In our new series, we look at eight cities where live music has exploded — from legendary hubs like Chicago and Nashville, to rising hot spots like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Portland, Maine. The latest? New Orleans, where Bourbon Street is only the beginning. Here’s a guide to secret spots, dive bars, and some of the wildest venues on the planet.
“The thing that I realized about this city over the last decade is that no matter what show you go to, it’s likely to be packed,” says Esther Rose, a rising country-folk revivalist who plays around New Orleans. Live music is thriving in the city beyond Bourbon Street, from the steadily growing number of clubs on Frenchmen Street to unlikely, one-of-a-kind venues like Music Box Village, where artists including Norah Jones and bounce legend Big Freedia have played among a backyard full of ramshackle sonic art projects. Any given night in NOLA you can catch traditional jazz, zydeco, swamp pop, funk, rap, and bounce — sometimes on the same bill. The rich gumbo of genres has birthed hard-to-define stars like Tank and the Bangas, who were nominated for a 2020 Best New Artist Grammy.
Tarriona “Tank” Ball, a one-time slam poet, formed the fusion act one open-mic night in 2011; you can often find her at a different one, on Wednesday nights, at the New Orleans Jazz Market — this time in the audience. “When I go around the world performing, I’m feeding people,” says Ball. “When I come back to New Orleans, I go out to listen, to get fed,” she says. Here’s where to do just that.
Find it on Frenchmen
Some call Frenchmen Street “Baby Bourbon,” a handful of blocks in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood that host a concentration of some of the best live-music venues in the city. “Years ago, it was very local and very seedy — you’d park your car and almost run to one of the, like, three spots,” says bassist Robert Mercurio of the funk-and-jazz jam band Galactic. Now, both locals and tourists bop between around 15 different spots. The Blue Nile hosts everything from funk to free jazz: “It’s at the center of the street, welcomes anyone, and always seems to have a good show,” says Ball. On the next block you’ll find d.b.a., the street’s premier venue, and a swank offshoot of the New York club, which highlights trad jazz, R&B, and beyond. “The wood floor is great for dancing,” says Rose. At the always-crowded Spotted Cat a few doors down, you’ll hear upbeat Dixieland swing. If it happens to be Tuesday night, check in on the city’s thriving roots and Americana scene at the All Star Covered Dish Country Jamboree at the Dragon’s Den, a long-running weekly where you’ll find partner dancing, bolo ties, and, possibly, some suspect homemade coleslaw — along with local and touring bands bringing new life to time-warped sounds.
Where the Locals Go
While you’ll hear every incarnation of traditional jazz and blues on Frenchmen, things get a bit fringier on Saint Claude in the New Marigny, where a growing number of clubs have coalesced. “Saint Claude reminds me of what Frenchmen was 20 years ago,” says Mercurio. At the aptly-named AllWays Lounge and Theatre, drag and burlesque shows are frequent fare; also check out the wildly diverse listings of the nearby Hi Ho Lounge and St. Roch Tavern.
“There’s a lot of secret little spots now,” says Ball. Her favorite: Couches, a gathering that features musicians like Iman Omari (a Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller collaborator) or jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who plays with a DJ. And yes: there are a bunch of couches to watch from. “It’s dope,” says Ball. The moving event has been hosted in galleries, churches, and homes, and occurs bimonthly.
On a Larger Scale
Among its long list of festivals, New Orleans hosts three giants. There’s the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 23rd-28th, May 2nd-3rd) with Lizzo, the Who, Foo Fighters, Stevie Nicks, and Dead & Company headlining. From July 3rd-5th, the Essence Festival brings big names to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; in 2019, Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige played. And over Halloween weekend (October 30th-November 1st), the rock-focused Voodoo Music + Arts Experience takes over City Park (last year, Guns N’ Roses, Post Malone, and Beck headlined).
A Classic, Revived
Tipitinas is a legendary New Orleans club, named after a song by blues piano legend Professor Longhair, and opened by a group of hard-partying fans in 1977, chiefly for him to play there. (He did so through his death in 1980.) After a later owner struggled to keep the 800-capacity juke joint afloat, the five members of Galactic — who play there frequently — bought the club in December 2018; they promptly gave it PA and lighting upgrades. “The biggest hurdle was convincing banks to loan to a band,” says Mercurio, with a laugh. “We don’t want to change it, but it just needed some love. It’s an institution.”
The Most Untraditional of Venues
Existing somewhere between a musical playground, a living sculpture garden, and a performance space, Music Box Village is an experiment in “musical architecture” located in a wooded acre in the Upper 9th. Tank and the Bangas, Wilco, and Animal Collective have all played; Orville Peck will do so this May. “It’s incredibly magical,” says Ball. “It’s like chilling in somebody’s backyard, and you can play with these musical instruments, some of them made with materials from houses destroyed in the storm [Hurricane Katrina]. It’s hard to talk about because it’s so unbelievable.”
A Classic NOLA Night
On Tuesday nights, the famed Rebirth Brass Band — which gained new admirers by appearing in Beyoncé’s concert film, Homecoming — plays their residency uptown at the Maple Leaf, “one of the best dive bars around,” says Mercurio. “It’s been around forever, gets shot for movies, has all the charm.” (The tin-ceilinged venue famously hosted one of New Orleans’ first post-Katrina concerts; power hadn’t been restored to the neighborhood.) Make a night of it by dining beforehand at Jacques-Imo’s Cafe, a funky Creole joint two doors down. Says the bassist, “It’s just quintessential New Orleans.”