The dirt road is steep, and it leads to a post-and-beam house. This venue in Woodstock, New York, is actually the rustic home studio of Levon Helm, former singer and drummer for the Band, whose vocals on “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are bedrock rock history. Befitting a house party, the Midnight Ramble is BYOB. And don’t forget a dish for the potluck buffet.
The Rambles began a few years ago so Helm could perform in the wake of a bout with throat cancer. He recovered, his voice returned, and the irregular sessions became regular. At $150 a head, they’re not cheap. But you generally get four-plus hours of music by accomplished locals and passers-through (guests have included Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello) in an intimate room, capped with an always-joyous set by Levon and whoever’s sitting in. Add a plate of homemade chicken wings and cookies: priceless. 160 Plochmann Lane , Woodstock, New York ; www.levonhelm.com. —Will Hermes
Will Hermes is a regular contributor to the New York Times and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Downtown L.A.’s own citadel of skronk, the Smell lurks beneath faded purple neon down a dubious alleyway anchored by a cluster of gay Latino nightclubs and the mechanized chic of the Edison Bar. A roomy brick barn dotted with bookshelves, wing chairs, and scavenged movie-palace seats, this all-ages venue is a Phil Dickian electric dream of a 21st-century punk rock hangout, except that the music is punk only by DIY courtesy.
The venue hosts the oddball and compelling. From the brute prog of Upsilon Acrux to Captain Ahab’s gelid dance-synth grooves to the lofty waif-pop of Hello Astronaut, Goodby Television, the acts navigate eccentric rivulets far outside the commercial mainstream. Saving the place from death-by-boho are the hordes of kids infesting it in an herbal tea approximation of a 1950s malt shop, flexing their cool like a new tattoo. 247 S. Main St. , Los Angeles ; www.thesmell.org.
Ron Garmon is a rock critic for Los Angeles CityBeat and has written for the Los Angeles Times.
Far off on the rural western border of Illinois, Rock Island makes for an unlikely mecca for the leading edge of the nation’s underground rock scene, but for the past two years it’s become a must-do tour stop for many bands. Their destination is the charmingly dilapidated Futureappletree Studio One, where Sean Moeller and Patrick Stolley record live in-studio performances for Daytrotter.com.
With nearly 200 exclusive performances by a spectrum of indie rockers ranging from established acts (Bonnie Prince Billy, Of Montreal) to buzzed-about newcomers (Yeasayer, White Williams), the site could be a gold mine, but Moeller and Stolley refuse to charge for the content. Moeller says that the “golden glow” they get from doing the work is reward enough. Plus they get to hang out and drink beers with their favorite bands all day. “Sounds great,” he says, “don’t it?” —Miles Raymer
Miles Raymer is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader.
As Disneyfication plagues Manhattan’s cultural hot spots, new improvised music is flourishing across the East River. Case in point: Park Slope’s Barbès, a cozy neighborhood bar with a pressed-tin ceiling, French cocktail specials, and low cover charges that hosts culturally diverse acts ranging from jug bands to Brazilian forro outfits to brassy Eastern European soul ensembles. Co-owner Olivier Conan, the French-born Brooklynite and musician at the helm of the club’s success, says his booking reflects a belief that the city needs an “all-inclusive” music venue.
A constant influx of experimental acoustic projects with global roots balanced by popular weekly shows like the Slavic Soul Party have earned the shotgun-shaped venue (and affiliate record label) a reputation as one of the best music spots in town. But it’s not the recent flurry of national critical acclaim that tells the club’s owners they’re doing something right. “We’ve found that musicians like us,” Conan says, “and that has been very comforting and validating.” 376 Ninth St. , Brooklyn, New York ; www.barbesbrooklyn.com. —Jennifer Odell
Jennifer Odell writes for Down Beat, Relix, and People.