Stroll through Brooklyn on a Saturday night and you’ll feel like the music is everywhere: explosions of cars, clubs, and apartment windows lit up with a party. But best of all are the sparkling snippets of live jazz, cumbia, hip-hop, bluegrass and afrobeat that erupt from the borough’s crowded bars. Manhattan may be famous for its expensive jazz clubs and places where music history was written, but for years many musicians from New York have flocked to Brooklyn, perhaps because they can still (barely) afford to live there.
Brooklyn’s live music bars are some of the cheapest places to catch a world-class performance, whether in the warm, syrupy glow of a beloved cocktail bar in Bed-Stuy, in a community dive in Red Hook which promotes local talent, or in the back room of a Bushwick bar. Here are seven, all very different, places to listen to live music in Brooklyn to sample diverse, energetic, and impromptu acts any night of the week.
In Bed-Stuy, where the music erupts through the turquoise door of this tiny ground-floor brownstone bar, you might spot passers-by stopping by the cheerful black sign outside Lunàtico. Founded by three musicians and still run by two, Richard Julian and Arthur Kell, it’s primarily a music venue, though it also serves up great cocktails and Middle Eastern dishes like kousa mahshi and mahalabia. Easy conversations begin at communal tables or in the room standing behind the gleaming white piano, chosen by the late jazz pianist Henry Butler, who played there. Today, LunÀtico presents music every night: Spanish singer-songwriter Lau Noah’s soulful guitar; the joyful West African melodies of Yacouba Sissoko; Clark Gayton’s exuberant horns; funk classics from former James Brown bassist Fred Thomas; plus visits from hard-hitting artists like Nick Hakim and Valerie June. A black hat box is handed out for tips ($10 donation is recommended), while the bartender shakes cocktails to the beat of music and strangers dance with each other in the cozy, amber intimacy of the narrow room.
Founded by two Frenchmen in the early 2000s, this small bar a few blocks from Prospect Park has a shabby European charm, with scuffed tables and a long wooden bar lit by red fairy lights. It’s a popular hangout in the neighborhood, where the crowd goes to the even smaller, scarlet-ceiled back room when the music starts. Barbès generally offers two shows per evening, with an eclectic program of world music: Balkan violins, Yiddish klezmer violins, Afrobeat, jazz, South American folk. La Manga, a raucous, all-female Colombian percussion collective, could get a packed house dancing on a Friday night; while Slavic Soul Party’s ecstatic brass can be heard “Every Tuesday Forever”, as the schedule promises. There’s no cover, just a recommended tip of $20 for the band, which is collected in a clear plastic pitcher near the end of the set.
A wide window of Williamsburg’s Skinny Dennis is painted with the image of a horseshoe and the words “Honky Tonk”. On the other side, under an American flag, bands like Demolition String Band, the National Reserve and CC and the Boys play honky tonk music, as well as country, roots, rock and roll, bluegrass and from americana, seven nights a week. The bar can go wild on Friday and Saturday nights, when 20-somethings and country music fans crowd in for a Willie’s Frozen Coffee (a coffee and bourbon slushie served in a blue Anthora coffee mug) and to dance under the stuffed boar head which can be seen showing its teeth from the wooden ceiling. The black “SKINNY” hand pad usually takes a few days to wear off after a night at Skinny Dennis – about the same time as the hangover you’ll take home.
Gold Sounds is a classic venue for Brooklyn’s indie music scene: a dive bar in Bushwick with a dark, decently sized back room for shows. The bands run the gamut, from alt-folk, punk and cumbia, to all-female garage rockers like The Darts, or the five-piece hip-hop group Quarter Water, which mixes taut lyrics with winning grooves. Come on a weeknight and you might be one of a dozen people listening to some seriously experimental stuff (think white noise and projections); on weekends it can get very crowded as the place descends into chaotic hedonism. Every Tuesday there is their comedy show Aggressively Chill, to be enjoyed with a beer and something off the plant-based menu (vegan hot dogs, fried chickens and sandos). And if it gets too much in the back room, there’s a red felt pool table in the bar and TVs playing movies (Spirited Away, Gray Gardens, Bad Boys) from the bar’s extensive DVD collection.