New York City's live music scene is the envy of every other city in the world.
On any given night, hundreds of parties are stirring, thousands of people are sitting quietly rapt, dancing wildly or rocking out with abandon. Live performances are popping all across the city — from historic concert halls uptown to intimate haunts in the deepest corners of the five boroughs.
"The live music scene in New York City really reflects the identity of the city itself," says Colin Keegan, talent buyer at Williamsburg's Brooklyn Bowl. "You can go to any neighborhood, any night, at really any time and find some of the best live music you'll see anywhere in the world."
253 W. 125th Street, Manhattan
The Apollo is more than a music venue — it's a hallmark of New York's cultural history. A place that has launched countless careers, every star of jazz, soul, gospel and R&B has played here. Located on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, the Apollo is a touchstone of black American history and remains an active beacon for music and comedy lovers around the world.
"The building has such a special energy, from the history to the folks that have walked across the stage — that makes the experience unlike any other venue in the country," says Kamilah Forbes, the Apollo's executive producer. Its most famous program, Amateur Night at the Apollo, has been going strong since 1934, and up-and-comers make sure to touch the famed tree stump at stage right for good luck.
Most nights, whether music or stand-up is on the bill, up to 1,500 people settle into their plush seats in this neo-classical theater that dates from 1914. Now landmarked and on the register of historic places, the Apollo continues to live on as the uptown spot to catch a show.
158 Bleecker Street, Manhattan
Some venues are underground in the sense that they are impossibly cool and hard to find. (Le) Poisson Rouge (LPR) is literally underground (though it's easy to locate on busy Bleecker Street). Formerly the famed jazz club the Village Gate, where many of the greats held court, the space was revived in 2008 as a cutting-edge cabaret with a dedication to jazz, classical, international, electronic and experimental sounds.
"Whether it's Ethiopian jazz, Icelandic ambient, psychedelic cumbia, domestic punk rock or anything in between, there is a deep and devoted audience for all genres here," says Jared Losow, LPR's marketing director. Depending on the show, the arrangement is either shared seating at cafe tables or open-floor standing room; regardless, shows at LPR feel intimate and accessible, curated with love for open-minded audiences.
6 Delancey Street, Manhattan
Many an indie kid's favorite venue, this ornate, mid-sized hall on Delancey Street has a long history of memorable nights out for New Yorkers. Bowery Ballroom has been operating as a hipster haven since 1998, housed in a 1929 theater building that can pack in over 500 music fans nightly. From the mellow downstairs, to the main floor, up to the balcony where you can slide into deep-set banquettes or hang over the railing, there are bars on all levels; even a super-crowded show offers good sight-lines and nice vibes.
Genre-wise, the Bowery covers a lot of ground, with an emphasis on new and mid-career artists of the rock 'n' roll variety. Somehow, a night at the Bowery always feels like you're at the most important show in town.
196 Allen Street, Manhattan (Note: Stage 3's entrance is one block over at 185 Orchard Street)
Rockwood Music Hall boasts no less than three stages over its mini-complex on the Lower East Side. Opened by folk-rock musician Ken Rockwood in 2005 (is there a better name for a club owner?), the venue has been a major player in the live music scene since its inception. Within its tiny rooms, there's little delineation between artist and audience, and Rockwood is a favorite of more established local musicians — you never know whom you might catch. With stages simultaneously showcasing performers across a wide array of genres — one recent Sunday offered up 16 different acts throughout the evening — there might be no better place to check in on the state of real-deal, live performance.
80 N. 6th Street, Brooklyn
New York's avant-garde music scene has always been strong, and National Sawdust's arrival in 2015 delivered a fresh and vital energy to Williamsburg's already well-established live music scene. This is an architecturally significant space, designed from the bones of an actual sawdust factory; built with the utmost attention to acoustics and aesthetics, the performance area is flexible and movable, and the stage setup shifts from show to show.
National Sawdust is unusual in that it runs as a nonprofit with a membership model and a mission. "National Sawdust prides itself on our commitment to incubation and mentorship," says Paola Prestini, its artistic director. "We see our institution as a platform to showcase underrepresented voices in the music world."
52-19 Flushing Avenue, Queens
A cavernous former door warehouse so far out in East Williamsburg that it's actually located in Maspeth, Queens, Knockdown Center offers radical programming across myriad genres and always packs a wallop. With 50,000 square feet inside and outdoors and eight discrete areas, the space is uniquely multifaceted. "The building itself offers multiple spaces and countless configurations for seeing live music, so we try to match its versatility as a space with programming that's just as diverse," says Knockdown's marketing director, Andrew Kaplan.
Food vendors are often set up in the courtyard, and it's become an adaptable spot for mini-festivals, alternative art installations and special events. Electronic DJ culture and harder sounds like metal and noise bands are especially revered here, with a dark dance-hall vibe that can really get deep when the rooms reach their full, 3,000-plus capacity.
61 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn
A fast-paced palace of fun, Brooklyn Bowl is, as the name suggests, a bowling alley. Yet it is also a rocking music venue and a full-service restaurant famed for its fried chicken.
Musically, the appeal is wide: "We program every genre from old-school hip-hop to outlaw country, electronic to indie rock," says Colin Keegan, the venue's talent buyer. "And of course what we are known for in the New York area is our jam-band scene." (Brooklyn Bowl's owner, Peter Shapiro, used to own the long-gone hippie haunt Wetlands.) Raucous and always happening, the crash of bowling balls is an occasional distraction from the music onstage, but a round of locally sourced, Brooklyn-made beers solves it all.
Every day, musicians take inspiration from the energy of the city and rejoice in performing for its inhabitants — a true reflection of its environment, there's absolutely no place that offers more diversity and scale of live music than New York City. "Music-lovers here are the luckiest fans in the world, because New York has something for everyone," notes Forbes. And at one of the hundreds of spots to catch an act, surely you'll find your new favorite artist or genre.
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