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.
We’ve already asked our readers to weigh in on their favorite American concert venues. And a number of artists have made their own selection. Now, it’s our turn.
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.
80. The Capitol Theatre
Port Chester, New York
What You’ll See: Ryan Adams, Phil Lesh & Friends, Alice Cooper, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Way back in the day, Port Chester’s 1,800-capacity The Capitol Theatre was designed by prolific architect Thomas W. Lamb, opening on August 18th, 1926. Originally a movie palace, the theatre was around to show contemporary films, including Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, the cost of admission being as little as a nickel for a double-feature Sunday matinee.
In 1970, once the venue was renovated for use as a performance space, promoter Howard Stein booked the likes of the Grateful Dead, who played 18 dates at the venue between 1970 and 1971, and Janis Joplin, who wrote the Pearl a cappella “Mercedes Benz” at nearby Port Chester bar Vahsen’s.
As a result, the two-part venue is known as “the original rock palace.” Though it was also a catering and special events facility for a time, The Capitol Theatre reopened as a concert venue in 2012. The first performer to grace the stage after the reopening? A good one: Bob Dylan.
79. Paradise Rock Club
What You’ll See: Of Montreal, Run the Jewels, Grimes, Wavves
Ask any Boston veteran about local music and they’re bound to bring up the Paradise Rock Club within a matter of seconds. It’s the go-to club for big names seeking intimate sets (Death Cab for Cutie, Grimes, Snoop Dogg) and rising acts about to break into the mainstream (Frank Ocean, Tame Impala, First Aid Kit). The historic venue opened back in 1977 to cater to the city’s enormous student population.
A redesign in 2010 rid the venue of its pesky poles (not that one), though two still stand on the floor like giant, metallic trees, giving it that love-to-hate-it charm. Booking ownership has been passed down from one set of hands to the next, drastically changing the acts that perform there, but it’s most revered for its early days when it snagged The Police, Blondie, and even U2 on their first US tour — a show that Bono and co. still say made Boston the first city to embrace them outside of Dublin.
78. Georgia Theatre
What You’ll See: Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, Willie Nelson
Thirty-one years after being established, the Georgia Theatre, which opened in 1978 and hosted hometown band The B-52’s the same year, suffered a serious setback on June 19th, 2009. That morning, a fire caused major damage to the iconic Athens venue, collapsing the roof and causing headlines nationwide. It was the incident that was the subject of the 2011 documentary Athens Burning, directed by Andrew Haynes, Jacob Kinsman, and Eric Krasle.
But while some were quick to deem the place done for following the blaze, it did reopen in August of 2011, triumphantly so. In the years since, it’s hosted Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, Willie Nelson, and many more. It’s safe to say the beloved venue has made an impressive recovery. We consider it the Classic City’s best venue save for the 40 Watt Club, which, coincidentally, also opened in ‘78.
77. Paper Tiger
San Antonio, Texas
Established: 2015 (but, really 1996)
What You’ll See: Built to Spill, Swans, Antwon, Frightened Rabbit
Paper Tiger wouldn’t be what it is without The White Rabbit, San Antonio’s former favorite spot for local music. The venue looked like a rundown building that was more concerned with housing local bands than achieving fame by bringing in an influx of burgeoning and ubiquitous artists. While the venue had its share of hip-hop like Tyler, The Creator, the venue was a dingy, steamy mecca for under-21 teens looking for a dose of heavy metal.
Even though the Rabbit stood on its own for 18 and a half years, the owners sold it, which spawned a new brand, new look, and new everything. Thus the Paper Tiger was born. The venue is partners with Transmission Events, who also run Fun Fun Fun Fest, which brings national touring bands who had previously bypassed San Antonio for Austin. The new venue is a nice addition as it has brought in a more eclectic roster of hip-hop, indie, punk, and electronic.
76. Henry Miller Memorial Library
Big Sur, California
What You’ll See: Yo La Tengo, Jonathan Richman, Arcade Fire
Prolific American writer Henry Miller was a resident of Big Sur, and when he died in 1980, his best friend, Emil White, converted his own house into the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Situated in the midst of a lush forest that runs along California’s Central Coast, the cozy, rustic house is now a non-profit organization that continues to honor Miller’s memory with gallery viewings, creative workshops, and, yes, live music performances. But wait, you might say, how on earth could a tiny house in the woods double as a concert venue?
The concerts actually take place outside, taking full advantage of Big Sur’s natural beauty (and the house’s generously-sized yard). Local folk and acoustic acts are a common sight on the bill, but this place has also hosted an impressive number of indie icons, including Yo La Tengo, Animal Collective, and even Arcade Fire, who famously stopped by in 2010. Oh, to watch The Suburbs in the middle of the woods. Irony aside, that would be something special.
75. The UFO Factory
What You’ll See: The Detroit Cobras, The Hentchmen, John Krautner, Pretty Ghouls
UFO Factory has an extraterrestrial name, but the bar, art gallery, and live music venue has worked its way into the very fabric of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood since landing there in 2014. The space — which used to be a DIY venue in Eastern Market, once upon a time — is now located right across from where the old Tigers Stadium once stood, and it’s a prime example of the “New Detroit” movement that seeks to attract artists to the inner city.
The venue certainly makes it worth the trip for musicians, with everything from a premium sound system to a popcorn machine (not to mention, vintage arcade games and a giant projection screen for showing films). But UFO Factory is first and foremost a local venue, and its silver-painted halls have hosted the likes of The Detroit Cobras and punk legends The Hentchmen.
74. High Dive
What You’ll See: Against Me!, Chuck Ragan, PBR, and plenty of star tattoos
High Dive exists at SW 2nd Avenue as Gainesville Rock City’s demilitarized zone. Like the Dothraki holy site Vaes Dothrak, you’re welcome as long as you aren’t an asshole. And it’s been that way for many years. The spot has welcomed several owners and name changes since the early 1990s, but it’s perhaps best known as the flagship location of Nigel Hamm’s legendary venue Common Grounds — which officially closed in 2011 after a meteoric 15-year run.
During Common Grounds’ run, the likes of Hot Water Music, Less Than Jake, Morningbell, Holopaw, Isaac Brock, and Conor Oberst could be spotted hanging out, whether they were scheduled to perform or were just enjoying a cold Mexican beer as the Florida humidity burrowed past the outdoor porch and into the midsize rectangular structure.
As such, Common Grounds lived up to its name, improving on the whimsical, albeit slanted, design of the Covered Dish before it by transforming the weekend venue into a daily town hall that mingled national acts with emerging indie artists and side projects, comedians, college kids, The Fest punks, and plenty of sun-baked locals. Years later, High Dive continues this tradition, ensuring that Gainesville remains Florida’s most alternative city and a cool place to see live music.
73. Newport Music Hall
What You’ll See: Baroness, Chief Keef, Eagles of Death Metal, Migos
This Ohio hall is owned and operated by the Columbus-based PromoWest Productions, which runs several venues, Newport being the one that made this list. It’s positioned across the street from the Ohio Union of the Ohio State University, and in the period of time that it’s been there, it’s become “America’s longest continually running rock club.”
Formerly known as the State Theater and the Agora Ballroom, the name has always implied class. With beautiful ballroom architecture, the 1,700-capacity hall at 1722 North High Street has a particularly gorgeous look to it from the outside. Inside, it’s elegant, too, with a timeless look. For a place that appears timeless, though, it’s remarkably consistent about booking cutting-edge acts.
72. Churchill’s Pub
What You’ll See: Jacuzzi Boys, Negative Approach, Thee Oh Sees, Charlie Pickett, Shannon and the Clams
In the heart of Little Haiti, right next to Sweat Records, Churchill’s Pub serves as Miami’s No. 1 spot to catch live punk, jazz, and everything in between. It has a rich history, booking both local bands going nowhere and nationwide acts on the rise. In the past decade, its booking has only gotten better, as more and more bands make their way down to Miami, from La Luz to Iceage. It’s a lovable shithole, often referred to as the CBGB of Miami, what with its grotesque bathrooms and general grime.
But Churchill’s is also undeniably unique, thanks to a dedicated community and a diverse slate of shows and events. It’s more or less the foundation of South Florida’s freaky scene, having hosted the likes of noise legend Rat Bastard and metal rockers Torche. It’s a place where you can catch free jazz on Monday night or watch someone take a shit on stage during International Noise Conference. Dirty, small, smoky, and worn out, Churchill’s keeps Miami weird.
71. Tennessee Theater
What You’ll See: Gregg Allman, Ghost, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Sturgill Simpson
Originally designed by Chicago architects Graven and Mayger, Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre is an absolute visual stunner, a mix of architectural styles featuring French/Czech chandeliers and Italian terrazzo floors. Located inside Knoxville’s 10-story Burwell Building, it first opened as a movie palace in 1928, and its breathtaking interior is why the venue’s still easy to call “palatial” today.
The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation was started in 1996 to preserve, maintain, and operate the Theatre, leading to a $25.5 million renovation and restoration that commenced in 2003 and resulted with its reopening in 2005. Some credit the project with boosting the overall appeal of downtown Knoxville. Outside of concerts, the Theatre hosts performances by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, in addition to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
70. Music Hall of Williamsburg
Brooklyn, New York
What You’ll See: Lucius, The Districts, Vince Staples
Though it’s now seen as a touchstone of the midsize venues that populate the New York City area, the Music Hall of Williamsburg has its roots in the city’s rich DIY history. MHoW started out as Northsix in 2001, becoming one of the first venues to bring indie and underground live music over the bridges from Manhattan. And oh, what music they brought; bands like My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth, Spoon, and The Mars Volta all took the stage at Northsix. Elliott Smith performed a three-night run there in 2003, his final NYC performances prior to his death.
Though gentrification forced Northsix to sell to Bowery Presents in 2007, the rebranded, remodeled Music Hall of Williamsburg remains a perfect, 550-capacity location to catch acts like Dr. Dog, Swans, Mitski, Chelsea Wolfe, and others. (You can still see the original layout in the opening scene from School of Rock.) Each of its three floors features its own bar (the basement could double as a regular hangout spot if it weren’t for the pull of whatever concert is upstairs), and views from anywhere in the main room or the balcony are almost always clear. Slightly curved walls lead to excellent acoustics throughout, meaning there’s no better place in Brooklyn to comfortably catch your favorite bands.
What You’ll See: Bun B, Napalm Death, Caribou, Parquet Courts
One of the longest running venues in Houston, Fitzgerald’s has a long and complicated history that ties closely to the city’s own story. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the venue served as a host for acts like R.E.M., the Ramones, and Sonic Youth, and over the last five years, the organizers behind Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival have worked tirelessly to revitalize both the venue and the surrounding scene itself. During that time, they turned Fitzgerald’s into one of the city’s true powerhouses.
This year, they left to open up a new venue, White Oak Music Hall, but Fitzgerald’s lives on under new management. Already, they’ve booked bands like Parquet Courts and hosted memorable events such as last week’s Prince tribute. Granted, it’s still a work in progress, but its central location in the Heights neighborhood undoubtedly cements Fitzgerald’s as a landmark for Houston. And much like the spirit of its city, the venue should be able to weather any changes and keep bouncing back.
68. Liberty Hall
What You’ll See: Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse, Beach House, Hozier
Lawrence’s Liberty Hall doubles as both a concert venue and a movie theatre — but wait, there’s more! The whole thing’s also connected to its own video rental store and coffee house. This historic establishment (rebuilt after two fires, it is now said to be fireproof) books all genres from indie to EDM and has hosted a variety of entertainers from Oscar Wilde to Wu Tang Clan.
Yet out of everything Liberty Hall offers, two of its best features are oft-forgotten mundanities. The venue’s floor, which is mildly stepped, allows for shorter folk to almost always have a good view of the stage. Up above, the ceiling radiates with beautiful painted murals that depict an ascension into heaven, which is how many concerts make people feel.
67. The Ready Room
St. Louis, Missouri
What You’ll See: Charli XCX, Tycho, Earl Sweatshirt, Catfish and the Bottlemen
A newer addition to The Grove’s many hipster-friendly destinations, The Ready Room has made quite an impression on St. Louis’ entertainment scene over the past two years. As its name suggests, the 750-capacity venue is basically just a room, boasting little more than four walls and a bar. But that’s really all it needs. With a stage more intimate than The Pageant and more visible than The Firebird, The Ready Room gives young fans (usually of hip-hop, indie rock, and synth-pop) a relaxed environment where moving and macking is made simple.
The logistics of the place are superior as well. Parking is a breeze, and leaving is even breezier given a garage door that opens post-concert, allowing spectators to exit quickly to the many bars outside. In its short history, the venue has already experienced some noteworthy moments. For those lucky enough to witness it, The Ready Room will always be remembered as the place that a tearful Killer Mike gave a disheartened speech about the jury decision in Ferguson, which was only 20 miles from the venue itself. It was a shame that the speech had to be uttered, but no venue or audience was more fitting than the passionate young crowd gathered at The Ready Room.
What You’ll See: Bully, Dan Deacon, DIIV, Pallbearer
Our favorite venue in Louisville is Zanzabar, aka Zbar, which is notable for appealing to as wide of a variety of age groups as possible. A big reason for that is that it’s home to the city’s only vintage arcade, where it hosts pinball tournaments every week. (You may be tempted to shatter your piggy bank before a visit.) Additionally, its low-key atmosphere makes it an intimate favorite for locals in comparison to other area venues.
Even so, it’s still good about playing host to upcoming, buzz-worthy artists, especially on the indie rock front, having booked bands like Surfer Blood, Ought, Woods, and DIIV for the coming months. That combination of old-school characteristics and up-to-date music gives it a unique balance, allowing opportunities for Louisville youth to stay in touch with current music and the city’s older concertgoers to feel nostalgic for their youth.
65. Belly Up Tavern
San Diego, California
What You’ll See: Damian Marley, Los Lobos, Thievery Corporation
The Belly Up Tavern began with a simple vision: Two friends wanted a bar to be proud of in the town of Solana Beach. Founders Dave Hodges and Greg Gilholm weren’t thinking about music, but eventually some entry-level bluegrass acts started coming around, which shortly blossomed into notable blues artists like Bo Diddley and Etta James playing gigs. By the ’90s, the Belly Up started expanding into myriad genres like reggae, hip-hop, and rock.
Today, it’s San Diego’s most intimate space, a 600-person venue with personal touches like free parking and coat check. Any band from San Diego has the Belly Up as a target for reaching the next level, while mainstream talent like Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, The Rolling Stones, and Green Day have all stopped in to capitalize on the club’s personal feel and vibrant past. That’s quite an impressive distinction for a space originally intended as a SoCal watering hole.
What You’ll See: Tortoise, Beach Slang, Black Mountain
What makes or breaks a venue is the intimacy shared between an artist and its audience. Neurolux is nestled in Boise, Idaho — a city one can walk through at the pace of an aging Labrador in under an hour. But, part of that small-town charm is what makes the state capital’s crowning jewel of a music lounge even more alluring.
If only because the sheer layout of the town and its accompanying venue allows for nothing else but that type of relationship to exist. With its narrow walls, shallow stage, and extended happy hour (from noon to eight at night!), intimacy isn’t exactly the right word … perhaps happily cramped? Yeah, that’s it.
Zero complaints. With security tightening up everywhere, artists and audiences are getting further and further away from each other. Neurolux, lodged within Boise’s historic Hitchcock building, takes an old-school approach and shatters the barriers. On any given night, you could be bumming smokes from your favorite acts.
63. First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
What You’ll See: Sheer Mag, St. Vincent, Bane, Beach Slang
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia isn’t your typical church. It belongs to a non-doctrinal and open-minded Unitarian Universalist congregation, and that open-mindedness extends to the rock shows that regularly take place inside the church’s expansive, ornate interior. Sure, you’ve got your typical indie bands that aren’t likely to ruffle anyone’s feathers — your St. Vincents and your Frankie Cosmos.
But this church is so inclusive that sometimes the lineups clash with the setting in ways that border on hilarious (Chicago powerviolence band Weekend Nachos and hardcore punks Bane are both slated to perform in 2016). Like most great venues, First Unitarian Church isn’t just about the music. Plenty of other programming goes on here, including dinner meetups and the typical Universalist church stuff, like union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
God willing, this place isn’t going away any time soon.
62. Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Los Angeles, CA
What You’ll See: Lana Del Rey, Bon Iver, The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse
No, they have not been hosting concerts at Hollywood Forever Cemetery since the 1800s, but that just gives you an idea of the history that surrounds you at this non-traditional space. During the warmer months, outdoor events are held on a giant lawn and have recently included multi-night stands from the likes of Lana Del Rey and Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips performing Dark Side of the Moon, and Bon Iver hosting a slumber party and sunrise performance. Fans are invited to picnic on the grass, while never really disturbing the graves that include Johnny Ramone.
The space even holds a smaller room, the Masonic Lodge, that books bands year-round like tUnE-yArDs and Majical Cloudz who can fill a beautiful room packed with personality. But the intermittent performances on the festival-size outdoor stage are what local Los Angeles music fans devour, and each summer and fall’s docket arrives hotly anticipated and treated like a one-of-a-kind event. Hometown hero Miguel rose to the occasion last year, bringing out a parade of guests, including Kendrick Lamar, ASAP Rocky, and Snoop Dogg, who all entertained a crowd that spanned centuries.
What You’ll See: Deafheaven, Lil Uzi Vert, Melvins, Savages, Chelsea Wolfe
Trees Dallas opened in 1990, and by the end of ‘91, Nirvana had already played the venue, the trio being just a month removed from the release of Nevermind. (That’s not to say it was the smoothest show; a quick YouTube search shows it definitely was not.) In the quarter century since then, Trees, founded by ex-Vanilla Ice drummer Clint Barlow and wife Whitney, has become the top venue in the Deep Ellum district of downtown Dallas. Attendees regularly praise the sound system, which is crucial for sets by heavy acts like Deafheaven, Melvins, and Savages. It’s a powerful punch for the venue that holds less people than Deep Ellum’s 4,300-capacity Bomb Factory, which Clint Barlow also founded, but ultimately one with more history and memories behind it.
60. Crystal Ballroom
What You’ll See: Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists, Violent Femmes, Explosions in the Sky
A venue that has been around for more than a century is going to have its share of stories, but Portland’s majestic Crystal Ballroom basically doubles as a course in music history. Located on the third floor of a brick building originally constructed in 1914, the Crystal has seen trends come and go. Its heyday probably came in the 1960s, when it served as the Northwest home for massive rock acts such as the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and Little Richard, who allegedly fired a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in the middle of his set.
Okay, that may or may not be true (depends on who you ask), but one thing is certain: No other venue on this list has a dance floor quite like the Crystal’s. The mechanical “floating” dance floor here is one of the only ones left in the entire country, giving crowds something to pay attention to between sets by The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney, and countless national acts. This midsize venue can fit a standing crowd of 1,500, but grand chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling arched windows, and ornate murals help the space feel intimate.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Established: 1999 (and again in 2010)
What You’ll See: M83, Tig Notaro, On An On
Kings Barcade got knocked down — literally — but it got up again. When the landlord of the original property chose to demolish the building in 2007, Raleigh lost one of its most vibrant homes for new music. But three years later, owners and musicians Paul Siler, Ben Barwick, and Steve Popson were joined by a fourth heavy, Cheetie Kumar, and the new Kings was born.
It’s a hell of an upgrade — upstairs, floating acoustic walls improve the sound, and a larger stage leaves room for super-cool guitar moves while the downstairs bar, Neptunes, features handcrafted cocktails. The upcoming addition of Garland, a full-service restaurant, will make the space that much more of a destination. Move from a plate to a martini glass, and from the glass to a dance pit, all by climbing a few stairs between stops.
58. Crescent Ballroom
What You’ll See: Jimmy Eat World, AJJ, Meat Puppets
Not quite as elegant or ornate as its name would suggest, Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom began life as something far different from a ballroom: a garage. Built in 1910, the single-story brick building originally housed the F.L. Hard Garage, placing itself squarely on the long path of the city’s development from an agrarian community to a car-laden metropolis. Some things — the wood truss roof system, for example — haven’t changed much, but the Crescent Ballroom now fills a different role as Phoenix’s premiere music venue for midsize acts (the capacity maxes out at 550).
It’s no exaggeration to say that bands seek this place out. Local folk punks AJJ (fka Andrew Jackson Jihad) even recorded a full live album there in 2013, favoring the hometown spot because it allowed them to capture the most honest, raw performance possible. In a more refined vein, the venue’s onsite kitchen, Cocina 10, serves locally sourced Mexican food that’s seriously delicious and — here’s the important part — available until midnight.
What You’ll See: DIIV, La Luz, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Capitol Hill Block Party
Every major city has a gentrification story. Seattle’s no different. One of the biggest cultural battlegrounds in the city right now is Capitol Hill. It’s gotten bad enough that bands like Childbirth have composed semi-protest songs like “Tech Bro”. Yet throughout the conflict, Neumos seems to be a safe haven that both factions can embrace. It’s a place where local acts like Thunderpussy can usher in rock ‘n’ roll Armageddon on stage one night while DJs can host boy band dance parties on another.
It’s also a favorite for touring acts, especially bands on the rise or newly signed. The addition of their basement venue, Barboza, means that there are often multiple shows happening under one roof. The venue’s only getting better, recently upgrading their sound and light systems, but hasn’t lost its shadowy charm leftover from its days as Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Café in the ‘90s. The battle for the culture rages on, but in the meantime, Neumos continues to be an inclusive space.
56. Walter’s Downtown
What You’ll See: Mitski, Jandek, The Hotelier, Erase Errata
Nestled away just outside of downtown, where it’s been since a move in 2011, Walter’s serves as a haven for all different types of music lovers. Whether it’s rising indie rock acts, veteran metal bands, or reclusive experimental artists, Walter’s always has intriguing shows that lie just off the beaten path. After its founder and owner passed away in 2014, the venue worked to bounce back and remain one of the city’s strongest venues for cultivating local treasures and showcasing touring delights. Last year, the venue opened up a record store inside for patrons to dig through bins and find gems in between bands. An intimate environment where there isn’t a bad view, Walter’s makes a strong case for a city that often gets skipped over in favor of Austin or Dallas.
55. Preservation Hall
New Orleans, Louisiana
What You’ll See: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Hang out in New Orleans long enough, and you’re bound to meet someone (usually not from there) that thinks Preservation Hall is for tourists. It’s a somewhat understandable sentiment. After all, the city is packed with so many great venues that we could easily make a list focused only on the Crescent City. But Preservation Hall is popular for a reason that goes beyond the long lines, merchandise, and general visitor hoopla: its house band has consistently featured some of the greatest purveyors of New Orleans jazz over the years, deftly nailing its ramshackle purism almost every night. If some of the the old-timey decor and furniture is artificial, the players sure ain’t — in addition to the current pedigree of tubist/upright bassist Ben Jaffe, bandleader/trumpeter Mark Braud, and others, Harry Connick, Jr., “Sweet Emma” Barrett, and Dr. Michael White have all counted themselves as members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
What You’ll See: B.o.B, Datsik, and every Saddle Creek band you’d want to witness
In recent years, Omaha’s musical reputation has been strongly linked to, well, “the Omaha sound,” which has been made famous by bands like Saddle Creek Records’ Bright Eyes, The Faint, and Cursive. Thanks to the label-owned Slowdown, named in honor of the band Slowdown Virginia, Omaha has a nationally recognized mixed-entertainment venue, one made up of the music venue, shops, restaurants, and apartments.
As for the variety of acts booked to play the venue, it’s indeed varied; artists who have stopped through the place recently range from Montreal post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Los Angeles noise rockers HEALTH to Brooklyn psych rappers Flatbush Zombies. As one of the newer venues on this list, the Slowdown is sure to become more and more of an attraction drawing out-of-towners to Omaha.
53. Mr. Smalls Theatre & Funhouse
What You’ll See: Anti-Flag, Deerhunter, Tyler, The Creator, Freddie Gibbs
Tucked away in a small valley in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, PA, Millvale once housed thousands of mill workers who helped power the city’s world-leading steel industry. These days, the mills are gone, and the borough is most notably home to Mr. Smalls Theatre & Funhouse, a saving grace for a Pittsburgh music scene that has always been desperate for sustainable midsize venues. The neighborhood theatre – a beautiful, repurposed 18th century Catholic Church – regularly brings 650 fans face-to-face with both local and national acts for near-religious experiences beneath 40-foot-high cathedral ceilings.
Not only has the venue become the city’s best place to catch non-arena rock and hip-hop acts, but it’s also branched out to offer much more than just music to visiting bands and fans. In addition to serving spirits at the show, Mr. Smalls now boasts a full restaurant and an underground draft beer bunker. The venue has also attached its name to a state-of-the-art local recording studio, several art galleries, and, until recently, a skate park. These amenities combined with a stage setup that places concertgoers in the middle of the action make it quite possible that, as They Might Be Giants feared, a band could “rock it [Mr. Smalls] so well they might roll down the hill.”
52. Blind Pig
Ann Arbor, Michigan
What You’ll See: Big K.R.I.T., Jonathan Richman, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Appropriate for a venue in the US state that was the original stomping grounds of ahead-of-their-time rock acts like Ann Arbor’s own Iggy and the Stooges and Detroit’s MC5, the Blind Pig takes pride in being an early live home to later alt-rock pioneers like Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. In fact, the last of those bands, who first played the Blind Pig on October 3rd, 1989, called it their single favorite venue during a televised interview with MTV.
To this day, the venue, which originally also functioned as a cafe and was a local hotbed for blues music, continues to host a range of underground acts that stop in Ann Arbor. The list of artists who’ve performed there in 2016 alone includes The Mountain Goats, Poliça, Matthew Dear, and Protomartyr. The goofy-sounding name, by the way, is actually a synonym for speakeasy, as is “blind tiger.” #funfacts
51. Santa Barbara Bowl
Santa Barbara, CA
What You’ll See: Janet Jackson, Alabama Shakes, Radiohead, Katy Perry
Because of its climate and population, California is home to many of the best (and most active) outdoor concert venues in the country. And while many more could have been included, namely both Greek Theatres in LA and Berkeley, the Santa Barbara Bowl stands out for a number of reasons. For starters, there’s the location, situated on a hill with ocean views in a unique community that combines a college town with upscale family homes.
And there’s the history, going back to the 1930’s, with major renovations over the past couple decades drawing in top-tier touring acts looking for a stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The combination of the cool ocean air, the enthusiastic locals, and the fact that the talent would be playing a bigger space in a bigger city combine for a concert experience that makes it worth a drive from more remote parts of California.
What You’ll See: Against Me!, Built to Spill, Lucius
One of the newest venues on our list, Birmingham, Alabama’s Saturn gets extra credit for one very specific goal: to be the first music venue to release its own album. But Saturn’s great for reasons that go well beyond a neat ambient sound project. Alabama native (and musician) Brian Teasley partnered with Bowery Presents to create a killer venue with details designed to delight.
Want coffee? Sure, they’ve got Stumptown and donuts from We Have Donuts for good measure. Want a cocktail? The same coffee joint that poured the brew can craft a potent elixir. Want to stroll down a musical memory lane? Keep an eye out for their Real Alabama Music Hall of Fame. There’s plenty to see and taste, but what you’ll hear is what really counts: music from a diverse roster of local and national acts, each of whom helps the thriving Birmingham scene thrive that much more.
49. Grog Shop
What You’ll See: Cloud Nothings, Guided by Voices, Keelhaul, Obnox
Anyone who has ever tried to book a show in Cleveland has run up against this unfortunate fact: The city just doesn’t have many great music venues for bands that don’t (yet) belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Grog Shop is the exception to that rule. Since opening at its original location in 1992, the venue has become a staple of the hip Cleveland Heights scene, showcasing an eclectic array of rock bands and hip-hop artists nearly every night of the year.
Capacity maxes out around 400 at this cozy venue, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of big names from gracing the bill in recent years. Sleater-Kinney, Eagles of Death Metal, Interpol, and The Flaming Lips represent just a fraction of the bands that stopped by the Grog on their way to the top. And if local flavor is more your thing, Ohio legends Guided by Voices still play here every once in awhile, as do Cleveland pop-punk bangers Cloud Nothings.
48. Orange Peel
Asheville, North Carolina
What You’ll See: Animal Collective, Tegan and Sara, A$AP Ferg
Some buildings just have good times built into their very walls. The building that became The Orange Peel was first home to the Skateland Rollerdome, making it a great place to awkwardly hold someone’s hand while moving in a circle and/or have a 12th birthday party. It then became one of the city’s hottest clubs, playing host to bands like the Commodores and the Bar-Kays. Now, the Original Orange Peel has become The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and like their predecessors on the property, the Peel wants very much to make sure everyone has a good time — those in the larger community included.
Bars throughout the venue stock local craft brews, a private bar in the basement (PULP) that hosts a live feed of the concerts blowing the doors off the place upstairs, and members of their Krewe (an homage to the Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans) get a chance to highlight their favorite upcoming acts on the venue’s site. Beyond that, it’s just a great place to hear music, with bookings that include local rising stars and legends alike. Entertainment seems to be, quite simply, in their DNA.
47. Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, California
What You’ll See: Chuck Prophet, Flamin’ Groovies, Autolux, Tortoise
The oldest nightclub in San Francisco opened its doors in 1972, but its roots trace all the way back to 1907, when political boss Chris Buckley teamed up with a French architect to design the ornate interior. The 5,000-square-foot, 600-capacity concert hall has gone through plenty of changes in the last 100-plus years, but its turn-of-the-century elegance has remained more or less intact. The space now known as the Great American Music Hall functioned as a seedy brothel back in the Barbary Coast era and became a hotbed of rock in the 1970s, when bands such as Journey and the Grateful Dead frequently graced the stage.
Though you can’t typically find hookers or LSD at the venue’s modern incarnation, it remains one of the city’s most popular nightspots thanks to touches like the elaborate ceiling frescoes, marble columns, and — oh yeah, the music! Bands that have played here in more recent years include the Weakerthans (R.I.P.), Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Arcade Fire, so it’s not crazy to think that the next big thing in indie could be hitting the stage this very night. Oh, and just a little bonus for you ghost hunters out there: The place is totally haunted.
46. The EARL
What You’ll See: Beach Slang, Kevin Morby, Marissa Nadler, Parquet Courts
The EARL stands for East Atlanta Restaurant and Lounge, and we consider it the second best venue in Atlanta, behind only the Tabernacle. Though some have called it “tiny,” a massive list of major national and international acts have come through (Beach House, M83, My Morning Jacket), not to mention the local ones who have stopped by for their own sets (Black Lips, Deerhunter, Mastodon).
As for the restaurant side of things, the menu consistently draws visitors who have never even been to the place for live music; there’s a variety of specialty items, including the EARL Nachos, the EARL Burger, and the EARL Dog. One unique feature of the place at 488 Flat Shoals Ave SE is its bar, made from a tree that fell on the property when the venue was being constructed. Shel Silverstein would approve.
45. The Stone Pony
Asbury Park, New Jersey
What You’ll See: Bruce Springsteen, The Bouncing Souls, The Front Bottoms
The history of The Stone Pony is intertwined with New Jersey’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss was born in nearby Long Branch, and the venue became one of the E Street Band’s favorite haunts. Along the way, the club gained fame for hosting other budding rock stars, like the Ramones, Blondie, and more recently The Gaslight Anthem and The Front Bottoms. Nestled adjacent to Asbury Park’s boardwalk, the fragrant smells of the shore breeze by in the summertime.
The lot next door is also much bigger than the interior and hosts the Stone Pony Summerstage (3,000+ capacity), which features national acts from June through August. (The venue also held fellow New Jersey native Jack Antonoff’s inaugural Shadow of the City festival last year.) And despite a recent renovation that has converted part of the Stone Pony into a mini museum honoring its place in rock history, the club is still charmingly old-school and rough around the edges.
44. Lincoln Hall
What You’ll See: The War on Drugs, Torres, The Mountain Goats
Architecturally, Lincoln Hall isn’t anything out of the ordinary, housing almost none of the turn-of-the-century elegance it exhibited as the Fullerton Theatre back in 1912. But what it lacks in visual history, it makes up for in its diverse lineup of upper mid-level indie acts: Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, the various projects of Chicago fixture Mike Kinsella (Owen, American Football, Owls, et al), and scores of other musicians have all played to its small-yet-open floor and modern-lined balcony.
But don’t take our word for it — the best way to see who’s played there is to peruse the lovingly drawn posters hanging in the performance hall. And because the intimate space only holds 507 attendees, you’re bound to see many of these artists congregating in the dining room, manning their own merch tables near the bar, sipping on local craft beers, or chowing down on a dish from the knockout food menu. We recommend the four-cheese macaroni with onion bacon jam. Smokin!
43. Mississippi Studios
What You’ll See: STUMPFEST, Ben Gibbard, Redwood Son, The Thermals
That name’s a bit confusing if you’re an outsider, yeah? Though situated in Portland’s Historic Mississippi District and thus thousands of miles away from the American South, Mississippi Studios has its own down-home charms. Founded in 2003, the venue is owned and operated by musicians who value acoustics and intimacy above all.
No surprise, then, that the Mississippi is renowned among professionals for its custom, non-parallel walls and state-of-the-art analog soundboard, which combine to produce some of the best sonics possible in a small venue. This place simply knows how to treat musicians right, which explains how it has attracted big names ranging from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard to local heroes Blitzen Trapper. The full-service bar and sunny patio added in 2010 probably don’t hurt, either.
42. The Moody Theater (ACL Live)
What You’ll See: Erykah Badu, Wilco, Beck, Jack White
Nestled next to the luxurious W Austin Hotel and Residences and situated near the core of downtown, the premiere and lavish Moody Theater sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the Mohawk or Stubb’s. It’s typical, even expected, to catch the modern empress Florence + The Machine and the classic rock luminary Peter Frampton, both in the same month.
Namely because the venue serves as the permanent home for the critically acclaimed KLRU-TV-produced PBS series, Austin City Limits, which has showcased performances from newcomers and legends alike for over four decades. Since its big move in 2011, the Moody Theater has seen intimate performances by Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Robert Plant, and many more.
41. The NorVa
What You’ll See: Curren$y, M83, The Tallest Man on Earth
The empire that is the Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group acquired The NorVA in 2014 in a $5.9 million deal, and it’s easy to see why AEG Live wanted to be involved with this particular theatre. Since 2000, following major renovations, the venue has hosted a wide variety of stars, from James Brown (who played the inaugural concert) to Prince (who sold out the venue in less than five minutes back in 2001) to Kendrick Lamar (who performed at the theatre a month before releasing his masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d city). Prior to those renovations, however, The NorVA already had decades and decades of history behind it, having originally opened as a vaudeville theatre. It’s safe to say, though, that today’s Virginia residents adore the place as a concert venue thanks in part to the sound of its V-DOSC system, one of the only such systems in the country.
40. Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
What You’ll See: Billy Joel, Pearl Jam, U2, Billy Joel
Madison Square Garden should be the first thing that pops into your head when someone asks you to name a famous American music venue. Sure, it’s not just a venue, as the arena also plays home to the New York Knicks, Liberty, and Rangers, as well as boxing, tennis, and other sporting events. But as host to the biggest touring musicians and comics on the circuit, it still stands as a bucket list venue for many. The building standing atop Penn Station is actually the fourth to bear the Madison Square Garden name (the first two actually being in Madison Square), opening in 1968.
Renovations upgrading the entire space were completed in 2013, and though new re-developement plans for the train station beneath it will see the 5,600-cap Theater at Madison Square Garden demolished, the shiny 20,000-cap main arena will remain. As well it should, as the historic site has played home to major historical events like George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh in ’77 and The Concert for New York City after 9/11. It’s where Elvis Presley played his only four NYC concerts and where Elton John played a staggering 64 shows, a record Billy Joel smashed with his ongoing residency.
The biggest bands in the world come to play MSG, ensuring that its legacy will only continue to grow — even if beer and concessions are ridiculously over-priced.
39. The Crocodile
What You’ll See: Chastity Belt, Mitski, Diarrhea Planet, Freddie Gibbs
Not many of the venues of the grunge era survived. Landmarks like the OK Hotel and Velvet Elvis are relics to be found in archived copies of The Rocket. Yet The Crocodile was able to make it through the turbulent decades – sort of. After spending years letting artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam cut their teeth in the Belltown bar, the venue closed in 2006. Re-opening under co-ownership with Alice In Chains’ Sean Kinney, The Croc has continued to thrive in its second life. Now hosting numerous all-ages show, it’s almost unavoidable that a music-savvy Seattleite would end up at The Croc eventually.
Ghosts of grunge past will sometimes reappear for cameos with their side projects or as guests in friends’ bands. Photography from this bygone era adorns the walls – as well as a giant photo mural of Courtney Love in the bathroom. Almost equally exciting is the venue’s on-going commitment to build up local acts; for instance, the revitalized feminist punk scene is booming with acts like Chastity Belt and Tacocat. Compared to Neumos, The Showbox, or most theaters within city limits, The Croc is relatively small. Yet this cramped space makes for sweaty gigs that maintain the venue’s punk history.
38. The Fonda Theatre
Los Angeles, CA
What You’ll See: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Carly Rae Jepsen
Though the name has frequently changed (including multiple times as its original moniker, The Music Box, a run as a Fox Theatre, and a stint as the Henry Fonda Theatre), the one thing that has remained consistent is The Fonda’s status as Hollywood’s premiere venue for large bands playing a small room.
It’s a beautiful space, with a rooftop bar that projects the concert on a wall, allowing for folks catching a smoke to not miss any of the action, and a renovated interior that brings the vibe back to its 1920s origins.
That combination of old Hollywood showmanship and state-of-the-art production, not to mention some of the best sight lines of any venue in the country, has led to some unforgettable concert moments in LA, including The Rolling Stones playing a tour warm-up in 2015, Radiohead’s 2010 Haiti benefit show, and The Best Fest’s recent homages to Brian Wilson and George Harrison.
What You’ll See: TNK Festival, every band feat. Dan Boeckner, and your favorite act’s last intimate gig
Back in the late ’80s, Chris and Michael Schuba turned an old Schlitz Brewery into a friendly neighborhood tavern, where everyone doesn’t know your name, but they’re still warm enough to let you in with a smile and a wave. Intimacy is bliss at Schubas Tavern, where 165 people can huddle together to witness their favorite local acts and buzziest rookies try to avoid slipping off the tight, cramped stage.
In recent years, the wooden room has hosted Cloud Nothings, James Blake, Sky Ferreira, Best Coast, and Japandroids, seemingly seconds before they graduated to larger locales. Yet every once in awhile, the venue becomes the hottest spot in the city as big font talent attempt to revisit their salad days, whether it’s Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, Spoon, or even The Wallflowers. It’s surreal.
What’s more, the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival takes over for a week each winter, leaving patrons to live in the venue’s balmy saloon and its rather tasty Harmony Grill. One can easily lose themselves in a menu that includes brunch, lunch, and dinner and ranges from red-eye burritos to honey chicken brie to buffalo tofu salads. As Dan Caffrey already suggested for its sister site, Lincoln Hall: Don’t skip the Mac.
36. Bluebird Theater
What You’ll See: Old 97s, Haley Reinhart, Langhorn Slim and the Wall
Denver has its fair share of great music venues — you’ll find another way, way up this list — but even in a crowded field, the Bluebird Theater stands out. Part of that is its many contradictions, from the twee name for a venue that feels anything but to the vintage architecture and retro marquee that houses a top-notch sound system. But best of all, audiences who flock to see alt-country stalwarts or Guns N’ Roses tributes get to embrace the rock-and-roll ethos that comes with a general-admission policy, without worrying that they’re not going to be able to see a damned thing.
Whether perched in the balcony, leaning on one of the bars, or standing somewhere on the sizable, tiered floor, it’s pretty difficult to snag a bad line of sight. Being able to see the band is a hell of a perk, but of course, it’s the music itself that really matters, and a densely packed and diverse calendar of events is what really makes the Bluebird such a force. Come for the thoughtful layout, stay for a classic touring outfit (or the next big thing), and check out the madly grinning wall sconces while you’re at it.
35. Baby’s All Right
Brooklyn, New York
What You’ll See: Mutual Benefit, Modern Baseball, DIIV
In a town fairly crowded with music venues, Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right has built itself quite a reputation in just three short years. Nestled behind a bar and restaurant out front sits a 260-capacity room, the floor of which is a scale replica of the hedge maze from The Shining. That’s just one of many intriguing design details, like the back wall of ash trays lit up with multicolored LEDs.
A retractable wall keeps the venue and main bar separate, allowing either section to remain wholly unobtrusive to the other. The result is a cozy setting that brings the best in rising indie acts and hard-touring favorites for intimate concert experiences. You’re just as likely to catch popular newcomers like Bully or Day Wave as you are to find a special performance by Hot Chip or Peter Bjorn and John. For such a relatively nascent venue to have the kind of draw and reputation Baby’s All Right has is a sign of just how enjoyable the tiny DIY spot can be.
34. Union Transfer
What You’ll See: Beach Slang, The Menzingers, Modern Baseball, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Philadelphia is one of the only cities in the country where the local punk bands need a 1,000+ capacity venue, which is where Union Transfer comes in. Originally opened in 1889 as the Spring Garden Farmer’s Market, the building itself is a beautifully converted relic that still maintains the original carved signage. Located in what’s commonly known as the Loft District, the venue lives up to that name with a cavernous interior that accommodates up to 1,200 but still feels intimate.
That latter quality probably owes to the bands that frequent the stage, many of which peddle in the kind of earnest, shout-at-the-top-of-your-lungs pop punk that has become Philadelphia’s calling card in recent years. Local acts Beach Slang, The Menzingers, and Modern Baseball have all filled this puppy to capacity with sweaty fans, though indie bands also find a welcome home here (hometown heroes Clap Your Hands Say Yeah played the first show in 2011).
33. The Sinclair
What You’ll See: Questlove, Courtney Barnett, Earl Sweatshirt, Floating Points, Peter Hook
Sure, The Sinclair is one of Boston’s newest venues, but it’s hard to imagine the city without it. Technically hidden away in Cambridge, the multi-level venue stands like a hardened cement statue down an alleyway in Harvard Square where the city’s cutting-edge shows almost always take place. Enter the left set of doors to find yourself in the venue’s trendy, high-end restaurant where chefs put a fusion-style spin on American classics. Enter the right set of doors to check out the music venue itself, a two-story, multi-room spot where sound and style both win.
Despite the modern, cold architectural feel, The Sinclair has arguably the best sound engineering out of all of greater Boston’s venues no matter what genre of music is pumping through the speakers. That dependability is what prompted Converse Rubber Tracks to host free shows there, their best of which saw The Replacements, Slayer, The Descendants, and more playing to the 525-person capacity room.
If you get there early, grab drinks on the upstairs patio to watch as a line for that concert’s show forms, and if you don’t feel like standing by the time the show starts, upstairs seating lets you rest your feet. Staff treat bands with respect, no matter how big or small they are, which makes the evening better for everyone, especially local acts asked to open for certain bills. Just make sure you buy your ticket in advance — it’s not uncommon for shows to sell out.
32. Alpine Valley Music Theatre
East Troy, Wisconsin
What You’ll See: Zac Brown Band, Dave Matthews Band, Dead and Company
Nestled among the rolling hills of Wisconsin farm country, Alpine Valley is the most intimate concert experience you can have alongside a crowd the size of a small city. The 37,000-person capacity includes 7,500 pavilion seats for the diehards, the wealthy, or just those who suffer from back pain. Everyone else packs a blanket and sprawls out on the spacious lawn, and depending on the performers (Alpine Valley is a favorite spot of jam bands), a lawn ticket can feel as wild as a day pass for Bonnaroo. In addition to being a favored spot for Phish, Rush, and the Dave Matthews Band, Alpine Valley has an infamous place in music history: It was the last venue Stevie Ray Vaughan played before he and four others were killed when their helicopter crashed into a ski hill within the Alpine Valley resort.
31. The Fox
What You’ll See: Sufjan Stevens, Van Morrison, Joanna Newsom
The Fox Theater started life as a movie house, showing films on Oakland’s bustling Telegraph Avenue from 1928 to 1970. When dwindling ticket sales caused it to shutter, it lay dormant for over 20 years until it was refurbished with cooperation from the city of Oakland and Another Planet Entertainment, the concert promoter responsible for San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival and the Bay Area’s Treasure Island Music Festival.
Designed to reflect the roaring twenties aesthetic of the movie palace’s heyday, the Fox is a grand building home to a tiered floor and balcony seating, adorned with gold accents and mystical statues on either end of the stage, which play up the visual of an Indian temple. The Fox serves as the perfect-sized place for acts that may have outgrown the Fillmore but aren’t ready for the full-blown stadium venue. The three levels of floor space allow for concertgoers to get as close (or far) from the action as desired, providing the perfect atmosphere for acts like Air, Childish Gambino, or B.B. King.
Months after the Fox reopened its doors, Green Day took advantage of the new hometown space to mount a secret show in which they played the entirety of their then-unreleased 21st Century Breakdown, subsequently establishing the space as a prime location for big bands to go a shade more intimate for a special night. The venue’s stunning beauty, sparkling acoustics, and impressive bookings have made it one of the best venues in an area ripe with compelling spaces.
30. Black Cat
What You’ll See: The best up-and-coming acts before you know they’re the best up-and-coming acts
Dante Ferrando’s inspiration to start his own club was born out of frustration with another of DC’s prized musical haunts, the 9:30 Club. The deal breaker came one night while watching Nirvana at the club, which was oversold and packed to the walls on one of the hottest nights of an already-oppressive DC summer. Feeling he could do better than the 9:30’s original F Street home, a space as notoriously decrepit as rock clubs get, Ferrando opened Black Cat on 14th Street in 1993.
The club’s opening briefly initiated a turf war with the 9:30, as bands began flocking to the Black Cat’s newer digs when they came through the Capital. Nowadays, both venues peacefully coexist, with the Black Cat largely serving as a smaller, feeder venue for the larger, more lavish 9:30 on V Street. Punk, indie, soul, metal, DJ nights, and everything in between has a home over at the Cat, making it one of the most diverse venues in the city. And don’t forget to bring your appetite. Food for Thought, run by Ferrando’s father, Bob, has a pretty killer menu of vegetarian dishes.
29. Merriweather Post Pavilion
What You’ll See: Phish, The Cure, Animal Collective
Long before Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and Geologist named their landmark 2009 album for the Maryland venue it was well known to many as one of the best outdoor amphitheaters in the United States. Originally built as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra, the former Oakland Manor slave plantation immediately found itself a popular destination for acts of the day like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who.
Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a gorgeous relic of the 1960s building aesthetic and one that fully embraces its outdoor surroundings. It takes its name from Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress to the Post cereal fortune. Another plus is how well the venue can shift from more intimate fare to true amphitheater size (at capacity, it can hold over 15,000), giving it flexibility in who it can book.
An ideal spot for mid-size and large-scale summer tours, locals can rest easy knowing an artist would be remiss not to book a night or two at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on their summer schedule. Small-scale festivals have been mounted at the space as well. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Jimmy Buffet who has played the venue more than any other artist, with 42 shows under his belt.
28. Radio City Music Hall
New York, New York
What You’ll See: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Sigur Rós, Aretha Franklin
If it weren’t for Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall would be the most renowned venue in New York City. Even so, it’s historically probably even more important. Developed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. during the Great Depression as part of Rockefeller Center, the hall was in part responsible for bringing financial attention back to the area and the city at large. The Art Deco interior designed by Edward Durell Stone and Donald Deskey was declared a city landmark in 1978, and walking through it feels like being transported back to old Hollywood.
Though the 6,000-capacity space is rarely used for movie premieres anymore, it still welcomes a range of top-ranking touring artists like David Gilmour, Adele, and The War on Drugs. Imagine seeing Tame Impala perform on the same stage as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald at the height of their careers. Seeing a band in this gorgeous music hall isn’t just witnessing great musician perform in an elegant, intelligently designed venue — it’s seeing them stand alongside history.
27. Bluebird Cafe
What You’ll See: Don Schlitz, Phil Vassar, Rising Stars
When it comes to the country music scene, there exists a mythical Nashville, full of cowboy hats and pickup trucks; as well as the modern Nashville, an urbane commercial center with more boardrooms than back roads; and then there’s the Bluebird Cafe, with a foot in both worlds, simultaneously real and the stuff of legends.
Everyone from Garth Brooks to a 15-year-old Taylor Swift was discovered here, not to mention a legion of ghostwriters; dozens of Grammy Award-winning songs and No. 1 hits were first heard at the Bluebird’s legendary Writer’s Night. The intimate 90-seat venue, unpretentiously located in a strip mall, is so iconic that it’s a recurring character on the ABC show Nashville.
While the food isn’t great, the Bluebird Cafe might be the only place in the world that you can participate in music’s past, present, and future all while eating spanakopita.
26. Starlight Theatre
Kansas City, Missouri
What You’ll See: Beauty and the Beast, Blue Man Group, The 1975, Duran Duran
Who knew that a Missouri river town could buzz with so much creativity? Barbecue? Yep. Baseball? Sure. But the arts? That’s a pleasant surprise. Nestled within the greenery of Kansas City’s Swope Park lay the Starlight Theatre, an 8,000-seat castle-like concert shell. Doubling as a playhouse and music venue, the outdoor theater quenches Kansas City’s artistic thirst in one sweet gulp. While it has been refurbished over the years, the Starlight’s story dates back to KC’s first cultural renaissance (similar to the one that’s occurring there now). In 1925, the city organized a showcase honoring the arrival of Romania’s Queen Marie. The showcase’s massive success catalyzed plans to erect a formal performance structure, and 24 years later, The Starlight broke ground.
As one can imagine, the stage has experienced a number of unique moments in its 66-year history. In 1958, a demanding Jerry Lewis foot the Starlight’s bill in order to elongate the stage to fit his act. Several years later, President Harry Truman shocked spectators with a guest appearance during the musical Mr. President. These days, performers at the Starlight remain as eclectic as ever. The regal stage flip-flops performances nightly, interspersing legacy acts with pop radio favorites and family-friendly musicals. In addition to the type of acts it hosts, what sets the Starlight apart from other KC and US venues is its ambience. It doesn’t always boast the trendiest fare, but in truth, it doesn’t need to. With beautiful stage design and idyllic location, the Starlight creates experiences that transcend the performers onstage.
25. The National
What You’ll See: Beirut, Slayer, Third Eye Blind
When The National first opened its doors in the ‘20s, it was just one of the many venues in Richmond’s thriving theatre district. Over the years, it’s been a vaudeville house, a movie palace, and a building that just kind of sat there. But like so much else about the entertainment industry, The National has changed with the times, and it now combines its stunning, Italian Renaissance-style architecture with kinds of technological advancements you’d expect to find at a young whipper-snapper venue. The V-DOSC sound system—the sixth installed in the country—makes the great big sounds of the bands and comedians who roll through Richmond even bigger and clearer.
So yes, there are creature comforts aplenty, as is the case with most top-tier venues. There are comfortable seats in the balcony with cupholders, and screens throughout the venue’s seven bars so that you don’t miss a single piece of weird in-set banter. It’s all very convenient. But what really matters is the chance to see world-class acts in a damned gorgeous building, and to hear some national treasures in an honest to god national treasure—the venue was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2003.
What You’ll See: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Wavves, of Montreal
Austin is a music town above almost anything else, and it’s not surprising that a place nicknamed the Live Music Capital of the World is packed with incredible venues. Amongst them, The Mohawk stands out for both its maximized space and its unique design. Inside is a small, simple area behind the main bar that’s great for DJs and fresh local talent alike, as well as events like BYOVinyl Tuesdays. Outside, there’s a 850-capacity, multi-tiered venue that’s perfect for touring acts and hometown favorites of all sizes.
Unlike the field-like setting of Stubb’s, the Mohawk’s outdoor space maintains a sense of intimacy and comfort. No matter where you find yourself — whether it’s on one of the balconies or on the ground level — you’re nearly guaranteed a solid view of the stage. Having the capacity spread out vertically like that allows it to rarely feel overcrowded, while simultaneously allowing you to choose your own concert experience, from vantage point to noise level.
A favorite South by Southwest venue, the Mohawk remains an Austin concert destination worth visiting year-round thanks to the range of talent it attracts and the unrivaled setting it provides.
23. Tipitina’s Uptown
New Orleans, Louisiana
What You’ll See: George Clinton, Cypress Hill, Dawes, Gang of Four
Sitting at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street in Uptown New Orleans, Tipitina’s is a thoroughly NOLA institution. Originally a juke joint, it was founded in 1977 by local music fanatics The Fabulous Fo’teen, who named the venue after Professor Longhair’s 1953 single “Tipitina”, and served as the home of local nonprofit radio station WWOZ upstairs.
The venue is also connected to a good cause, namely Tipitina’s Foundation, which was launched in 2003 and, as defined on its website, “supports Louisiana and New Orleans’ irreplaceable music community and preserves the state’s unique musical cultures through its four main programs.”
Those four programs include: the school band initiative, Instruments A Comin’; the instructional series, Sunday Youth Music Workshops; the after-school jazz and digital recording workshop, Tipitina’s Internship Program; and the workforce development network, Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Ops.
While Tip’s is hardly the biggest venue on this list, with a capacity of 1,000, its place in New Orleans and its impact is more sizable than any number could ever let on.
22. Beacon Theatre
New York, New York
What You’ll See: The Smashing Pumpkins, Leon Bridges, Patti Smith
Let’s put this bluntly: There is no more gorgeous venue in all of New York City than the Beacon Theater. The interior was updated in 2009, but the theater’s ornate design has been there since Walter W. Ahlschlager designed the building in the ’20s. On either side of the stage stand 30-foot high Greek goddesses, with similarly large lions resting on either end of the upper balcony. The ceiling contains a stunning array of colors with a chandelier like an upside city spire jutting from the center. As breathtaking as the look of the place is, however, the sound is even better.
Because it was designed as a movie house during the days of pre-sound film, its acoustics were perfectly tuned for live accompaniment, which today translates into one of the best sounding music venues you’ll ever find. It’s why The Allman Brothers Band played over 200 shows there, why Hot Tuna perform there every year, and why My Morning Jacket chose to hold their recent four-night residency there. Splendid in both visual and aural appeal, the Beacon Theater deserves to be in the upper echelon of venues not just in the city, but the entire country.
21. The Showbox
What You’ll See: D’Angelo, Kurt Vile, Drive Like Jehu, Decibel Festival
Although The Showbox’s marquee traditionally boasts some of today’s most promising young talent, it’s long been a fixture for legendary artists passing through the Northwest, from Duke Ellington to the Foo Fighters. Walking into the venue, there’s a sense of regality with the glittering chandelier beaming over the ballroom floor. This makes for a great juxtaposition on nights when acts like The Melvins or Drive Like Jehu bring their sonic mayhem into the abyssal concert hall.
Fans wanting to get in a little early can grab drinks next door at Kerns Music Shop, a converted lounge that previously housed jazz cats and purveyors of swing like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. All of this history legitimizes the venue, but it’s the day-to-day operations that keep the legacy thriving. Yet there’s a reason the Showbox has endured for all these years: Both the quality of life and their adventurous bookings offer all the bragging rights any self-respected venue could ever need.
20. The Hideout
What You’ll See: Andrew Bird, Jeff Tweedy, Ken Vandermark, Robbie Fulks
The Hideout isn’t just a cute name — the Chicago mainstay was erected in two days over 100 years ago, undocumented and off the grid. Prior to its days as a music venue, it housed, allegedly, bootleggers and illegal gamblers, but today you’re more likely to find intimate, comfortable shows at the wood-frame house tucked in amongst the factories and municipal fuel stations. Whether you’re going for punk or folk, one of the residences in which a beloved act like alt country outfit Devil in a Woodpile set up shop for a month, a night of amazing improv jazz, or veggie bingo (in which attendees donate money for a bingo card that could win fresh produce from local CSA farms), new guests feel like old friends as soon as they make their way through the city’s industrial corridor and find the beloved facade.
Chicago legends find the wood-paneled, mounted-fish-covered, Christmas-light-bedecked room as comfortable as the folks crowding the barstools — Billy Corgan tested out Zwan material for a month prior to the band’s debut, Jeff Tweedy and co. have experimented on the stage outside of their Wilco confines, and Andrew Bird used to be a more regular staple. And the most welcoming aspect might just be co-owners Tim and Katie Tuten, who make their presence felt, particularly during Tim’s introductions to shows. I’ll never forget his beautiful speech memorializing Ornette Coleman prior to Wire’s performance at last year’s Drill Festival — people were antsy, waiting for the English post-punk legends and St. Vincent to perform, and yet Tuten’s affecting words reminded everyone (the performers included) that the love of passionate, innovative music the Hideout and its owners embody is what brought us all together in the first place.
West Hollywood, CA
What You’ll See: Elton John, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Guns N’ Roses, Lana Del Rey
There’s a section of the Troubadour’s website that counts down the historic moments in the venue’s history and it’s remarkable to behold. It’s where Elton John played his first American show, where James Taylor performed his solo debut, and where Pearl Jam unveiled their new name after previously being known as Mookie Blaylock. More recently, Guns N’ Roses chose it as the home of their first reunion show, the same venue that earned them a record deal in 1986.
But beyond the history, the Troubadour has a vibe that many of its fellow WeHo rock clubs have let fade (or completely lost) over the past several decades. While the Sunset Strip has sunk into a parody of itself, the Troubadour exists like a time capsule of the rock and roll past, with its upstairs bar displaying classic concert posters and its interior wood fixtures emphasizing the room’s personality.
It’s also a venue that has maintained its prestige. For local acts, selling out the Troubadour is a benchmark for having made it, while many out-of-towners have to conquer its stage on the way to bigger venues. For decades, the booking has remained on-point, making it the best small room in Los Angeles in terms of both fan experience and the quality of the performances you are likely to see there.
18. 40 Watt Club
What You’ll See: Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, New Madrid, The Whigs
Once upon a time, Athens was ground zero for America’s college-rock movement, and no club or venue in the city supported that movement more than the 40 Watt. What’s most impressive about this iconic rock club isn’t the list of national artists that have graced its stage (though that list does include Nirvana, Pavement, Patti Smith, and literally thousands of others). No, the 40 Watt is legendary because it played host to two generations of groundbreaking local indie artists.
Shortly after opening in 1979, it became the de facto home base for R.E.M., Pylon, the B-52’s, and other bands that would go on to define the 1980s rock sound. Then, after moving several times and reopening in April 1991, the 40 Watt ushered in the next wave of indie rock by playing host to local heroes Neutral Milk Hotel, Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control … and, well, you get the idea.
With its old-school marquee and cramped, standing-room-only interior, the 40 Watt isn’t going to blow anyone away with its looks. But people come here first and foremost to revel in history — and to see history being made.
17. Doug Fir Lounge
What You’ll See: Blitzen Trapper, Menomena, The Thermals, Portugal. The Man
Most bars or venues that self-consciously opt for the “log cabin” aesthetic try to look as rustic as possible, but Doug Fir Lounge comes across like a cabin from the future. Sure, there’s rich wood paneling everywhere — including the cozy green room — but there’s also disco ball-shaped lights, wrap-around leather booths, and an ultramodern glass fireplace out on the newly renovated patio (did we mention there’s a patio?). Of course, the main attraction is the subterranean venue situated directly below the restaurant.
Down there, you’ll find enough wood to fill a small forest in Oregon, as well as a state-of-the-art stage setup tailored specifically to indie rock acts. The venue’s booking agents do a good job of drawing national acts as well as local openers from their own Lower Burnside neighborhood, which was basically a cultural wasteland when Doug Fir opened in 2004. Working with a standing room capacity of 299, they can’t accommodate huge acts, but specialize in indie stars on the rise — and yeah, there have been many.
16. Electric Factory
What You’ll See: Courtney Barnett, Grimes, The Cult, Vance Joy
Named after a short-lived venue from the ’60s, Philadelphia’s Electric Factory as we now know it has been open since 1994. Arguably the definitive venue of Pennsylvania, the 3,000-capacity joint actually steals away some of the finer New Jersey shows while still serving as the ‘made it’ venue for local punk. In fact, This Is Hardcore Fest takes place there every year, offering four straight days of thrash and powerviolence at a time when most venues wouldn’t dare to risk even two days.
At its original location on 22nd and Arch Street, the Electric Factory hosted the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, and The Who. Since its reinvention on North 7th Street, it’s hosted everyone from Anthrax to Ratatat, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Miley Cyrus, Faith No More, PVRIS, and Biohazard billed for the same week. Gotta love its hippied-out Ben Franklin logo, too, which adds the perfect shine to its age-old history, as if to say: We’re gonna stick around, and we’re gonna know what’s up before you do.
15. Toad’s Place
New Haven, Connecticut
What You’ll See: Cold War Kids, Julian Casablancas, Badfish, Hostage Calm
Some venues have a history so rich that simply being inside their walls makes you feel like you’re being transported back in time. Meet Toad’s Place, an otherwise dingy venue smack dab next to Yale’s campus. When its doors first opened, the dive saw Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon gracing its stage. In the years that followed, it began to rack up even bigger performers: Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Cheap Trick, Wu-Tang, Radiohead. It’s quite the feat given the venue only holds 750 people.
Toad’s Place gets its name — a variant of the “couch potato” phrase — from one of its original owners, Michael Spoerndle, who rented the building back in 1974 for a French restaurant. Given the place scores names like Jack’s Mannequin and Dark Star Orchestra, it keeps the people coming out, though perhaps that’s due in part to the possibility of seeing celebrities like Derek Jeter in the crowd beside you. Nowadays, it hosts a regular slew of jam bands and tribute acts, most of whom draw big crowds thanks to the influx of college kids directly across the street.
Naturally, with underage students comes oversize issues. In 2002, Toad’s Place closed for a week after underage drinkers were found. Three years later, they were caught again, and the state forced them to close their doors for nearly three months. Despite the heavy fines and legal issues, the venue has pressed on, proving their moniker wrong by luring big crowds off their couches and out to their venue each week.
What You’ll See: Father John Misty, Lewis Black, Tegan and Sara, Mudcrutch
History is a major component for any venue on our list. Atlanta’s greatest venue, The Tabernacle, is rather wealthy in that regard. Way, way back in the early 20th century, Chattanooga architect Reuben Harrison Hunt was hired to design what would go down as “one of the most important real estate and church transactions ever made in Atlanta,” and boy did he deliver. For 80 years, the neoclassical, red-bricked auditorium served as a House of God for Southern Baptists, peaking in the 1950s with over 3,000 members. As the years inched by, that number began to dwindle, enough that the entire place was eventually turned into a House of Blues for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Thankfully, Elwood Blues didn’t stick around too long, leaving the historic relic in the hands of Lance Sterling, who dedicated his time, energy, and money into making it the premiere venue in the Southeast. For a good two years, he did just that — entering into a 30-year lease and pouring a couple million of his own dollars — until SFX Entertainment (now Live Nation) swept in and bought the place. Since then, everyone from Guns N’ Roses to The Mars Volta, Eminem to Conan O’Brien have graced the churchy halls, which scream of Southern hospitality and charm. In 2008, an asshole tornado threatened its entire existence, but the venue miraculously prevailed. Maybe it had something to do with God?
To quote the late Bob Hoskins: “I believe it.”
13. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
What You’ll See: Modest Mouse, Beach House, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jamie xx, Pixies
Though it didn’t open as its current operation until 1982, the history of Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace goes back even further. The site was originally conceived as a 19th century cantina facade for Westerns starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Over the years, however, the property has since evolved into a music venue attracting national acts from all genres.
As one might expect, the personality and history imbues the whole experience. Pappy’s is a large restaurant where concertgoers can enjoy barbecue ahead of performances. Its two stages, a smaller indoor and larger outdoor, can even host separate events on the same night, allowing for the ambitious music fans to take in dual events on a single night.
Coachella gets the venue going full steam, with many of the acts playing side dates before or after the festival, but more and more, Pappy’s is offering quality events all year long. Located just a couple hours from Los Angeles, city folk can leave the hustle of modern life behind and witness a concert not just in a different place, but in what feels like a different time.
12. Cat’s Cradle
Carrboro, North Carolina
What You’ll See: Titus Andronicus, Daughter, Twin Shadow, Kurt Vile, Waka Flocka Flame
In 2009, our own Justin Gerber, then a student at NC State, raved about Carrboro’s own Cat’s Cradle, writing: “It’s my favorite type of venue, where the audience and the performer(s) join up as one to create a memorable experience for all involved, something that gets lost in arenas and stadiums.” Similarly, other locals who have paid the two-room Cradle a visit have been pleasantly surprised despite its unusual strip mall location and its lofty floor space even amid sold-out shows.
Long before Gerber’s praise, however, Thurston Moore name-checked the venue on Sonic Youth’s pummeling Dirty cut “Chapel Hill” as he sang: “Throw me a cord and plug it in, get the Cradle rocking.” For decades, the venue has allowed artists to do just that with a sound system that consistently garners rave reviews. Fans who saw Swans’ 2015 show, for example, were impressed by the venue’s ability to accommodate the experimental rockers’ massive, mighty sound.
And as we know, those fans are quite testy.
11. First Avenue and 7th St. Entry
What You’ll See: Atmosphere, Doomtree, Bob Mould
For First Avenue, what began as a humble bus depot grew into one of the most revered concert venues in the Midwest. (It was initially known as The Depot, then Sam’s, before being rechristened as its current namesake in 1981.) With a 1550-cap main room and a smaller 250-cap side box (the 7th Street Entry), First Avenue provides the perfect stomping grounds for rising acts looking to evolve and eventually perform for bigger crowds. In its storied history, the club has hosted just about every major Twin Cities artist, ranging from Prince to The Replacements, Atmosphere to Hüsker Dü. The late legend’s iconic film Purple Rain even prominently featured the venue as the protagonist’s home away from home.
Today, all the icons who have performed at the storied club are immortalized in stars that adorn the outside of the building. And from its early days, the venue has shored up its reputation for booking great music in a variety of genres, whether it’s hip-hop or punk or straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. It’s also proven to be a beacon of historical events, hosting everything from Eyedea and Prince’s memorials to the local public radio station’s ensuing anniversary shows. And despite a bankruptcy scare in the early ’00s, First Avenue returned better than ever with an improved sound system befitting of a venue of its stature. When you wish upon a star…