By Laura Meyer, www.LauraMeyer.net
Musical Notes is a regular column by Laura Meyer, a touring songwriter and guitarist. Each month, Laura clues us in on musical venues in towns and cities around the world.
Maybe it’s the near-extinct low skyline and old cast iron buildings or the casual, artsy atmosphere, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My preferred venues for seeing live music cluster just South of Houston and East of the Bowery (3rd Avenue), where art, music, and culture collide with certain grit you rarely find in other parts of the city. Don’t be intimidated by its former reputation--shortly after CBGBs moved out, Whole Foods moved in, and the neighborhood is quickly transforming beyond recognition. All the more reason to visit soon.
Here are some of my favorites:
Rockwood Music Hall, on Allen Street just below Houston, is an exception among the many bars and songwriter venues around lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village. Newly expanded with a second, larger venue next door (Stage 2), patrons have abundant options for hearing original music, which often begins mid-afternoon and continues into the early hours of the morning. The sound system is superior to any small venue in the city, and the no-talking policy makes Rockwood a wonderful room for hearing both emerging and established talent. Regardless of when you go you’re bound to hear something good. And if you’re concerned that the LES scene belongs to Generation Y, the boomers often out-number the twenty-somethings at Rockwood, where everyone is welcome as long as he looks twenty-one (and puts a tip in the performer’s bucket!).
Two blocks east on Ludlow Street is Living Room, another excellent venue for singer songwriters and bands. The main listening room, separated from the bar by heavy velvet curtains, features artists similar to those featured on Fordham University’s excellent local radio station, WFUV, and one of the local DJs frequently hosts a night of select performers. Living Room also streams live performances on XM radio channel The Loft on Sunday evenings. Like Rockwood, most shows are free entry with suggested donation. Upstairs is a smaller, informal space called Googie’s Lounge, for newer local and touring acts. Downstairs, one of the bouncers will gladly recite Goethe in German upon request.
Next door to Living Room is Pianos, which also has a main showroom on the ground floor and a smaller space upstairs. In addition to singer-songwriter and folk music Pianos caters to bands, indie rock, and DJs later in the night (or morning). Although the upstairs sound system needs replacing it is still one of my favorite places to meet friends for a drink and talk over live music (there isn’t a no-talking policy here, but it’s important to be aware of your volume, particularly during acoustic performances.) On the other side of Living Room is Cake Shop, a quirky venue with local flavor. Although nights are geared to a young alternative crowd, it doubles as a cafe during the daytime, when everyone is welcome to enjoy vegan and non-vegan food and drinks.
Larger venues in the area are Mercury Lounge (nearby on Houston Street) and Bowery Ballroom, my favorite venue for established bands (Delancey Street). Both venues are general admission, which means if you arrive early you have an excellent chance of being close to the band. Wear comfortable shoes, as these venues are standing room only, though if you’re lucky you can claim one of the few seats along the bar or mezzanine of Bowery Ballroom.
No music lover’s visit to New York is complete without a stroll through Greenwich Village and the area surrounding Washington Square Park. There are many bars, coffeehouses, and comedy clubs to lure you inside, and performances can be hit or miss. The Bitter End and Cafe Wha? stand apart as the remaining legendary clubs where Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and others got their start. The Bitter End hosts mainly folk and singer-songwriter acts, while the Cafe Wha? House Band entertains visitors Wednesday through Sunday nights, year-round.
Looking for something uptown? Check back--I'll be writing about New York City plenty in months to come.
Photos: Sean Lennon at Living Room; STS9 at Bowery Ballroom. Photos by Laura Meyer.