by Brian Howe
Asked to name a famous music venue in the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan, many people will immediately think of CBGB, which was ground zero for American punk and New Wave in the 1970s. But since opening in 1997, the Bowery Ballroom has been steadily usurping its reputation as the premier place to hear independent rock music, both local and national, in one of Manhattan’s oldest districts.
Of course, the meaning of “independent rock” is much different now than it was during the heyday of punk, which is why the Bowery Ballroom kept going strong after its legendary predecessor closed for business in 2006. It’s a CBGB designed for the Internet era, with the timeliest contemporary indie bands—and their wildly diverse musical styles—jostling alongside seasoned punk rock royalty, all in an intimate space where layers of local history blend with a state-of-the-art venue.
Though barely old enough to drive at the time of this writing, the Bowery Ballroom feels like it’s been around forever. That’s probably because, in an architectural sense, it has. Long before it housed a modern music venue, the grandly arched and windowed stone facade at 6 Delancey Street bore witness to the changing fortunes and complexion of a neighborhood and a nation, as it continues to do almost a century into its existence.
Constructed in the opulent Beaux-Arts style that was so influential in the United States up through the first World War, the prospective theater at 6 Delancey went up shortly before the stock market went down in the disastrous crash of 1929. It then stood vacant, a symbol of misplaced optimism, during the Great Depression. Finally, economic expansion following World War II filled it with a series of jewelers and haberdashers, until the neighborhood’s industrial turn in the 1970s ushered out high-end retail and brought in lighting and carpeting concerns.
Long considered seedy, with a reputation for flophouses and street gangs and rampant homelessness, the Bowery was known as New York’s answer to Los Angeles’ Skid Row throughout the mid-20th century, populated by the “Bowery Bums” so colorfully chronicled by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker. The homeless population of the neighborhood declined in the 1980s, which led into a revitalization of the whole Lower East Side in the 1990s.
At last, the economic and urban climates were right for the building to claim its long-denied birthright as a performance space, and it was converted into a music venue with a capacity around 550, opening its doors in 1997. Though you’ll find a technologically sophisticated music venue with modern amenities behind the old façade, traces of the original construction—a brass railing here, a piece of iron metalwork there, a coffered and vaulted ceiling—can still be glimpsed, testifying to the site’s rich history.
In fact, the architectural record goes back even further. The remnants of a stone foundation that predate the 1929 structure are still visible in a bar and lounge on the main floor. The custom-designed music hall upstairs is divided into two more levels. There is the dark and dive-y ambiance of the open floor, where concertgoers can get close to the action and even start a mosh-pit when appropriate. Meanwhile, those seeking a more solitary experience can head for the wraparound mezzanine above, which looks down on a picture-box stage framed by swag curtains. The flexible mid-sized room serves the needs of a dizzying variety of performers.
This July alone, the Bowery Ballroom hosted shows by rockabilly elder statesmen The Flamin’ Groovies, Brazilian rave-rock band CSS, symphonic pop cultists the Polyphonic Spree, English post-punk legends Wire, indie-folk darlings Woods, Japanese experimental songwriter Shugo Tokumaru, and even comedian Bob Saget. In addition, the Bowery offered the chance to discover offbeat fare such as the U.S. Air Guitar semifinals and Richard Cheese’s Lounge Against the Machine, which performs cheeky swing-music versions of rap and Top 40 radio hits. The diversity of this programming reflects a new, always-connected indie music dispensation where rock is only a starting point, branching out and linking up with any style or sound that can be piped through a digital network.
The Bowery Ballroom has made an impression on popular culture, appearing in films such as Coyote Ugly and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist while lending its name to Bowery Songs, a live album the great Joan Baez recorded there in 2004. But most importantly, it serves as a launching pad for New York bands and a prized destination for touring ones, keeping those relations happening physically as well as online. CBGB and the pre-Internet era it emblemized may be gone, though the brand was reborn as a music festival in 2012. But in a radically different cultural climate, the Bowery Ballroom carries on that legacy of nurturing and connecting bands of all stripes who are trying to do it on their own.