It’s always been this way. The intersecting histories of jazz, rock 'n' roll, disco, salsa, punk rock, new wave, hip-hop, electronic music and countless other genres have unfolded in New York, with live performance and nightclubs at the center of it all. And for musicians, some world-renowned venues are hailed as the end goal of an entire career.
The scene — and the venue size — are vast, but opportunities still abound to get up close and personal with your favorite musicians. Guitarist and composer Kaki King, a local New Yorker, has played all over town but relishes that closeness between audience and performer. “Everyone knows about the bigger venues...but some of the most special moments happen at the smaller independent venues like National Sawdust and (Le) Poisson Rouge, which have great sound and offer a more intimate atmosphere.”
The history of many of the city’s top venues is rich and long. Grand theaters built almost 100 years ago still stand as testaments to the city’s passion for the arts. From venerable music halls to more recently refurbished rooms, like Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, or the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, the tradition of an extravagant night out for modern-day audiences continues.
In a city of millions, tastes are wildly varied, and both homegrown acts and international artists draw crowds. Take, for example, the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx, whose program boasts salsa, freestyle, bachata, merengue and R&B just to start, and hosts artists from Cuba, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Puerto Rico.
Experimentation abounds all across town, where genre-bursting, multidisciplinary programming thrives at spots like ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn and Chelsea’s venerable The Kitchen. Seeing a show doesn’t always mean standing in a dark, crowded venue, either. The outdoor summer music scene is buzzing, and regularly scheduled warm-weather concert series offer dozens of shows, many of them free and kid-friendly.
There’s so much music to see on a given day, in fact, that choosing can be challenging. Paola Prestini agrees. “The sheer amount of talent in New York City makes it a phenomenal place to discover new music, and the number of spaces offering opportunities for artists is immense,” says Prestini, a co-founder and the artistic director of National Sawdust. “But it can be absolutely overwhelming.”
In that spirit of de-whelming, here are a handful of the best live music venues in New York City to rock out, get down or groove to whatever moves you.