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Brooklyn: This vibrant borough hits the right note

Move over Manhattan, New York's music scene is over the East River, says Edmund Vallance

Manhattan has always hogged the limelight for live music in New York City. Bob Dylan played his first acoustic gig at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village; Marvin Gaye shot to fame at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; Miles Davis made jazz history at Birdland in the Theater District; and Talking Heads inspired a thousand future bands at CBGB on Bowery.

But – as with restaurants, bars and hotels – Brooklyn is catching up fast. As investment continues to draw people over the East River, a raft of new venues has sprung up in recent years, many of them making use of the borough's grand turn-of-the-century landmarks.

Experimental music space, Issue Project Room (001 718 330 0313; issueprojectroom.org) at 110 Livingstone Street in Brooklyn Heights, is a good place to start a musical exploration of the borough. The grand, 1926 Beaux Arts building is due for a multimillion dollar refurbishment next year, with reopening chalked for 2015. A discreet neon sign marks its entrance to the limestone building, which previously served as headquarters of the Elks social club and the New York City Board of Education. This year, the venue – housed in the theatre – is celebrating its tenth anniversary. The Ten Years Alive On The Infinite Plain festival concludes on 14 November, with a two-night benefit for Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.

Bearing right on to Red Hook Lane, I continue for one block, then turn right on Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn's main artery. I walk for nine blocks until I reach Ashland Place. There I take a right, passing the soon-to-open Polonsky Shakespeare Center (001 212 229 2819; tfana.org), which will join the BAM Cultural District – a group of "40 vibrant Brooklyn-based arts groups" – and arrive at the corner of LaFayette Avenue. From here, I peer up at the District's founding member. The creamy brick building is emblazoned with five soaring arched windows, a grand, tiled façade and letters spelling out Brooklyn Academy Of Music (001 212 781 3000; bam.org), a cultural mainstay for more than 150 years. Today, BAM has a reputation for eclecticism, with a program of events that includes opera, hip-hop, and folk.

I continue on Ashland Place for one block, turn right on to Flatbush Avenue, and push on to a noisy stretch of Atlantic Avenue. Here, the shiny new Barclays Center (001 917 618 6700; barclayscenter.com) crouches like a giant cockroach in a pool of angry traffic. Neil Young and The Rolling Stones have graced this stage since its opening last year, and Beyoncé will be stopping by this winter.

I head south down Flatbush Avenue, walking six blocks to refuel at Morgan's (267 Flatbush Avenue; 001 718 622 2224; morgansbrooklynbarbecue.com) an upscale barbecue joint that opened last month.

Turning left on to Saint Mark's Place, and right on to Carlton Place, I leave high-rise Brooklyn far behind. As I head out into Prospect Heights, the tree-lined streets of brownstones are suddenly more peaceful. Continuing on Carlton Place for seven blocks, I turn right on LaFayette, walking two blocks to the corner of Clermont Avenue. They're filming CBS drama The Good Wife outside the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (001 718 638 1256; masonicboom.com). With its distinctive Ionic columns, and red and green-tiled exterior, this is one of New York's most striking buildings.

Brooklyn is vast (it's three times the size of Manhattan). So I walk three blocks to the Clinton-Washington subway station and take the G train six stops north, alighting at Metropolitan Avenue for Williamsburg. This is the beating heart of New York's independent music scene, with no shortage of recording studios, vintage guitar shops, or world-class music venues.

I turn left down Metropolitan Avenue and walk two blocks over to Knitting Factory (001 347 529 6696; bk.knittingfactory.com) where I've arranged to meet Lio Kanine, head of Brooklyn-based record label, Kanine Records. He has lived and worked in Williamsburg for 13 years, and has seen plenty of changes. "When I first moved here, there were only two bars on Bedford [Williamsburg's main drag] but they were stuffed with hipster kids. You could feel something big was going to happen. They're advertising it as a luxurious neighbourhood now, but there are still squatter kids in the warehouses."

He tells me that his favourite venue is the Music Hall Of Williamsburg (001 718 486 5400; musichallofwilliamsburg.com), so we head out to find it. Bearing left on to Havemeyer, we take a second left on to North 6th Street, and continue for six blocks until we reach the rather unassuming Music Hall. We're entering the warehouse district now, where coffee shops and yoga centres give way to slick, glass-fronted restaurants and towering condominiums.

From North 6th Street, we turn left on to Kent Avenue, walking seven blocks towards our final destination: Glasslands (001 718 599 1450; theglasslands.com). Here, we settle down at the low-lit bar and order a beer. "If a band can sell out Glasslands, people start paying attention," Lio tells me. "Even the new condo people who've moved in around here, they'll come to Glasslands."

"What about gigs in Manhattan?" I ask. "I'm not going to lie to you," he says, "I'd rather see bands in my neighbourhood."

Fresh cuts

Opened in August, Shalom Japan on 310 South 4th Street (001 718 388 4012; shalomjapannyc.com) epitomises Brooklyn's cultural diversity. Chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi wow the Williamsburg in-crowd with their playful mix of Jewish and Japanese cuisine.

Thai bar and restaurant, Whiskey Soda Lounge NY at 115 Columbia Street (001 718 797 4120; whiskeysodalounge-ny.com) opened last month and in the hip, waterfront district of Red Hook. Cocktails and Ahaan Kap Klaem (Thai drinking food) are served from 5.30pm until midnight, seven days a week.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Edmund Vallance travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com), which flies to New York JFK and Newark from Heathrow. Returns start at £440. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) operates the same routes. Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) flies from Heathrow to JFK; American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) from Heathrow and Manchester to JFK; and United Airlines (0845 607 6760; united.com) from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester to Newark.


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