“There’s only two theaters, man … the Fillmore and The Capitol Theatre,” Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia said in November of 1970, words that now adorn a poster in the backstage area at the Capitol, which is the only survivor of the lot. The Dead performed at the Cap in Port Chester, New York, 18 times between 1970 and 1971, a period when Pink Floyd and assorted other heavyweights would swing through town on their way to far larger bookings in Boston or New York City. Touring bands would often play an early show and a late show in those days—it was during a post-matinee intermission in 1970, just a few months before her death from a drug overdose, that Janis Joplin is said to have written “Mercedes Benz” while drinking with the actor Rip Torn, now also dead, at a bar around the corner from the Cap.
The National Register of Historic Places-listed structure, built as a movie palace in 1926, reopened after an extensive renovation in 2012 and somehow preserves a feeling of departure, a sense of entering a psychedelic redoubt beyond time and space. Perhaps it’s the smaller doses of weirdness, which are all the weirder for not insisting upon themselves, like those gold-washed plaster squirrels frolicking up the walls (squirrels were the hip small mammals of their day; the 1920s answer to sloths or meerkats). “I’m a big believer in rooms where the air had the Stones, Bowie, Floyd, you know, Janis—that’s different air,” explained Peter Shapiro, who bought the place for $11.5 million in late 2012.
Shapiro, former owner of Wetlands Preserve, current proprietor of the Capitol and Brooklyn Bowl, owner of Relix magazine, founder and architect of the Lockn’ Festival, and one-time reuniter of the Grateful Dead, has been in some way responsible for 10,000 concerts since entering the live music industry in 1996, as a 23-year-old Northwestern grad. “This is a fuckin’ long game bro,” Shapiro explained. “It’s endurance to be able to do this shit every day—every day for 20 years. Shit comes and goes. I’m still going.”
There is no show too big or too small for Shapiro. He is a pragmatist about working with Live Nation and AEG, the two corporate giants of the live music industry and partners on a number of his bigger projects. “Sometimes you wanna go down the slide alone, sometimes you wanna go down with the biggest fuckin’ kid on the playground,” Shapiro explained. Another one of his secrets is scale. There are at least two New York shows a weekend produced by Rock and Roll Playhouse, a Shapiro-founded series, now present in venues nationwide, that introduces young children to the rock and soul cannon while giving their parents an excuse to hang out at a club on a Sunday afternoon. Between the venues, Relix, the night shows, the kids’ shows, various online ventures and various nonprofit groups, Shapiro was doing something, somewhere on earth, nearly every minute of every day—at least before the coronavirus put normal life on hold and placed an indefinite pause on all live music.
Shapiro’s decades of incessant activity only underline how the New York live music scene has become a place where nothing and no one survives. A few of the most magical nights of my life happened at the old Knitting Factory on Leonard Street; I have no idea what occupies that wondrous three-level space now, a decade after it closed, and do not care to find out. The ramshackle building at Kent and Metropolitan that once housed Secret Project Robot and Monster Island, venues that relocated in 2014, is no longer standing. Audiofemme recently listed 60 New York venues that shuttered during the 2010s. Like most of these places, the Northside Festival and CMJ Music Marathon folded without anyone really noticing. Disturbingly enough, life appeared to continue as normal without them.
Aside from the brutal economics of the live music industry, a figure like Shapiro is up against the fickleness of human memory, the terrifying speed with which Sin-é or Studio B or the McCarren Pool parties can seem never to have existed in the first place. A New York music club is critical to the civic fabric and to happiness and maybe even life itself, yet it is also jarringly ephemeral, a place that only nostalgists discuss or even think about once they’re gone.
But with every club in the country shut down, with live music both a fresh echo from a cruelly discontinued normality and a hopeful shimmer of light from a post-virus future, memories of the old spots, the goners as well as the survivors, come roaring back at unexpected moments—Cuban jazz at Zebulon, nightly revelations at Market Hotel, jam binges at Brooklyn Bowl. Every club adds something intangible. Few of them are unimportant in the end, regardless of how quickly they seem to vanish.
Like any other human being, Shapiro faces the question of what does and doesn’t last in this world. But he faces his own particular version of this question, which has material and spiritual implications for himself and for the fans he serves: What is it that people really need, and how can live music give it to them while still actually making money?
I interviewed Shapiro at Brooklyn Bowl and at his memorabilia-strewn office in Manhattan’s Flower District, and tailed him for the Jan. 10, 2020, edition of his personal never-ending tour, looking down at the Trey Anastasio Band from a balcony-level box seat to the right of the Cap’s stage. “You want it to be bursting but not breaking,” Shapiro said while studying the growing crowd, “within 10, 20 people” of some unknown ideal number at which the promoter must guess, and which lies below the room’s legal maximum capacity. “If it’s too packed, you fucked up.”
For some people, getting to throw a giant, cool party every night for two decades would be akin to a genie’s wish gone horribly wrong. Not for Shapiro, perhaps the last great live venue owner and promoter in New York City who isn’t some faceless corporate overlord. At 47, he is still puckish and distractible; doughy but not heavyset. He is obviously out of his 30s but not quite in middle age either; his hair is long yet kempt and boyishly blond. As with any world-class schmooze—surely Shapiro’s prodigious skills in that department owe something to his father, the former head of UJA Federation in New York—canniness and patience lie beneath outer layers of familiarity. Spend time with him at one of his concerts, and it is easy to forget that he is on the clock, even if it’s a dead certainty that he hasn’t forgotten. If he were a professional wrestler, not a hard thing to imagine, he’d be a baby face, since he is genuinely liked and admired to a degree unusual in the live music world.
Shapiro gets hugs and back-pats whenever he walks through a crowd. At the Trey show, there were about 70 people on hand who Shapiro was paying in some way or another, along with hundreds of other employees spread across his other venues, his production companies, Relix, and Shapiro-world nonprofits like HeadCount, which registers voters at rock shows. The Trey concert sold out instantaneously—unlike the great majority of shows that Shapiro or really anyone else has helped organize, the Phish frontman’s gig was a financial winner before the doors even opened. “When you lose you lose a hundred, and when you win you make 10,” Shapiro told me between sets. “That’s the live music business.”
Still, that business, “a fuckin’ shitty hard business,” is a delivery system for many of the things that make a full and satisfying and meaningful life possible, a now-inescapable reality in the wake of the sudden disappearance of just about every single concert in America. “The live experience—not only can you not replicate it, it’s needed more,” Shapiro exclaimed as the Cap’s jampacked orchestra section, which is mostly seatless, buzzed with anticipation. There was the Trump era’s constant assault on inner peace: “People need a release,” he mused, in reference to “the election in 2016” and its endless aftermath. But Americans might not be any less atomized, or any less in need of some alternative to their atomization, if Hillary Clinton were president. “You spend a lot of your time one foot from the screen,” Shapiro lamented, taking out his iPhone, miming the mass hypnosis for which the experience of live music offers a vital if temporary cure. “Oh, you know who’s here with us in the box? Matisyahu.”
Sitting behind me, decked in a powder-blue track suit, twin parted waves of wizened white hair and a gentle smile denoting contentment and wisdom, was the long-legged Jewish reggae icon, his presence so seemingly spontaneous as to prove those irreplaceable virtues of the physical world that a great concert always contains. I had last seen Matis at HFSTival at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2006, a long-defunct festival thrown by a long-defunct radio station. He had come on after an up-and-coming Kanye West, which means he once had higher billing than that self-declared god, along with a beard, a black hat, a long black coat, and other signs that Matis, like the rest of us, like everyone and everything, had been in some ways different back then.
Matis lives in Nyack, not far from the Cap. He had been a Phish fan since childhood and briefly toured with Anastasio. There were times, he explained, when the spotlight shines directly in a performer’s eyes, and it’s suddenly as if a festival crowd of 20,000 has evaporated into the darkness. That abstraction could become a crutch or even a comfort for a performer, but Matisyahu respects Trey for trying to overcome the invisible barrier between artist and fan. “One of the things I think that’s cool that he does is he keeps his eyes open a lot and he kind of stares out at the audience. I close my eyes a lot,” Matisyahu explained. “He’s obviously open. He’s channeling. He’s not closed off from the audience—he’s sort of like, see-through, almost. He goes into this totally naked, vulnerable place.”
There is an unusually narrow security and media well between the stage and the GA pit at the Cap (Shapiro insists on security having as light a touch as is reasonably possible). The theater has the acoustics of an arena and the intimacy of a small club—the shows feel monumental, but not because the artist is at some Olympian remove from the audience. The fans in the high balcony were really not all that far from Trey, whose last gig had been at Madison Square Garden less than two weeks earlier, and who does indeed play while staring straight ahead, mouth slightly ajar, eyes locked on some unknown point in space. In Shapiro’s view, the best seats in the 2,000-capacity house are actually two rows from the very back, right in the center.
Shapiro had first seen Trey perform at a Phish show at the Vic Theater in Chicago in 1992, and booked him for the first time for the Jammys just a little over a decade later. “I remember them jumping on fucking trampolines,” Shapiro recalled of that first Phish concert in ’92. “I’d never seen anyone do that.” Not long after that, Shapiro was so moved by a Grateful Dead show at the Rosemont Horizon—March 11, 1993; late into the band’s decline, long past the point that any individual performance of theirs was supposed to have had the power to change the course of anyone’s life—that he immediately decided to make a documentary about the psychedelic pioneers and their dedicated road-tripping fans. Larry Bloch, the owner of Wetlands, saw the movie, which helped convince him that the 23-year-old Shapiro was a responsible enough ’head to take over his 6-year-old club, which he was hoping to sell, and which he offered to Shapiro for relatively little money down. After that came the Jammys, Brooklyn Bowl, and the Cap. In 2013, Shapiro entered into an exclusive deal for Phil Lesh and his band to play 45 shows at his various venues, which put the promoter in a position to organize Fare Thee Well, the Dead’s historic, Anastasio-fronted, 50th anniversary reunion shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field and the Bay Area’s Levi’s Stadium in 2015.
“Nothing can replicate it,” Shapiro said of live music, his life’s throughline. “Especially with what’s going on in the world. It’s a stressful time. To destress, you need this,” he yelled, a wrestler’s growl competing with the slow-building excitement of the audience, which then fell totally silent as Trey and a half-dozen other musicians walked onstage.
For Shapiro, perfecting the live music experience is a kind of alchemy, in the sense that it only seems like magic, but also in the sense that it is not really a science. “When I walked in here almost 10 years ago, I immediately saw a planetarium,” said Shapiro, referring to the soft rounding of the Cap’s ceiling, which along with its blank and relatively flat walls creates a perfect canvas for the venue’s 10 projectors.
“I’m a fan, so I see it through how I would like it. ... You pick the right spot and you gotta fuckin’ work hard on the sound level, the light level, saying hi to people.” The security chief isn’t the biggest or meanest guy—instead, he’s the right guy. The bathrooms are critical, both in their logical location within the venue, and in their lack of paper towels. The sound volume must be neither so loud as to make conversation impossible, nor so soft as to encourage it. The details are imbued with a kind of folk wisdom, native to Shapiro and a tiny circle of like-minded collaborators. “The experience for the fan is the net result of lots of small things,” Shapiro explained. “If one piece feels off, it fucks up the experience.”
Shapiro found the current site of Brooklyn Bowl, a symmetrical twin-roofed iron foundry built in the 1890s as if it were just waiting to be halved into bowling and concert spaces, while canvassing the former industrial labyrinth of north Williamsburg with his business partner, Charley Ryan, back in 2006. “We found it walking the fuckin’ streets ourselves. That’s one piece of advice I’d give someone: To find the best thing, you walk the streets.”
The bowling pins at Brooklyn Bowl are not normal bowling pins. They are hollow inside, and repositioned using a system of strings to which each pin is attached—thus there is no clattering of ball striking pin, and no droning of a machine putting them back in place, which would warp the sonic environment when bands are playing in the adjacent 800-capacity performance area, which is housed within the same large open space. Such a psychic disturbance was of course unthinkable to Shapiro. At the same time, the bowling element was key: Revenue from the lanes, which before the coronavirus were open even on the rare nonshow days, allows the venue to keep ticket prices lower than competing rooms without jeopardizing a band’s revenue, and lets artists keep their entire merch take (at most places the venue keeps 20%).
Brooklyn Bowl is “a village,” Shapiro explains, a place with distinct zones with their own local purpose and feel. Wetlands, which was splayed out on two illogically configured levels, with a Volkswagen minibus serving as a merch stand and ticket booth and a mural of a rainforest behind the stage, was an analogous agglomeration of little worlds. It was located on a then-industrial block near the Manhattan-side mouth of the Holland Tunnel during its decade-plus existence, which lasted from 1989 until Sept. 10, 2001. When Shapiro took it over in 1996, Wetlands was already known for launching the next generation of jam bands, groups like Blues Traveler and the Disco Biscuits, although Agnostic Front would often play the weekly Sunday hardcore matinee and the Roots hosted regular jam sessions during the Shapiro era. (KRS-One and Zach de la Rocha filmed part of the music video for “C.I.A. (Criminals In Action)” at Wetlands).
What made Wetlands special? I asked Shapiro. “Ready? I’ll give you one,” he answered. “The room was not just like a pure perfect music venue room like Bowery Ballroom is, or Irving Plaza, like a place everyone’s got a straight sight, where everyone can see. In Wetlands there was a little curve: Not everyone could see the stage. Some people went to the basement, some people went to the bar.” In Bloch’s day, the basement was home to a weed-friendly cushion room called the Inner Sanctum where the club hosted environmental activist meetings and an “Eco Saloon” discussion group; Shapiro, who preserved the club’s activism center as part of his agreement with Bloch, converted the downstairs into a second performance space and lounge. “And you know I always meet people who say to me, ‘like I met my wife at Wetlands. We couldn’t see the show. So we went to the basement.’ When the viewing or the sightlines are perfect, you don’t go to the bar and meet your wife.” (Rebecca Shapiro is a senior vice president at Shore Fire Media, the music PR behemoth. The Shapiros have two school-aged children.)
Wetlands was the real thing, in the same way Death By Audio was the real thing for a totally different group of New Yorkers a decade later: a place where people and art were what actually mattered, rather than status or appearances or the bottom line; a place with no discernible profit motive, where Bob Weir could perform with Hanson as his backing band and where musicians would sign show contracts on cocktail napkins or dollar bills. In short, it was somewhere that casts a lot of the next two decades of New York’s cultural history into depressing relief. Nineteen years after its closing and the building’s subsequent conversion into condos, the club looks like a final vestige of a city whose existence is now inconceivable.
“I met Leary on the stairs there. I met Greg Allman there. I met Ken Kesey. Hunter S. Thompson had a party there in ’92,” said Concert Joe, who has long gray hair, wore a tie-dye Dead shirt, and spoke with even greater speed and excitement than Shapiro. He would not give me a name other than Concert Joe. “I met Robert Hunter there. Warren Haynes used to hang out in the DJ booth ... in 5,000 square feet of NYC you had the whole psychedelic scene.”
Joe claims, and likely holds, the record for the most concerts attended in a single year—he hit his 1,000th show for 1992 on Dec. 20, at Wetlands. “I said you ain’t shit till you play fuckin’ Wetlands,” Joe recalled of a series of conversations with his friend Jeff Buckley, the folk music genius who sang with a pained and angelic high tenor and drowned in 1997 at the age of 30. “He said, I promise I’ll play there if you stop calling me.” (Buckley ended up headlining Wetlands several times.)
New York requires its Concert Joes, without whom it is a cold and soulless place. I met him at a Joe Russo show at Brooklyn Bowl—I had gone to interview Shapiro, but realized that Joe, whom I’d met thanks to Shapiro’s introduction, also offered deep insight into why someone would dedicate their life to live music. I got the sense Joe was at the Bowl free of charge, and that Shapiro often let him into his flagship without having to pay. For Shapiro, sustaining such individuals, keeping them within the music scene’s DNA, was more important than money. The history lesson continued, and I listened awestruck: Bill Graham had cursed Joe out for smoking at a Jerry Garcia show at the Lunt-Fontanne on 46th Street in 1987. Joe had invented a pipe that attached to a whammy bar on a guitar—Haynes once said he’d take a hit from it during a show at Wetlands and then chickened out.
Shapiro’s role within the music industry has been to bridge the Wetlands ideal with something commercially sustainable—to make the old club’s values survive within a heartless and hostile world, one in which concert venues become condos with horrifying frequency, in which the Bowl is now boxed in by luxury hotels. Before the virus descended, a Brooklyn Bowl spinoff was days away from opening in Nashville; an outpost in Las Vegas was a success before the nationwide halt in live music began. Fare Thee Well sold over 350,000 tickets and is by some accounts the most profitable single series of shows by a single band in American history. This year’s Lockn’ sold 5,000 tickets, a quarter of its total capacity, before a lineup was even announced. At the time I first spoke to Shapiro he was organizing a multi-night, all-star 80th birthday bash for Phil Lesh, instant sellouts at the Cap, and producing the Earth Day celebration on the National Mall.
Then the virus hit. Lockn’ has not yet been rescheduled but could be delayed to the fall. Shapiro says that of the 100 or so shows of his wiped out by the pandemic so far, “less than five” have been totally cancelled; the rest will be postponed until after the crisis. The Lesh shows never happened, although Relix ran a daylong web broadcast of past Phil and Friends concerts at the Capitol on the Dead bassist’s birthday on March 15. Shapiro does not think the virus jeopardizes the existence of live music as we used to know it, or that it will make an entire generation permanently nervous about being in large crowds. People need the shows too much, especially when they’re suddenly gone. “I think in a way fans miss getting together in person,” Shapiro said by phone in mid-March. “You miss the human thing.”
Success hasn’t made Shapiro cynical about his work. A concert is more than a payday for him, more than a mental list of things that could go brilliantly right or catastrophically wrong.As we walked onstage at the Capitol Theatre after the crowd had cleared and Trey had bolted for his trailer—“31 seconds from houselights to taillights: A record,” one stagehand remarked—and after the fans had mostly headed for the train station, Shapiro began quizzing the guitar techs about Anastasio’s wilderness of knobs and pedals, as I savored my life’s one and only chance to stand atop my hero’s famous octagonal rug. Shapiro had been no less excited about the evening than I had been, or the thousands of people he’d just hosted had been, scores of whom he seemed to know personally. He was a guest at his own party.
“It’ll last for a few days, but then they’ll need fuckin’ more,” Shapiro said, walking the deserted orchestra section, strewn with confetti and plastic pint cups. “Their phone, their computer can’t give it to them.”
The emotional and psychological craving for the noise, the lights, the people, the moments of real or imagined eye contact, that need to constantly rediscover that artists are real people who we can see and who maybe can see us too, comes flooding back with a speed and a power that can shock even the most seasoned concertgoer, the wiser of whom might find a strange comfort in the knowledge that they will never, ever get enough. “It lasts for 72 hours,” said Shapiro. “After 72 hours, you need more.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.