New York Music Daily’s 2016 Picks For Best Manhattan and Brooklyn Venues
The purpose of this annual tradition is not to belabor the obvious but to help spread the word about spots and scenes that might be flying a little under the radar. The cognoscenti agree that year after year, New York’s two best music venues are Barbes and the Jalopy. But to pick those venues – wonderful as they are – over and over would get tiresome, especially since each place has been designated Best Brooklyn Venue here more than once.
In case you’ve been out of the loop, there’s a show worth seeing at Barbes virtually every night (they’re often closed on holidays). That’s something no other New York venue can boast. The club draws from a global talent base: many of New York’s most individualistic artists across an absurdly wide swath of musical styles play monthly or weekly residencies here. Balkan music and sounds from south of the border are big here; the space is intimate, the sound is excellent and the people who work here are convivial. For those reasons, Barbes is this blog’s local, which means more than than you might think considering that New York Music Daily is not based in Park Slope.
The Jalopy is oldtime Americana and country blues central. Its dusky, magically antique ambience is unsurpassed in New York. The sound is excellent, the people who work here are friendly and welcoming and considering that it’s based in Red Hook, it’s become sort of a community center. There isn’t quite as much music here as at Barbes because the Jalopy is not only a bar and venue but also an instrument repair store, a music school and a popular wedding spot.
What’s left after Barbes and the Jalopy? It would be too easy to pick the Village Vanguard, or Carnegie Hall, or Lincoln Center: those places are world-famous. Beyond that, the sad truth is that this blog’s first choices for this year’s best venues both went out of business.
The Lively lasted barely two months in its comfortable Meatpacking District basement digs before the owners gave up the ghost: they might have had music there for half that time. The place had everything going for it: a big stage, fantastic sound, imaginative booking and drinks that weren’t overwhelmingly overpriced, unusual in that neighborhood. That such a welcome, down-to-earth presence couldn’t make it there speaks to the precipitous decline of Manhattan nightlife.
Palisades was the Bushwick counterpart to Cake Shop, an unexpectedly laid-back, unpretentious former bodega space that booked a similarly unexpected, above-average mix of noisy rock, with frequent punk and psychedelic acts in addition to the usual parade of indie boy bands playing with their parents’ money. The sound was better than you would expect, drinks were cheap, and the door crew didn’t hassle you. All those things should be a given at every club, but they’re not, That such a popular and vital spot couldn’t make it any further reflects the neighborhood’s oversaturation with bars and clubs as much as it does the devastation caused by the real estate bubble and gentrification.
So other than famous classical halls and jazz clubs, what remains in Manhattan that hasn’t closed, or hasn’t been picked in previous years? Not a whole lot. Bowery Electric is a strong contender, but they’ve got to stop pretending that the closet-sized upstairs rehearsal space is as viable for music as the bigger basement room because it’s not.
The Hifi has a lot of good music, but it’s not a fulltime venue: it’s a bar. The Treehouse at 2A is unpretentiously low-key, has good sound, and a lot of good Americana acts pass through there. But you never know who’s playing since the bar does nothing to promote it and the guy who books it only lists the shows on Facebook.
The Mercury has fantastic sound and good people working there, but booking is erratic. Arlene’s books mostly Jersey bands now. Cake Shop, once a perennial contender for the borough’s best venue, has been on life support since forever. The Delancey was a contender but hasn’t been since they cancelled Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza, and that was a long time ago.
But there is a space which has grown into one of Manhattan’s last great listening rooms, and that’s one of the reasons why this year’s pick for Best Manhattan Venue is the American Folk Art Museum. The other reason is the quality of the artists who play here. It’s one of the most innovative and fascinating art museums in town – with free admission, no less! – and the wide variety of Americana and global acts booked by impresario Lara Ewen mirror those visuals. Top-quality artists who run the gamut from front-porch folk, to country blues, ragtime, oldschool C&W, bluegrass, the occasional janglerock band as well as traditional folk sounds from Ireland, to the Ukraine, to Mexico and points further south have all been featured at Ewen’s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series. Wine is available for a donation, the crowd always comes to listen, and the show is free! It’s kind of like Barbes and the Jalopy combined, in a comfortable and friendly Manhattan space just steps from the train, across the street from Lincoln Center.
As far as Brooklyn is concerned, some of the newer Bushwick spots have promise. Alphaville and the Bushwick Public House are refreshingly laid-back and have better booking than their counterparts, although neither has much to recommend it sonically. Sunny’s in Red Hook is a New York landmark, a place that every New Yorker should go to at least once, but it’s really a bar, not a venue. Renovations at Roulette have resulted in fantastic sound, and booking there is as fearless as you can get, but once in awhile there’ll be a show there where prices are off-the-charts expensive. For a club to be Brooklyn’s best venue, it has to be affordable to everyone.
Which is why, for the third year in a row, the title of Best Brooklyn Venue is being handed out, more or less, as a lifetime achievement award. Along with its long-running counterparts Hank’s in 2010, Freddy’s in 2014 and Pete’s Candy Store last year, Bar Matchless in Williamsburg wins for 2016. The biker-themed club doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for admission or for drinks, the staff are pleasant and chill, the sound is better than what you would expect in a converted garage, and booking comprises a lot of the spillover from the louder, punk-oriented acts who were left homeless when Trash Bar and then Grand Victory closed. Yeah, there’s the occasional night of annoying indie purposelessness, or “comedy” – yuk – but there’s also metal and powerpop and even hip-hop on occasion. And they like theme nights where bands have something in common and the bar can rake in the benefits of keeping the crowd in the house. More venues should be like Bar Matchless.