Radegast Hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not a music venue, per se. It's a beer garden and restaurant that also happens to feature live music two or three times a week. There is no cover charge for the music, and the place is most certainly not a concert setting; the house does not own a sound system and -- despite the cavernous environs -- there isn't really much room to actually sit and watch a band there, unless you're lucky enough to snag one of the dozen or so stools at the bar (there is, however, some room for dancing, which is not only allowed, but encouraged). The music is not the featured attraction for patrons; it's there to provide atmosphere while you sit and drink artisinal beer and eat delicious food (more on that in a moment).
Given the above, it may come as a surprise that not only do I perform here once a month, but it has actually become one of my favorite gigs in town.
I've been playing here with some aggregation of my Biting Fish band, under the radar, for the last year or so -- usually on a Wednesday or a Thursday night. We do three sets, with short breaks, from 9pm until midnight. Recently, these practically anonymous neighborhood hits in this unassuming neighborhood spot have been a forum for some of the most exciting, adventurous music I've been privileged to be a part of in a good long time. In fact, a few weeks ago, on a night when the band included Skye Steele on violin, Scott Barkan on guitar, Kenny Bentley on tuba and Dave Berger on drums, the music reached such heights of expression and bravery that, at times, I was nearly moved to tears. It happened again just the other night with the same band, minus Skye and plus Andrae Murchison on trombone.
I've been ruminating a bit about why this is, and I think I can safely identify at least one key reason. I think, like most things, it starts at the top. I've known Ivan Kohut, the kindly owner, for over a decade now, since the days when he worked the Arts Nights at Europa Club in Greenpoint, presented by the sadly now-defunct New York Arts and Innovations, a terrific organization headed by Marian Zak and his family. Ivan still likes to remind me of the time that Mr. Zak honored my quartet by having us play a party for the then-President of Poland.
Ivan is a man of great integrity and good business sense. He treats the musicians who play at Radegast with respect, it contributes to the quality of the music. Ivan could probably get some schlubs to come in and play for tips if he wanted to. He could opt not to feed the musicians and/or make them pay for their drinks. After all, he's running an eating and drinking establishment, not a music venue.
Ivan could also dumb down his food menu. Have you ever eaten at Radegast? "A beer hall??", you may aslk. Let me tell you something -- the food at Radegast is outrageously good, way better than it needs to be. The menu changes regularly, the chefs in the kitchen use fresh, delicious ingredients creatively (right now they have a winter squash gnocchi that matches anything I've eaten at much spendier, foodie-obsessive joints in the city, and a vegetarian hot borscht that is equally out of this world).
So, yes, could Ivan be forgiven if he chose to lavish less care and attention on the food being offered to people who -- let's face it -- are going to his place to drink beer? Sure he could. Could he be forgiven for not paying much mind to the quality of entertainment he's providing for free to the same beer-drinking crew who -- let's face it -- aren't even really there to hear music in the first place? Of course he could. But he doesn't, and that's what makes him special as a venue owner, and what makes Radegast the delightful, exceptional surprise that it is.
There are beloved music venues in NYC that do not treat their musicians half as well as Ivan treats the people who perform at Radegast. Those venues shall remain nameless, but Radegast deserves to be named. If you're local, I urge you to come out and support what's going on here. As of now, I'm there once a month, but I'm starting to wish it were even more often than that. My next Radegast "show" is on Thursday, February 16. Come on over -- you'l be glad you did!
Photos by Rod Bachar