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‘The New Colossus Festival’ 2023 Review: NYC’s Best-Kept Indie Secret?

I didn’t think it was possible to host a successful festival in Manhattan. That is until I went to The New Colossus Festival.

All images: Chandler Rose

I didn’t think hosting a successful festival in Manhattan was possible. That is until I went to The New Colossus Festival.

Whenever I think of the phrase ‘music festival,’ I often imagine places like Coachella and Glastonbury, where multiple stages cover a large area of open land. But for the past few days, I was able to experience a different type of festival in the heart of New York City. 

This past week I had the fantastic opportunity to attend The New Colossus Festival in Manhattan. The festival name is inspired by the sonnet of the same title by Emma Lazarus. Her words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which serves as a beacon of acceptance for all immigrants. In the same vain since 2015, organizers Mike Bell, Lio Kanine, and Steve Matrick have invited indie artists from over fifteen countries to perform in the historic neighborhoods of the East Village and Lower East Side districts. The seven venues below each had their personalities, and it was fantastic to experience them all in just five days.  

Pianos

The Upstairs Lounge featuring The After Hours. Image Credit: Chandler Rose
The Showroom featuring Trinket. Image Credit:
Chandler Rose

As the only venue with two stages, Pianos hosted the most number of performances and also served as the headquarters for the festival. The venue was created in 2002 and primarily recruited alternative rock artists and DJ sets year-round. During The New Colossus, use of both stages created a seamless flow of consistent music. Despite having similar lighting, each spot had its differences. The Upstairs Lounge provided a spacious atmosphere allowing a more spread-out crowd. Meanwhile, downstairs in The Showroom, the small room fosters a more intimate environment to match the smaller band sizes. Some favorites from the nights include Trinket and Grand Sun. On Thursday, Pianos also hosted a series of panels focusing on publishing, streaming, business trends, and more.

Berlin

Berlin featuring High. Image credit: Chandler Rose

Berlin offers indie rock shows throughout the year, so their involvement with The New Colossus makes sense. The underground venue is quite cozy, as the bar is only a few feet from the artists. The stage is in the corner of the room, allowing performers to project to the entire crowd. As a middle ground between The Upstairs Lounge and The Showroom, Berlin is sizable but also feels intimate at the same time. Here I enjoyed the performance by High and Consumables.

Mercury Lounge

Mercury Lounge featuring French Cassettes. Image Credit: Chandler Rose

The Mercury Lounge, located on Houston St., has been around since 1993, and their hosting of The New Colossus heavily aligns with their values of creating community. Because of the small room, the venue quickly reached capacity throughout the five nights. It became one of the more challenging establishments due to its frequent lines in front of the main entrance.

Once inside, one could easily order a drink from the bar or head straight to the stage. Behind them, it generally revealed a packed crowd and a medium size band mid-performance. Engineers in the back of the room also prepared not just the sound aspect but also the light portion of the show. It was not unusual for light to change colors and positions through sets. While it could get tight from the many people, I enjoyed The Mercury Lounge and its ambiance. 

Bowery Electric: Map Room

The Map Room at Bower Electric featuring Big Mountain Country. Image Credit: Chandler Rose

The Map Room at Bowery Electric was the smallest, taking the word intimate to a new meaning. It was possible to see both the audio engineer and the stage simultaneously. This allowed the audience to follow, allowing conversations usually signaled by hand gestures from artists. Whenever a band such as Big Mountain Country used amps in their sets, the vibrations shook all four walls. Because the stage was only a few inches tall, performers sang practically face-to-face with anyone at the front. It made the sets even more intense and emotional. 

Arlene’s Grocery

Arlene’s Grocery featuring Pale Daïn. Image Credit: Chandler Rose

The first time I made my way to Arlene’s Grocery, I walked right past it! That’s because, just as the name suggests, the music venue looks just like a grocery store. The building itself was a bodega before its bar transformation in 1995. Since then, it has hosted primarily punk and hard rock bands.

The stage had a foggy atmosphere during the festival, which mysteriously clouded artists. This paired nicely, especially with Pale Dïan’s ethereal performance. The small bar offered an Igloo water jug for easy access – the venue was often packed and hot. In addition to the fog, great lighting also enhanced the sets. Various colors and movements made the shows super engaging. 

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait featuring BLACK MARACAS. Image Credit: Chandler Rose

Heaven Can Wait was similar to Berlin in that the stage was also situated in the corner but had a slightly different layout. The room was a little smaller and provided a few plush booths near the entrance across from the bar. Some enjoyed the music from this area as the backdrop to ongoing conversations. Others watched from the bar. But most stood close to the stage, which was super inviting from the many disco balls—the tastefully placed plants across the venue brought life to every set. I particularly enjoyed the BLACK MARACAS band, who traveled from Spain to perform. 

Bowery Ballroom

Bowery Ballroom. Image Credit: Chandler Rose

At the end of the festival, Bowery Ballroom hosted the official Finale Party and other performances throughout the five days. Given its muti-level feature, it was the perfect venue for such a closing. Opening in 1998 as a music venue, the establishment has hosted many famous acts, such as Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean, and Joan Jett. After entering the first set of stairs, I joined the main floor to see many people enjoying the ongoing performance. While modest in size, the high ceilings created a spacious feeling. The audience can watch the stage from the balcony on the second floor. It was a fantastic way to experience the performers and conclude the unique festival.

The Best Music Festival In Manhattan

The New Colossus Festival is excellent to check out in New York. Its focus on independent and underground indie artists allows audience members to become familiar with new artists and allows these artists to have an opportunity to share their work. Seeing the different types of people at each show was also excellent. The clientele ranged from NYU students to older NYC residents interested in the local event. I had a great time and look forward to the festival next year!

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Chandler Rose is a university student based in New York City.

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