Why New Jersey’s Live Music Scene Will ‘Always Be Booming’

Homegrown bands and clubs are making the Garden State a hub for live shows.

Low Dive in Asbury Park
Low Dive in Asbury Park Photo: Jeff Crespi/@jeffcrespirocks

On a recent cold, winter night in Downtown Jersey City, rock ’n’ roll could be heard (dueling guitars, squealing vocals) and felt (pummeling bass, desperate and deliberate drums) through the floorboards at the bar and restaurant Pet Shop. A diverse crowd emblematic of Jersey City filled the small, subterranean space below, as it does every Thursday night.

“There’s a bunch of creative people in New Jersey,” says booker and bartender Nasir Mallette (aka @knwldg_), adding that Pet Shop is known to be a place that’s “cool and hip and young.”

Homegrown bands are thriving in New Jersey, and that’s because there’s an audience for live, original music here. That translates into audiences for bigger, touring bands as well. From Jersey City to Asbury Park to Montclair and beyond, acts are stopping in the Garden State instead of driving through from Philly to New York City and vice versa.

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Todd Abramson, booker and general manager at the popular Jersey City venue White Eagle Hall, says the number and quality of shows is on an “upward trajectory” due to an increase in interested residents in Jersey City, Asbury Park and surrounding communities, but also due to established relationships between clubs and artists.

“When I was reaching out to agents a few years ago to get people to play at White Eagle Hall, they were very hesitant,” says Abramson, former owner and booker of the famed club Maxwell’s in Hoboken (RIP: 2013). “There wasn’t an established Jersey City market, and now there is.”

The post-pandemic influx of 30- and 40-something residents to Jersey towns from Brooklyn and elsewhere has certainly contributed to the music scene, too.

“The population shift has helped,” says Peter Mantas, a veteran booker in New Jersey as well as a childhood friend and former manager of Jon Bon Jovi. Mantas now books shows at the sister venues Low Dive and the Break, located right on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.

In Asbury Park specifically, redevelopment has played a part, too. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” he says. “We’re cool down here at the Shore. We’re metropolitan, but we’re not metropolitan.”

The Stone Pony is a venue that has stood the test of time: busts and booms, Bruce Springsteen’s rise, and, in recent years, Summer Stage and a deal with Live Nation have all contributed. As Asbury has been rebuilt in recent years, more and more music lovers and tourists have come out, providing ample audiences for live music.

“The music prevailed, and what carried it is the fans—we have some of the best fans in the world. Dedicated, passionate,” says Kyle Brendle, booker at the Stone Pony for 40 years.

New Jersey has long been associated with music: the Boss, Bon Jovi, Sinatra, Patti Smith…we could go on. One could probably play six degrees of separation and find that every musician in America has ties to the Garden State.

And, as it turns out, despite increasing difficulty in breaking into the music industry, high rents and thus fewer venues, liquor-license rules, and so many other barriers to entry, there are more bands than ever making music here. “There’s no shortage of bands,” says Brendle. “Jersey is a freaking amazing place.”

Those interviewed for this story singled out Asbury as the center of music culture in New Jersey.

“There’s a ton of bands and they’re all really good,” says Joe Belock, longtime WFMU DJ host of “Three Chord Monte.” “There are times I’m on the boardwalk and I can’t get into a place, and it’s like, ‘Oh shit.’” Mantas agrees the local music scene is thriving down the Shore. “We gotta realize how lucky we are. We have multiple clubs, multiple cities, can’t take it for granted,” says Mantas. In Asbury, “Bruce Springsteen put us on the map; we have a lot of bands thinking, ‘Maybe we can make it, too!’”

The acts he books are veteran bands and young bands, all from New Jersey.

Jersey City resident and musical multi-hyphenate Tom Gallo agrees. And he should know: He has a blog, a podcast and a website dedicated to live concert-audio preservation, and he also books and promotes shows—on top of his day job as a lawyer. “Asbury Park is really producing a lot of great young bands right now,” he says.

But while New Jersey has an influx of homegrown bands, not every music town is like Asbury, which has clubs of all sizes that can accommodate both up-and-coming groups and bigger acts. Smaller-capacity spaces in cities like Jersey City and New Brunswick are not as prevalent. Gallo says the lack of spaces for live music makes it hard to give all the great local bands exposure. “There are places willing to host live music, but there’s only a few,” he says, adding that Corgi Spirits in Jersey City is closing.

Mallette at Pet Shop, who is also a musician, is trying to show that live music is a force for good and is focused on curating bills that represent the diversity Jersey City is known for.  “Me being Black and one of the few Black bartenders at one of the busiest places, I make it a point to book Black and brown artists and hip-hop artists,” he says. “I have this quote-unquote position of power, so I want to take it upon myself.”

Perhaps the number of Jersey bands one hears about can be chalked up to that age-old and crucial component present in all things Jersey: pride.

“Bands from here…they’re always touting New Jersey and their roots,” says Belock. He dropped some names: Real Estate, Smithereens, Bouncing Soles, Yo La Tengo, the Bongos, the Feelies, Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females. “Maybe that’s part of it: ‘Hey, we’re our own identity.’”

Even New Jersey bands that got their starts here and have moved to other parts of the country don’t want to let go of their Jersey-ness. The indie-rock band Real Estate, arguably one of the most popular groups to come out of the Garden State in recent years, filmed a music video from their new album, Daniel, in Berkeley Heights. It features another Jersey native, Danny Tamberelli, from the ’90s Nickelodeon favorite The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and was made in collaboration with the creators of the show. Lead singer and songwriter Martin Courtney says Pete and Pete—which filmed in Jersey towns including Nutley—looked like where he was from, which deeply connected him with the show when he was young.

And while the members of Real Estate now live across the country, and Courtney calls the Hudson Valley home, Jersey remains a crucial part of the group’s identity.

“Spiritually, we’re a Jersey band,” says Courtney. He continues, “You have to have a contrarian vein in you to say you’re from New Jersey….There’s an in-your-face thing about it, just having that pride of where you’re from. You know the truth. It’s a secret that you have: New Jersey actually rules.”

Gallo sees a future for himself and the bands he writes about and promotes.

“I think it will always be booming,” he says. “It’s such a hub of creativity because of the history. There’s always going to be interesting bands making music in New Jersey.”

Georgia Kral is a professor of journalism and communications at Saint Peter’s University and a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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