Once Brownies, HiFi Bar tunes into the ‘new vibe’

Indie rock musicians Bob Mould, right, and Ted Leo performing at Mike Stuto’s 20-year anniversary party in May 2014.   Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford
Indie rock musicians Bob Mould, right, and Ted Leo performing at Mike Stuto’s 20-year anniversary party in May 2014. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford

BY LISSA PHILLIPS  |  It’s 1999. A line of about 1,000 concertgoers snakes clear across Avenue A. The rumor is the Beastie Boys will be performing at a benefit show at the East Village’s renowned rock club Brownies, known at the time for uncovering the music scene’s budding artists.

Brownies’ music booker Mike Stuto emerges outside to deliver disappointing news to anxious fans — the group’s anticipated arrival just as quickly became a departure.

“This apparently happened twice,” Stuto recalled of the Beastie buzz. “Once it might have actually happened, except the word got out, so it didn’t. They never showed up.”

It wasn’t a fluke that Brownies regulars believed one of the most notorious rap groups could be dropping in at the local neighborhood club. First opened in 1989, Brownies consistently hosted up-and-coming bands — like Spoon, Interpol, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Death Cab for Cutie and My Morning Jacket, to name a few — in the 1990s and early 2000s. The place was a quintessential neighborhood music staple in an era when any indie band with a guitar and a cheap band T-shirt to sell could get a record deal.

Fast-forward 16 years and in its place is The HiFi Bar, which serves as a completely modified Brownies. Stuto is still there, but he’s now the bar owner instead of the music booker. You may not find the Beastie Boys there anymore, but as a bar that has outlived most of its local counterparts, HiFi has successfully capitalized on the East Village’s evolution while simultaneously remaining true to its roots as a music-infused neighborhood hangout.

Stuto’s involvement in the rock club-turned-bar began when he took over as Brownies’ full-time music booker in 1994 — a fitting position given his rock credentials, including involvement in A&R (talent scouting and artist development), marketing, artist management and radio promotion. The combination of Stuto’s connections and the steady rise of the club’s live-music scene established its status as one of the East Side’s most talked-about A&R hangouts.

Beginning in the early 2000s when Brownies was at its music-booking peak, Stuto began to envision a turning point for the club.

“I just started to get tired of booking bands, and it was very hard to make money because the stage and the bar were in the same room. So if someone came to see the 10 o’clock band, they’d cross the street to have a drink before the band went on,” he said. “It was just hard to maximize the bar income when you had a show in the same room.”

In 2002, Brownies was replaced with The HiFi Bar. Despite some resentment from the Brownies faithful, who still longed for four-band bills and Marshall max-amped sound, HiFi was a quick success, especially among bands who had previously performed there — transforming the bar from a place they used to gig into a place in which they hung out.

Meanwhile, rents kept going up and the East Village continued to gentrify, and so the neighborhood clientele changed.

According to Stuto, the area went from bohemia and blue collar to something he never imagined would occur at his doorstep.

“You never saw someone with a jacket and a briefcase and tie coming out of an apartment in the morning when you were going to work. There were none of those,” Stuto said. “I still remember the first time I saw one of those people in the neighborhood.

“The people who use the East Village as a destination today versus the people who used this neighborhood as a destination 20 years ago or more, they’re just different people,” he said.

And so, with the area’s change, so came the bar’s second evolution. After three months of construction in late 2013, HiFi now houses an intimate back room perfectly suited for the private parties, acoustic sets, amateur standup comedy shows, reading series and trivia nights that the bar now hosts.

Record covers now line the dimly lit bar’s refurbished exposed-brick walls, along with a collection of local artists’ work. Beyond the back-room acoustic sets, the place has recently started hosting bigger concerts in the main room where Brownies’ stage once stood.

Despite the bar’s transformation, longtime HiFi-goers can breathe easy. The place is still home to the vintage photo booth that utilizes real film and the digital jukebox (“El D.J.”) that holds more than 4,000 records, plus a return of Brownies lovers.

Singer/songwriter Matt Keating is one of those former Brownies fans. On an evening in April, Keating and his band set up for their first performance at HiFi since the Brownies era.

“I’m having flashbacks!” Keating joked as Stuto detailed the bar’s overhaul to him.

At the front of the place, twentysomethings came in from an intramural softball game, wearing matching gray team T-shirts trimmed in red. They were quick to celebrate with shots, beer and loud laughter, unaware and seemingly uninterested in the show that was about to begin.

As Keating’s band began to play, the group halted their conversation, if only for a few minutes, to turn their attention to the sounds of past and present.

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