New Orleans is well-known as a hotbed of local music, but the best place to experience that heritage can be elusive for a newcomer or tourist. Bourbon Street, though jam-packed with noise, isn’t really the place to experience the best music this city has to offer, and even the more elusive Frenchman Street, another great place for going out, doesn’t necessarily hold the authentic musical experience that visitors crave.
So where should visitors go to get that musical history that the city is so well known for? Well, on a recent trip to New Orleans I took it upon myself to answer that, sussing out several heralded spots to catch a live set. On my trip, I was staying at the Hyatt Centric French Quarter New Orleans, which is right in the heart of all the action in the French Quarter, and it was remarkably easy to get out to most of these locations from there.
Plus, after venturing into the less bustling neighborhoods of the city, it was nice to return to the well-lit, jampacked French Quarter where I always felt right at home — enough to head out and grab another drink following the show, some nights.
The hotel was a great launching pad for anyone looking to explore the city while staying right in the heart of it, and I can’t recommend it enough. These haunts are a little off the beaten path, but still totally accessible — even if you don’t know the city well. The point of these venues is that they don’t necessarily host touring acts who are coming through the city, like scheduled concerts, but rather, have house bands or local bookings that give the shows both a more relaxed, and a more prestigious feel — so check out my musical recommendations below.
Bacchanal Wine Bar
600 Poland Ave
Luckily, I have an inside line on New Orleans courtesy of Uproxx’s Editor-in-Chief, Brett Michael Dykes, a Louisiana native. He told me the story of this incredible outdoor wine bar, which originated as a hub for chefs who were left without restaurants following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000s. Already established as the neighborhood wine store, Bacchanal turned their outdoor grill area into a place chefs left jobless by Katrina could prepare food, and drew a massive local crowd to these community-oriented events, where music quickly became part of the package.
Eventually, the casual grilling turned a bit more formal, with an official restaurant opening up and a stage that now draws visitors and tourists as well as locals. But the early backyard party-feel is still totally present, and a built-in wine and cheese shop means you can grab a bottle and some snacks, pull up a couple lawn chairs, and hunker down around the stage just like you would a campfire. The spirit of the south is definitely present in this beautiful backyard — persistence, friendship, wine, and music, all in one lovely package. For a casual and relaxed live music experience, head out to Bywater to soak in the experience of a truly unique, community-oriented venue.
726 St Peter St.
This may not be an under-the-radar choice, but it is absolutely a must-see for any New Orleans visitor who is also a music obsessive. Preservation Hall is one of the oldest concert venues in New Orleans, it was established in 1961, and continues to host multiple concerts well over 350 days a year. The Hall’s sole purpose is to help preserve the rich tradition of Jazz that is such an integral part of the city’s history, even as other genres like rock have superseded the early prevalence of jazz.
Preservation Hall was initially founded as an art gallery in the 1950s that hosted jazz shows curated by the gallery’s owner, Larry Borenstein. As a jazz aficionado, he found his work as a gallery owner kept him out of shows, so he brought the shows to his gallery. Eventually, the gallery had to be moved next door because of how frequent and widely-attended the jazz jam sessions were. After some time, Borenstein passed on the work of the quickly-growing venue to a couple called the Jaffes, who helmed the hall and helped put together the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who toured to help raise awareness about the Hall and the legacy of New Orleans jazz.
Now, visitors can step into the hallowed room where it all began and watch the seasoned jazz veterans perform nightly shows. Order tickets ahead of time, because these performances are almost always sold out, and bring extra cash to tip the band and put in your own requests. But remember, these are old-timers and they like to keep things local — my request for “The Girl From Ipanema” was handily shut down, whereas “When The Saints Go Marching In” was gleefully played twice.
The Maple Leaf
8316 Oak St.
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Perhaps not as well known as Preservation Hall, but certainly another spot that has amassed quite a following, the Maple Leaf is a little bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans that has become the home of The Rebirth Brass Band, who play there every Tuesday night to a packed out crowd. Opening just over a decade after Preservation Hall, the Maple Leaf was founded in 1974, and continues to hold live performances seven days a week almost fifty years in.
Superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt have dropped by the bar to jam, and a host of local legends like “Money Mike” Armstrong, Papa Grows Funk, and James Booker have all graced the stage. For the pop culture fans — Beyonce and Jay-Z filmed the video for her song “Déjà Vu” at the bar back in 2006. I went on a recent Tuesday at caught the Rebirth Brass band’s set, and let me tell you, it redefined the concept of “brass band” in my mind forever. Make some time during your trip to hit up this local joint, and may I suggest that you do so on a Tuesday.
2227 St. Claude Ave
This is probably the weirdest bar I went to the entire time I was in the city, and therefore it became my favorite. One night, tired of the crowds, we asked our taxi driver what the next step down from Frenchman Street was. He recommended an emerging cluster of bars and restaurants on St. Claude, so off we went. Siberia is there, and perhaps aptly named given how hushed everything felt compared to the buzz of Bourbon, the French Quarter, and Frenchman. But that doesn’t mean things were dead, by any means.
In fact, the line to get delicious Polish food inside the bar was fairly long, but totally worth the items we procured, which I was too drunk to recall in any detail, but know that I loved and gushed about to anyone who would listen at the time. Meanwhile, a polka band (?) was playing a set when we arrived, though they finished shortly after I lost myself in a plate of pierogis. According to locals, the bar often hosts live music, usually geared toward metal and heavier stuff, and is quickly becoming a hot spot in its own right.
And hey, even if the lineup isn’t quite up to your liking during your trip, the food is good enough to draw any visitor out for a quick drunk-snack, before heading out to more bars. As luck would have it, Bacchanal isn’t that far from Siberia, bringing the city, and its live music, full circle.