Arlene’s Grocery was one of the earliest rock-music venues south of East Houston, and it remains a hallowed hall of head-banging. Er, make that hallowed hole. Downstairs from the main bar is the room where bands rock out all week long; you’ll need a liberal definitions of “loud” and “personal space” down there. Some impressive folks have taken the mike—Jeff Buckley, the Strokes, Vanessa Carlton and Beth Orton. Monthly events range from All-Ages Afternoon to Triple 666 Sunday, which is billed as “a night of debauchery.”
It’s probably the best venue in the city for seeing indie bands, either those on their way up or the ones holding their own. Still, the Bowery also manages to bring in a diverse range of artists from home and abroad. Expect a clear view and bright sound from any spot. The spacious downstairs lounge is a great place to relax and socialize between (or during) sets.
It can be difficult to see the stage in this narrow, stuffy but clean basement space—but it gets big points for its keen indie- and underground-rock bookings, among the most adventurous in Manhattan. It’s located in the heart of the Lower East Side, scrunched between Pianos and the Living Room on Ludlow Street. Cake Shop lives up to its name, selling vegan baked goods and coffee upstairs. The brightly lit back room on street level sells used vinyl and CDs, as well as a smattering of new releases, DVDs and other record-store ephemera.
The unassuming, boxy Mercury Lounge is both an old standby and pretty much the number-one indie-rock club in town, with solid sound and sight lines (and a cramped bar in the front room). There are four-band bills most nights, though they can seem stylistically haphazard, and set times are often later than advertised. It's a good idea to get tickets for bigger shows in advance.
Buxom ’50s pinups—not doctors—rule at this coffeeshop-turned-bar named for the notorious Bettie Page. Inside, swivel stools and slouchworthy couches are taken over by jeans-sporting Lower East Siders sipping frosty brews and bubble-gum martinis. The attentive bartenders’ modern iPod playlists never crush conversations, and the weekend hordes mercifully leave Bettie to the locals.
Sapphire’s bare walls and minimal decorations are as raw as it gets, yet the energetic, unpretentious clientele is oblivious to the (lack of) aesthetic. A dance crowd packs the place all week—various nights feature house, hip hop, reggae and disco.
This cabaret-style venue commits itself curtain and soul to the nouveau burlesque scene, so if you stumble across a pile of pasties and glitter on the Lower East Side, you're probably somewhere nearby.