Whether checking out a friend’s band or going to see our favorite artists, the venue can be hit or miss. Many rock rooms of all sizes can be the kind of places you’d never want to be unless you had a reason to go there. Let’s take a look at our five favorite live music venues around New York City that bring sound quality, decor, presentation, talent and the overall live experience to the next level.
Union Hall | 702 Union St., Brooklyn | Take the R to Union Street
The folks at Union Hall care deeply about what they do. This translates to every aspect of their esteemed live room. The sound is top notch. The staff is hospitable and on point. The booking team brings the best in local, national, and international up-and-comers in music and comedy through the space on a nightly basis. With a standing room capacity of 100, you’re always close to the action. The Ting Tings, Fleet Foxes, David Cross, Fred Armisen, and Janeane Garofalo have all graced the Union Hall stage. You can get the party started upstairs with a bite to eat, a round of bocce ball, or a drink at the bar. Their larger sister venue, The Bell House, is another gem for live music and even bigger acts.
Brooklyn Bowl | 61 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn | Take the L train to Bedford Avenue
Opened two years ago near the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bowl has raised the bar across the board. The venue books a diverse line-up that ranges from big name national acts to thriving local talent. Such luminaries as Adele, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Snoop Dogg, Big Audio Dynamite, Dinosaur Jr, Hot Chip, Gogol Bordello, John Legend, and Sharon Jones have all graced their stage. Questlove mans the wheels of steel for a weekly Thursday night residency called Bowl Train. Brooklyn Bowl pours an impeccable selection of local brews, serves up delicious Blue Ribbon fare, and offers classy yet unpretentious rounds of bowling. Unlike so many music venues, the décor is impressive and the sound is impeccable on a stage high enough to guarantee quality sight lines. Most evenings require a cover charge or advance ticket purchase for entrance, which is used to fund the bands rather than acting like an exclusivity tactic that ultimately pads the owner’s pocket.
Waltz Astoria | 23-14 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria | Take N or W to Ditmars Blvd.
This coffee shop and wine bar strikes the balance between fostering new artistic talent and curating slightly more established performers. With weekly Open Mic Nights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, you never know what might come your way between comedy, music, spoken word, magic, and many other mediums. As exhilarating as it can be to see a polished big name act, there can be a unique kind of thrill witnessing artists in their infancy. There’s a rawness and honesty that can often disappear with experience. It’s a charming and special time in performance that can be spied regularly at Waltz. Thursdays through Sunday host touring performers, songwriter competitions, and rotating themed music series. They even offer morning Kids Sing-A-Longs on Mondays and Thursdays to get musical with the whole family.
Maxwell’s | 1039 Washington St., Hoboken | Take the PATH train to Hoboken Terminal
A short jaunt from the Manhattan PATH stops, Maxwell’s has been serving up quality grub and the finest in indie rock since 1978. When quality bands breeze through the likes of Bowery Ballroom, Webster Hall, and Terminal 5, many often hit Maxwell’s the night before. What that means is a chance to see these groups at a smaller venue. Maxwell’s has a 250-person capacity room that ensures this intimacy. A never-ending who’s who list of rock has ripped the Maxwell’s stage a new one including The Replacements, Nirvana, Joan Jett, The Pogues, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Buzzcocks, Fugazi, John Cale, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Strokes, and on and on we go. Their reputation in the music community attracts the continually excellent roster. The cozy restaurant offers a high quality diner-style menu that oozes personality.
Midnight Ramble | Levon Helm Studios, 160 Plochmann Lane | Woodstock | Rent a Hybrid
Levon Helm is widely considered a national treasure. As drummer for The Band, he also carried lead vocal duties for classics like “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek.” A true original in music and classic rock, Levon has been hosting his Midnight Ramble, on periodic Saturday nights since January 2004 in his barn. Named for the traveling minstrel shows of his youth, the Ramble has featured special guests like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Black Crows, Norah Jones, My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, and Willie Nelson, sometimes unannounced. The intimacy of these performances at Levon’s hearth offer a hospitality and warmth found in no other venue. Tickets run you between 100 and 150 clams. It’s pricey, but not considering that you get to see a living legend in an intimate setting who has a wealth of famous friends who like to drop in and jam. Levon also fosters the up and coming talent of the area, having Brooklyn’s local heroes, Spirit Family Reunion, join in on the fun on a recent wintry Saturday night. New Midnight Ramble dates are added throughout the year, usually a month in advance. Keep checking the site or subscribe to their Newsletter for future shows. This kind of retreat to rootsy Americana surrounded by the secluded wilderness of the Catskills Mountain Region is the perfect antidote to urban intensity.
Photo of Brooklyn Bowl by Adam Macchia
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