Five years ago, a column like this one wouldn’t have been possible. Not that Jersey City didn’t have the bands, or the talent, or the vision; those have always been here. Shows, though—those weren’t on the calendar. Writing about music in Jersey City meant coming face to face with a performance-space shortage that was as inexplicable as it was frustrating. A city of a quarter million people simply didn’t contain many reliable and regularly booked music venues.
All of that has changed. Jersey City is singing again; dreaming big, too. Pick a busy intersection in Jersey City, and there are probably two or three people scheming to open a new venue there. A live music fan now has a respectable range of options.
By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list; rather, these are spaces that have caught our eye and that we think you ought to know about. We’ll add to it, regularly, as new spaces open. If there’s one in the region that you know about and think we should be featuring—or if you’re playing a show yourself—go ahead and let us know at (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Dedicated Music Venues
White Eagle Hall
There are now many places in town to catch a show worth your time. But any discussion of live music in Jersey City begins with White Eagle Hall. The restoration is gorgeous, the sight lines are good, the floor is comfortable even when it’s packed (which it often is), the stage itself is world-class, and the room has been very reliably booked with strong acts with national profiles—mostly pop-rock, emo, and rootsy stuff, but occasionally hip-hop and R&B, too. And although the large capacity means that WEH is primarily a room for touring acts, they’ve managed to keep things Jersey, booking state favorites and local heroes and, periodically, handing the hall over to area promoters with big ideas. Outside of NJPAC, which doesn’t host contemporary bands too often, this is the nicest, sharpest, most impressive live venue in the state. And it’s ours, so direct yourself here immediately. (337 Newark Ave., www.whiteaglehalljc.com)
If White Eagle Hall is the face we show to the rest of the world, FM, which is basically across the street, is the face we wear at home. This relaxed, congenial space primarily books local and regional bands, but the busy schedule makes room for some out-of-state ringers, too. Despite its modest size, FM has a real stage and lights and a dedicated P.A. system run by soundmen who take pride in their skills. The decor suggests absolute dedication to music: There are records everywhere, pop culture detritus artfully scattered around, and a Rhodes electric piano strategically mounted on the wall. In short, this is a true rock club in the time-tested style, booked by people with roots deep in the community and a clear vision for the kind of venue they’d like to run and scene they want to cultivate. Should you want to immerse yourself in local music, this is probably the best place in town to hang. (340 3rdSt., www.fmjerseycity.co)
Fox & Crow
For better or for worse, most of the action in Jersey City happens Downtown. But the stretch of Palisade Avenue near Riverview-Fisk Park has become a destination in its own right, and Fox & Crow is one of the main reasons why. Like the neighborhood it’s in, F&C punches well above its weight: The tiny showroom stays booked with an impressive array of regional talent, aspirational local artists, and the occasional name headliner. While the velvet curtains and black tables suggest speakeasy-like intimacy, this is not just a place for quiet singer-songwriters. We’ve heard some glorious rackets coming from Palisade and Congress. Best of all, audiences here are genuinely attentive and musically curious, which makes it a great place for ambitious writers to try out new material and new ideas. Night owl alert: Although some Fox and Crow concerts begin in the early evening, many of the shows start at 10 p.m. In either case, they’ll provide you with a full menu to munch from while you’re watching the musicians play. (594 Palisade Ave., www.foxandcrowjc.com)
The shadow of the famous club on the corner of Washington and Tenth in Hoboken hangs over every music venue in Hudson County—and maybe New York City, too. The standard set by Maxwell’s is intimidating, but it’s given club owners something to shoot for. It’s safe to say that any room that’s hosted bands in Hudson County has had some elements reminiscent of Maxwell’s built into the design. But nobody has gotten it quite as right as Monty Hall, the Maxwell’s-sized club run by radio station WFMU, which is itself a local institution helmed by people who certainly knew their way around the Hoboken scene of the ’80s and ’90s. The black box space looks, sounds, and even smells a little like its legendary forerunner. Bookings tend to be bands that would have played at Maxwell’s if Maxwell’s was still booking bands: adventurous groups consistent with the WFMU aesthetic and its unswervingly free-form sensibility. If you like WFMU (of course you do), this is a place you’re going to want to visit. (43 Montgomery St., montyhall.ticketfly.com)
Bars and Restaurants with Frequent Music Nights
Pet Shop and PS Wine Bar
Yes, indeed, it was an actual pet shop. Before its transformation into a home away from home for local punk rockers, the building on the well-trafficked corner of Newark and Jersey was home to a … well, let’s not get too deep into it. Instead, it’s probably best to concentrate on what the building has become: a handsome, dark, pleasantly rough-hewn space capable of hosting musical events on its two levels. Upstairs is for the punk bands; downstairs PS Wine Bar can accommodate punk, too, but this lower level also provides quiet acoustic singer-songwriters a suitably candlelit setting. Pointedly, the menu is vegan. Let’s just say they’ve got some ghosts to exorcise. (193 Newark Ave., www.petshopjc.com)
The capacious Porta Pizza used to put rock bands on the roof. There’s still plenty of music here, and some of it is even live, but the pizzeria has changed formats. These days, it’s mostly deejays spinning electronic stuff though there are still occasional performers in the main space and jazz musicians during Sunday brunch. Porta was originally an Asbury Park brand, and they’ve been true to it: This is more of a Shore-like scene than what you’re likely to get outside of the Downtown pedestrian plaza. And by that, we mainly mean electro-beats: the sonic equivalent of thick mozzarella. (135 Newark Ave., www.pizzaporta.com)
Speaking of places that can be a bit of a scene, The Factory on Communipaw is certainly not designed for wallflowers. But because of its regular Latin nights, it’s become an essential part of musical Jersey City. Some of the groups that’ve played here, bless them, have made no attempt whatsoever to cross over. You’re likely to hear real salsa and bachata here alongside the DJ-driven club music—and accordion and sax next to the synths and turntables. The frequent Sunday brunch entertainment has been particularly exciting and might leave you wondering why there aren’t more local places that host music in these styles. The Factory demonstrates that the talent is here. (451 Communipaw Ave.)
Many bars and eateries North of the Mason-Dixon line affect a Southern style, but few in New Jersey take it quite as far or are as meticulous about the details as South House. That means chicken and waffles and grits on the menu, Carolina-style swings out front, and, periodically, blues, R&B, jazz, and Southern rock inside the restaurant. For instance, this summer, South House brought trumpeter Shamarr Allen up from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans; and local blues harmonica champ Vin Mott led his band through a set in early September. In another extension of southern hospitality, shows here tend to be free. Chasing regional authenticity might be hard in a place as polyglot as Jersey, but that doesn’t mean that the race isn’t worth running. (149 Newark Ave., www.southhousejc.com)
Corgi is a local company that manufactures gin, whiskey, and vodka, and packages its products in very appealing bottles. The brand’s distillery isn’t easy to find: It’s at the southern end of the Bergen-Lafayette right in the middle of an industrial zone and across Caven Point Avenue from the light rail headquarters. Nevertheless, Corgi has attracted some intriguing acts to the lounge—not just the jazz you’d expect to find in a room built for cocktails, but local pop-rock, too. It’s possible to imagine the music series at Corgi’s becoming a Jersey City mainstay. For the moment, it’s a pretty well-kept secret (which you’re now in on.) (1 Distillery Dr., www.corgispirits.com)
This friendly, low-key restaurant and bar in the middle of the Heights feels like Fox & Crow’s modest and somewhat bashful cousin. The musicians who play here are the sort who’d otherwise appear at the F&C Parlour: acoustic singer-songwriters, jazz players, folk acts, Irish music, anybody who doesn’t need heavy-duty amplification to get his or her point across. At times, booking activity at the Hutton has been as heavy as that in any room in town: Early this summer, on any given night they were open, the bar was likely to have a strummer or a singer in the back. Unlike Fox & Crow, there’s no dedicated room just for shows, but the main space is so pretty that we doubt you’ll mind. (225 Hutton St., www.thehuttonjc.com)
The Archer is located on the pedestrian plaza, but the bar and restaurant has taken pains to cultivate a personality sharply different from that of the bigger clubs. It’s dark, there’s a heavy-duty hunting theme, the sliders are made from bison meat, and the vibe in the room is resolutely grown-up. The unusual qualities of The Archer extend to the live music, which is provided by the Go Bailers. They’re a bluegrass band with serious skills and a deep repertoire, and they’ve made this bar an attractive Wednesday night stop for anybody with a taste for traditional country music. (176 Newark Ave., www.archerbar.com)
Madame Claude Bis
Much like The Archer, Madame Claude Bis is a place you’d go to see the house band—but what a house band it is. Manouche Bag is as close to a local musical institution as Jersey City has got: a tireless, crackling French gypsy jazz outfit led by the owner of the restaurant, making songs that pair perfectly with wine and crepes. Those who remember the jazz nights at the warm but tight original location of Madame Claude will agree that the outfit has only gotten better as it has migrated into its new digs behind White Eagle Hall. This is a quintessential Jersey City experience and one that ties the current bustling iteration of the city’s music scene to its D.I.Y. past. (390 4thSt., www.madameclaudejc.com)
The Warehouse District seems like an obvious place for a live music club. Yet since the end of Uncle Joe’s, a closure that still stings, all these years later, there hasn’t been much music reverberating around these cobblestoned streets. Headroom is trying to change that, and those who remember the space when it was called Transmission know that it’s got everything necessary to be a dedicated venue. There’s a stage, a big back room, and a large bar where patrons can wait before going in. It’s lucky enough to share a building with Bucket & Bay (and Departed Soles) too, so there’s no shortage of foot traffic. They’ve already landed an impressive booking: singer-songwriter Debra Devi, a superb guitarist and cornerstone of Hudson County blues, will appear at Headroom on Oct. 26. If you were going to bet on a space’s becoming an important part of the scene, there’d be worse places to lay your money than right here. (150 Bay St., www.headroombar.com)
Are you regularly booking live music at your establishment? Think the stuff you’re hosting has artistic merit? If so, we want to hear from you. Let us know, and we’ll visit your place and add it to the guide.