The New York City club circuit is thriving again, despite a stifling music industry. Earning a steady living through live music is getting harder than ever, with fewer clubs paying musicians a reasonable fee, or in many cases, any fee at all. As a result, the performers try to make up the difference by mingling with fans and signing homemade CDs, t-shirts, and other merchandise.
However, because musicians are mingling more with their audiences—plus the accessibility of direct communications afterwards via social media—there has been greater attendance at the clubs. A community is building, musician-to-musician, musician-to-fan, and even fan-to-fan. Now the decision to go to a local music bar is not always contingent upon how good the band is, but also how much fun one will have at to the show. These days, the live performances might prove to be excellent, but they are not the only attraction.
This writer began this annual list of Top NYC Bands to Catch Live for The Aquarian in the late seventies. The criteria for this list has always been that the artists had to be based in New York City, perform original compositions, and work the local club circuit diligently throughout the year rather than just a few scattered performances. New York City-based artists Agnostic Front, Antidote, Bandits on the Run, Gangstagrass, Joseph Arthur, Murphy’s Law, Sick of It All, Urban Waste, and Vice with Corey Glover, all performed outstanding club concerts in recent months, but cannot be said to really be working the club circuit, so they were excluded from the list. Other excellent groups—including Collapsing Scenery and the End of America—have some New York City-based musicians but cannot be said to be local bands, so they also were not included.
Before we look at the 2020 picks, let’s revisit last year’s top picks. Many of these artists are still performing on the local circuit and their concerts are still very much recommended. The artists are listed in alphabetical order:
The Cody Melville Band
The Emily Duff Band
Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co.
Tom Clark & the High Action Boys
And so, here are the top recommendations for New York City-based bands to catch live in 2020. This list features some of the very best live music coming out of the local clubs these days.
Bush Tetras formed in 1979 and were on this list in the eighties. Although popular in the local circuit, the funky dance-punk band did not attain wide commercial success and split in 1983. Since the nineties, the quartet has regrouped periodically and played live, but recently the band recorded a new album and seems serious about returning to the club circuit. The band headlines at (le) Poisson Rouge, Mercury Lounge, and clubs in Brooklyn.
David Johansen first gained fame in the seventies as the vocalist for the New York Dolls, from which he launched a solo career. As David Johansen, he was a rocker, but in the late eighties under the pseudonym Buster Poindexter, he incorporated a campy mix of cabaret jazz, lounge, calypso, and novelty songs, leading to appearing as part of the house band on Saturday Night Live. Back on the club circuit, Buster Poindexter has evolved into the singer-songwriter persona of David Johansen. Buster Poindexter performs often at the Django.
Damn Tall Buildings
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Damn Tall Buildings relocated to Brooklyn and stormed the borough with its high-spirited bluegrass music and its multi-part vocal harmonies. The band performs at Rockwood Music Hall, Sony Hall, and a variety of Brooklyn clubs.
The Fleshtones started rocking the local club circuit in 1976, but in recent decades the garage rock band was reduced to about one appearance per year. This past year, the band performed more often and the core of the band, Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng, perform together and separately in other bands. The Fleshtones perform most often at the Bowery Electric.
The Hipp Pipps
The Hipp Pipps play roots rock with no hyphens. This music is a throwback to the late fifties and early sixties but injected with the dynamic force of punk rock that makes the trio sound more modern than nostalgic. The Hipp Pipps play Otto’s Shrunken Head, the Bowery Electric, and Arlene’s Grocery.
Jimmy & Immy
James Maddock is a singer-songwriter from England who has embraced his adopted New York City in the panoramic images of his sentimental lyrics. Maddock rocks when he has a band, but for a softer sound he frequently retreats to smaller clubs like the 11th St. Bar, sits on a wooden chair and teams with David Immerglück of Counting Crows, who accompanies Maddock on acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Li’l Mo & the Monicats
Monica Passin performs solo as a singer-songwriter and also with two vocalists in the doo-wop-influenced Monettes. The best way to marvel at her authentic cowgirl vocals and earthy lyrics, however, is with her vintage-sounding country and rock ‘n’ roll band, Li’l Mo & the Monicats. Li’l Mo & the Monicats performs at the Treehouse and Klub 45.
The Lord Calverts
The Lord Calverts are five men in black suits and skinny ties performing high-energy garage rock and soul. The Lord Calverts performs at Otto’s Shrunken Head, Pianos and the Parkside Lounge.
Walter Lure & the Waldos
With the release of a new album, Walter Lure & the Waldos is growing less dependent on the songs from Lure’s former band, the Heartbreakers, but the formula remains the same: raw, steamy rock ‘n’ roll. Walter Lure & the Waldos performs at the Bowery Electric and Lola.
The World/Inferno Friendship Society
The World/Inferno Friendship Society is an extensive collective of musicians that merge punk, soul, klezmer, and jazz, all bouncing with a dark, alternative swing. The band performs at Mercury Lounge and clubs in Brooklyn.
…. And while your checking out the above acts, be on the lookout for these 30 under the radar NYC acts!
Alan Merrill Trio(pop)
Bakersfield Breakers (instrumental, twang)
Bikini Carwash(power punk)
Bill Popp & the Tapes(pop)
The Blackfires(hard rock)
The Carvels NYC(power pop)
The David Kolker Band(blues/rock)
DonBlackCat & Friends(rock and roll)
Dylan Morrison(acoustic blues)
Exit 99(rock and roll)
Gotham Rockets (power pop)
High & Tight(punk)
Hollis Brown (classic rock)
Jim Campilongo Trio(jazz)
The Mark McKay Band (singer-songwriter)
The Nuclears (punk)
The Phil Gammage Quartet(country blues)
The Planets (classic rock)
Puma Perl & Friends (experimental/poetry)
Puss N Boots (indie folk)
Revel in Dimes (rock & soul)
Rick Eckerle & the ArchAngels (folk rock)
Screamin’ Rebel Angels (rockabilly)
Sean Kershaw & the New Jack City Ramblers (country rock)