Mercury Lounge, New York, NY


No plastic, smokes, or tactless cash registers. Music lovers love the Mercury Lounge – that includes the bands that play there, the folks who book and manage them, and the record company execs who discover them on the club’s ample stage. A vital force on the national live music scene, and a downtown New York hub since its opening in 1998, Merc wins over its patrons with a crystal sound system, unobstructed stage, and “chairs one might actually want to sit on” (according to New York magazine). But would the Stalkers be so swayed?

Stalker #1
It’s hard to professionally stalk a place I’ve been to so many times, and even played, but I’m claiming a second Merc Lounge virginity tonight to try to see and hear what it’s like the first time. The thing I’ve always liked about the Mercury Lounge is the clear cut between the bar and the main stage. It makes a lot of sense as New Yorkers tend to drink pretty hard and the Lounge tends to attract quieter bands. There’s none of that embarrassing “cash register goes off during the moment of silence” thing that so brings drunken philosophers to contemplate the evil of mixing art and commerce in so close a space.
The bar area is small but nice in a more upscale, French-bistro-y kinda way, and I wait about five minutes behind a couple who just won’t allow me to belly up before I catch the bartender’s eye. We wrestle through the one small entrance into the main space and I’m struck by how small and intimate the Lounge really is. A few tables line the walls but most of the one is taken up by band stuff and coats so we just sort of stand in the middle of the room. I don’t like the ceilings – they seem too low and make the small room a little big claustrophobic as people continue to spill through that one small door at a steady pace.
The sound is, as expected, totally flawless. It’s loud but not ear-piercing, great vocals with just enough reverb and the drums work just right. This place is noted for their excellent equipment and super-attentive sound personnel, not to mention their extra-wide stage which makes bands feel like rock stars even when they’re only playing for the maybe 120 people max that can fit in the room.

Stalker #2
I’m the lone smoker tonight, so I’m sure I’ll have a different view. The Mercury Lounge is a small club and the bands we’re here to see have a big following. We got there a little late and it was already crowded. The bathrooms are right next to the bar so I had to ask these jerks two times to move it before they would stop leaning on the door, and then when I got inside it was a total NYC tiny space. I’m always paranoid in places like that, that everyone can hear me even though the bar chatter is so loud.
After a minor miracle of getting a drink (the bar is so long and skinny and everybody just stands there talking; no traffic flow), we went inside and just walked right into the middle of the floor. There was nowhere else to go, and the seats were all taken so we stood and waited for the bands. I was really hesitant to go take a cigarette break because I had to walk through the door where everyone was being let in, then through the bar which was getting really crowded with people who seemed to just be hanging out and not here for the show, and then past the bouncer line outside just to have a cigarette. Such a pain! So I did it once, dealt with all the Lower East Side yuppies milling around the area on a Saturday night, and went back in for good. It was no fun to fight to get back in the room, and even though the band was already playing when I went back in, no one seemed to be in a hurry to move. It was worth it to come back in though, cause the bands were great and the sound was done really well. I guess I don’t really have a complaint about the Mercury Lounge, just the smoking ban and the fact that many places in the city don’t really know how to deal with the traffic flow changes that are the effect of the ban.

Stalker #3
There’s definitely a host of reasons why Mercury Lounge has outlasted a lot of its downtown brethren in the face of high rents, governmental nightlife assassination attempts and the generally short shelf life of New York watering holes. Yet the biggest secret of its success is that the place is always clean and charming and always has good music booked. Probably the best part about this club is that it effectively acts as two clubs. First is the bar, a dark, spooky affair that seemed just as perfect for a getting-to-know-you-date as it might for catching up with an old friend (or, best of all, chatting while avoiding an annoying opening band). Doors between the bar and the performance space cut out the clatter and rumble of soundchecks, while the curtains and candles out front made the place amazingly intimate for being on one of the Village’s busiest streets.
There’s something old-world (Gangs of) New York about the place, and I love places that feel like they have history behind them. It was comfy without seeming worn or sloppy, and the music at the bar was a mix of country-rock, jittery jazz, or cozy indie-rock. Drinks were pretty average for a New York bar (which is to say a bit less than most NY rock venues) and I didn’t see anyone having to sip from a plastic cup. Always a plus.
The stage is one of the most spacious in the city, and that’s saying a lot considering how unforgiving most spaces are in New York. The performers seemed to luxuriate in the room they had to breathe and play, and there were no obstructed sight lines and really great, clear sound.
Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications