Brittney Dixon, general manager at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, is an optimistic type.
Dixon runs the Sessions Wednesday Open Mic Night and books a variety of other bands the rest of the week at the fabled club where the Smithereens and a handful of other regional and national acts got their start in the 1980s. That was before several troubled years beginning in 2011 with closings and reopenings until it came back stronger in late 2015.
Dixon has both the attitude and background for the job. She is well aware of the Court’s legacy, as well as the dearth of places for musicians and bands to perform in New Brunswick, which had a thriving original music scene in the 1980s and ’90s. There were often three or four choices of bands to see on weekend nights, and patrons would often walk from venue to venue.
“I worked here when they reopened in 2012 and stayed until July, 2014, when I quit, then ran shows at the Rail House in Rahway, the Saint in Asbury Park, and the Scarlet Pub on Easton Avenue here for a while,” Dixon says one recent Wednesday evening downstairs at the Court, where she can be found bartending while associate Rhonette Smith ensures good sound for a variety of musicians.
“When I found out the Court had shut down (again), I contacted Mike Barrood, the owner, to find out why. I let him know, if by any chance he was interested in reopening, I’d be happy to run it for him. I think he knew I would give it my all, he knew my reputation as a hard worker,” she says.
Raised in the New Brunswick area, Dixon declines to talk about her parents and what they do. She does talk about her background: she majored in sociology and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies at Montclair State and graduated in 2010. She seems to use her sociology degree and bubbly personality to create as welcoming an environment as possible for musicians and fans, at least on Wednesday nights at her Sessions Open Mic.
“I ask bands to try to bring in 15 to 20 people. If they feel comfortable they can do that, I’ll give them a chance if I’ve never worked with them before,” Dixon says of her approach to booking local, original talent, adding, “We’re open to any genre, any kind of music from pop to heavy metal to punk to reggae to blues to hip-hop, it doesn’t matter. We want everyone who appreciates music to come here and to want to come here and want to play here and feel comfortable here. It’s about the music, not about separating any genres. I’m really trying to create unity here.”
One recent open mic night, patrons were treated to a wide range of musicians, including those carrying not-so-standard instruments, one who played Indian sitar, and another singer-songwriter who accompanied himself on banjo and harmonica.
Dixon also books most of the bands that play at the Court on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. There is no cover charge on Wednesday nights; there is a cover charge of $8 to $10 on weekend nights where there are either four or five bands performing in the basement room. The upstairs at the Court Tavern has an enhanced video and electronic games room, and she runs a program called Soft Sounds on the first and third Sundays upstairs at the Court with solo acoustic performances and local visual artists showcasing their works and the occasional comedy open mic as well.
“The music on Wednesday nights has been incredible,” Dixon says. “The open mic night usually draws between 30 and 40 people, and we usually have between 12 and 17 performances of four songs a set. It’s totally free, and I’m never going to put a cover on this.” On first and third Sundays upstairs, there is a $5 cover charge.
Given all the changes with the New Brunswick parking situation in recent months and the seeming lack of free parking for patrons from out-of-town anywhere in the downtown, “we really want this place to be reasonable,” Dixon says.
Other venues in New Brunswick that present live music — holding in abeyance most shows put on by people at the New Brunswick Jazz Project — include the Scarlet Pub and Hidden Grounds Coffee House on Easton Avenue, Destination Dogs on Joyce Kilmer Avenue near the train station, and the Old Bay Restaurant opposite the Hyatt Hotel on Neilson Street.
Asked about the kinds of challenges the Court Tavern faces from other venues, and the new pay-to-park environment in New Brunswick, Dixon says she and others at the Court are trying to get people interested in the scene there and what’s going on with live music and the art shows on alternating Sunday afternoons.
“We want to reach people who want to go out and play some games, hear some new bands, have some drinks. In other words, let’s go out and have some fun. We want people to come here no matter who’s playing, and we want everyone to feel welcome.”
“We wish we could have even cheaper shows,” she says, “but we just can’t because our costs just to be open are so high.”
“We don’t want to be like Starland Ballroom. We’re never going to be pay-to-play, and we want to show people we care about the musicians who play here,” she says, noting one way they express their appreciation for local musicians and bands is by playing local albums on the sound system.
Dixon tries to bring bands that draw people back every two to three months and notes it’s too much of a strain on limited resources to book bigger name acts into the venue just yet. They’re not in a position to offer guarantees.
“We just don’t have the extra money to play with, the sound system here is a good one and very expensive, and we also have a professional sound person, so we’re trying to keep things low risk right now until we break the seal.”
Dixon is aware that patrons at the Court may already be paying money to park in one of the new New Brunswick Parking Authority decks and many people of her age, late 20s and early 30s, a few years out of college, are saddled with college debt, few prospects for good paying jobs in New Jersey, and just don’t have a lot of extra money on hand, even as little as $15 to take care of parking, cover charge, and a beer at the Court Tavern.
Given the new hours the Court is now open, 4:30 p.m. to closing Wednesday through Sunday, Dixon is optimistic.
“I really have high hopes for 2016 because we’re consistent and have events four and five nights a week now. It’s starting to build back to the kind of place it was in the 1990s,” Dixon says.
She says her core audience is not made up of Rutgers students but people like herself — in their late 20s and early 30s and who want to get out and hear and see live bands and original music.
“We get a lot of former Rutgers University people here, people who remember this place, and they seem to appreciate that I’m trying to keep this place open and running with everything I’ve got,” she says.
“If you love the Court Tavern, this place loves you back. That’s really the atmosphere we’re trying to create here.”
The Court Tavern, 124 Church Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-7824, www.court-tavern.com.
On Deck at the Court: Coming up on Friday, March 11, New Brunswick band Red Giant, Tango Machina from Monroe, California, band Animal Masks, and New Jersey band Grey Goes Black. Appearing Saturday, March 12, Lawrenceville musician Jesse Elliot and his band, along with New Jersey groups Brenyama, Highland Park; Death In The Arena, Bridgewater; Chevonne and The Fuzz, Saddle River; and Above The Moon, Madison. Doors open both nights at 8 p.m. Tickets $10.