For the uninitiated, simply seeing one’s favorite bands or musicians in the live setting might be enough, but around these parts – where our average reader sees upwards of 50 shows per year – we’re pretty picky about our venues. Our staff and our readers like to see our favorite acts, but we like to see them in an ideal setting, with the perfect acoustics, unobstructed views and ample room – all while washing down some frosty craft brews. Over the next year we aim to detail the best venues in San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and New York City. We’ve started at home here in NYC.
In order to tackle this highly subjective topic, we asked our NYC-area staff members and a few local residents who see upwards of 100 shows a year to rank every venue we could think up – over 60 in total – from 1 to 20. Once we got the scores in from everybody, we utilized a highly complex algorithm called “averaging,” whereby we churned out our aggregated list of Hidden Track’s Best New York City Music Venues, fifteen to be exact.
1) Brooklyn Bowl - 61 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg, NY 11211
History - Make no mistake, while it seems pretty New Yorky of us to pick the new kid on the block as the top venue, it’s not the novelty of newness that makes Brooklyn Bowl our favorite. True, the venue did just open July 7th, 2009, but the “for us, by us” nature of the venue – which comes from the same bloodlines as former NYC jam mecca, the Wetlands Preserve – assures that this place will hold court for many of the great NYC concerts for years to come. READ ON for more on our top NYC venues…
Comfort - The comfort factor scores high for Brooklyn Bowl as they offer some of the city’s best comfort food (fried chicken, BBQ meat sandwiches and French bread pizzas) courtesy of Blue Ribbon Brasserie. Plus, the Bowl specializes in Brooklyn Beers, so they always have plenty of good suds on tap. The floor is nice and big and the bowling alleys have both a view of the stage and TV screens to follow the action, although both get pretty crowded on busy nights. Also, bands love the easy load-in/load-out at the convenient, yet off the beaten path location. Finally, the entryway out front provides a nice oasis for some…uh…fresh air.
Sounds & Sightlines – For a pretty big room with complex acoustics courtesy of the bowling alley, there’s really not a bad spot. Also, the stage is built relatively high from the ground, so it’s easy to see from anywhere on the floor.
Vibe - Any place cool enough to get ?uestlove from the Roots to come spin his favorite records in his spare time after the show scores high in our book. Plus, Brooklyn Bowl – via the Bowery Presents folks – does a great job booking a diverse mix of upcoming jam and indie bands, longer-term residencies by the city’s musical stalwarts and bigger national draws.
2) Bowery Ballroom – 6 Delancey St, New York, NY 10002
History - While the Bowery Ballroom seems like a historic institution of the New York City music scene – especially now that Bowery Presents has established itself as one of the best booking organizations for venues in the northeast - the old retail space was only converted into a venue in 1997. Since then, it’s gone on to become the premier “big jump” venue for indie musicians who have gained enough popularity to move beyond the pubs. The Bowery Ballroom appeared in the should have been great 2008 film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Comfort - With the open ballroom floor and capacity for 550, you can seemingly always find a pocket of space and the balconies are generally open to general admission unlike many NYC venues which are only open to VIPs. They always have an easy in/easy out policy for smokers or anyone who needs some air. Finally, the bar and bathrooms downstairs makes for easy pit-stops and they pump the music down there, so you don’t feel like you miss too much.
Sounds & Sightlines – The room is big enough to fit a good crowd, but it feels small and intimate. It’s hard to complain about the views anywhere in the room.
Vibe - The vibe changes with the performers, but generally speaking, the Bowery brings out a knowledgeable fanbase of music fans on the cutting edge of what’s new and good. It can get a little hipster, but let’s face it, hipsters are underrated.
3) Carnegie Hall – 881 7th Avenue, New York, NY 10106
History - Built by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, Carnegie Hall remains today one of the, if not “the,” most famous music venues in the world. The venue contains three separate performance spaces with the Main Hall (otherwise known as Isaac Stern Auditorium) often considered the most prestigious performance space in the world. The Main Hall contains magnificent high ceilings, ornate golden stage decor and perfect acoustics. Speaking of acoustics, renovations in 1986 led many to complain that the acoustics had been jeopardized and they were right, a slab on concrete under the stage allegedly did negatively affect the sound until it was removed in 1995.
Comfort - As a home primarily for classical performances, seats are assigned and plenty comfortable.
Sounds & Sightlines – It’s not the most prestigious performance space in the world for nothing. The sound is unmatched and you feel like you’re on PBS just sitting in the room. Everybody should go to Carnegie Hall at least once in their lives. It’s an experience to go to Carnegie Hall regardless, but the nosebleeds are definitely pretty high up there.
Vibe - The vibe is mature, but not nearly as stuffy as you might imagine. People chat and laugh quietly during performances, and popular music has been becoming an increasingly important part of the programming in recent years, as it was back in the 1960s.
4) Radio City Music Hall – 1260 Avenue of the Americas, NY, NY 10020
History: Radio City Music Hall is one of New York’s – and the world’s – most famed concert halls. Every December, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular brings in more than a million people to the seats, but the rest of the year attracts the world’s biggest and brightest stars to the stage.
Comfort: Though midtown-Manhattan may not be the happiest place on Earth for New Yorkers, Radio City could stand nowhere else. Aside from perhaps Carnegie Hall, it is the most regal of the music venues in New York. The seats are comfortable and clean and the ushers are white-gloved and stand with good posture. There are plenty of bathrooms and a decent amount of bars.
Sounds & Sightlines: Though you might feel a little bit far away (any detail on the performer’s faces, at this point, is long gone), even the last row in the third balcony has excellent sound. Most other places in the theater can boast the same, unless you happen to be under an awning, in which case the sound does get a little bit muffled and muted.
Vibe: It may feel a little strange seeing a rock concert there, but even the most smug of hipsters at a MGMT show and dirtiest of hippies for Widespread Panic will usually stand in awe upon first entering the room. Booze is expensive, but what else would you expect? You live in the fashion of your surroundings.
History - Sports and entertainment super-conglomerate AEG spent $21 million to refurbish the historic Astor Plaza theater in 2005. Designed by famed architect David Rockwell, the NOKIA Theatre Times Square opened in September of 2005 with a Bon Jovi concert and has since held a wide-variety of events including concerts, award ceremonies, live television & web broadcasts as well as parties. The venue boasts an 85-foot high-def marquee capable of broadcasting events live from the stage. On September 14 the room will change names to become the Best Buy Theater marking the first time the electronics retailer has secured the naming rights for a venue.
Comfort - This 2,100 person capacity venue offers the best of both worlds – ample dance floors for those who want to stand and plenty of movie theater-style seating for those who want to sit. The NOKIA features plenty of bars, bathrooms, coat checks and even has a stand that sells sandwiches, coffee, non-alcoholic drinks and snacks.
Sounds & Sightlines – There’s nary a bad seat in the house. If you sit in the last row of the venue you can still see and hear the band perfectly, thanks to not only the layout but the stellar sound system. New high-definition screens will be installed in the coming weeks as part of the name change.
Vibe - The words “sterile” and “corporate” get thrown around a lot in regards to the NOKIA both of which are fair complaints – the branding is a bit in your face. Yet when a band is killing on stage, the vibe matches the performance.
6) The Bell House – 149 7th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215
History – Opened in 2008 by the owners of Union Hall in an old 1920’s warehouse space, the Bell House was a much needed Park Slope-area “big” venue. The front bar has a 150 capacity and the main room holds 350.
Comfort – It’s just blocks from the F, N, R, and G trains, a safe walking distance from most of Park Slope, and a cheap cab/car service trip from nearby neighborhoods. Plus, it’s located in Gowanus, so there’s always easy parking. Union Hall is in the same area as Southpaw, Barbes, Union Hall, etc., so it’s possible to hit multiple shows in one night.
Sounds & Sightlines – With 25-foot ceilings, the main room has a huge, airy feel with no obstructed sightlines. The bar is on a large, raised platform allowing even better views of the stage. The sound system is the only real downfall. It sounds great right in front of the stage, but is a little unfocused and muffled on the sides and in the back. The sound issues are a shame because UH is the kind of room that has different and great pockets of energy and inspires wandering. If only they would add a few more speaker stacks to fill out the sound (and a wood floor), the place would be PERFECT.
Vibe – Despite being in warehouse Brooklyn, the vibe is fun and cool without being too hipster. It’s not Williamsburg and it’s relaxing to be away from the hustle of Manhattan. To call it an oasis would be cliché – but that’s just what it is. The bars are well stocked with reasonably priced local and craft beers and they’ve got huge self-serve pitchers of water on the bars. Highlights from the past year have been the Marco Benevento Trio, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and the Low Anthem.
7) Beacon Theatre – 2124 Broadway, New York NY 10024
History - Opened as Warner’s Beacon Theatre in 1929, this 2,894-seat venue focused on showing first-run movies up until the ’70s. Originally designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, the Beacon was restored in late 2008/early 2009 by current owners MSG Entertainment which cleaned up the exquisite details including corridor murals, the bronze-doored vestibule, elaborate gilded plaster moldings, polished hardwood and brass staircase rails.
Comfort - Located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Beacon is steps away from the 1, 2 and 3 lines only one express stop away from Times Square. The venue was a bit dirty and run down before MSGE’s renovation, but now it sparkles. Even the once-uncomfortable seats have been replaced as part of the seven-month, $16 million renovation. Our only complaint comfort wise is that there aren’t enough bathrooms.
Sounds & Sightlines – The sound at the venue was always pretty good, but the addition of extra speakers and a new sound system as part of the renovation improved the audio dramatically. We’d still avoid the seats at the back of the orchestra, under the over-hang, as the sound tends to get muffled. While the closer you are to the stage the better, the sightlines are good from every seat in the house.
Vibe - Bands generally love playing the Beacon and often feed off the energy from the crowd. For most concerts those in the balcony and loge sit, while those in the orchestra stand. Quite often, the ushers – egged on by uptight audience members – will make you sit if you try to stand in the top two levels.
8) Music Hall of Williamsburg – 66 North 6th St Brooklyn, NY 11211
History: MHoW stands on the site of the previous Northsix music venue. The building was bought by the Bowery Presents, completely renovated and reopened September 5th, 2007 with a show that included David Dondero, Matt & Kim, and Against Me! In the early days of the venue the Bowery Presents would often ask bands to play one show at the Bowery Ballroom and a second at MHOW to build attendance. Now, however, bands often play secret shows here after their larger gigs at Webster Hall and Terminal 5 have sold out. Top artists who have played the venue include Patti Smith, Classic TAB featuring Trey Anastasio, Phoenix, The Dead Weather, Of Montreal and LCD Soundsystem. In November 2009, John Mayer played a secret MySpace show at the MHOW, as a precursor to his live broadcast the following night at the Beacon Theatre.
Comfort: MHoW uses an industrial palette of concrete floors and metal fixtures with detailing reminiscent of the neighborhood. Soft leather couches abound in the lounges and drink prices, while high, are normal for the area. There is no food service at the venue, but there are plenty of restaurants within walking distance that remain open after the venue lets out.
Sounds & Sightlines: MHoW can hold up to 550 patrons on three levels, which include a lower lounge, ground floor performance space with raised areas for standing and a balcony on three sides. The balcony area also has its own smaller lounge located in the front of the venue, along with stadium seating and small tables and chairs arranged along the railing. Shows are occasionally oversold here, but the multiple viewing platforms somewhat allay the need to push to the front. Grab a rail and you should be in good shape. The sound has been enhanced with a curved metal ceiling and the balcony walls are rounded to reduce echoing. Generally, the sound is considered to be acceptable, with few dead spots or hard reflections.
Vibe: Only one stop from Manhattan on the L-Train and blocks away from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, MHoW rests in a prime location adjacent to the refurbished Public Assembly. It is often referred to as the younger brother of the Bowery Ballroom due to a similar layout, and along with the new Brooklyn Bowl and the relocated Knitting Factory, these venues have rejuvenated the music district in the heart of Williamsburg.
9) Rockwood Music Hall - 196 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002
History: Since opening its doors in early 2006, the Rockwood Music Hall has become one of New York’s favorite spots to see music from talented unknowns or up-and-coming musicians.
Comfort: Located on Allen Street between Houston and Stanton, it’s only half a block from the subway (F train to 2nd Avenue, use the 1st Avenue/Allen Street exit). The original stage is in a small space—very small, and unless you get there early you’re almost sure to find nothing but standing room (and possibly get a bit claustrophobic at times). But, with the addition of a second stage and bigger room just next door, the Music Hall has not only found a way to attract more people and allow their customers to be a bit more comfortable, but also to bring in bigger and better talent.
Sound & Sightlines: The original room’s small size, though certainly a deterrent for many, is also what is so great about it. Amplification is barely necessary, and only in its smallest form: the strum of an acoustic is crisp from the furthest spot in the room, which at no time is more than 30 feet away from the performers…if that. The venue’s owners have tried for the same in the new room as well. The space is only slightly larger so as not to lose intimacy but has a small balcony so the added population still has a great view.
Vibe: The brick walls and burning candles that comprise the first-stage room makes you feel more at home than you feel when you’re actually at home – at least that’s true compared to most New York apartments. The high ceilings and balcony next door eliminate the danger of claustrophobia, without eliminating the hominess. As for booze, it is decently priced for the area ($5-7 for a beer on the Lower East Side is somehow considered a “good deal”), but you get what you pay for in quality with their carefully selected beer and wine list.
10) Madison Square Garden – 4 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10001
History - Now in its fourth location and incarnation Madison Square Garden has a long and storied history in The Big Apple that dates all the way back to 1897, which has helped to earn it the moniker of The World’s Most Famous Arena. MSG IV, which is the home to the Knicks, Rangers, Liberty and St. John’s basketball, officially opened its doors in February of 1968 and has hosted everything from a papal visit to political conventions to the first Wrestlemania, as well as countless championship boxing matches, the Big East Tournament and more. The Garden has also hosted its share of memorable concerts over the years from Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin to Phish, it was also the Grateful Dead’s home away from home with the band playing 54 shows at the Mecca, only to be outdone in recent years by Elton John with 60.
Comfort - Located directly above Penn Station seeing a show at The Garden is a commuter’s dream come true with easy and direct access to the LIRR, New Jersey Transit and west side subway lines. You get everything that goes hand in hand with a large sports arena: plenty of concessions (that in recent years have offered an expanded selection of craft beers, that come with complete with a pretzel rod) ample bathrooms and the ability to roam freely around circular the arena on certain levels making it easy to find friends. The Garden will also get some much needed upgrades to modernize the arena, which will begin to roll out in time for the 2011-2012 seasons.
Sounds & Sightlines – For the biggest venue on this list, it’s you and 20,000 of your closest friends, there is an odd intimacy at MSG – even if your sitting in the infamous blue seats in the 400 level. This is the major leagues so expect top notch sound, large video screens that flank both sides of the stage – mostly for the nostalgia acts – and a large stage that allows acts to step up the theatrics.
Vibe - There is just something about The Garden that brings out the best in bands who usually tend to bring their A game, and on particularly rocking nights you can literally feel the entire room move due to the fact it’s located several floors above street level.
11) Jazz Standard – 116 East 27th Street, New York, NY 10016
History - The Jazz Standard was founded in 1997 by James Polsky and later renovated and reopened by famed restaurateur Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group in 2002. Since the renovation, the Jazz Standard went on to win “Best Jazz Venue” from All About Jazz for seven years running and New York Magazine’s “Best Jazz Club” in 2008.
Comfort - The remodeled Jazz Standard may not feel as boisterous as its downtown peers, but jazzbos with a penchant for good food, a comfortable atmosphere and an air of sophistication will be happy to call the Standard home. Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke provides some of the city’s best barbecue, so fans can enjoy delicious meats and rubs in their most natural environs, surrounded by soulful jazz.
Sounds & Sightlines – More sophisticated and comfortable than the historic Village Vanguard or the Blue Note, the Jazz Standard gives patrons plenty of space in close proximity to the musicians and with pitch-perfect sound for a classic, yet upscale jazz experience.
Vibe - With arguably the best jazz bookings in the city, no catchpenny drink minimums and discounts for students, the Jazz Standard sets the bar for how a jazz club should be run. Ticket prices can be steep, but without the aggressive drink policies, you come out on top.
12) Highline Ballroom – 431 W 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
History - This Chelsea club on the Far West Side of Manhattan opened its doors in April of 2007 right near its namesake – the High Line Park. With a capacity of 700 concert goers on two levels, this open, industrial venue is in the same league as the Bowery Ballroom, Irving Plaza and Brooklyn Bowl on the smaller side of mid-size rooms.
Comfort - While a little out of the way, the location is only a few blocks away from all of the 14th Street trains. The close proximity to the L train makes it possible to hit shows at Brooklyn Bowl or MHOW fairly quickly and is faster than in a cab. Also, the taco trucks on 14th between 7th and 8th make for a nice snack on the way home.
Sounds & Sightlines – What separates the Highline from these other venues is a state-of-the-art lighting setup, superior sound (sorry, Brooklyn Bowl), a layout that allows easy movement around the room and unobstructed sightlines (sorry Irving Plaza). Overall, though, the Highline is a well-designed, modern venue that feels very open and makes bands sound phenomenal.
Vibe - The vibe can be a little upscale. The drinks are a tad pricey and their beer list can’t touch a place like Bell House in the craft beer department. Also, while they got off to a blazing start in the early years, the bookings seem to be lacking a bit as of late, but a great venue like this is never overlooked for long.
13) Mercury Lounge – 217 E Houston Street, New York, NY 10002
History - Opened in 1993 and located on the cusp of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Mercury Lounge stands on the site that once housed the servants of the Astor Mansion, and was home to a store the sold tombstones for nearly 70 years before being turned in a music venue.
Comfort - The venue typically books three to four acts on any given night, but with two distinct two spaces – bar area in the front and the performance area in the back separated by a set of sound proof doors – you can easily grab a drink and chat with your friends at the bar while you wait for the band you came to see to hit the stage. Sold out shows sometimes feel a little tight, but the intimacy of the room quickly makes up for that as bands seem instantly more accessible because of the size.
Sounds & Sightlines – The 250-person performance space blurs the lines between audience and performers as bands have to walk to through the crowd just to get to the stage, which is barely a few feet off the floor. The sound has always been impeccable, which is impressive considering the amount of bands that play on any given night.
Vibe - There is no pretense in this room, as buzz-worthy bands aim to impress in order to move up the ladder to the bigger Bowery spaces. Depending on the show, you could encounter a room full of stoic cross-armed hipsters who bob their heads to the music or on the opposite end of the spectrum jam kids who want to dance the night away.
14) Central Park Summerstage – 69th and 5th Ave., NY, NY 10019
[Photo by Laura Hanifan]
History - The Summerstage at Rumsey Playfield opened its gates in 1986 and has been offering free and pay performances in the beautiful surroundings ever since. Some of the most famous guests to date include David Bowie, Joni Mitchell (as part of a tribute to Joni Mitchell), Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. There’s been plenty of stars on the rise as well over the years, such as the National, Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Comfort - While the shows have been getting increasingly more popular, more crowded and tougher to procure tickets, the Central Park surroundings more than make up for any of the minor inconveniences. Most shows take place during the daylight hours, which is a nice treat and keeps the crowds pretty well-behaved.
Sounds & Sightlines – Besides a heavy dose of corporate sponsorships (Hey, it’s free. What do you expect?) and a temporary stage setup, the views and sound are quite good.
Vibe - The vibe at Summerstage is of the city’s most diverse. You get a healthy balance of fans of the particular musicians mixed with families and a lot of friends and casual music fans just out to take in something new to them. The crowds are not the most raucous, but it usually makes for a nice place to meet some new people.
15) Prospect Park Bandshell - Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY 11215
History - The three-story monster bandshell at Prospect Park came into existence all the way back in 1939. The “clam” has seen a few face-lifts and some money troubles over the years, most notably in the seventies, but it’s back to full strength playing host to some of the summer’s best shows over the past few years like David Byrne, TV on the Radio and Isaac Hayes.
Comfort - The bandshell generally offers about 2,000 temporary chairs and space for 5,000 more in the lawn. The surroundings are rife with trees, so shade and cozy nooks are abundant on the lawn. The only complaint most folks have is that depending on where you’re coming from, commuting out after work can be tricky.
Sounds & Sightlines – The giant permanent bandshell gets adorned for shows with a monstrous sound system and light rig, which dwarfs the more well-known Summerstage’s setup.
Vibe - Similar to Summerstage, the “Celebrate Brooklyn!” Performing Arts Festival hosts mostly free shows with a meager three dollar recommended donation. The Brooklyn location usually ensures a good mix of hard partying kids, diverse nationalities, and young families.
Honorable Mention: Sullivan Hall, Le Poisson Rouge, City Winery
Ryan Dembinsky, Scott Bernstein, Jeffrey Greenblatt, JR Hevron, Jonathan Kosakow, and Jeremy Gordon contributed to this article. Those staff members as well as Aaron Stein, Chad Berndtson, Luke Sacks, Dan Schneier and Dan Alford all participated in the ranking process. Stay tuned as more cities are on the way.