THERE’S NO POISON AT THE IVY
Albany’s Ivy Room is a Safe Haven for Fun,
Refreshment, and Indie Music
By Mary Tilson | Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss
You’ve probably driven by it. The Ivy Room has been a fixture on San Pablo Avenue in Albany since 1940. Rust-colored bricks, windows covered with band posters, black doors …. A neon sign jutting at a right angle over the sidewalk casts a dim, pink-and-green light over the busy corner where a few people mill about chatting and smoking. A chalkboard announces the evening’s entertainment. There’s a sign in the window that says, “Nazis and alt-right fascists are not welcome here.”
If you aren’t accustomed to bar nightlife, the Ivy might seem slightly intimidating from the outside, but head inside and you’ll clearly see that it’s not. You’ll find a few comfy booths, nicely curated framed music posters, and some ancient guitars on display. A sign posted on the working vintage pinball machine to the right of the entrance across from the piano shouts in illuminated letters, “Make Racism Wrong Again!”
Intermittently a music hangout under its various owners, the Ivy is now in the able hands of Lani Torres and Summer Gerbing, stalwart veterans of the Bay Area club scene, who took over in 2016. As they remodeled, they upped the conviviality factors, creating a pleasant space with an open combined bar and showroom that encourages mingling and making friends. The lighting is dim, drinks are reasonably priced, and there’s a wide array of must-hear independent music. A standard of behavior is apparent: This is not a bar where threatening conduct is acceptable. You’re going to commune with a mix of young, old, and in-between, LGBTQ, straight, and cisgender, people of color, white folks, friendly dogs, and sometimes me. Bookings support this inclusion and are a big part of the bar’s vibe. You’ll hear funk, R&B, punk, singer-songwriter, tribute bands, live band rock karaoke, indie rock, blues, Americana.
Want a drink? Choose a microbrew from a bottle or the taps, or indulge in a cocktail. House favorites include the Hot Lips, a spunky house-infused habanero agave tequila explosion, and the Poison Ivy, a soothing blend of vodka, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, cucumber purée, and house-made lavender syrup.
A Safe Space
In addition to being a great place to grab a drink, hang out, and hear music, the Ivy Room is a self-designated “safe space.” The term has been bandied about all over recently, and it seems to mean whatever the person using it intends. But Summer Gerbing, the warm, gregarious co-owner of this special watering hole, likes the Merriam-Webster definition: “A place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
Legislating behavior, even with the best of intentions, can lead to annoying or ugly outcomes, as in the NBC show The Good Place, where anyone indulging in a negative thought in that uptight version of heaven gets punished through a string of unfortunate events. By contrast, the Ivy Room calls up places musician Dar Williams describes in her book What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time. The Ivy has “proximity,” meaning that its owners have created an intentional community. Places with this character have always been with us, but the concept discussed by Williams refers to community spots that extend beyond their brick and mortar to influence a wider landscape: a block, a town, or the social culture of a place.
Co-owner Lani Torres is clear about how she curates the culture of the Ivy Room. “It’s important for people to try to get along rather than cause friction and barriers. Fear is the reason why there are borders, but people have more in common than they believe.”
Creating a Musical Mix
Torres—a bundle of energy, black spiked hair, and intense black eyes—books the bands. She grew up in a musical family. “My dad plays guitar and drums and taught me about music, and I was around taverns and bars as a kid. I loved the jukeboxes. I moved to New York and worked at CBGB [the bar at the center of New York City’s rock, folk, and punk scenes]. I saw so many cool bands. It was like their living room: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, reunion shows, and much more. A lot of effort is put into how the music will affect the culture of the bar. For example, if the Ivy has too many punk rock shows, it will alienate the other people who come to the bar. I want a mix.”
Running a bar—especially one with music—is a challenge. Making money is a challenge. Both Torres and Gerbing work other jobs to make ends meet. Both are motivated to create a distinctive space. Gerbing explains, “I ran bars in SF for over 20 years, and I believed I had the experience to make it work on my own. It turned out to be much more difficult then I initially anticipated. But at the Ivy, we’ve achieved our dream. I’m currently getting a plaque made for the venue that reads, “We Only Serve Safe & Nice People.”
Bars are an intersection of people and events, and some nights are extraordinary. Last year Torres booked the Coverups, a cover band featuring Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt with their tech/manager Bill Schneider, audio engineer Chris Dugan, and guitarist Jason White.
“They have played at the Ivy a few times in the past, but this night … the energy was unbelievably wild,” says Gerbing. “They had a super-cool vintage Cadillac limo to ride around in to gigs and such. This particular night they decided to raffle off the vehicle, and turns out we had the winning ticket! We now use the limo and park it out front from time to time and use it as a green room for musicians. Pretty fun experience overall!” She adds, “I’m hopeful that the Ivy Room will continue to flourish. It certainly takes a village to keep this venue thriving, and with the help and support of our community we can keep this upward trend.” ♦
Ivy Room, 860 San Pablo Avenue, Albany; ivyroom.com
Mary Tilson is the award-winning host of KPFA’s America’s Back 40, an Americana music program heard at 1pm every Sunday.
A signature cocktail at the Ivy, this one goes with the bar’s logo, signifying the giving of love to the people. These are definitely friendly lips. Note: The Ivy does not give out straws unless requested, so prepare to apply your lips.
1.25 ounces Jimando el Agave Tequila infused with habanero*
.25 ounce Aperol
.25 ounce triple sec
.5 ounce fresh squeezed lime
Splash of Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters
Shake with ice and strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with lime wedges.
*Slice 4 or 5 habanero peppers into 4 pieces each (do not remove seeds), and place in a liter bottle of tequila for 20 minutes. Taste, and if more heat is desired, leave peppers in longer.