Playing to a socially-distanced crowd, local musicians have found a home at Wild Birds
During a mild Saturday night on an otherwise fairly quiet street, there is a swell of horns and the low rumble of hand percussion. The 10-piece rocksteady group Anant Pradhan and Friends is performing its take on tenor sax icon Roland Alphonso’s “Higher Sight” to a rapt crowd; a small group has started dancing a few yards away. Later, living legend Larry McDonald — an 83-year-old percussionist whose credits in Jamaican reggae run deep and who spent decades in Gil Scott-Heron’s band — rises from his seat to serenade adoring women with a version of Tony Bennett’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
It almost feels normal and yet this show happened in a shifting COVID-19 landscape. The band is among the dozen or so performers who have found a home at Wild Birds — a bar/venue/café that opened this July on Dean Street at Classon Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The space was initially set to debut in April, complete with a 175-capacity venue, but the health crisis stopped those plans in their tracks. Just as summer crested and the days became shorter, owners Julian Klepper and Luke Bonner opened their massive sidewalk to acoustic bands playing groovy, mostly instrumental music under a canopied parklet. The vibe is magical and much needed — for both audiences and artists.
“I’ve never gone this long without a gig, and I don’t know the next time we’ll be able to play a packed house,” said Brett Tubin, a label owner and producer who plays guitar in the Anant Pradhan project and with reggae vocal group Lo-Watts. “[Playing at Wild Birds] became this real therapy because it was the only way that you could get out that thing that makes you, you. Musicians are musicians because they make music.” With tours put on hold, these regular performances bring back a welcome feeling for the artists.
“Everyone [performing at Wild Birds] is a world-renowned musician. If COVID didn’t happen, most of these people would be touring,” he continued. “After the first Anant gig, I felt so good — I remember all of us had the biggest shit-eating grins on our face. It was a high and even now that we’ve been doing it for a while, that feeling hasn’t left.”
Performing arts were among the first closures of the pandemic and will be among the last aspects of “normal” life to reopen, creating a wide-ranging crisis among creative professionals. Broadway will remain closed through May 2021, and some music professionals are looking to 2022 for a return to the stage. As many independent venues fear closure, Wild Birds has become one of the precious few “official” spaces in the city hosting live music on a regular basis.
Since opening, the venue has held upwards of 80 shows, spanning more underground projects to bands featuring accomplished players from Antibalas, the Skatalites, Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires, and Lake Street Drive. Multiple bands perform daily, and on Saturdays, when the space is open until 11 p.m., crowds of more than 50 socially-distanced people can listen to music, drink and enjoy food from pop-up vendors. Seating has quickly become scarce, and tables have moved further down the sidewalk on Dean to accommodate.
“The most challenging thing about this year was the shift in identity from not being a regular performer anymore,” said Nikhil P. Yerawadekar, a multi-instrumentalist, event organizer and musical director whose Afrobeat band Low Mentality performs on Sunday evenings. “I look on the calendar at Wild Birds and feel like it’s all my friends playing there. I had felt in the past that my group of friends in music … had trouble cohering as a ‘movement’ or ‘scene’ to others, but it sort of feels like Wild Birds gives us something to coalesce around right now.”
While the owners and staff would shy away from being self-aggrandizing, Wild Birds is playing a big role in the salvation of live music in Brooklyn. The venue’s residencies are not only regular income for bands but also offer fans a consistent place to see live music while engaging with the community.
“From the get-go, if it was inside or outside, we wanted to make being a musician a livable craft,” Bonner said, adding that Wild Birds was inspired by venues like Barbès and Bar Lunatico. “There’s legendary musicians alive and kickin’ and doing their thing in Brooklyn that just need a place to do it and not be taken advantage of.”
Wild Birds highlights music from or influenced by the African diaspora, including jazz, reggae, Afrobeat and R&B. Klepper carefully cultivated the calendar for his indoor venue — a list of musicians honed from years of throwing popular parties at his Bed-Stuy home — but had to re-tool for an outdoor, risk-mitigating world that required smaller bands and much less dancing.
“We got really lucky that we have a big sidewalk where we can have music outside. Most of the venues that would feature this sort of music don’t,” said Klepper, who spent a year searching for the perfect site for his club. “We are incredibly fortunate to be able to showcase such beautiful music from so many beautiful people. The whole business model was focused on giving a space for music that I find beautiful and soul-enriching. This pandemic has ruined so many people and nearly ruined my business.”
Although the venue isn’t yet profitable, it’s increasingly popular with regulars and a steady stream of interested neighbors. Of course, there are a number of challenges to running a venue during a pandemic: all music must be “incidental,” ticketless and unadvertised — meaning people can’t come just for the show. So Wild Birds relies on word of mouth, foot traffic and suggested donations. Music also has to be unamplified. This “can pose challenges for the performers,” noted Yerawadekar, who adapted his five-piece band into an acoustic trio. “But it also creates something that I think many New Yorkers aren’t used to, which is a raw, natural presentation of music, out in the open.”
There’s also the ever-evolving issue of COVID-19 safety measures, where rules change quickly and without much guidance.
“It really has been a lot of just catch as catch can,” Bonner said, adding that Wild Birds was always designed to be a safe and inclusive space. “We wanted to be known as doing the most COVID-wise because that’s our new reality. If you’re not willing to acknowledge that, you’re not doing your patrons any service and it’s not what they deserve.”
Bars have lost their licenses over small infractions and COVID-19 regulations are extremely strict, explained Wild Birds manager Monica Sharp. “These aren’t normal circumstances, and I have spoken to a lot of people that have had issues with entitled customers trying to stay late, hang out inside, come in without masks or complaining about the 11 p.m. cutoff.”
Klepper is forced to play the “hall monitor,” telling excitable patrons to sit with their drinks rather than walk with a beer in hand to chat with friends they might not have seen since before quarantine. He encourages people to dance in their chairs — an extremely difficult ask for the growing community of starved music lovers and the opposite of what Klepper expected to do at his venue. But he hadn’t planned to have an outdoor venue, either.
As Wild Birds continues to ready its indoor space with air filtration and UV germicidal filters — though its owners are keen to not be among the first wave of bars reopening — they’re also prepping their outdoor space with heaters, coverings and extra seating, as well as a menu of warm drinks. If live music continues into the winter, Bonner envisions a BYOB situation: bring your own blanket.
Yerawadekar expects that Wild Birds and the handful of other COVID-adapted gigs he’s encountered will continue through the end of the year.
“It seems like in this season the audience has a new level of appreciation for hanging outdoors with friends and enjoying live music,” he said. “I think the last thing we should try to do, both with music and with life in general, is to try and return to the way things were. It’s all about learning and moving forward— and I think in many ways this year we are able to see that the bloat of the music business we had gotten used to doesn’t really do a whole lot to help artists.”
“There’s this hunger right now, and we’re gonna tell our children and our grandchildren about this period of playing shows outdoors,” Tubin posited. “But I don’t know if [Wild Birds] will continue to have the vibe that it does right now because of timing. It was a deep, dark place for a long time, and I will do as many of these Wild Bird shows as I can because it’s not gonna last forever.”
Wild Birds’ owners hope their venue re-energizes a community that’s been beaten down by a year of backward politics and plague. “You need to have the energy to fight back against this bullshit,” Bonner said. “We have to be equal in our resistance, so that’s why we do what we do every day, and don’t let up.”
Eventually, the interior of Wild Birds will be open to live music, progressive meetups and fundraisers, and a variety of community events. Once the space is profitable, Klepper hopes to offer some sort of profit-sharing to staff and bands.
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“We’re committed to keeping a diverse crew of musicians on deck at all times and are always trying to push people to listen to new things,” Sharp said. “We’re not sure what the future brings but you can be certain that we are always going to keep it real.”
COVID-19 and the cold won’t stop Klepper, who dreamt of developing Wild Birds for over four years.
“I will do everything in my possible power to make sure shows are safe, that they’re still happening,” he said while putting a new coat of paint on the inside venue. “Because we literally can’t stop.”
Top Image: Anant Pradhan and Friends at Wild Birds. Photo: Lorin Blake.