In the predominantly Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, nestled on the corner of a quiet intersection just a few blocks from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, sits one of the more unique music venues in New York, and considering the number of places to choose from, that's saying a lot. Warsaw at the Polish National Home, or simply referred to as Warsaw, has historically served as a community center for the Polish population that live in the surrounding area. A plaque on the outside of the building explains that it was "established to abate the need for a facility wherein to foster and perpetuate our Polish culture, social, educational and organizational aims and traditions." But more recently, the space has doubled as a staple in the areas burgeoning music scene.
On a chilly night this past October, the Canadian post-punk group Preoccupations were slated to perform at the venue. Prior to this evening, I had never been to Warsaw and knew very little about it. Not having purchased tickets beforehand, I showed up early to see if they were for sale at the box office. A man standing outside, who may or may not have been a security guard, explained through a thick Polish accent that there were still tickets available and that I could buy them at the box office when the doors open an hour before showtime. Similar to other long standing establishments with deep neighborhood ties throughout the borough, Warsaw operates as a cash only establishment.
After eating dinner nearby, I returned a short time after the show began to find the previously empty sidewalk buzzing with people. While I waited in the box office lobby I heard from behind closed doors the opening act, Methyl Ethel, a three-piece outfit hailing from Perth, Australia, performing their popular hit, "Twilight Driving." The main ballroom, which holds around a thousand people, was much bigger than I imagined, with two large oil paintings hanging on either side of the stage. If you were unaware that the place was built in 1914, the architectural features that are found around the ceilings and walls give it away - the kind of details that just aren't present in construction nowadays.
On the left hand side of the room are a set of doors that lead into a section of the building which serves as a standalone bar and restaurant, and if not for the muffled sound of music coming through the doors, you'd have no idea it was even part of the venue. One of the things that makes Warsaw so interesting is the crowd, which included not only music fans who were there for the show, but also locals from the neighborhood, skewed older, and whom appeared to be there solely for the food, drink and company of each other. If I had to guess, they'd probably never even heard of Preoccupations. And even though the menu included Brooklyn Lagers, the beer of choice for both camps seemed to be 16 oz. cans of Zywiec, a lager hailing from, you guessed it, Poland. The label features a man and a woman dancing the Krakowiak, a traditional Polish dance originating from the Lesser region of the country.
In the adjoining room is the restaurant, which is referred to as the Bistro, and on this night included the merch stand and a table with Zywiec pitchers full of water and plastic cups. Against the back wall stood two older Polish women wearing visors, heavy make-up and plastic gloves as they served up pierogies, kielbasa and hunter's stew from behind a folding table adorned by a red and white checkered table cloth and a bulky cash register. The line included a mix of concert goers, locals and even the drummer of the headlining act. A handful of tables were scattered throughout the room for people to sit and enjoy the traditional Polish fare which, irrespective of whether there is a show or not, is served nightly.
Preoccupations, hailing from Calgary, Alberta, eventually took the stage. Formally known as Viet Cong, the group gained critical acclaim for their debut self-titled LP, as well criticism, for what many believed to be an insensitive name, paying some form of tribute to the Vietnamese insurgent group with communist ties and an opponent of South Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War. The band experienced significant backlash and found itself getting dropped from festival lineups and having standalone shows cancelled following protests, the most notable being a cancelled performance at Oberlin College in early 2015 that gained significant media coverage. The controversy eventually manifested itself in the form of a name change and the release of a formal statement where the group apologized to anyone they may have offended.
Fast forward to today, Preoccupations are fresh off the release of a new album and a new name, and are in the midst of a supporting tour throughout Europe and the U.S., with Warsaw being the only stop in the New York area. When the lights dimmed the group opened with a wall of ominous synthesizer noise which serves as the introduction to "Anxiety," the first single from the new self-titled album. This kicked off an eleven song set which included material both old and new. The group's haunting sound and eerie lyrics, coupled with singer Matt Flegel's deep and raspy voice, suited the venue well. Whether it is the Gothic Revival architecture of the exterior, the sleepy section of the neighborhood the venue lives in or the juxtaposition of attendees, Preoccupations and their music fit seamlessly into the surroundings, almost as if their songs were written with the place in mind - background music that should be playing on a loop.
Historically, Warsaw has been light on the number of shows that appear on its calendar. That, however, may change, as last year it was reported that Live Nation, the global entertainment company, added Warsaw to its portfolio of venues where it books shows, potentially opening up the door for more acts in the future. But regardless of whether something peaks your interest, you can (and should) stop by for some pierogies and a Zywiec while rubbing shoulders with the locals.