National Underground Plans to Reopen, Bands Kvetch

Joey DeGraw hopes to reopen The National Underground tomorrow night.

In the six days since the city’s health department shut The National Underground down, Joey DeGraw has been up late cleaning out his walk-in cooler, installing new bathroom vents and caulking the floorboards of his stage. A crew of employees and volunteer NYC musicians who are regulars at his East Houston Street joint have rolled up their sleeves to help him tackle a list of violations that brought the club’s 75-shows-a-week business to a screeching halt. A re-inspection is scheduled for tomorrow; if it goes well, the music resumes tomorrow night. In the meantime, DeGraw doesn’t have a lot of time for complainers.

“We’ve stayed closed a little longer than we needed to because I want to make sure we get an A,” DeGraw said this afternoon, amid cases of beer and lengths of PVC piping. “We’ve gone above and beyond what they asked us to do.”

A surprise inspection at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon drew 71 violation points, or a C grade, under the city’s new restaurant inspection system. DeGraw expressed frustration that he was forced to close immediately. “It’s not fair. You spend a lot of time trying to build up a good reputation, and this is really damaging,” he said. “They should give you a few days to straighten things out.”

(The closure is a judgment call on the part of the authorities; other establishments have been allowed to remain open, such as PKNY, the tiki bar on Essex Street, which continued operating even after earning 101 points earlier this month.)

“How would CBGB have done on their health inspection?” DeGraw said. “We’re a Lower East Side rock club.”

DeGraw, who owns the bar with singer/songwriter brother Gavin, is focused on reopening as soon as possible and says he’s not interested in appeasing the “little whiner snots” filling up his Facebook page and Tweeting their complaints about their canceled shows.

“You’ve got to be a little bit understanding of what we’re going through,” said DeGraw, who flew up to deal with the problems from Nashville, where he is prepping the second iteration of The National Underground. “This isn’t your mom’s basement. If you want to play that badly, go play in the subway.”

Some bands have taken to the internet to air their beefs about the lack of notice that the club was closed. Some musicians showed up to play their sets–several having driven from out of town–only to learn of the cancelation via the bright yellow CLOSED sticker on the door, courtesy of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Between Friday night and last night, a total of 33 acts were scheduled to play on its two stages, according the club’s online calendar.

Connecticut singer/songwriter Daria Musk, who’d been aggressively touting her planned show there last night, posted on Twitter around the time she was supposed to be setting up on stage: “The nyc shwcse 2nite booked by promoters who were only told about @natunderground shutdown just now! Insane! Bands showing up2 closed doors!”

Some bands were able to relocate at the last minute: Columbia, Mo., act Richard the Lionhearted moved his Sunday, June 12, show just a few blocks away to Fat Baby, for example.

But others were caught completely off-guard. Monday afternoon, Andrew Demetriou posted on the club’s Facebook wall: “Shut down for health code violations and you didn’t inform any of the acts playing at your establishment . . . Holy poor management, batman.”

To which  musician Christopher Peifer replied last night: “Really loved standing outside in the rain with the would-be audience, and my guitar and amp.”

After five days of radio silence, the club issued a public statement and apology overnight last night, addressed to music acts whose gigs were canceled.

“The National Underground expects to be reopening Thursday,” the club posted on its Facebook page and Twitter feed just after midnight. “We’re sorry for the inconvenience, all part of operating a music club in NYC. We will continue to provide a home for original music nightly and support the original music community. Any acts that were unable to play, contact us to re-book and we will use our resources to provide extra promotion.”

DeGraw asserts that his crew notified booking agents as soon as possible, but acknowledged it was a frustrating situation for performers who didn’t get the word and arrived to find a locked door.

“We didn’t get it to everyone in an immediately timely fashion,” he said, pointing out that the loudest complaints have come from performers slated for his downstairs stage, which generally hosts lesser-known acts. However, most of the local musicians who frequent his stages have been very understanding, and many have stopped by to check in and offer support and elbow grease, he said–and everyone is in the same boat on lost revenue. “What did my bartenders make this week? They have rent to pay, too.”

To address the health code violations, DeGraw said he has hired an additional manager who will be charged with specific duties supervising cleanliness, and that he’s already fixed all the major issues inspectors identified. Some problems were just bad luck, he said; for example, the club had received its daily meat delivery shortly before the inspection, and meat that had just gone into his refrigerator was a few degrees warmer than permissible temperatures because it was in transit. As to the evidence of mice in the basement, DeGraw shrugged and said, “We’re right above the F train — what do you expect?”