New Jersey’s music scene too often gets boiled down to Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. But the state has a long and vibrant history of producing important bands in all genres.
It is a story that begins at the dawn of the 20th century with jazz greats like the stride pianist James P. Johnson and Count Basie, who started out playing piano for silent films in Red Bank. It includes Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, hip-hop stars like Queen Latifah and the Fugees, and punk bands like The Smithereens and The Feelies.
Many of the clubs that gave New Jersey’s musicians their starts have perished. The Upstage in Asbury Park, where Springsteen and Southside Johnny Lyon cut their teeth, closed years ago. The Fast Lane, also in Asbury Park, is gone. City Gardens, the legendary Trenton club that closed two decades ago, has been chronicled in a book and film.
Maxwell’s in Hoboken, perhaps the most influential club in the state, closed last year. And many of the clubs along Route 35, which had been famous for hosting cover bands and the new metal scene that birthed Bon Jovi, are just memories. In New Brunswick, the Melody and Roxy — both of which were venues for music and poetry — were demolished when the city began its renewal process.
Despite this, the state continues to support a vibrant music scene, led by acts from New Brunswick and Asbury Park and bands like Gaslight Anthem, Thursday, and Saves the Day.
What follows are 10 of the most significant venues for live music in New Jersey. While far from an exhaustive or comprehensive list — there are dozens of record stores, bars, and coffee houses offering live music around the state — these are the clubs most often mentioned during interviews with musicians and New Jersey-based critics. Readers are encouraged to add their favorites, especially those farther south.
1. The Court Tavern, New Brunswick
This quintessential New Jersey rock club closed for about six months in 2012 when its long-time owner Bobby Albert retired. Mike Barrood stepped in and the club that New Jersey music writer Jim Testa calls “the great-granddad of NJ clubs” reopened and continues to draw an eclectic lineup of bands and a devoted fan base. The Court, as Nick D’Amore, drummer for Mr. Payday, says, still has “a great-sounding room” and offers a ”great stage for a local band to cut its teeth.”
2. Asbury Lanes, Asbury Park
The former bowling alley comes up often in conversations with New Jersey punk bands, especially those based in and around Asbury Park. Why? As Zack West of the band Ghost House says, “There’s a sense of comfort and, honestly, that’s all you can ask for.” It doesn’t hurt that the club attracts national acts like the Reverend Horton Heat or that the lanes offer a spacious dance floor.
3. The Saint, Asbury Park
Gary Wein, publisher of the just-launched New Jersey Stage arts magazine, says the club “truly believes in indie music.” While it also attracts national acts, which “helps give the place an identity which is good for indie bands that are struggling to draw much,” Wein said.
“It’s a small venue, which is perfect for bands trying to reach beyond their local area,” he said in a message on Facebook. “Whether you’re from Sussex County or Atlantic County or anywhere in between, it’s a good club to play because it is on the radar of New York and Philly clubs, as well.”
4. The New Brunswick Basements, New Brunswick
The closing of many of the city’s clubs over the past two decades forced its historic music scene underground — literally. The basement scene, which is housed in more than a dozen houses usually rented by college students from Rutgers University, features both full-band and acoustic shows and gets rave reviews from bands who say the crowds are as energetic and engaged as any in the state.
5. The Brighton Bar, Long Branch.
A small club in a small Jersey Shore town with a big reputation, it has attracted national punk acts like the Dictators and X, the Brighton Bar “has the feel (to me, at least) of a N.Y.-dive rock club,” Wein said. “It’s gritty, has good beer, and gets great bands if you love punk.”
6. Dingbatz, Clifton
Dingbatz is the place to go, according to musicians and critics, if you want to see up-and-coming heavy metal bands. The “metal-centric venue,” says D’Amore, “has some pretty good shows in that genre, and a supportive audience.”
7. Mill Hill Saloon, Trenton
The Trenton music scene has shrunk over the years, but the Mill Hill has remained a constant, hosting shows in all genres. While known mostly for its blues and jazz shows, its basement venue is becoming a home to the city’s punk scene, D’Amore said.
8. Tierney’s Tavern, Montclair
The tavern bills itself as “Montclair’s home for blues, rock and roll, big band, jazz and more” and gets high marks from musicians and critics as a great place to see live music. “Always a great time,” said Testa, the venue is “the hub of Montclair’s excellent folk/rock scene.”
9. Stone Pony, Asbury Park
The Pony is included because it is a legend on the New Jersey music scene, helping to further the careers of Springsteen and other Jersey Shore bands, and serving as an important local venue for national bands like Lucinda Williams and the Old 97s. Its national profile has meant that fewer local bands take to the Pony’s stage, but it does not diminish the club’s importance to the state’s music scene.
Despite the national profile, the Pony still continues to provide a stage for the state’s up-and-coming indie rockers, during what Wein, publisher of New Jersey Stage, describes as “part of the day-long sort” of showcase — 10 bands from the afternoon to evening on a Sunday.
10. Northern Soul, Hoboken
The club gets a mention because of its location: the loss of Maxwell’s left a hole in the important Hudson County live music scene. NorthernSoul hosts live acts and several open-mic nights a week.
The list was compiled during interviews, Facebook chats, and emails with Jim Testa, editor and publisher of JerseyBeat.com and a music writer for the Jersey Journal; Gary Wein, publisher of NewJerseyStage.com; Nick D’Amore, drummer for Mr. Payday; Zack West, singer and bass player for Ghost House; and other New Jersey musicians.