– New Orleans (pronounced New ‘Awlins among the locals) is known for many things: Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, beignets and a friendly town that’s always eager to party. Along with crawfish and daiquiris, music is a key ingredient for a typical – and often lively — night out.
At one time, New Orleans was the only city in North America that allowed slaves to not only own drums but also to perform with them in public. These deep musical roots eventually developed into a variety of rich traditions widely celebrated today, from jazz to indigenous favorites such as Dixieland jazz, Cajun, and zydeco. Today, in addition to these classic NOLA sounds, the city also offers plenty of live music venues for those looking for techno, Delta Blues, rock and reggae. Below are a range of great options to help you dig into the musical heart of Big Easy, whether you are looking to kick up your heels or chill out to the gentle strum of a guitar:
The French Quarter, particularly Bourbon Street, has lots of bars and dance clubs playing an energetic blend of hip-hop, Top 40 tunes and techno. Many venues like Krazy Korner have a casual, dive bar kind of feel, while others like Bourbon Heat attract the discotheque crowd.
The French Quarter is a great musical starter to New Orleans and best for pulsating genres like hip-hop and techno. However, if you want to hear a wider variety of music, just venture outside to the adjacent neighborhood known as the Marigny. At its center is Frenchmen Street, a bit of a walk from the Quarter but away from the tourists. Here you’ll see where locals often go to hear live music.
For those looking for something more low-key, Apple Barrel is an excellent venue featuring live blues. The bar is casual, divey and lacks pretension thanks to the friendly bar owner and servers. The space is very small, at most seating up to twenty folks. You’ll be guaranteed to have an intimate experience – just be sure you can squeeze in!
If Apple Barrel is too crowded for your liking, head over to Café Negril just a thirty second walk down Frenchmen Street. Café Negril is more spacious and has no cover charge, and lively reggae performances are frequently performed here — notice the massive mural of Bob Marley on the concert stage – mingled with some bluesy rock and jazz fusion.
Of course, no trip to NOLA is possible without attending some jazz shows. Snug Harbor has been open for over thirty years, offering two floors that cater both to the quieter, jazz-and-wine-sipping crowd and the tap-snapping masses.
All of the aforementioned places are located within or next to the French Quarter. But some of New Orleans best concert venues worth mentioning are in fact located further out in the Uptown neighborhood. Opened since 1977, Tipitina’s gets its name from a song from legendary New Orleans piano man, Professor Longhair. Whether it’s jazz, blues, rock, or other music genre, Tipitina’s is highly regarded as a place to see live performances by local and nationally renowned bands.
The Maple Leaf Bar is also a local favorite due in no small part to the Rebirth Brass Band. Performing here every Tuesday, the band’s lively show combines a traditional New Orleans brass band sound with a dose of hip-hop, jazz and funk. You may recognize their sound from the HBO series Treme in which they were recently featured. Even if you don’t get the chance to see the Rebirth Brass Band’s weekly show, the Maple Leaf Bar remains a terrific spot to check out live acts.
The history of French rule along with the influence from the African-American, Cajun, and Creole communities has made New Orleans a uniquely American city. As a result, there exists a real joie de vivre and a celebratory attitude reflected in the city’s people, food, nightlife and especially music. These music venues provide a diverse showcase for some of what makes New Orleans so special and unlike any other city in the U.S.
Visit Frances Nguyen’s Custom Guide on Music in New Orleans for her full list of recommendations.
Frances Nguyen is a recent law graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School. She’s also an avid fan of jazz.