Photos by Sam Polcer
“Out of whiskey. We have cognac.” Supplies were limited and going fast. There was no next weekend to order for, no points awarded for shutting down with a surplus. After the 20 minutes it took to wade six feet from the entrance to the bar, a shot of cognac was good enough. Everyone who came out on December 9 for Zebulon’s last night ever was up for a drink.
Given the notable acts it’s hosted in the last decade—bands like Grizzly Bear who played there on their way to much bigger rooms—the club must have been this full before. But it was still something to see. Starting at 8:30, there was at all times a permanent peak-plus fullness that pushed a few dozen people out onto the sidewalk: just as it would become too tight even to live, the crowd self-corrected; folks shuffled out to endure a light rain drizzling into whatever third choice filled their glasses.
Zebulon was rarely that packed when it first opened in a pretty deserted corner of Williamsburg in 2003, a once-industrial block that a decade later still has room to squeeze in a few more glitzy boutiques. Throughout its exsistence, it was more often a really comfy place to see a friend’s band than the hottest spot in town. But its distinctive features—an aversion to charging a cover, dedication to true eclecticism that had almost nothing to due with quick-shifting music trends on the Internet—were rare even then.
Even as he’s forced out by rising rent and noise complaints from the upscale residents moving in to the safely gentrified neighborhood, owner Jef Soubiran (a French expat who opened the club with his brother Joce and their friend Guillaume Bestel) didn’t go so far as to claim that his club closing would be the death knell for Brooklyn’s music scene. Asked if the neighborhood could produce another spot like Zebulon, he replied, “Yes, of course. You just need to give lots of time and lots of love for little money.”
Sharon Van Etten, a local star whose ascent arguably started with her Zebulon residencies, is less optimistic. “I am so sad Zebulon is closing,” she told us. “They were the first venue in Brooklyn to nurture me and support me and encourage me—and many other artists. It was a welcoming space with people that really cared about music and the people that made it. It is an end of an era. It is a sign where Williamsburg is going. Someone once said to me, ‘Civilizations rise and fall’... there will never be another Zebulon.”
At the club’s last Sunday night, the crowd seemed interested in the music being played: in the back, girls stood on chairs, trying to see who was playing; behind them, photographers took pictures of girls standing on chairs. But the music was secondary to a friendly if melancholy compulsion to pay one’s respects. Beyond 10 feet, the sound from the PA was overwhelmed by a murmured echo of “holy shit, I haven’t seen you since…” My peripheral vision was dominated by hugs. The feeling was somewhere between a wake and the last day of camp.
Upfront, where you could hear it, the music on stage was appropriately varied and low-key—not quite the press-listed, big-name blowout the spot could’ve commanded. Jazz drummer Ryan Sawyer led the crowd through a beatnik version of “Love Shack” to giggles and applause. TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, who’d end the evening jamming on stage, slipped in a few hours earlier to hang out, squeezing through a gauntlet of backslaps blunted by his winter coat. Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and Amber Coffman stayed in the crowd, on the sidewalk. There were many more musicians significantly less famous there, too. Zebulon made room for them to its last.