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September 29th, 2003

Sin-?: Simply Surprising

by Jeffrey Wengrofsky

You can’t keep a good man down, and perhaps the same can be said about music venues. As for Shane Doyle-the past, present, and future owner of Sin-? (pronounced Shin-ay)-the expression is apt, as he has owned a series of music venues, re-emerging from each with unbridled enthusiasm and a gentle charm. In its original incarnation, Sin-? opened in 1990 on St. Marks Place under unusual circumstances. As Doyle recalls, “The whole thing was mad. I was six months behind in my rent when I wanted to open it. I didn’t even have a Green Card. The place just happened.” Doyle kept the running of the bar simple, serving only Rolling Rock beer and dubbing his creation Sin-?, which means “that’s it” in Gaelic. Under six years of Doyle’s stewardship, Sin-? became a locus for Irish culture in New York, with unannounced appearances by Shane McGowan, Bono and The Edge, Gabriel Byrne and Sinead O’Connor, who would sometimes wash dishes just to keep out of the way backstage. Sin-? also proved to be an incubator for talent, launching the career of the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley with Sony’s release of his “Live at Sin-e” CD in 1993. Sin-e was packed to the rafters every night, attracting writers, film directors and politicians much to the astonishment of Doyle who provided a nurturing space and was “mesmerized” by it all. After the demise of Sin-? in 1996, Doyle opened Anseo, a small bar on St. Marks Place, and then Arlene Grocery, which he later sold to re-open Sin-? in Williamsburg. This version of Sin-? was painfully denied a liquor license in March 2001 and closed only six months after it opened. Undeterred, Doyle transplanted Sin-? to 150 Attorney Street, one block below Houston, where it now resides. It’s a gritty and desolate block, with a plantain distributor and suspicious-looking garages, an unexpected locale for a music venue.

As it so happens, Sin-? specializes in the unexpected. Like its forbear, the newest Sin-? routinely hosts unannounced special guests that are truly special. Since opening its doors in March 2003, the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, The Walkmen, Damian Rice, The Kills, Dave Gahan, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have appeared without billing or press. This has made it easier for the small club to host performers whose fan bases would otherwise overrun its legal capacity, while lending some mystique to the club and a touch of mystery to each bill. This sense of mystery is compounded by a booking philosophy which, in its eclecticism, is designed to open the club’s clientele to a vast array of music. Bill Bronson, Sin-?’s manager, wants to “develop a fan base for the club, like at Tramps, where people had open minds. They’d see John Fahey one night and EPMD the next night. That’s the fun for me: mixing worlds and cultures.” Sin-?’s musical “gumbo” has already ranged from garage, punk, indie and Latin rock, to a memorial benefit for the Othar Turner Family, the leading practitioners of drum-and-fife music. That show also featured a Haitian drum corps, who performed a dramatic voodoo ritual for the newly opened building which shocked the audience as well as the staff. Bronson himself knows a bit about musical variety first-hand. His savvy, credibility and connections come from playing in a variety of musical idioms from the punk of The Spitters to the gloom of SWANS, the stylish pillage of Congo Norvell, and his present experiments at the intersection of film and music with The Dream Lovers.

Sin-? takes care of its patrons by offering door prices between $8 and $10, and it’s free on the first Monday of every month. Have no fears-the drink menu now extends well beyond bottles of Rolling Rock. You have your choice of beer, wine and sangria from $3 to $5. All of this is according to plan, as Bronson explains: “You’re not going to have bridge and tunnel yahoos pounding Surf Nazi drinks all night. Everything is consumed at a healthy rate, without puking or fights.”

The physical strength of Sin-e as a venue is its size and shape. The room is small enough for an intimate relationship with the audience, and its squareness allows for good vistas from all points. Oddly enough, however, this very same squareness felt somewhat awkward to this writer and his cohorts. Such are the perils of converting an industrial space-probably a garage-into a performance venue.

Doyle, Bronson, and their beloved club will be hosting some very exciting performances this fall including rare appearances by SWANS alumni Jarboe, and Efem Meinheit of Berlin’s experimental noise outfit, Einsturzende Neubauten. In addition, Sin-e will be the site of a record release party for a new “Jeff Buckley Live at Sin-?” CD on Columbia Legacy, a Some Records hardcore showcase featuring Walter Schreifels, as well as some College Music Journal (CMJ) showcases. Bronson and Doyle would also like you to know that there will be an unannounced show from local post-punk phenoms, The Liars, at some point. Be sure to check their website for listings and surprise notices: www.sin-e.org

Jeffrey Wengrofsky works for NYU, is preparing to host Profiles in the Downtown Music Scene at New School University this December, and runs TerrorSex Cabaret, a night of musical misadventure at Luxx in Brooklyn. Information about TerrorSex Cabaret can be yours if only you were to visit www.terrorsexcabaret.com

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