With countless shows to choose from on any given night, it’s easy to forget that Brooklyn—all of New York, really—is surrounded on all sides by smaller towns and cities with world-class music venues of their own. From DIY basement shows in Connecticut to the quaint seated theaters of Long Island to the seasoned rock clubs on the Jersey Shore, the tri-state area contains a number of diverse, rapidly expanding music communities that extend far beyond the borders of the five boroughs.
Sick of seeing shows at Terminal 5? Often times, a year or so after a national act has toured behind a new album, artists will book shows in secondary markets like Westchester or New Haven counties in far more intimate settings. A singer-songwriter that headlines the Kings Theatre might play much smaller theaters like the historic Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY or the Space in Westbury in Long Island. A band that sold out Terminal 5 the previous year might then play the brand-new College Street Music Hall in New Haven, a brand-new mixed-use venue that holds half as many people.
“When a band plays New York, all eyes are on them in every way,” says Mark Nussbaum, owner of Manic Productions, an independent CT-based music promoter that books a good portion of the biggest rock shows in the New Haven area. “In Connecticut, there’s less pressure. It’s a little easier for them to try out some new things. It’s a little more free.”
With more and more recent college graduates and young professionals moving to small towns like Asbury Park and New Paltz, the live music business in the tri-state area is as strong as it’s ever been, with new venues opening in the suburbs each year. It’s never been easier to hop on a train or bus and see your favorite band play in a smaller, more relaxed environment an hour outside the city.
Below are seven of Brooklyn Magazine’s favorite tri-state area music venues.
Cafe 9, New Haven, CT
This dive bar in downtown New Haven is a hidden gem in a city with one of the tri-state area’s quickest growing music scenes. “New Haven is getting more on the map, more bands are playing here these days.” says Nussbaum. Nussbaum describes Cafe 9, one of his favorite venues, as a “dark, divey punk bar that sounds good and has great sightlines.” The 130-capacity bar hosts live music seven nights a week, with an impressive range of music, hosting shows by indie-pop veterans Mates of State, country troubadour Kinky Friedman, punk upstarts Boytoy and rockabilly legends Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite boys all in the course of one recent month. The current owner, Paul Mayer, is a musician himself who likes to book up and coming roots-leaning acts in one of the most down-to-earth, communal music venues in the tri-state area. Asked what some of his favorite moments from Cafe 9, which first opened in 1972 under a different name, Mayer says “As you can imagine, there are many.”
The Saint, Asbury Park, NJ
Since it opened in 1994, the Saint has become the most important rock club mainstay on the Jersey Shore, playing host to hundreds of national touring acts on the brink of mainstream success like Jewel, Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Ritter, and Kings of Leon. “It’s the CBGB of the shore,” says Nicole Atkins, the nationally renowned singer-songwriter who grew up on the Jersey Shore playing open mics and opening for acts at the Saint as a teenager. Longtime owner Scott Stamper says that everything starts with keeping the artists happy, which for him means providing the best sound possible. “We have bands that travel all over the country say all the time that the Saint has the best sound they’ve ever heard,” says Stamper. Stamper books an admirably diverse range of artists, from veteran 70s rockers like Graham Parker and Glenn Tilbrook to younger singer-songwriters like Jessica Lea Mayfield and Dawn Landes. “The cool thing about Asbury Park is that there’s a lot of young people that are similarly minded to the type of people who lived in Williamsburg in the early 2000s,” says Atkins. “Asbury Park used to be just a bunch of Bruce Springsteen wannabe bands. Now you can see any kind of music you like pretty much every night of the week.”
Tarrytown Music Hall, Tarrytown, NY
When Björn Olsson took over the Tarrytown Music Hall ten years ago, southern Westchester didn’t have much to offer when it came to live music. “For a while, we were the only ones here,” says Olsson, who serves as the Executive Director of the historic 840-seat theater. “If I’ve seen any major change in the ten years I’ve been here it’s that there’s now much more of a scene in Westchester than there used to be. Everything used to be in direct relation to Manhattan; now we have our own thing going.” Between the Capitol Theater in Portchester, the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, and Purpl in Hastings on Hudson, Southern Westchester is now teeming with music venues. Olsson says that business at his venue, which, due to its easy accessibility to Metro North, draws about 10 percent of its audience from the city, “has really taken off in the last few years.” Regulars at the Music Hall includes acts ranging from David Bromberg, Judy Collins and Darlene Love to younger WFUV-approved acts like Drive-By-Truckers and Ingrid Michaelson. While tickets aren’t cheap, it’s almost always worth it to catch big-theater acts like John Prine and Randy Newman play to an audience three times smaller in Tarrytown, where there isn’t a single bad seat in the house.
The Space, Hamden, CT
Musician Steve Rodgers first opened up the Space, in suburban Hamden, CT, in 2003. A dozen years later, the all-ages, dry venue has become a vital part of Connecticut’s indie community. Once your favorite buzz band outgrows Silent Barn and Shea Stadium, keep an eye out for a tour date at the Space, which holds 150 people standing room capacity for shows by acts from the contemporary indie vanguard like Waxahatchee, Speedy Ortiz, and Torres. “A lot of times, we’ll see our sales peak in New Haven after a show sells out in New York. The New York show is always the first to go,” says Nussbaum, who regularly books shows at the Space. With low ceilings, carpeted floors, and a snack bar that sells Push-Pops, the Space feels like your favorite scrappy DIY basement venue, only they happen to regularly book some of the best young bands in the country. “We are a listening room venue located in an unlikely industrial park in a sleepy suburb of New Haven, Connecticut,” says the venue’s website. “So we definitely have that whole mystery thing going for us.” This venue is a bit harder to get to, especially via public transit, but it’s well worth the trip.
Live @ Drew’s, Ringwood, NJ
House shows are becoming an increasingly popular form of touring for independent acts trying to steer clear of corporate behemoths like Ticketmaster and Live Nation, but there are few consistently operated house show venues more prominent, or successful, than Live @ Drew’s. Located in suburban North Jersey, Drew Eckmann has been hosting shows in his living room for close to twenty years. Before shows, which typically cost around $20-30, guests share a potluck-style dinner, and often spend the night after the set mingling with the evening’s entertainment. “There’s truly a sense of community,” says Eckmann. “Many members of the audience have become friends over the years.” With artists like Alejandro Escovedo, Craig Finn, and Graham Parker returning for multiple shows, the Live @ Drew’s email list, the only real way to learn about shows at this under-the-radar venue, is a must-join.
The Turning Point, Piermont, NY
The Turning Point is one of the Hudson Valley’s best-kept secrets. The tiny, basement club seats approximately 60 people, serving as one of the most intimate singer-songwriter listening rooms in all of New York. Country/folk legends like Kris Kristofferson, Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, and Richie Havens have all played the club, which is named after an album by British bluesman John Mayall. “When people get older, eventually they just want sit down and watch the goddamn show,” says Olsson. There’s no better place to sit down, have dinner and hang on every word of your favorite folkie than the Turning Point.
Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT
This legendary club has been serving as New Haven’s preeminent rock club for 40 years. Everyone from Billy Joel and U2 to Little Richard and Muddy Waters has played Toad’s, which has always been a popular stop for bands in between tour dates in New York and Boston. Toad’s mainstream rock bookings have thinned out a bit as of late, but the 750-person capacity club still books consistently quality acts in an impressively wide range of styles, and is currently booking some of the best hip-hop shows in Connecticut. “You bring in the best artist you can,” Brian Phelps, current owner of Toad’s, has said of his philosophy to running his fully independent club, “And you do the best you can with them.” If your favorite band ever plays a show at Toad’s, don’t miss it.