The Best Amphitheaters in America
For the third in a four-part series on great music venues, Rolling Stone polled 26 insiders and musicians – from top managers to Miranda Lambert – and came up with a list of the nation's coolest outdoor amphitheaters. Read on for our expert panel's picks, and visit our Venues that Rock page for an interactive map and much more.
By Steve Knopper
Corin Tucker (Corin Tucker Band, Sleater-Kinney)
Thomas Mars (Phoenix)
Britt Daniel (Spoon)
Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)
Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy)
Sharon Osbourne (manager, Ozzy Osbourne)
Scott Rodger (manager, Paul McCartney and Arcade Fire)
Dennis Arfa (agent, Billy Joel, Metallica, Rod Stewart)
Jim Guerinot (manager, Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt)
Tom Windish (agent, numerous indie-rock acts)
Andy Cirzan (promoter, Jam Productions in Chicago)
John Scher (promoter in New York City, manager of Art Garfunkel)
Kelly Curtis (manager, Pearl Jam)
Daniel Glass (head of Glassnote Records)
Michael Rapino (Live Nation)
David T. Viecelli (agent, Arcade Fire, David Byrne/St. Vincent, many others)
Brian Ahern (agent, William Morris Endeavor)
Bob McLynn (manager, Fall Out Boy, Courtney Love, many others)
Bertis Downs (manager, R.E.M.)
Jake Schneider (manager, Bassnectar)
Andrew Cook (manager, Deadmau5)
Every year, Chicagoans flock to this North Shore green space and spread out blankets for a concert series that stretches all summer long. You can't beat the location – "smack dab in the middle of some of the highest per-cap-income earners on the planet," in the words of Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago's Jam Productions. Over the years, it's welcomed a wide range of big-name acts including Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys and many more.
Fun Fact: Janis Joplin's summer 1970 Ravinia performance drew a security force of 200 police officers due to paranoia after fans rioted before a Sly and the Family Stone concert in Chicago the previous month.
Greek Theatre, Berkeley, California
The gem of Berkeley went up almost 110 years ago and slowly evolved from Teddy Roosevelt speeches to shows by acts like the Pixies, Arcade Fire, Tom Petty and the Postal Service. Its classical columns and off-white coloring date from the late nineteenth century, when a University of California president judged the Olympic Games in Athens and came home inspired. Most fans notice the views more than the architecture, however: "Great to go to the top, looking out over the Bay and San Francisco skyline while the band plays below," says Fall Out Boy manager Bob McLynn.
Fun Fact: Berkeley originally built the Greek in part to become a sort of "Athens of the West."
Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, New York
Even Hurricane Sandy couldn't take down this resilient beachside theatre, built in 1930 and run from the Fifties to the Seventies by schmaltzy crooner Guy "Enjoy Yourself" Lombardo. To repair the theatre after last October's superstorm, promoter Live Nation spent $20 million pumping out 3 million gallons of water, rebuilding the stage and boardwalk, replacing nine miles of cables, hauling out hundreds of tons of debris and meticulously cleaning, well, everything. This spring, the theatre reopened right on time. "With waves breaking on either side of the stage house, Jones Beach is one of a kind," says Michael Rapino, Live Nation's chief executive.
Fun Fact: When Lombardo died in 1977, New York promoter Ron Delsener took over, replacing Lombardo's Broadway productions with rock concerts.
Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California
The Shoreline's massive-Fiberglass-tent architecture seemed crazy to everyone when the great San Francisco promoter Bill Graham built it in 1986. Even Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead's guitarist, had trouble with it, recently telling the San Jose Mercury News: "It looked pretty futuristic to me at the time. It was sort of hard to assess what that tent structure would actually sound like. We got to playing there, and our sound guys pretty much figured out how to get that place humming." (Jerry Garcia's health forced the Dead to bow out of their venue-opening show, so Julio Iglesias ended up doing the honors.) Today, the Shoreline is one of those shed-circuit fixtures that snags every outdoor act, from Coldplay to the Dave Matthews Band – and, best of all, it plays host to Neil Young's all-star Bridge School Benefit every October.
Fun Fact: The site, as big as two football fields, was a landfill before Graham took it over.
Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, Wisconsin
Jam bands have flocked to this sprawling outdoor space, just outside Milwaukee, ever since the Grateful Dead started playing here in the Eighties. (Deadheads loved Alpine Valley, in part due to the site's generous camping arrangements.) And not just jam bands in the strict sense of the words: In 2011, this is where Pearl Jam chose to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a two-day blow-out. Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago's Jam Productions, still has fond memories of a Rage Against the Machine show that "turned 35,000 fans into a surging, amoeba-like entity that moved and grooved in flowing waves like nothing I had ever seen before."
Fun Fact: Alpine Valley had to make serious structural repairs after the summer of 1989, when the grounds turned into what one local critic called "a muck-filled slip 'n' slide" that actually trapped fans overnight in their cars.
Greek Theatre, Los Angeles
The visionary behind the Greek was one Griffith J. Griffith, who had made his fortune in gold mines and, in 1896, donated 3,000 acres of his own land to the City of Los Angeles for public parks. When he died, he passed on a $1 million trust and stipulated that a classic theatre with authentic Greek columns be built on the same land. Since the Greek started hosting concerts in the Seventies, that classy architectural touch has added a dash of drama to shows by everyone from the Who to the White Stripes, Paul McCartney to Paul Simon.
Fun Fact: During World War II, the Greek functioned as a military barracks.
Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland
Designed by architect Frank Gehry, known for shapes that seem structurally impossible, this outdoor theater is a huge wooden slab that seems to float over a hillside near Baltimore. Since opening in 1967, it's hosted everyone from Phish to Led Zeppelin – and in 2009, it gained a new kind of fame when Animal Collective, who grew up in Baltimore, named their latest album Merriweather Post Pavilion. (There's a reason no band has ever named an album after the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre.) The venue is flexible enough to go big or small with ease. "It feels great whether there are 6,000 or 16,000 people there," says Fall Out Boy manager Bob McLynn.
Fun Fact: The venue is named after cereal magnate Marjorie Merriweather Post, an early patron.
Gorge Amphitheatre, George, Washington
Sitting on the lawn at the Gorge, with the Columbia River and the rolling hills east of the Okanogan-Wanatchee National Forest behind the stage, just isn't the same experience as spreading out a blanket at any other outdoor venue. Opened in 1985 by a Seattle couple who had planned to use the land to grow grapes for wine, the Gorge became a sort of Red Rocks of the Northwest, where the scenery "adds drama to the performances," as Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker describes it. Fans and artists alike rave about the incredible views: Pearl Jam's Mike McCready calls the Gorge his "all-time favorite venue," adding: "The stage overlooking the cliff of the Columbia River as the sun goes down – it's very spiritual."'
Fun Fact: Pearl Jam's Live at the Gorge 05/06 is a massive seven-disc box set, including covers of the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."
Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles
Built underneath the Hollywood hills in the early 20th century, the Hollywood Bowl boomed along with the movie business, beginning with orchestras and Porgy and Bess-type productions before Frank Sinatra showed up in 1943. After the Beatles played here in 1964, the starlight-soaked amphitheater became a major rock destination, hosting the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and that was just the Sixties. Today, the run of superstar shows continues. "Stars marvel about the experience of playing the Bowl," says Michael Rapino, chief executive of Live Nation, the world’s biggest promoter.
Fun Fact: After mobs of screaming girls invaded backstage at the height of Beatlemania in 1964, Hollywood Bowl officials provided Brinks trucks so the Fab Four could escape after their two shows here in '65.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, Colorado
This dramatic natural venue just outside Denver – named after the two huge boulders that frame its borders – can elevate a good show into a totally unforgettable night. With the exception of Madison Square Garden, no U.S. venue of this size has such an amazing pedigree: The Beatles in 1964, Jimi Hendrix in 1968, Bruce Springsteen in 1978, and so many more. Pearl Jam played Red Rocks exactly once, in 1995, and they still haven't stopped talking about it. "It was just stunning," says guitarist Mike McCready. "We were never able to get there [again]. I don't know why. I want to go back."
Fun Fact: The amphitheatre has been officially open since 1941, but the first Red Rocks concerts were actually staged here much earlier – on a temporary platform in 1906.
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