Walk through Brooklyn on a Saturday night, and it can feel like music is everywhere: blasting out of cars, clubs, and apartment windows lit up by a party. But best of all are the gleaming snippets of live jazz, cumbia, hip-hop, bluegrass, and Afrobeat that jump from the borough’s crowded bars. Manhattan may be famous for its pricey jazz clubs and the legacy spots where music history was made, but for years now, many of New York City’s musicians have been congregating in Brooklyn—perhaps because they can still (just barely) afford to live there.
Brooklyn’s live music bars are some of the most inexpensive places to listen to a world-class performance, whether it’s in the warm, syrupy glow of a well-loved cocktail spot in Bed-Stuy, in a community-minded dive in Red Hook that fosters local talent, or in the back room of a bar in Bushwick. Here are seven—all very different—spots for live music in Brooklyn to sample diverse, energetic, and impromptu acts any night of the week.
In Bed-Stuy, where music spills out through the turquoise door of this tiny bar on the ground floor of a brownstone, you might spot passersby pausing at the cheerful chalk-board sign outside LunÀtico. Founded by three musicians, and still run by two—Richard Julian and Arthur Kell—it’s first and foremost a music venue, albeit one that also serves superb cocktails and Middle Eastern plates like kousa mahshi and mahalabia. Easy conversations start up on communal tables or in the standing room behind the glossy white piano, chosen by the late jazz pianist Henry Butler, who used to play there. Today, LunÀtico presents music every night: Spanish singer-songwriter Lau Noah’s melancholy guitar; Yacouba Sissoko’s joyful West-African melodies; Clark Gayton’s exuberant brass; funk classics by former James Brown bassist Fred Thomas; as well as visits from heavy-hitting recording artists like Nick Hakim and Valerie June. A black hat box is passed around for tips (a $10 donation is recommended), as the bartender shakes cocktails to the beat of the music and strangers dance with one another in the cozy amber intimacy of the narrow room.
Founded by two Frenchmen in the early 2000s, this little bar just a few blocks away from Prospect Park has a shabby European charm about it, with its scuffed tables and long, wooden bar lit up by red fairy lights. It’s is a popular neighborhood hangout, where the crowd files into the even smaller, scarlet-ceilinged back room when the music starts. Barbès usually puts on two shows a night, with an eclectic line-up of global music: Balkan fiddles, Yiddish klezmer violins, Afrobeat, jazz, South American folk. La Manga, a raucous, all-female Colombian percussion collective, might have the packed room dancing on a Friday night; while the ecstatic brass strains of Slavic Soul Party can be heard “Every Tuesday Forever,” as the calendar promises. There’s no cover, just a recommended $20 tip for the band—which is collected in a clear plastic jug toward 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 of it, beneath an American flag, bands like Demolition String Band, the National Reserve, and C.C. and the Boys play honky tonk music—as well as country, roots, rock and roll, bluegrass, and Americana—seven nights a week. The bar can get wild on Friday and Saturday nights, when twenty-somethings and country-music lovers pile in for a Willie’s Frozen Coffee (a coffee and bourbon slushie served in a blue Anthora coffee cup) and to dance beneath the stuffed boar’s head that can be seen baring its teeth from the wooden ceiling. The black “SKINNY” hand stamp usually takes a couple of days to wear off after a night at Skinny Dennis—about the same amount of time as the hangover you’ll take home.
Gold Sounds is a classic venue on the Brooklyn indie music scene: a dive bar in Bushwick with a dark, decent-sized back room for shows. Bands run the gamut, from alt-folk, punk, and cumbia, to all-female garage rockers like The Darts, or the five-piece hip-hop band Quarter Water, who blend 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 busy, as the place descends into chaotic hedonism. Every Tuesday is their Aggressively Chill Comedy Show, best enjoyed with a beer and something off the plant-based menu (vegan hot dogs, fried chick’n sandos). And if it gets to be too much in the back room, there’s a red-felt pool table in the bar, and TVs playing movies (Spirited Away, Grey Gardens, Bad Boys) from the bar’s extensive DVD collection.