For 12 years, the Highline Ballroom was one of Manhattan’s premier midlevel concert venues. Located in the heart of Chelsea, the 700-person capacity venue attracted a wide range of artists including Paul McCartney, free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, Adele, Steve Martin, Future, Amy Winehouse and Robert Pollard’s side project Boston Spaceships. The Roots played the final concert there in 2019 after the landlord decided not to renew owner Blue Note Entertainment Group’s lease.
But starting this weekend, the Highline Ballroom will be resurrected as Racket, the newest expansion of The Bowery Presents, the East Coast partner of AEG Live, which operates Forest Hills Stadium, Terminal 5, Webster Hall, Brooklyn Steel, Music Hall of Williamsburg and more. While the venue has a new name and promoter, it’ll still feel a lot like the old Highline, according to Bowery Presents co-founder John Moore.
“We’ve always liked the room,” Moore told Gothamist. “Great sound and great sightlines are what’s most important to us at Bowery. And the bones of Highline have always been really good. But we also wanted it to have a new identity.”
The space, located at 431 West 16th Street across the street from Chelsea Market, will open its doors for the first time this Saturday, Jan. 7, with Real Estate and Cut Worms. Other bands booked over the next couple of months include Algiers, Slaughter Beach, Dog, Joywave and American Authors.
The new venue name offers a preview of the kind of acts they’re looking to book.
“My partner Jim Glancy and I are both of the ages that we remember being told to ‘turn that racket down’ when we were up in our bedrooms cranking tunes, and our parents would yell at us and whatnot,” said Moore.
Moore says that because the previous venue had such solid “bones,” most of the changes to the space involved simplifying things. The new tenants redid the backstage areas, upgraded the HVAC system and revamped the sound system. But the stage is in the same place, and the bars, which have been updated, are also similarly located.
The previous operators of the Highline Ballroom emphasized the quality of their food — “surprisingly good food for a concert venue!” one Trip Advisor reviewer noted in 2016. But Racket won’t offer dining, so the tables, couches and lounge areas are all gone. And there’ll likely be fewer late-night dance parties, which were a mainstay of Highline programming.
“The focus in the room is the stage, when you’re physically in there,” Moore said. “There’s no distractions or pictures of Bowery logos or any of that. You go into the concert room, and you see black walls and the stage.”
Racket fulfills a very specific need for Bowery Presents, which has been without a midlevel capacity venue in Manhattan ever since separating from Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge during the AEG merger in 2017. In a way, this new venture feels like coming full circle for Moore, who started his career booking shows for those two esteemed venues.
“I actually was going head-to-head, competing for shows at the same capacity with the Highline for a long time,” he noted.
Racket will now have a 650-person capacity, which would make it a sister site for the similarly sized Music Hall of Williamsburg across the East River. For some comparison, Webster Hall has 1,500 capacity, Brooklyn Steel has 1,800, and Terminal 5 has 3,000.
Moore envisions Racket as the perfect staging ground for bands on the rise, or the occasional underplays (bigger artists looking to play smaller, more intimate venues). Instead of doing two nights at Music Hall of Williamsburg, bands who book with Bowery Presents have the option to do one at that Brooklyn venue, and another at Racket in Manhattan.
“We’ve always been about working with artists from the beginning [of their careers], and making an attempt to develop with them from the smallest room attainable all the best way to wherever they will go, [like] the White Stripes on the Mercury Lounge all the best way to the Backyard,” Moore mentioned.
After a period of sustained anxiety for local venues at the height of the pandemic — in which cultural spaces closed completely or were temporarily shuttered, bands put tours on hiatus and audiences embraced livestreams rather than going out — there are finally been signs that NYC’s nightlife scene is roaring back to life.
Pandemic restrictions have largely fallen by the wayside, new venues have opened and audiences are returning. Even though Bowery Presents lost its Rough Trade venue when the record store relocated from Williamsburg to Midtown in 2021, Bowery Presents spokesperson Dennis Dennehy says that ticket sales are way up for their various venues. “Even without a final tally [for 2022], it’s secure to say we have now had a big double-digit enhance in present rely and ticket gross sales evaluating 2019 and 2022 12 months over 12 months,” he mentioned.
However whereas ticket gross sales have been robust in their preliminary choices, not all of the pandemic-era issues have been resolved but. Racket was initially imagined to open final fall, however provide chain points meant that their HVAC supply was delayed by months, and the opening was pushed till the brand new 12 months.
Because of these delays, solely a handful of reveals have been booked for the subsequent three months. However Moore expects there can be much more bulletins in the approaching weeks. And he’s feeling very bullish in regards to the future.
“It was powerful seeing venues shut, whether or not ours or different individuals’s,” he said, “however we labored on this by means of the pandemic, and we all the time believed in Manhattan. We imagine in dwell reveals, and we imagine strongly in the way forward for town.”