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Railroad-Themed Bar Aims to Reinvent Rollicking '70s Musical Atmosphere

By Ben Fractenberg | January 8, 2013 7:10am

WILLIAMSBURG — When Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Band traveled across Canada by train in 1970 in the wake of Woodstock, the spontaneous collaborations and rollicking party atmosphere inspired what became the 2003 documentary "Festival Express."

It also became the inspiration for two music-industry stalwarts, who are about to mark the grand opening of their Williamsburg watering hole, Passenger Bar, on Wednesday Jan. 9, with a roster of well-known performers set to take the stage. 

The railroad-themed bar, located at 229 Roebling St. at South Third Street, is intended to reimagine the traveling jam session, hosting musicians from around the city as well as around the world to drink together, play together and perhaps form new creative collaborations, according to the team behind the bar.

"When I saw ["Festival Express"] years ago, it just always stuck in my head," said music-industry veteran Melissa Aubert, who manages musicians like Andy Rourke of The Smiths, and opened the bar with partner Jay Weilminster, a drummer who has toured with bands like The Kills and bartended on the Lower East Side for a decade.

"Someone had this dream to do something completely weird and different. It ended up with them all having an amazing time and hanging out and creating something out of it. We tried to do something extremely unique and not have it be just a bar. We want it to be collaborations with artists," Aubert added.

The railroad-themed venue, formerly a dance club, is packed with subtle details inside its two-story space. The upstairs level overlooking the main room is decorated with a sleeper-car theme, with a high shelf along the wall like old luggage racks.

The bathroom toilet paper rolls rest on train nail spikes, beneath old, weathered postcards on the bathroom walls. The liquor shelves behind the bar are shaped like a train tunnel, and railroad lanterns are scattered around the space.

The reclaimed-wood bar is hugged by a 1,100-pound train rail, which serves as a footrest to heighten the feel of drinking at an old railroad station or saloon, the creators explained.

"The whole design concept has that railroad feel, but it's very hidden — like you don't notice that you have your foot on a train rail until someone points it out or you look down," said Aubert, noting the bar is filled with that sort of "hidden, little detail."

The grand opening on Wednesday will include an open bar from 8 to 9 p.m., with a set by banjo player Morgan O'Kane at 10 p.m. and a DJ set by actor/comedian David Cross and Jaleel Bunton of TV on the Radio at 11 p.m.

As part of its mission, the bar plans to hold a series of live performances funded by Cross and Les Savy Fav bass player Syd Butler. The sessions will be recorded and released as "The Passenger" tapes, giving people who missed hearing the performances in person an opportunity to hear them.

"It's going to be kind of organic," said Aubert. "Our friends and other artists we've wanted to perform, we're going to work it out for them to play here and then record it."

They are being tight-lipped about who might play, but said it would include local and national acts who are in town for gigs. Some of the jams may be promoted about a week before the event, but many will be secret.

The bar also plans to offer a limited food menu with flatbreads and snacks, along with items inspired by their musicians friends' favorite tour nosh.

"We'll write up blurb about the band and upscale their sandwich or whatever it is and have it as a special," Weilminster said.