Our Guide to Local Live Music
Photographed by Denny Culbert
"Eclectic” really doesn’t even begin to describe the plethora of clubs, bars, theaters and performance spaces that comprise the New Orleans live music scene. Over the decade since Katrina we have seen the revival of the theater district, as well as the proliferation of countless independent arts and performance spaces. The Frenchmen Street scene has swelled to bursting as a result of its prominence in national media. St. Claude through the top of the Bywater has become a fully realized arts district, with a number of new spaces joining venerable older haunts.
In the past, the New Orleans music scene has had a history of being a bit insular, and our performance spaces reflected that inward gaze. Even just five years ago we didn’t have very many medium-size theatrical spaces. We were trapped between the intimate local show and large national touring company with very little left for the acts that find themselves between those spaces. Over the last few years, we have seen a reversal of that fortune with several exciting spaces opening to fill these gaps. While the city has always boasted a large number of clubs and theaters generally regarded as legendary around the world, the scene today is a complete ecosystem of varied spaces that support not just local acts, but also national headliners, rising independent artists, local experimenters and wandering troubadours.
This scene isn’t just about the music either. A bevy of pop-up restaurants, boutiques and gourmet food trucks have emerged alongside the music. The music itself is no longer just about the performance, but about the experience of the event and the curated nature of the environment. Different spaces emerge and evolve along with the particular needs of performers and audiences alike.
This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. I have chosen to highlight some of my favorite places to see music along with a generous mix of legendary old guard spaces and exciting newcomers. Frankly, the best way to get to know the scene is to get out and find the place that feels best for you. The wonderful thing about the New Orleans music scene, as it stands now, is that there truly is something for everyone; hopefully this guide will help you find your groove.
Generationals, new wave duo from New Orleans >>
One Eyed Jacks
After the Shim Sham packed up shop in 2003, it was only a matter of time before One Eyed Jacks grabbed the marvelous round bar from the Matador and moved in. Ever since, Jacks has been one of the foremost clubs for live music in New Orleans. Like its predecessor, Jacks has always been a center of the burlesque revival, with regular performances from some of the most talented performers on the scene. There is a sexy seediness to Jacks that just works. A long and relatively narrow space, the crowd seems to seethe on crowded nights. Also, the downtown location of the (Camellia) Grill is just across the corner and perfect for a late meal after a night of dancing. Jacks regularly scores performances from folks like Ty Segall or Parquet Courts who you would expect to see in much larger spaces.
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As a relative newcomer on this list of venerable establishments, Gasa Gasa roared onto the scene in 2013. Born from the remnants of Breezy’s coffeehouse, Gasa has consistently hosted some of the best bands of the past five years. I have remarked on several occasions that years from now we will be talking about the steady stream of musicians who have passed across its stage on their way to stadium shows. Over the last few years a significant number of the bands on my annual top ten list have passed through Gasa. The addition of a courtyard bar and seating area, and the regular arrival of local food trucks have cemented Gasa’s position as one of the great places to see music in New Orleans. Pick a night and just go; even if you don’t recognize the name of the band, you are almost certainly guaranteed a great show.
This Beaux Arts beauty was originally constructed in 1918 as a vaudevillian performance hall. The theater has had many lives as a movie house and philharmonic symphony hall. After being damaged in Katrina, the theater underwent an extensive renovation to restore both its acoustical purity and its stunningly theatrical appointments. These renovations were helmed by Dr. Eric George and Roland Von Kurnatowski. The latter of these gentlemen is also the owner of Tipitina’s and the founder of the Tipitina’s Foundation, so the connection to the local scene runs deep. The result of this work was the creation of the most aesthetically pleasing space to see music in New Orleans right now. The sound in this space is absolutely perfect. Music simply washes over the space without ever overpowering the audience. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra calls the Orpheum their home, but the theater doesn’t limit itself to the classics. Whatever your tastes, I recommend taking in one of their excellently curated shows.
Siberia is a music lovers dream. Everything in this establishment is focused around the relatively small stage. The space feels vital and improvised, as though something outstanding is just about to happen. The music at Siberia tends toward the experimental, more than any other location on this list. It is here that you can witness noise resolving into art. It is here that collectives and collaborations form and reform with ever more subtle refinements. If you want to know what the punk or noise or experimental sound of New Orleans is at any moment, this is the place to be. The club does a great job of mixing local players with traveling artists for organic evenings that just work. Added to all of this is the outstanding Polish dinner counter Kukhnya in the back. This is not just some of the best bar food in New Orleans, this is some of the best food in New Orleans. Don’t go without trying the beet burger. Seriously, try the beet burger.
Stooges Brass Band>>
This beautiful Tremé theater has recently been given a new life under General Manager Chris Ritter and Talent Buyer Davis Rogan. The fully renovated space boasts a brilliant new sound and lighting build-out that complements the space without destroying its historic charm. Rogan has positioned the theater to be a preeminent venue for showcasing locals. The weekly shows will follow a simple schedule with the Monday Night Blues Series, Mid Week Jazz on Wednesday and #ThirstyThursDAT Brass. One of the great things about these shows is that they happen relatively early by New Orleans standards, so the usual complaints about music getting started too late don’t apply.
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Drive By Truckers >>
Tips is one of the truly legendary live music clubs, not just in New Orleans, but across the world. It was founded in 1977, ostensibly as a place for Professor Longhair to play, and has remained a haven for the local sound ever since. Tips is the de facto home of the Radiators, where they still return to play every January. During Jazz Fest, the Fess Jazztival starts at the end of the festival day and runs into the wee hours of the morning. Make sure to stop and pay your regards to the bust of Fess on your way in. Tips is also home to the Tipitina’s Foundation, which has raised millions of dollar for the purchase of musical instruments for local schools. The annual Instruments A’ Comin’ party is one of the great musical events of each year, with Galactic hosting a seemingly never-ending stream of special guests. The club also keeps it cool in the summers with their Free Friday concert series. Basically, Tips is ground zero for New Orleans music. You can’t say you’ve been here without at least stopping in.
Though a bit younger than some of the other theaters on this list (only opening in 1927), the Saenger outpaces them all in grandeur. Originally designed by architect Emile Weil, the theater successfully attempts to call to mind an Italian baroque courtyard complete with a night sky populated by constellations and atmospheric effects. The beauty of the Saenger is immediately arresting. The post-Katrina restoration work was exhaustive and extensively detailed. I have yet to see a performer fail to mention the ambiance of the space since it reopened in 2013. The Saenger is home to the Broadway in New Orleans series of traveling shows, as well as a number of other comedic and musical performances throughout the year. One of the great things about the Saenger is even if you grow weary of the performance at hand the space is engrossing enough to stand on its own.
Maple Leaf Bar
This august uptown establishment is Tips’ funkier and slightly older cousin, located on Oak Street in the Riverbend, and next-door to the excellent Jacques Imo’s restaurant (which makes this spot an easy two-fer). When I think of brass bands, the Maple Leaf immediately comes to mind. Of course, the Rebirth Brass Band has held the Tuesday night spot at the Leaf for as long as anyone cares to remember. Add to that the Porter Trio on Mondays and the Joe Krown Trio on Sundays, and you have a line-up to rival any club line-up in the world. The Leaf was one of the first places to open after Katrina. Many of us still have fond memories of the nightly post Katrina cleanup ritual of Walter “Wolfman” Washington playing until the national guard came in to shut the place down. If that weren’t enough, the Leaf was the crucible that birthed Bonerama. You can’t talk about New Orleans music without talking about the Maple Leaf. It has just the right combination of that funky sound, press of bodies and camaraderie that elevates a club onto a whole other level. Make sure to check out the back bar and patio, which are perfect for cooling down after a scorching first set.
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The Music Box Village
Begun in 2011 as an itinerant and seasonal celebration of music through participation, the Music Box Village has found a permanent home on Rampart Street. The arts collective behind the space offers spring and fall programming seasons and often attracts many of the performers from Jazz Fest to drop in as part of the spring season. This space is truly alive and encourages music as a form of play. You will never see anything like a show at the Music Box anywhere else.
The Joy Theater
This theater was completed in 1946 as part of the post-war boom. Like many of the other theaters on Canal Street, the building was flooded during during Katrina, but has since seen new life as an event space. The Joy feels a bit more intimate than some of the other theaters on this list. Its architectural accents are Art Deco, which sets it apart from the other Beaux Arts spaces. The main accent of this theater is its stunning marquee, which was fully restored with the 2011 renovation. Over the last few years, the Joy has hosted a truly stunning array of musicians and comedians.
For over 30 years Snug Harbor has been the anchor of the Frenchmen Street jazz scene. Not only does the club offer two shows a night from both local and touring jazz legends, it also boasts a full kitchen with some excellent options for dinner or a light bite. Personally, I am partial to Charmaine Neville’s standing Monday night gigs. With plenty of seating and table service, Snug is a great place to catch music in comfort and style. The elegance of this space honors the music without overwhelming it. If you’re just starting to explore the New Orleans music scene this is a great place to learn full of friendly and knowledgeable folks.
Zucchero, (Italian blues musician) >>
The oldest standing theater in New Orleans, the Civic was constructed in 1906 in the Beaux Arts style that dominated New Orleans theaters of the period. The theater was renovated in 2013 and began a new life as a thoroughly modern concert hall. I love the Civic for its blend of the old and the new. There is a luxurious modern vibe of clean lines and bright colors that seamlessly matches the historic architectural accents of the space. The sight lines at the Civic are amazing; there is truly not a bad seat in the house. Even from the floor there are great views of the performers. Make sure to check out their excellent bar program. The Civic is easily the home to the best cocktails on this list. The Civic and Gasa Gasa are both heavily booked by Bowery South who bring outstanding shows to both spaces.
Old Point Bar
Just across the river, by way of the Algiers Ferry, you will find the Old Point Bar. The Old Point is widely regarded as one of the best neighborhood bars in a city known for its neighborhood bars. In addition to its scenic location and storied history, the Old Point always has a lively schedule of performances over the weekend. Keep an eye out for one of Gal Holiday’s Old Point sets; they are of exceptional quality. If you are looking to get beyond the crush of the French Quarter for an afternoon, the Old Point is a perfect option.
House of Blues
In 1994, the House of Blues brought its iconic brand to New Orleans, taking up residence in the French Quarter. For years the House of Blues occupied a unique niche in the local scene as one of the few clubs that filled the gap between the smaller spaces and the larger theaters. Between their niche size and high profile founders, the House of Blues became one of the premier clubs in the city for the developing indie rock scene of the late '90s. With the power of Live Nation behind them, this club has access to a large pool of high profile bookings. The House of Blues complex also contains a smaller space know as The Parish, which hosts more intimate gigs, and a restaurant which is home to one of the most popular jazz brunches in town. If you’re lucky you may score an invite to the Foundation Room, which has its own private bar and balcony overlooking the main stage.