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Two years after its target date, legendary UK music retailer Rough Trade finally opened its first store in New York City last week — a 15,000 square-foot space whose size is almost baffling in an age when even low-overhead record shops are dropping like flies. Signaling that the company, whose roots are in the London punk scene, is clued in to what was happening in downtown Manhattan during its early years, the store capped its first week with two nights of performances by Television. The seminal art-punk group’s records never sold as well as those by peers like Talking Heads and Blondie, but they’ve cast a long shadow, particularly among pop cognoscenti in places like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, where the new store is located.
Though the event was rare enough for a grand-opening celebration (Television hasn’t played its hometown in six years, and have only made sporadic appearances anywhere), the store appeared to be in soft-open mode: Shelves were far from fully stocked (notes on the wall promised more CDs were on the way); many listening stations were not yet set up or were already malfunctioning. Customers were overheard grumbling about strange vibes from staffers who seemed unsure exactly how to deal with getting them into the venue efficiently.
But then, these were the first ticketed shows in what proved to be an impressively ambitious place for encountering music. Unlike most destination music stores (Austin’s Waterloo Records, for example), which host bands on small stages inside the main shopping area, Rough Trade NYC has a dedicated club built into the back of the store — an intimate, well laid-out 300-capacity room with wraparound balcony, a bar (whose hard-liquor license, like those CDs, is “coming soon”), and, at least on opening weekend, excellent sound.
The crowd filled in more slowly than one might have expected for a sold-out show, but the room was full by the time ill-considered opening act Gambles left the stage and Television launched into “Venus.” Other signature songs followed quickly, including “Elevation” and “Prove It,” with frontman Tom Verlaine‘s strangled vocals and distinctive chiming guitar in fine form. Though the songs sounded just as expected, with guitarist Jimmy Rip ably filling the place cofounder Richard Lloyd vacated some years ago, this was no simple nostalgia show: The band pulled out non-album tracks like “Little Johnny Jewel” (their first recording) and found room in the hour-and-45-minute set for one or two songs even veteran fans didn’t recognize.
No mention was made of a long-rumored new album — or of much else: Verlaine’s stage banter was limited to introducing his bandmates and acknowledging his need at one point to consult notes on the evening’s most obscure song. The room around him — with chopped-up shipping containers lending a faux-industrial vibe in a part of town where slick condos have replaced most actual industrial, and artistic, enterprises — was a long way from the genuinely scuzzy CBGB, which Television helped popularize on the Bowery around the time London’s first Rough Trade was getting started. But as the group closed its set with an extended take on its dueling-guitars masterpiece, “Marquee Moon,” it was possible to believe, as the store clearly does, that the era in which people will pay for the music they love is not yet over.
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