the great examples of “community” in an open mic. Kate has her people who come regularly because they love her and the Vivaldi’s vibe.
I got there at 5:30 PM for the sign up, as the open mic starts at 6:30 PM, but you have to be there early. I was the third musician to arrive, but within 15 minutes there were around 30 musicians. They all stood in an orderly line waiting to sign up and then choose their lottery number for order of appearance. This is a method much in practice in NYC, but which I rarely encounter elsewhere. It’s also a system I cannot understand.
I lucked into No. 13 – but it turned out to be bad luck, as I will say in a moment. Kate puts a maximum of 30 performers up, and up to 10 PM each one has two songs, after that one song until it ends at 11 PM. In fact, she fit in a few more people and went on until after 11 PM. That is when she did a fabulous singing number at the bar with a local regular old-time singer guitar player named Erik Frandsen, who is a long-time Greenwich Village songwriter, actor and co-author of an off-Broadway musical called “Song of Singapore.” (Frandsen has also played with Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, by the way.)
Speaking of “old-time,” that is exactly what the Vivaldi is all about. And if the Bitter End has landmark status, so no doubt should the Vivaldi. It was founded and is still run by an Indian/Pakistani immigrant named Ishrat Ansari. It has been running for 28 years. The feeling I get and the buzz I hear is that this kind of old style cultural and musical bar in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side – like Banjo Jim’s too – is under serious threat of extinction. Where the buildings in the past were owned by individual landlords with more than the bottom line as their goal in life, such real estate has been bought up by massive corporate entities that are closing them down for reasons linked to the bottom line. Or they are raising rents so high that small businesses cannot afford them. The area risks losing its character, and above all its culture.
But for the moment, the few places like this that remain, are still delivering. The Vivaldi was used by Woody Allen as the set of a film, it was where Joseph Brodsky to give press conferences when he won the Nobel Prize, actors and actresses pass through, people like Sissy Spacek. There is just a massive history. And the business model is beautiful: Ansari has musicians playing every day, up to four acts per day, and he does not charge a cover charge. Moreover, the food is not bad at all – I started ordering one dish after another.
Anyway, why was No. 13 bad luck for me? Well, I had to rush out after signing up and taking my number and listening to the first four acts. I calculated that I would have an hour and a half to go out, take a cab, do my interview and return and do my two songs. When I returned, however, within the hour and a half, I discovered that I had JUST missed my turn to sing and play. Kate said that she would put me on later, however, but I would be in the final part of the evening, the zone where you get just one song. I could not complain. She lived up to her promise, and when you considered it, it was fair. You know you are in good, honest hands with Kate Sland – as with the Vivaldi itself. The level of the other musicians was very high, as well, and one of the beautiful things here is that you know you are going to be given a chance by the audience too, which rates listening to the performers as a higher priority than talking.