Slingshot City Scenes: Free New York City Concerts
New York City is an expensive place. There's no such thing as a free lunch around here; everything has its cost in one form or another. Any event with an open bar is bound to be an over-packed nightmare, and the sheer mass of the population — literally millions of people in sweaty apartments looking for anything to get them outside — leads to long lines and short tempers. But music lovers know they can find transporting nights of beauty and soul in the best of the summer festivals and concert series that have taken root here. Best of all, a whole lot of it is actually free.
Battery Park City River & Blues Festival
Everyone knows about the big park festivals, but this sweet corner of the city hosts a series of great blues and roots shows every summer on a smaller scale. Wagner Park is at the very southwestern tip of Manhattan, right on the waterfront, with one of the best views in town (say hello to our friend the Statue of Liberty).
Battery Park City isn't like anywhere else in Manhattan; it feels more like a shiny, clean suburb on the Hudson River. Built on a landfill (don't think too much about that), it's got a ton of park space, flowers, walkways and free wifi. The River & Blues concert vibe is to bring a blanket and picnic there for supper, with kids and dogs.
There's a DJ starting at about 6 p.m., the bands start around 7, and make sure you stay for sunset. Your best bet to get in and out is the subway, with several close stops on the 4, 5, R and W lines. If you don't bring your own food, Italian restaurant Gigino even has tables outside. And if you have the afternoon free beforehand, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is in the corner of the same park.
July 25, 2019, 7 p.m.
The War & Treaty
The husband-and-wife duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter have set the public radio listening world on fire this past year. Their shows are exhilarating displays of love, hope and joy.
August 1, 2019, 7 p.m.
The Tennessee guitarist, banjoist and songwriter is part of the Our Native Daughters project with Rhiannon Giddens, applying her raw vocal power to old-time rock, folk and blues songs.
BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival
A big player in the summer concert scene, BRIC (Brooklyn Information & Culture) is a nonprofit organization supporting the arts in various forms. Its Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival series at the Prospect Park Bandshell is its flagship effort, drawing thousands of music fans for both free and ticketed concerts. It's a big night out in a beautiful place — more the kind of event you plan for a friend or date rather than a casual walk through the park to see what's happening.
Shows start at 7:30 p.m.; get there early. The line snakes through the trees, but they keep it moving. There isn't a bad show in the bunch, and you can choose to worm your way up front or hang back on the lawn. There's a decent selection of food and drink (with all new choices this year) and a smattering of local artsy merchant stalls.
Expect a full-stage light show, impeccable sound and serious revelry. The concrete front plaza area fits up to 2,000 people, with another 5,000 on the lawn behind. Shows do reach capacity (more so for the big artists at the paid shows) and it's first-come, first-in. Your best travel bet, as usual, is the subway, on the F/G, 2/3 or Q/S/B lines — their website says, "Please, leave your car at home," though there are a few local lots. There's also a bike-parking tent (bring your own lock).
July 25, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Broken Social Scene / Nilüfer Yanya
Broken Social Scene, the collective at the heart of the Toronto indie-rock ecosystem, comes to the Bandshell with fast-rising Londoner Nilüfer Yanya.
August 9, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
What's Going On featuring Felicia Collins, Toshi Reagon, Siedah Garrett, Kecia Lewis and others
Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is a cultural touchstone that remains relevant; guitarist and bandleader Felicia Collins gathers an all-star band for a deep dive as they play the record in its entirety.
August 10, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Bomba Estéreo / Delsonido
Simón Mejía and Li Saumet, the Bogotá-based electro-cumbia superstars who make up Bomba Estéreo, are joined by the fiery local Colombian expat outfit Delsonido.
There's a $5 suggested donation for the free shows, which goes to support a great organization. Speaking of which, BRIC also puts on a daytime free concert series, BAM R&B Festival at Metrotech, in downtown Brooklyn worth checking out; it's on Thursdays at noon at MetroTech Commons. Past performers include Jimmy Cliff, Booker T & the M.G.'s, Los Lobos, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers and Maceo Parker. You can still catch Cha Wa (7/25), Ruthie Foster (8/1) and Third World (8/8) this season.
SummerStage in Central Park
Here's to the efforts of the crack nonprofit City Parks Foundation, which since 1986 has carried the burden and pleasure of maintaining the long and storied history of free live music in New York City's center.
The first free Saturday concert in Central Park was held in 1859; Enrico Caruso drew 50,000 people to a show in 1918. More recently, the Schaefer Music Festival, later the Dr. Pepper Central Park Music Festival, presented free or nearly free shows at Wollman Rink from the late '60s until the '80s, where folks saw everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Ella Fitzgerald. Now, shows are held in 18 parks across the city and the principal spot is Rumsey Playfield, which is so close to the old crumbling bandshell that you can see it from the top of the bleachers.
Rumsey Playfield (near the East 72nd Street entrance) has been the somewhat-rustic setting for Central Park SummerStage since 1990; it just went through a multi-million-dollar makeover for the 2019 season, which brought in a new stage, screens, sound system, lighting and bleachers.
There's something beautiful about live music under the night sky, surrounded by trees that are surrounded by buildings, right in the middle of Manhattan. You're out there in the weather; unless lightning threatens to strike, the show goes on, but a rainy show can be as memorable as a sunny one. The bleachers now have more room, and sometimes there's space to spread out blankets; otherwise you're standing (or dancing) with 5,000 of your friends. Leave your chairs, coolers, strollers, weapons, vapes and selfie sticks at home; there's no bag check.
Doors open one hour prior to the listed showtimes. You can bring food or buy it; a good range of items is available while supplies last, as are adult beverages. Prices are about what you'd expect in NYC, with $14 chicken fingers and $9 beers.
SummerStage signed on with the global initiative Keychange, which asks festivals to pledge to a 50-50 gender balance in their programming; this year, SummerStage has hit that goal.
July 31, 2019
A big performance with a 10-piece band and nine dancers, featuring members of the original Broadway cast from the Tony Award-winning production Fela!, celebrating the music of Afrobeat founding father Fela Kuti.
August 4, 2019
Multiple Grammy-winner Corinne Bailey Rae's soulful, jazzy R&B has won her millions of fans over the past decade. She's joined by American singer Jose James, who blends modern jazz with cross-generational references.
Are you an early riser? Rumsey Playfield is also the scene of Good Morning America's free live shows on summer Fridays from 7 to 9 a.m. Still to come: Lady Antebellum (7/26), Pitbull (8/2), Keith Urban (8/9), Chance the Rapper (8/16), French Montana (8/23) and Kane Brown & Marshmello (8/30).
SummerStage Coney Island: If you like a coastal setting, Coney Island's Seaside Concert Series has been running since 1978 (with a little financial and legal trouble along the way), and just got an influx of funding that will ensure continued shows through 2025. This season, you can still catch Fela! The Concert on July 26. Also, SummerStage at East River Park presents The Mountain Goats on August 10.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors
Held in the Damrosch Park Bandshell of Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side, "the country's longest-running free outdoor festival" has been filling the plazas with music and dance for 43 Augusts.
This uptown playground is a hotbed of smart cultural programming, mixing in touring artists with uniquely designed showcases of the wow-I-had-no-idea variety. The space can seat up to 3,000 people, with enough air to breathe under a breezy sky.
Take the subway to 59th or 66th street. Gates open one hour before the performance, and the line for first-come, first-served seating forms on 62nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam (bring water, wear sunscreen). The bar has summer cocktails, wines and beers, and food trucks park nearby.
July 24, 2019, 7 p.m.
Legacy: Lalah Hathaway Sings Donny Hathaway
The Illustrious Blacks, Baby Rose, The Last Poets, Roosevelt André Credit and the Lappelle Choi, and more, hosted by Terrance McKnight. Part of the multimedia Soul at the Center exhibit (world premiere).
July 26, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Jeff Tweedy and Helen Gillet
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy brings the poetry and guitar for a solo show sure to feature songs from his latest release and band history. Helen Gillet crafts her jazz-based songs with voice, cello and live looping technology.
July 27, 2019, 7 p.m.
Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul
With guest vocalists Jonny Benavidez (Cold Diamond & Mink), Eric Burton (Black Pumas), Kam Franklin (The Suffers), Johnny Hernandez (Little Joe & The Latinaires), Alex Marrero (Brownout), Amalia Mondragon (The Chamanas), Ruben Ramos (The Mexican Revolution) and Paul Schalda (Paul & The Tall Trees) under the musical direction of Adrian Quesada. Plus Lee Fields & The Expressions, Black Pumas and DJs Ruben Molina and Rae Cabello.
July 31, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
NPR Music's Turning the Tables Live: The Motherlode
Featuring Courtney Marie Andrews, Rhiannon Giddens, Xiomara Laugart, Ledisi, Amina Claudine Myers, Cleo Reed, Valerie Simpson, Charenée Wade and Lizz Wright, under the musical direction of Terri Lyne Carrington with readings by Angela Davis and Sonia Sanchez.
August 10-11, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Roots of Americana Music Weekend
Saturday: The songs of Patty Griffin and rising Americana star Yola; Sunday: David Crosby & Friends and singer-songwriter (and Hadestown creator) Anaïs Mitchell.
Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts
40 Jesup Road, Westport, Connecticut (behind the Westport Library)
Though it's a bit of an outlier, since it's a Metro-North train ride away from the big town, the free music series at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport is a standout for several reasons. Run by a nonprofit that takes risks on upcoming, original artists, and set in a truly lovely spot on the Saugatuck River, it's worth the extra effort to find.
With a crowd size that ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand, it's a more intimate experience than most city shows. There's a high-quality kids program and food, beer and wine for sale. Bring a blanket or folding chairs, a cooler and a picnic supper (for the free shows only); no dogs and no smoking, please. There are plenty of nearby restaurants for takeout, so you can get there in time for the sunset.
July 25, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Black Belt Eagle Scout
Katherine Paul is Black Belt Eagle Scout, whose 2018 debut earned her fans at Stereogum, Paste, FADER and NPR Music. Her new release, At the Party With My Brown Friends, explores the life of this radical indigenous queer feminist.
July 26, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
The crafty pop hooks of Drew Angus have propelled him to late-night TV, the farewell season of American Idol and performances with Nile Rodgers and Harry Styles, among others.
July 27, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Pete Francis & Friends
Founder of the band Dispatch, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Pete Francis has played arenas and toured the world.
August 16, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Top 10 songwriter and funny, upbeat performer Howie Day is touring to support his latest album, Lanterns.
August 18, 2019, 7 p.m.
The Rad Trads
The Brooklyn jazz-punk-soul band brings its fun, energetic show, complete with horns.
Also this season:
The Fairfield Counts, July 30, 2019 (big band)
Mimi & The Podd Brothers, August 4, 2019 (jazz/soul)
Cha Wa, August 17, 2019 (New Orleans brass)