Louisiana grew out of a unique, muddy substrate of North American cultural soil. This is a state with roots in the African diaspora, Acadian French exiles, Irish immigrants and the Creole society of New Orleans. Louisiana has long known that the things that make life worth living are good food, good drink and good tunes. This basic philosophy underlines the state and makes for a location with a surfeit of great live music.
The state’s capital is primarily known for her annual blues festival, one of the largest in the country. But Red Stick residents will tell you that their town is a singer-songwriter sort of place. That’s not to say it’s all acoustic guitars and soft sonatas in Baton Rouge; think more along the lines of growly country ballads and raw blues licks.
Get a taste of the city’s singer-songwriter scene at the Third Street Songwriter Festival, which remains a little off the radar even for many Louisianans. This laid-back party’s main event is a series of songwriter ‘rounds’ performed all along Baton Rouge’s downtown 3rd Street – the vibe is like a pub crawl, but with more music. On that note, many locals in need of a quieter spot for appreciating a more lo-fi music setting should opt for the Red Dragon Listening Room; it’s stuffed with soft lighting and rows of sofas.
If you’re into bigger venues, larger country and rock acts make regular appearances at the Texas Club. The city’s finest large venue is the Varsity Theatre, a former art deco movie theater near the LSU campus, where you’ll hear a good variety of music from multiple genres.
Lafayette & Cajun Country
The Acadian heartland of Lafayette is the best part of the state for Cajun and zydeco music. Cajun music derives from fiddle and accordion pairings, which have been enlivened with drum sets, rhythm guitars and bass in the modern era. Zydeco, which owes its sound to both Cajun and African influences, emphasizes rhythm via quick tempo, drawn out accordion solos and the metal washboard of the frottoir.
For most visitors to the region, Lafayette stands out as the area’s easiest gateway (and for its impressive concetration of Grammy winners). The city’s most iconic music venue is the Blue Moon Saloon, which conveniently doubles as a place to crash. If you’re in a zydeco mood, make sure to check out El Sido’s, one of the few remaining venues dedicated to that genre of music. In nearby Breaux Bridge, Buck and Johnny's hosts a zydeco breakfast that mixes up local food and tunes quite nicely. If you’re in the mood for music that escapes the tropes of Louisiana’s prairies and bayous, head to Artmosphere, a cozy gallery and arts space where live music kicks off every night of the week.
On Saturday mornings, head north of Lafayette to Fred's Lounge in Mamou, a tiny bar that hosts a packed Cajun dance party starting around 9am. Come Saturday evening, head over to Eunice on the Cajun prairie. At 6pm at the Liberty Theater, you’ll find a crowd of folks dancing and clapping along with the live broadcast of Rendez-vous des Cajuns, a local musical variety show.
Of course, no city in Louisiana can match New Orleans for sheer variety of live music.
Bourbon Street is an obvious can’t-miss, but there’s actually not a ton of live music to offer. Notable spots include the city’s oldest operating jazz club, Fritzel’s, and Preservation Hall; the venue is older than many American states. With that said, don’t let ‘the Hall’ or Fritzel’s be your only taste of jazz in the city that birthed the genre. While it’s hardly the locals’ own Bourbon Street of marketing imagination, Frenchmen Street remains an excellent strip of local, live music.
You can’t really go wrong with any of the bars on Frenchmen Street either, but standbys include d.b.a and the Spotted Cat. Further along, on St Claude Avenue, you’ll find several bars that showcase more of the city’s contemporary music, from metal singer songwriters at Siberia to experimental anything at the AllWays Lounge. On Esplanade Avenue, slightly away from all of the crowds, Buffa’s serves good burgers, fries, and regularly plays hosts to an eclectic range of local live acts.
You don’t have to stick to the ‘downtown’ side of New Orleans for good music. Within the Warehouse District, regular live acts bring the heat to joints like the Howlin’ Wolf and Republic. Further Uptown, make sure to catch a brass show at the reliably wild Les Bon Temps Roule, or the iconic Maple Leaf Bar. On Freret St, funky little Gasa Gasa pulls a mainly student crowd into its cozy venue and showcases a good range of contemporary artists ranging from electronica to alt country. The most well-known club in these parts is Tipitina’s, a standby venue that has hosted some of the most legendary musical shows in the history of a city known for pretty great music.
In Mid-City, locals pack into the intimate Chickie Wah Wah, which has a reputation for hosting an excellent mix of regular New Orleans musicians and visiting acts. Finally, back downtown, head to Bywater for the strange and surreal Music Box Village, a hybrid arts installation and concert venue where the very location of the audience sits in doubles like a series of makeshift instruments.
Lonely Planet has produced this article and video for Louisiana Office of Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality