ECONOMY

Brooklyn breakout: the best of Williamsburg’s music scene

This article is part of a guide to New York from FT Globetrotter

It is no longer just the daring and the skinflint who base themselves in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan when (Covid travel restrictions permitting) they visit New York.

Just a skip across the water from the East Village, Williamsburg is now so thoroughly gentrified that you can hardly move on Bedford Avenue without bumping into someone hand-painting a sign for an artisanal workshop producing dog vests made from ethically sourced vegan wool substitutes.

More to the point, it’s much nicer than staying in Manhattan — and you’re just a few minutes by subway from the island, or a very pleasant walk across the Williamsburg Bridge to the Lower East Side.

The restaurants are tremendous — don’t miss Have & Meyer, a wine bar with heaped antipasti and perfect homemade pasta. And Wythe Avenue now has a stretch of upscale hotels — The William Vale, The Williamsburg, the Wythe and The Hoxton — that mean Williamsburg works as well for the business traveller as the clubber.

Earwax © Landon Speers

If you can get a room facing the East River, you’ll wake up to a better view of Manhattan than you would from most rooms across the water.

What makes Williamsburg (and its neighbour Greenpoint) feel great, though, is that it has one of the best things Manhattan had before it cleaned up: a thriving music scene.

The bands who moved to Brooklyn early in the past decade — The National, Grizzly Bear and others — were followed by live venues and record stores. While once it was lower Manhattan where every third storefront had records in the window, now it’s the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Which means, if you have any free time in New York, and the slightest interest in music, Williamsburg is the place for you. Here’s why.

1. Captured Tracks

195 Calyer Street, Brooklyn, New York 11222

  • Good for: Unhurried browsing among long racks of vinyl

  • Not so good for: Anyone who wants the latest hits

  • FYI: Open seven days a week, from noon to 8pm

  • Website; Directions

Never mind the decor — check out the stock
Never mind the decor — check out the stock
Impulse purchases are all too likely at Captured Tracks
Impulse purchases are all too likely at Captured Tracks

The shop is owned by the famed indie record label so, as you might expect, this is the place for all your Captured Tracks back-catalogue needs. But it’s far more than that. Captured Tracks feels like a throwback to when the only thing that mattered in a record shop was the stock.

You don’t come to this side-street basement store for the decor, or because it looks cool. You come for the records, though you might not leave with the ones you came for. Who, after all, wouldn’t buy a reissue of Most Likely To Exceed by an unknown heavy metal band called Black Virgin? Oh, just me?

2. Record Grouch

986 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11222

  • Good for: Great packages from specialist reissue labels

  • Not so good for: A wide choice of post-shopping restaurants

  • FYI: It also has a small but esoteric selection of music books

  • Website; Directions

Cult labels and cool reissues are the order of the day at Record Grouch . . .
Cult labels and cool reissues are the order of the day at Record Grouch . . .
 . . . which is ‘a perfect small record shop of the kind every city used to have by the score’
 . . . which is ‘a perfect small record shop of the kind every city used to have by the score’ © Landon Speers (2)

Right down to its name — summoning the image of the eternal snob record-store clerk, with his withering contempt for anything you buy, no matter how obscure — Record Grouch is a perfect, small record shop of the kind every city used to have by the score.

In fact, I’ve never encountered a grouchy staff member there (I’ve also never encountered another customer there), though nor has anyone behind the till displayed the slightest interest in what I might be looking for.

Small though it is, the stock ranges across styles, but it’s especially good for reissue labels such as the Numero Group, whose editions are a joy to buy.

3. Brooklyn Bowl

61 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11211

  • Good for: Loud, live rock ’n’ roll

  • Not so good for: Quiet singer-songwriters

  • FYI: The bar queue moves faster than you think

  • Website; Directions

Brooklyn Bowl is intimate but not squashed
Brooklyn Bowl is intimate but not squashed
Or rock and bowl?
Or rock and bowl?

Given the problems in making money from running a venue that only puts on live music, one should salute the genius of combining a gig venue, bowling lanes and a restaurant. The only drawback is that anyone playing their music quietly risks being drowned out by the clatter of pins from the alleys almost immediately beside the auditorium (and anyone in the restaurant has to contend with both sets of noises).

On a good night, though, this 600-capacity room is a great place to watch live bands — intimate without ever feeling squashed — and offers a better range of drinks than most music venues. It reopened earlier this month with a full slate of autumn shows booked.

4. Brooklyn Steel

319 Frost Street, Brooklyn, New York 11222

  • Good for: Sharp sound through a good PA

  • Not so good for: Feeling central — this venue is a little out on a limb

  • FYI: Some concertgoers have complained about overzealous security

  • Website; Directions

Rolling Stone magazine named Brooklyn Steel as one of the 10 best live music venues in the US
Rolling Stone magazine named Brooklyn Steel as one of the 10 best live music venues in the US
The 1,800-capacity venue is housed in a former steelworks
The 1,800-capacity venue is housed in a former steelworks © Ryan Muir (2)

Though they appear to have modelled the venue on the problematic Terminal 5 in Manhattan (think a shoebox on its side: long and high), Brooklyn Steel’s designers took note of the faults in their template. This means Brooklyn Steel — a 1,800-capacity venue in a converted steelworks — is widely admired rather than reviled: it was named one of the 10 best live music venues in America by Rolling Stone magazine.

Its sightlines are famously good, though it’s a standing venue, so if you’re dead on five feet tall, those sightlines might not seem so famously good to you. After hosting streaming shows, it returned as a full-capacity venue in September.

5. The Thing

1001 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11222

  • Good for: Bargain-hunting

  • Not so good for: Targeted shopping

  • FYI: Don’t come in clean white clothes

  • Website; Directions

The Thing is nirvana for dedicated crate-diggers
The Thing is nirvana for dedicated crate-diggers
Who knows where a deep-dive into the Greenpoint thrift store’s hundreds of thousands of second-hand records will take you?
Who knows where a deep-dive into the Greenpoint thrift store’s hundreds of thousands of second-hand records will take you? © Landon Speers (2)

This Greenpoint thrift store isn’t like your local charity shop: it’s a through-a-looking-glass world. Leave the front of the store behind, because in the dusty back room and dustier basement are hundreds of thousands of records — 50c for a 45, a buck for a 78, $2 for 12 inches of vinyl — stacked without any semblance of order or organisation.

All of which makes it heaven for the crate-diggers and the incurably curious, but hell for anyone with no patience for the hunt, or complete certainty about what they want to buy. You could lose hours here, but you would never be sure whether you were leaving with treasure or junk. It closed because of the pandemic, and has not yet officially reopened though it has been having sidewalk sales. Let’s hope that with NYC resuming normal service, The Thing is back in all its glory soon.

6. Earwax Records

167 North ninth Street, Brooklyn, New York 11211

  • Good for: Feeling old school, not old

  • Not so good for: Cheap second-hand vinyl

  • FYI: It’s closed on Thursdays

  • Website; Directions

Earwax has been a fixture on the Williamsburg music scene since 1990
Earwax has been a fixture on the Williamsburg music scene since 1990
Look out for the store’s quirky descriptions of its stock
Look out for the store’s quirky descriptions of its stock © Landon Speers (2)

Back before the coffee shops and the cocktail bars, there was Earwax. It’s been ever present in Williamsburg since 1990, and — as it likes to put it — “an integral part of Williamsburg’s cultural renaissance”.

It is better for new than second-hand, and stock is “curated”, so you’re less likely to find a bargain than something that looks shiny and irresistible. Earwax is worth a visit for the text descriptions of records it is trying to sell you: “Aww, I’m a wimpy baby that caught a bad case of the feels.”

7. Warsaw

261 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11222

  • Good for: Not being an identikit gig venue

  • Not so good for: Anyone who boycotts Polish produce

  • FYI: It’s cash-only

  • Website; Directions

Brooklyn breakout: the best of Williamsburg’s music scene
The ballroom has been hosting gigs for decades 
Brooklyn breakout: the best of Williamsburg’s music scene
Sample the home-cooked Polish food at the Warsaw Bistro © Stephanie Augello (2)

Greenpoint historically was the centre of New York’s Polish community, and its streets are still lined with Polish bakeries. Here stands the Polish National Home, a community centre that houses Warsaw, a faded ballroom that has been hosting gigs for decades.

And forget soggy nachos or lukewarm hot dogs: here you can buy home-cooked Polish food — pierogies and kielbasa, sold by old ladies from a folding table near the merch stall. Some people say the sound isn’t that great, but everyone agrees the atmosphere makes up for it.

Music venues were among the hardest hit during the pandemic, but the busy slates of shows at venues such as Warsaw hold out hope that live performance will soon be thriving again. 

8. National Sawdust

80 North sixth Street, Brooklyn, New York 11249

  • Good for: Being very serious about music

  • Not so good for: Anyone who sees music as a background activity

  • FYI: Just yards from the Wythe Avenue hotels

  • Website; Directions

National Sawdust is Brooklyn’s first venue dedicated to contemporary classical music
National Sawdust is Brooklyn’s first venue dedicated to contemporary classical music
Flautist Claire Chase performing at the former sawdust factory, which has also hosted Philip Glass and Nico Muhly
Flautist Claire Chase performing at the former sawdust factory, which has also hosted Philip Glass and Nico Muhly © Jill Steinberg

Williamsburg doesn’t cater only for those who like their music to be ear-splitting. National Sawdust is the district’s first classical-music venue (that’s not classical in the sense of Bach — it’s a venue for serious contemporary music).

That means it is very much not the place to go in search of beery bonhomie and singalongs, but if Philip Glass and Nico Muhly are your bag, well, they’ve performed there. It also has a restaurant and wine bar, so all your cultural needs can be met in one evening.

It reopened in September with a live performance preceded by a spirits tasting: there’s no ascetisim to the art here.

9. Williamsburg Music Center

367 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11211

  • Good for: Feeling like you’re in the New York of the 1950s

  • Not so good for: Anyone not in the mood for jazz

  • FYI: It used to be first come, first served, but you can now reserve seats

  • Website; Directions

Guitarist Gerry Eastman at Williamsburg Music Center, which he founded in 1981
Guitarist Gerry Eastman at Williamsburg Music Center, which he founded in 1981
A survivor of gentrification, the venue is a key part of the area’s musical heritage
A survivor of gentrification, the venue is a key part of the area’s musical heritage

Not one for those seeking out established names — it’s a tiny jazz club, putting on artists who are still on their way to becoming up and coming — but it is an important part of Williamsburg’s musical heritage.

The WMC was founded by guitarist Gerry Eastman in 1981, when the area was at its lowest ebb. It has since survived gentrification to be one of the few African-American-owned businesses in the area, and the only venue devoted to African-American music. It has been open since May for small audiences.

What are your favourite music venues in Brooklyn? Tell us in the comments

For more stories like this visit ft.com/globetrotter or check out our city guide, NYC with the FT

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