Feature artwork by Cap Blackard
Where did you attend your first concert? Mine was at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. It was Counting Crows touring their second album, and for every detail that can be recalled of the actual performance is a bit of memory on how the space felt. The Wiltern was seated back then, and from the ornate chandelier to the first glimpse at a merch stand, the lasting impression was of how big everything felt, how a venue was a place you could get lost in, where the rules of reality didn’t necessarily apply.
Of course, part of that feeling is just youth, but the great venues do have a transportive quality. Details of the box office or the bathrooms or the bar all hold their own weight, building significance both in spite of and because of the experiences held in the rooms. And some of these rooms are better than others. Sure, the most unexceptional concert venues might be near and dear to our hearts because of the shows we saw there or the people we met, but the really great venues go beyond that. There is history between their walls, features that are unlike any other concert space, and state-of-the-art lighting and sound that allow for artists to realize their vision of live presentation.
We took all of this into account when selecting the best 100 venues in the US. Both major and smaller markets are represented, while the sizes range from arenas to bars. There are venues whose history extends back 100 years, and there are others built in this century. But they all hold a certain common ground. A big one is the booking, with most still lining their schedule with the best talent. A few that don’t make their money on national touring acts are known for booking top-tier local acts. All of these venues, though, are known for quality shows regardless of who is actually up on stage.
100. The Space
What You’ll See: Ian MacKaye, My Brightest Diamond, Cloud Nothings
Despite being sandwiched between two major cities, Connecticut is pretty barren when it comes to culture. Drive out to what feels like the middle of nowhere in Hamden, though, and you’ll find one of the state’s hidden gems: The Space. The all-ages venue sits in a huge, desolate parking lot, but once you step inside, it comes to life. Lights string the ceiling like silly string, a snack bar sits at the side with baked goods, and a flooded thrift store and arcade room hide upstairs.
It’s all types of cool without trying to win cool points, allowing The Space to boast the feel of a DIY Brooklyn space without all the pretension. Thanks to its tiny 150-person capacity and Connecticut’s limited venue options, concertgoers get an intimate show from bands that play far larger venues elsewhere on their tour. Then you step back outside and remember you’re in the middle of nowhere — which, ultimately, makes the venue feel all the more like an Alice in Wonderland trip.
99. Cain’s Ballroom
What You’ll See: Animal Collective, Leon Bridges, Tyler, the Creator
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2003, Cain’s Ballroom has a long history of serving various purposes, not hitting its stride as a contemporary music venue until relatively recently. It was initially constructed in 1924 as a garage for Tulsa co-founder W. Tate Brady’s vehicles. Six years later (or five years after Brady’s suicide by gunshot), Madison W. “Daddy” Cain converted the place into a dance establishment, giving it the name Cain’s Dance Academy.
From then on, it’s grown more and more synonymous with musical happenings in Tulsa, playing host to the Texas Playboys’ radio broadcast on KVVO and, after being sold to Larry Schaeffer in the 1970s, even the Sex Pistols in 1978. These days, a wide array of artists swing through for shows at 423 N. Main St. in Tulsa, including a considerable variety of hip-hop acts — A$AP Ferg, Tory Lanez, and Bones Thugs-n-Harmony are all scheduled for upcoming shows.
98. The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace
Las Vegas, Nevada
What You’ll See: Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Reba McEntire, Elton John
Yes, the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace looks like pure Vegas kitsch, a concert venue built to resemble the Colosseum of Rome. And yes, the residency program (inaugurated by Celine Dion) sometimes feels like an elephant graveyard for past-their-prime musical acts. But dig deeper, and this venue inspired by an ancient wonder soon reveals itself to be a modern marvel. The stage includes 10 motorized lifts as well as North America’s largest LED screen, which stands 40 feet tall and projects elaborate, seemingly three-dimensional backgrounds.
Despite a capacity of 4,100, no seat is more than 120 feet from the proscenium. That intimacy, combined with astounding acoustics and a stage spanning 22,400 square feet, means that everyone has a front-row seat for the always dazzling spectacles. All of these perks, combined with an extended stay in an exciting city, make these residencies very attractive to aging performers. If Rod Stewart or Reba McEntire aren’t your speed, that’s fine, but you’ll be glad it exists in 2031 when Jay Z starts his residency.
97. The Observatory
Santa Ana, California
What You’ll See: Burgerama, Beach Goth, Morrissey, Fetty Wap, Jenny Lewis
Using the shell of the Galaxy Concert Theatre, which hosted B-level gets like Sugar Ray and Medeski Martin and Wood for its run from 1994-2008, The Observatory emerged from a massive restoration that turned a 550-cap concert theatre into a two-room concert juggernaut. The main stage hosts acts ranging from hip-hop elite to Orange County legends in a 1,000-person space, while its smaller 350-cap Constellation Room is the only place in the OC to catch an act like Mitski or Into It. Over It.
One of the best aspects of the venue is how well it’s booked, landing better rap acts than any venue in neighboring Los Angeles, while often featuring bands offering warm-up shows before their much bigger LA or festival stops. It’s even become the sight of an occasional festival, with Burgerama and Beach Goth both utilizing the dual indoor stages and the outside parking lot.
96. The Social
What You’ll See: Synths, sun tans, and a sanctuary from mouse ears
Orlando’s countless amusement parks, performance spaces, hotels, and mini-golf courses make the sprawling central Florida city into an east coast Las Vegas, albeit one that was hit especially hard by the mid-2000’s subprime mortgage crisis. But a few Downtown O-town local hot spots weathered this economic hurricane and thank goodness for that.
The Social is still standing! And shaking, and grooving, as it continues an energetic tradition as the city’s best place to catch rock, electronic, and weekly acid jazz sets. The midsize venue is mostly built around concerts, but has sustained itself over time by becoming an incredible dance space that keeps the club kids, the rockers, and the Salsa fanatics equally entertained.
95. JJ’s Bohemia
What You’ll See: That 1 Guy, Thelma and the Sleaze, Future Islands
JJ’s Bohemia is many things, but none of them are chic. A tiny space with a big patio attached (or a big patio with a tiny space, depending on your view), it feels as if every inch of the joint is covered with a sticker, a knick-knack, a string of holiday lights, or the front of a VW van. The vibe is undeniably chaotic, which meshes perfectly with the experience of gathering there for a show — when the stage is inches from your nose and no more than a few feet above you, it’s hard to not feel like a part of rock and roll in the making. Add in the free weekly comedy open mic, bartenders with devoted followers, and a handy disc-golf basket, and you’ve got plenty of reasons to roam off the beaten path.
94. Count Basie Theatre
Red Bank, New Jersey
What You’ll See: Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Kevin Smith
The ‘burbs need concert venues, too, and the Count Basie Theatre caters to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd without making them drive across a bridge or through a tunnel. To that end, there’s something special about seeing legendary, decidedly mature musicians like Brian Wilson and Boz Scaggs right in your Garden State neighborhood, especially when they’re flanked by the Basie’s gorgeously detailed proscenium and celestial blue dome. But such classiness doesn’t drive away the occasional rowdy act: Bruce Springsteen has made several surprise appearances, and fellow Jersey hero Kevin Smith — whose comics shop, Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, is a mere half-mile away — has filmed a handful of his specials there.
93. The Casbah
San Diego, California
What You’ll See: Palm trees and great rock and roll
Like so many promoters-turned-club owners, Tim Mays was simply looking for a place to host shows when he opened The Casbah with Bob Bennett and Peter English in 1989. Eventually the venue became a haven for rock and roll of all shapes and sizes, from local heroes (Rocket from the Crypt, Three Mile Pilot) to alternative rock megastars (Nirvana! Smashing Pumpkins! Blink 182!). Now 26 years later, San Diego’s understated rock and roll mecca continues to be everything a small club should be.
With its 200-person capacity, there’s an intimacy to the current room (Mays moved the club up the street in 1994) even when your back’s against the bar. Posters adorning the wall pay homage to the city’s proud underground rock heritage, while the fake palm trees and year-round holiday lights give it the charm of a punk rock bungalow. There’s also music six nights a week, so yeah, it’s more or less a live music maven’s dream come true.
92. The Crofoot
What You’ll See: Aesop Rock, Todd Barry, Eagulls, Mutual Benefit
The Crofoot is one of downtown Pontiac’s oldest structures. Nowadays, it’s a two-story building that contains three venues: the Crofoot Ballroom, the Pike Room, and the Vernors Room. It’s gone through numerous periods of turbulence in the past two centuries, facing the prospect of demolition as recently as 2005. It was at that time that the McGowan family of local preservationists sought to restore The Crofoot, ultimately leading to its reopening as a concert venue in September 2007.
Regular attendees are pleased to report their happiness about the above-average quality of sound and the politeness of the staff. While it may not draw household-name performers like some venues in Detroit and other areas of Michigan, the modern-day Crofoot’s combination of charm, intimacy, and historical value makes it an often underrated institution.
91. Rams Head Live!
What You’ll See: Queens of the Stone Age, Purity Ring, Metric, The New Pornographers
A lot of the best music venues in the US are anchored by their history, but there’s something to be said about what a modern room can be. A great example of this is Rams Head Live!, a concert hall that gets an exclamation mark in its name and doesn’t waste it. What might be most interesting about the space is that it doesn’t have to work with antiquated design.
Two levels of balcony zigzag the crevices of the space, allowing for viewing not just from the front of the stage, but from the side as well. When full, this can boost the energy to feel like the stage is surrounded by fans. History can be earned in time, but for now, Rams Head Live! provides a worthy alternative than traveling to DC for a mid-level band’s club show.
90. Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Providence, Rhode Island
What You’ll See: Deer Tick, Max Creek, Panic! At the Disco
For anyone that’s ever dreamed of opening a bar or venue, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel is the paragon of accomplishment. Rich Lupo originally opened the club mainly as a place for folks to come drink and hang out in the notoriously dry downtown Providence. The dream was always to get big enough so Bo Diddley would play there, and live music night, which prominently featured local blues rock acts like Wild Turkey, The Young Adults, and Backslap Blues Band, expanded within a year to national touring acts like the Ramones, Roy Orbison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and more.
Diddley ended up playing nine consecutive gigs there in 1977, but that still wasn’t the apex of the venue’s history. Over the years, the Hotel switched locations thrice, each time expanding in size and becoming more of a concert hall. The current location, which opened in 2003, can hold a staggering 1,900 people for bands as varied as Eagles of Death Metal and Wakka Flocka Flame. Though the building has changed, and the space is often shared with the separately owned nightclub Roxy, the portraits of deceased musicians by Dan Gosch still line the walls, and the heart of rock and roll beats loud in Rhode Island.
89. Louisville Palace
What You’ll See: The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Sturgill Simpson, Bonnie Raitt
They weren’t kidding when they called this place a palace. Since its grand opening in 1928, the Louisville Palace has pretty much set the standard for elegance in downtown Louisville — a neighborhood that’s no stranger to elegance. Architect John Eberson made sure the Palace would stand the test of time, outfitting it with a Spanish Baroque motif that feels a lot more like Europe than the American South.
Though the 2,800-seat venue has hosted more theater than music throughout its long history, these days it’s a hotbed for high-profile solo artists (Chris Cornell, Sturgill Simpson) and legacy acts (The Monkees, Alice Cooper, The Beach Boys). Let’s put it this way: If you’re seeing a nationally treasured rock band in Louisville, it’s probably at the Palace.
88. Bluebird Nightclub
What You’ll See: Dawes, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Titus Andronicus, Leon Bridges
The Bluebird is the consensus darling of the city of Bloomington’s rock community, catering equally to state-college students, grandparents, and local musicians. Founded as a non-music bar in 1973, it quickly rebranded itself as a jazz club before evolving into a hidden Midwest indie-rock and country treasure in later decades and ultimately expanding into its state’s most distinguished venue for bands in general.
Some niche crowds might know it as a premiere destination for cover bands or as a regular host of live-band karaoke. But its brightest badge might very well be its rich history of bizarre moments bearing improbably colossal names. One gloriously strange night in 1987 featured Lou Reed sharing its stage with John Mellencamp, and on another in 2011, it became an unlikely, spur-of-the-moment substitute venue by cramming in a few hundred of the thousands holding tickets to a rained-out EDM farm festival headlined by Deadmau5.
87. George’s Majestic Lounge
What You’ll See: Dark Star Orchestra, Robert Cray, Leon Russell, North Mississippi Allstars
The longest-running club in Arkansas sure looks the part, with its rustic brick interior, worn-in atmosphere, and impressive collection of University of Arkansas yearbooks dating all the way back to 1911. (If you’re a regular, they might even ask you to sign one.) George’s Majestic Lounge began hosting regular live shows sometime back in the 1970s, and it’s a good bet that some of the white-bearded dudes sitting at the bar on any given night were there for at least a few of them. These days, the music tends to skew toward blues and roots rock (this is the South, remember), and luminaries such as Robert Cray, Leon Russell, and Charlie Robison have been known to stop by from time to time. It’s hard to blame them, seeing as how there aren’t many bars like this left in the world.
86. The Bomb Factory
What You’ll See: Explosions in the Sky, Ms. Lauryn Hill
I have toured internationally with a handful of bands on a handful of different tours, going to Europe once and all across the US each time. But there’s only ever been one venue on Earth where the way the venue was set up made the performance noticeably better. At Dallas’ The Bomb Factory — that’s not just a showy name; the place used to be a legitimate bomb factory during World War II — bands have a private lounge with free arcade games, fountain drinks, coffee, and a built-in laundromat, as well as a giant stage with an unparalleled light show. It’s relatively new, so it may not have the history of some of the other co-conspirators on this list, but since its rebranding last year, the 4,300-capacity venue has already hosted the likes of Erykah Badu (who played the first show there) and The Jesus and Mary Chain.
85. Club Downunder
What You’ll See: Tokyo Police Club, Elle King, Ted Leo
Granted, our high number of FSU alums makes the inclusion of this small, on-campus club a little biased (Go, Noles!), but Club Downunder’s calendar speaks for itself. Because Tallahassee has a serious lack of midsize music venues, most indie acts not popular enough to fill the Tallahassee Civic Center (i.e. most indie acts in general) end up here. From the years of 2002 to 2006 alone, I caught Stars, Transatlanticism-era Death Cab for Cutie, Tallahassee-era Mountain Goats (of course), The Fiery Furnaces, the late Jason Molina, and other musicians who, in a larger city, would be playing to crowds much bigger than the couple hundred CDU accommodates. Best of all, every show is free for students, and the general public only has to pay between $5 and $15.
84. Rialto Theatre
What You’ll See: Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Explosions in the Sky
When the Rialto opened back in 1920, the only music to be heard came from a massive Kilgen pipe organ that accompanied the theater’s silent films. The Congress Street landmark continued to show films through most of the 20th century, until the mid-’90s, when it transformed into a concert venue that hosted some of that era’s most iconic rock bands — including Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, and The Black Crowes.
The theater then shut down for renovations and reopened again in 2004 with a bang, showing off some decidedly modern perks (like air conditioning … in Arizona) alongside the same art nouveau elements that accompanied its original opening. Today’s theater is located in a bustling section of downtown Tucson and retains the same classic marquee — making it not only the most recognizable concert venue in Tucson, but perhaps the entire Southwest.
What You’ll See: James Murphy, Peanut Butter Wolf, Bob Moses
David Sinopoli books some of the most influential and talented acts South Florida can handle. His venue, Bardot, has a schedule so authentic and close to home, one often wonders whether it’s coming straight from their go-to playlist. Bottom line: Bardot has a pulse on pop culture that South Florida has been begging for. What’s more, the venue has survived not only the second wave of gentrification within Wynwood, but also outlasted some of the largest venues in the Miami area, namely the former world-renowned Grand Central. To date, Sinopoli and his team have brought the best of the best into their own living room. Grab a drink, play some pool, and feel cool. Hell, maybe local hero Iggy Pop will stop by — you just never know.
82. The Empty Bottle
What You’ll See: The Men, Strand of Oaks, Bully
On The Simpsons episode “My Sister, My Sitter”, a new downtown area opens that caters to yuppies. At first, it looks like Moe’s has another, much swankier bar there, but when one fellow ventures down the overly long entranceway, he finds himself at the original location. “This isn’t a faux dive,” he scoffs. “This is just a dive.” Anyone might make the same observation about Chicago’s The Empty Bottle.
Traditionally, it’s packed to the brim with local heroes and bands praised by critics. But no matter how famous acts like The Men, Bully, and The Ponys (R.I.P.?) get, they’ll always have bite. They’ll always sound best in a place that’s tiny, a place that looks nondescript from the street, a place that’s a great local bar even on nights when there aren’t any shows (which is rare). The Bottle isn’t a faux dive; it’s just a dive. And we mean that as a compliment.
81. The Forum
What You’ll See: The Eagles, U2, KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, Justin Timberlake
For decades, the “Fabulous Forum” was a sports venue first and a concert hall second, hosting the Lakers, Sparks, and Kings of Los Angeles. And truth be told, it wasn’t a great place to see an arena show, cavernous and impersonal, not designed for acoustics other than the roar of a crowd. Still, it created a memorable backdrop for everything from The Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson to Pearl Jam. But in 2012, everything changed.
The MSG Company bought the building, long vacated by sports teams in favor of Staples Center. They poured 50 million into it and created a large-scale indoor concert hall, complete with super comfy seats and pristine sound. Now it’s where U2 sets up shop for a week, where local radio stations host their holiday bashes, and where awards shows and boxing events occur. There’s a definite catering to VIPs that is profoundly LA, but even in the cheap seats, there aren’t many better places to see, or hear, a massive spectacle.