Le Poisson Rouge Celebrates 10 Years With Singular Venue and Vision

Le Poisson Rouge
Courtesy Le Poisson Rouge)
– Le Poisson Rouge
Located on the site of the former Village Gate at 158 Bleecker Street in New York City

Opening a club is never easy. Doing it in New York has got to be twice as difficult—and multiple times more expensive—than anywhere else. Now try doing it against the backdrop of the second biggest financial calamity in the last 100 years.

David Handler, Justin Kantor and their team not only got the doors open to Le Poisson Rouge ten years ago this month, but their business has remained robust for a decade, still devoted to the original vision of offering a listening room for classical, jazz, independent rock and other styles not generally heard in such an informal venue.

“My grandfather moved to U.S. from Ireland and dropped his bags two weeks before the market crashed in 1929,” Handler says. “I was fortunate to see LPR open while he was still alive and he told me there was not a worse time to open a business other than the Great Depression.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to bring this to life.”
David Handler
(Courtesy of LPR)
– David Handler
David Handler, co-founder of Le Poisson Rouge with Justin Kantor, is a violinist and composer and returning to the stage to help celebrate the venue’s tenth anniversary.

Le Poisson Rouge, with a capacity of 700, opened in June 2008 and was immediately praised by the likes of the New York Times — “With acoustics and a high-tech sound system by John Storyk, Le Poisson Rouge is for the moment the spiffiest of the alternative concert rooms. … [Its] trump card is likely to be its programming. 

Indeed, Pollstar Boxoffice reports substantiate the club’s success with the the mid-size venue over the past 36 months averaging a gross of $7,812 with some 363 tickets sold per show.

To celebrate these successes and its first decade, the club has framed June as a month special concerts at the club and at venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Handler’s band of string players, the LPR Ensemble, are also getting multiple showcases.

 “We reached out to some artists we have been trying to get to play the room for awhile and worked on unique shows that are collaborations, like Daniel Lanois and Venetian Snares,” says Brice Rosenbloom, LPR’s artistic director since day one. “It’s nice to have artists that have played the room nice to come back —Vijay Iyer, Marc Ribot with Los Cubanos Postizos who played our five year anniversary. Blonde Redhead, Bill Frisell, of course. We’re doing a tribute to [the late] Jóhann Jóhannsson, who played one of his first U.S. shows at LPR, with ACME ensemble. He’s someone near and dear to us.”

They’ve also booked acts that have never played the venue —Matthew Sweet on June 20, The Naked & Famous with Zander Hawley on June 25 and 26 — and booked events elsewhere in the city under their LPR Presents banner — a free outdoor show at Lincoln Center on Aug. 8 with the Sun Ra Arkestra and Jose James and Meshell Ndegeocello at Murmrr Theatre on June 26.
Handler, who put his career as a violinist and composer on hold save for the occasional commission, is returning to the stage guiding the LPR Ensemble this summer; performances include a David Bowie “Blackstar” concert at Central Park’s Summerstage on June 9; a classical event at the park’s Naumburg Bandshell on June 12 and a collaboration with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at LPR on June 27.


Le Poisson Rouge’s subterranean venue hosts both standing (700 capacity) and seated shows (225) on the site of the former Village Gate.

“For us,” notes Rosenbloom, a former Knitting Factory booker, “there is not one artist who exemplifies everything we do. It’s always been about the diversity and trying to present across a broad spectrum of music.”

Handler and Kantor, a cellist, came of age when the audience for classical music was not only aging but growing increasingly isolated. Their belief was that younger audiences would embrace the new and the unknown were it smartly curated and presented in a comfortable, familiar space, i.e, a bar.

As Handler explains, the more they studied how to become arts presenters, the more they realized they needed a permanent space. They wound up at the site of the former Village Gate, the legendary Greenwich Village club known for its eclectic bookings in the 1950s and ‘60s — including Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Lenny Bruce, etc.

“The process of finding a space and raising capital and getting permissions — there is a lot interdependence in those factors, a lot of ‘this bone is connected to that bone’,” he says. “In the capital raise, the goal was to approach those who would otherwise be donating to an uptown institution like a Lincoln Center or Metropolitan Opera as opposed to approaching people who would invest in a restaurant or a club.”

Le Poisson Rouge’s 10 year anniversary line-up.

“The pitch was that, as young conservatory trained musicians, we have a finger on the pulse of what is relevant to the younger generation, which you as a patron know is crucial to the success and longevity of the art. Invest and you might even see a capital return. We know the music because we’ve studied it; we know the demographic because it’s us.”
Financing secured, they gutted and renovated the space and called on a noted sound technician to install the new system. Keen to rekindle the vibe of the building’s famed former tenant, they called on Village Gate founder Art D’Lugoff for his thoughts and blessing; he even joined Handler and his father on a trip to New Jersey to select tables for the club. They opened as they said they would — with a series of classical and jazz shows — and early on, Rickie Lee Jones did a residency.

It was tenuous time for music. The model for adventurous multi-genre booking, the Knitting Factory, was closing in Manhattan and moving to smaller space in Brooklyn. The rise in digital download sales and decline in CD sales, coupled with the recent closing of Tower Records, had made music less communal as each listener’s tastes were locked in an iPod rather than displayed on shelves in a living room. And New Yorkers who watched one financial institution after another shut its doors had to wonder: Am I about to be laid off? Can I afford to go out?

“We didn’t have anything to compare it to right as the shit hit the fan economically,” Handler says. “Part of the business strategy, but also a philosophy for us, was that for this music to be accessible it needs to be attainable. The spirit of discovery and eclecticism, ticket prices are reasonable and a concert environment as fine as can be without being pretentious at all.”
Rosenbloom throws in two more ingredients to their success: “Giving artists exposure to an audience that they may not always have access to and supporting artists’ various projects.

Narrowing highlights of LPR’s 10 years is a tough one, but Rosenbloom has a good list — Pharoah Sanders playing with Ravi Coltrane, Atoms for Peace, Beck, the New York debuts of Lorde and Rhye, Mumford & Sons and a weeklong residency with Norah Jones. “One incredible collaboration we presented was Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Nels Cline in what might have been their only show together. That night really exemplified who we are and what we’re trying to be.”