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Court Tavern, a Rock and Roll Landmark, Closes Indefinitely

Famous Venue May Not Re-open After Decades of Hosting Live Performances
Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—New Brunswick’s Court Tavern, a longtime staple of underground music that has spurred the success of countless music acts, closed down indefinitely on July 3.

Newspapers were seen piling up outside the establishment's front door last week, and its future is uncertain for the second time since 2012.

According to Chris Jordan of the Asbury Park Press, owner Michael Barrood seeks to sell or rent the landmark venue, which is considered one of the last bastions of New Brunswick’s era of rock clubs.

The Court Tavern represents a right of passage for many up-and-coming bands in the area, and serves as a relic symbolizing of decades of music history to many more.

It has been a stomping ground and a springboard for many music careers, and a place of fond memories for both local and touring musicians over several decades.

Originally a biker bar, the Court Tavern is known for being a classic venue that is both gritty and welcoming at the same time.  Its homey character embodied the the spirit of underground, up-and-coming music.

Among those whose careers were launched in part thanks to the venue are international punk rock icons Patti Smith and the Smithereens, as well as The Gaslight Anthem, and Screaming Females.

Many famous bands gave some of their earlier, or even their first, public performances at the Court.  Of all the bands that are most memorable for having roots tied to the Court Tavern, the Bouncing Souls are perhaps the most famous.

“The Court Tavern was the first place we ever actually had a real gig,” said singer Greg Attonito on stage at the start of a set last year.

Most of their shows drew in a huge hometown following, temporarily transforming the Court into a chamber of claustrophobia and catharsis, where crowd surfers managed to bump into the ceilings in a huge flood of loyal fans.

Until recently, the Court represented one of the few remaining hubs for live music in a scene that once thrived.

The state's drinking age was raised to 21, and city ordinances were passed forcing bars to close earlier, while New Brunswick's redevelopment machine forced out or bought out many of the struggling venues for live music.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital led the charge, expanding its footprint rapidly along the French Street corridor that many of the places called home.  The pressure ultimately forced the closure of live music venues, one after another, such as the Melody Bar, the Roxy, the original Doll's Place, and the Budapest Cafe.

But as New Brunswick pushed out its above-ground music scene, cities like Asbury Park began to cultivate scenes blossoming outside the Hub City. 

The current predicament is far from the first time the Court Tavern has faced an uncertain future.

In the 1970’s, the original Court Tavern was torn down in order to construct the now-abandoned Ferren parking deck, and the establishment moved in its current location across the intersection of Church and Spring Street.

In 2001, the Court faced another threat to its survival when the City of New Brunswick attempted to force them out to build a skyscraper, but overwhelming community support at a City Council meeting helped preserve the club for another 14 years and forced the developer to essentially build around the famous rock club. 

Still, the construction of the skyscraper next door in 2005 and 2006 hurt business and left the Court largely isolated, surrounded on three sides by large parking decks.

Just days before Christmas in 2009, when the Court had trouble paying its tax bill, more than twenty community members wrote checks to help keep the property from being sold at a tax sale. 

After abruptly closing due to financial problems in 2012, Michael Barrood bought the venue and undertook renovations to clean it up.  Barrood also owns Mike's Courtside Tavern, located just a block away.

But after less than three years in business, the Court has closed, again due to business being too slow.

Throughout his ownership of the venue, Barrood and manager Rocky Catanese kept the Court Tavern experience alive, as the epicenter for underground music performances continued to host bands of diverse backgrounds, and the Bouncing Souls returned to peform there in 2014.

But now the city is left with precious few venues for live music, none with the character or nationwide following of the Court Tavern.

The live music community in New Brunswick continues rock on, somehow, despite having been quite literally forced underground by city developments and basement show busts.