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 trying to grow with them from the smallest room possible all the way to wherever they can go, [like] the White Stripes at the Mercury Lounge all the way to the Garden,” Moore said.
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 safe to say we have had a significant double-digit increase in show count and ticket sales comparing 2019 and 2022 year over year,” he said.
But while ticket sales have been strong in their initial offerings, not all the pandemic-era problems have been resolved yet. Racket was originally supposed to open last fall, but supply chain issues meant that their HVAC delivery was delayed by months, and the opening was pushed until the new year.
As a result of those delays, only a handful of shows have been booked for the next three months. But Moore expects there will be a lot more announcements in the coming weeks. And he is feeling very bullish about the future.
“It was tough seeing venues close, whether ours or other people’s,” he said, “but we worked on this through the pandemic, and we always believed in Manhattan. We believe in live shows, and we believe strongly in the future of the city.”