Honky Tonks and Hideaways: New York’s Post-Millennium Live Music Scene

During at least one of your New York nights, head to one of these uber-chill bars and check out an unknown band, all without spending too much cash. On October 16, 2006, the club CBGB’s in New York City closed its doors. Named after the music it showcased, this “country, blue grass and blues” venue which stood on the corner of Bowery and Bleecker Street had a reputation for headlining punk rock bands when it first opened such as the Misfits, the Ramones and the Patti Smith Band.


In later years hard core bands graced its stage, such as Murphy’s Law and Gorilla Biscuits. Despite these changes year-to-year, however, this club continued to bring together cult music lovers of all ages and from all backgrounds.

With once-abandoned lots all over Lower Manhattan being renovated into posh coops and surrounded by wine bars and organic markets, nowadays seeing some live music on the weekends in a popular downtown neighborhood can be an expensive endeavor involving lots of planning. Many places have gotten quite commercial and popular, with shows often selling out far in advance due to online ticketing.

Call me crotchety, cynical or just a little less fashionable than the rest of New York’s twenty-something residents, but I’d much prefer bypassing the crowds and popular hotspots and instead head to a good jazz club or dive bar for some live tunes. For the likeminded souls out there, check out my top five favorite venues, all with high volume and low attitude.

55Bar: (55 Christopher Street, b/w 6th and 7th Aves. in Manhattan)

For a rockin’ good time, head over to this Prohibition-era watering hole. Open since 1919, 55Bar features live music seven nights a week, often with one early and another late-night set. Regular performers include the electric guitarist Mike Stern and the jazz-blues fusion group the Brooklyn Bugaloo Blowout featuring Leah Segal, plus the chance to see current blues heavyweights like Matthew Skoller and Bill Sims, Jr. Cover: $10 for the night (get your money’s worth by staying for both sets) plus 2-drink minimum.

Rodeo Bar: (375 Third Ave b/w 27th and 28th Sts. in Manhattan)

Hands down the best honky-tonk in town, and serving the best margaritas, too. Dust off your old jeans and pull on a pair of cowboy boots (or pick some up at Zapateria Mexico in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which provides a dizzying array of authentic leather footwear in various colors, designs and sizes) and head here to take in country tunes ranging from the down and dirty to the slow and sweet. One of my favorite local groups, the Jug Addicts, a nine-piece band complete with a fiddle, washboard and harmonica, also play here on a regular basis and put on a can’t-miss show. Arrive early to get a table close to the stage and be sure to try some of their Tex-Mex fare. No cover.

Otto’s Shrunken Head: (538 East 14th St. b/w Aves. A & B in Manhattan)

An Alphabet City standby, this gritty dive with exotic flare serves up tropical drinks in a kitschy setting. Décor such as Tiki torches, totem poles and hula girl bobble heads line the walls of the bar and listening area in the back. Open since the summer of 2002, this well-run, organized joint with accommodating and attentive bar staff offers a variety of live shows, which include in addition to bands, burlesque, DJs, open mic and spoken word poetry. Getting booked here couldn’t be easier, either. With no hoops to jump through or network of managers to navigate, you can just email Otto’s if interested in playing, and if you want to receive notifications of upcoming shows, you can also join an event email mailing list. No cover.

Cornelia Street Café: (29 Cornelia St. b/w Bleecker and West 4th Sts. in Manhattan)

A Greenwich Village staple, this Café off of West 4th Street opened in July of 1977 by three artists and has been impressing audiences ever since. At street level, the Café operates as a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week plus an affordable brunch with generous portions on weekends. If your travels leave you hungry for some savory sounds instead of something on their inventive French-inspired menu, head downstairs to the intimate stage setting. With two sets a night every night, ere you can see some great up-and-coming jazz artists, classical musicians, Big Band-style vocalists, and readings by fiction writers and poets complete with informal question and answer sessions. Cover is $10 during the week and $15 on weekends, with a $7 drink minimum for early shows and $10 drink minimum for late shows.

Freddie’s Bar and Back Room: (627 Fifth Ave. b/w 17th and 18th Sts. in Brooklyn)

A landmark once located at 485 Dean Street in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, this location closed in 2010, but not for long. In February 2011, Freddy’s made a resurgence with a new location on the peripheral edge of Park Slope, also in Brooklyn. While I have not been to the new location, if it remains similar to the original in any way, then the shows here can be hit-or-miss. With that said, if you make it there on a “hit” night, you’ll be glad you did. Make it the first stop on a night of bar-hopping, or even the last, but be sure to check it out to see for yourself the spontaneous grab-bag of antics offered inside the back room. No cover.

September 6, 2011