Home Music Music Lists

The Best Big Rooms in America

For the second in a four-part series on great music venues, Rolling Stone polled 26 insiders and musicians – from top managers to Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump – and came up with a list of the nation's coolest large clubs and theaters. 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

 

 


Voters:
Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker Band)
Thomas Mars (Phoenix)
Britt Daniel (Spoon)
Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)
Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy)
Miranda Lambert
Talib Kweli
DJ Harvey
Bassnectar
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)
Rob Light (head of Creative Artists Agency's music department)
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 (agent, Bassnectar)
Andrew Cook (manager, Deadmau5)

Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa

CC Image courtesy of delius98 on Flickr

20

Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa

The Surf is written into rock history for one reason: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played here on February 2nd, 1959, before the three young rock stars boarded a plane and crashed in a nearby cornfield. Many live-music theatres are older than this no-frills 1934 dancehall with a wooden floor surrounded by Fifties-style diner booths and (for some reason) palm trees. But few other clubs have booked rock & roll since the beginning, from the Everly Brothers and Little Richard to Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd to, today, Willie Nelson and Cheap Trick. The plain-looking brick building with the rickety old marquee received landmark status from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Capacity: 2,100

Website: http://www.surfballroom.com

Fun Fact: Dion DiMucci won a coin toss in 1959 to join the others on the doomed plane, but the price was $36 – too high. He gave his seat to Valens, who said, "Thanks."

Trocadero, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Courtesy Trocadero

19

Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia

Long before Death Cab for Cutie and Toots and the Maytals were playing the main stage, the Troc's biggest stars were burlesque heroines such as Blaze Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee. The rock club in Philly's Chinatown district opened in 1880 as a vaudeville-and-minstrel-show outpost known as the Arch Street Opera House; its live-music incarnation began a century later. The club has persevered through financial trouble in recent years – its operators filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and blamed Ticketmaster, citing "burdensome" convenience charges.

Capacity: 1,200

Website: http://www.thetroc.com

Fun Fact: Although many of the old buildings on this list are historic landmarks, the Troc is the only 19th-century, Victorian-style theatre still running.

House of Blues, Chicago, Illinois

CC Image courtesy of MD111 on Flickr

18

House of Blues in Chicago

When House of Blues first opened, the chain of rock clubs seemed destined to be one of those Planet Hollywood-style fads, frozen in the Nineties, with its Blues Brothers and porkpie-hat imagery and omnipresent merchandising. But a strange thing happened – HOBs in New Orleans, Vegas, L.A. and Chicago (this club opened in 1996) began to book killer shows in all genres, not just blues. "When it's packed," says Talib Kweli, "you can actually feel the building sway with the show." The food here is great, too. Don't miss the Sunday gospel brunch.

Capacity: 1,300

Website: http://www.houseofblues.com/venues/clubvenues/chicago/

Fun Fact: Arena acts often stop by for a change of pace from their usual big tours – notable examples include Pete Townshend in 1997, Pearl Jam in 2005, Jay-Z in 2009, and Prince and B.B. King last year.

El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, California

CC Image courtesy of DB's travels on Flickr

17

El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles

After almost 60 years as a first-run movie house in Los Angeles' Miracle Mile theatre district, the El Rey reinvented itself as a live-music club in 1994 – and hired Bob Dylan to christen its new stage with five shows. The club maintains its classic touches, including a giant staircase, ornate lobby and VIP balcony lounge, but the grand ballroom is simple, narrow and great for shows. Indie-rock agent Tom Windish calls the El Rey and the equally historic Henry Fonda Theatre "the best mid-sized venues in LA." Coming up this year: Dale Earnhart Jr. Jr., Shuggie Otis and, befitting its location, actor Jeff Bridges' band.

Capacity: 770

Website: http://www.theelrey.com

Fun Fact: At one point in its history, the space served as a flophouse.

Norva, Norfolk, Virginia

CC Image courtesy of Fire At Will [Photography]on Flickr

16

Norva in Norfolk, Va.

The club with the hot tub, not to mention a sauna and game room on the premises, opened in 2000 after owner A. William Reid saw gold in Norfolk's rising downtown area. He sunk $6 million into the project, a Roaring Twenties movie hall that had evolved over the decades into an athletic club (thus the hot tub). The first show was James Brown in 2000, but over time, the Norva developed a reputation, drawing headliners from Prince to Dylan to Justin Timberlake. Reid later told the Virginian-Pilot that his only regret was not asking the Godfather of Soul to join him in the tub, thus reprising Eddie Murphy's famous Saturday Night Live skit. "Because he was so gracious," Reid said of the headliner who established his club, "I never quite had the nerve to ask him."

Capacity: 1,450

Website: http://www.thenorva.com

Fun Fact: Prince opened his 2001 show here with "Purple Rain," then played, among others, "Cream," "Kiss" and "I Wanna Be Your Lover."

radio city music hall

Tracy Allison

15

Radio City Music Hall in New York

You know this one: Rockettes, Christmas Spectaculars, Sinatra and Ella, Bill Cosby and Billy Crystal, iconic marquee, red-velvet seats, 60-foot arches. The midtown landmark has been a New York City fixture – one that has drawn more than 300 million customers – since tycoon John D. Rockfeller Jr. dreamed it up in 1929. What you may not know is that in addition to its glitzy tourist-trap entertainment, the Hall regularly draws some of the best tickets in music, from Leonard Cohen to Grizzly Bear to Nas.

Capacity: 6,000

Website: http://www.radiocity.com

Fun Fact: Thanks to judge Howard Stern, who didn't want to commute from his New York radio show to New Jersey, America's Got Talent will film here in June.

Toad’s Place, New Haven, Connecticut

CC Image courtesy of kidneybingos on Flickr

14

Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn.

The 7,000-square-foot club under the green awning near Yale University is famous nationally for two events: It's where the Rolling Stones opened their Steel Wheels tour in 1989, and where Bob Dylan played one of his longest-ever shows (four hours!) in 1990. But locals know the intimate space with the rockin' cartoon amphibian hanging over the doorway contains far more history than that, with legendary appearances by U2, Tom Waits and Talking Heads. "Saw my first show there: Ice Cube," says Talib Kweli, who attended a nearby boarding school.

Capacity: 1,000

Website: http://www.toadsplace.com

Fun Fact: Billy Joel recorded his song "Los Angelenos" here in 1980.

The Tabernacle, Atlanta, Georgia

Courtesy The Tabernacle

13

The Tabernacle in Atlanta

Even a tornado, five years ago, couldn't knock down this 103-year-old former church. From the outside, the four-story, red-brick building with tall white pillars still looks like a place of worship, or maybe a library, but it's been rocking since it opened as a House of Blues during the 1996 Olympics. Promoting giant Live Nation later took it over – which meant the water and roof damage from the tornado five years ago was quickly fixed – and today's club grabs names from Bob Dylan to Adele to Paramore. When producers light the Tabernacle's main room a certain way, it looks like an opulent psychedelic circus, with stained-glass windows, colorful patterned ceiling and a huge chandelier. "You don't feel safe – in a good way," says Phoenix' Thomas Mars. "The crowd surrounds the stage and you are being watched from every angle."

Capacity: 2,400

Website: http://tabernacleatl.com

Fun Fact: Elton John made a concert film based on his 2004 performance here, with songs from his Peachtree Road album.

Showbox, Seattle, Washington

CC Image courtesy of allaboutgeorge on Flickr

12

Showbox in Seattle

Seattle is full of storied venues, but no theater can touch the 74-year-old Showbox – Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, the Ramones, Pearl Jam and M.I.A. have all played here. And that's not counting the tiny Green Room lounge, once a music shop where Sinatra and Nat King Cole gave intimate shows. When top L.A. promoter AEG Live bought the club in 2007, it smartly retained longtime general manager Jeff Steichen and talent buyer Chad Queirolo. "It's a cool old club, and it sounds great," says Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.

Capacity: 1,130

Website: http://www.showboxpresents.com

Fun Fact: In the late Seventies, just before the rock bands came in, the building was a Jewish bingo parlor called Talmud Torah.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

CC Image courtesy of sutton198 | oneninety8.com on Flickr

11

Fox Theatre in Atlanta

The Fox opened near downtown Atlanta just before the stock market crashed in 1927, which meant the owners still had money to give it "a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination," as one early reviewer declared. At first a Shriners' mosque, the theatre had Egyptian décor, stage curtains covered in sequins and rhinestones and restrooms and phone booths decorated with plaster and bronze. Over time (and several preservation efforts), it evolved into a crucial stop for southern rock and beyond – Elvis Presley played here in 1956, Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1976, Adele in 2011. "Every show I have ever seen there was a treat," says promoter John Scher.

Capacity: 4,700

Website: http://www.foxtheatre.org

Fun Fact: Elvis Presley performed six straight shows – in two days – with his quartet at the Fox in March 1956.

The Wiltern, Los Angeles, California

JC Olivera/Getty Images

10

The Wiltern in Los Angeles

James Cagney, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford were among the first stars at the opening of this art-deco theatre at the bottom of a 12-story tower in 1931. Since then, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver have all performed under the Wiltern's retro-cool chandelier. Standing out on a busy corner in L.A.'s Koreatown, it's become a key spot for rising bands. "The must-play when you move from a club to a theatre in L.A.," boasts Michael Rapino, chief executive of Live Nation, which runs the Wiltern.

Capacity: 2,300

Fun Fact:
Rickie Lee Jones, Florence + the Machine, Jonsi and David Crosby are among the headliners who've put out Live at the Wiltern albums or films.

webster hall new york city

Nicole Fara Silver

9

Webster Hall in New York

Built in 1886 by a cigarmaker for balls and Hebrew weddings, this onetime "Jewel of the Village" evolved into a rock club that hosted everyone from Prince to U2 to Guns N' Roses, then a dance club specializing in hip DJs, then a hybrid of the two. (It was known as The Ritz until 1990.) After a $3 million renovation four years ago, the four-level club has five separate rooms – on any given night, you can dance to a DJ set downstairs or rock out with the headliners at the grand ballroom upstairs. "Warm and inviting and intense and awesome and sweaty and classy and punk rock," says Stump. "It has everything you'd want in a venue."

Capacity: 1,500

Website: http://www.websterhall.com

Fun Fact: Webster Hall also contains a state-of-the-art studio, where Vampire Weekend, Mumford and Sons, Spoon and many others have recorded.

Beacon Theatre, New York, New York

Chad Batka/Corbis

8

Beacon Theatre in New York

Perfect sound and gorgeous art-deco design have made this venue on Manhattan's Upper West Side a favorite destination for stars like the Allman Brothers Band and the Stones – Martin Scorsese filmed their Shine a Light shows here. "Where else can you see a black gospel play starring Morris Chestnut one night and Louis C.K. the next?" asks Talib Kweli. Dennis Arfa, agent for Billy Joel and Metallica, says Madison Square Garden and L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl are the only other venues that can do huge sales based on location alone.

Capacity: 2,600

Website: http://www.beacontheatre.com

Fun Fact: After one Beacon rehearsal in 1995 for an HBO concert that was supposed to reach 250 million people worldwide, Michael Jackson abruptly canceled due to illness.

Tipitina's, New Orleans, Louisiana

Erika Goldring

7

Tipitina’s in New Orleans

When New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair needed a place to play in his late fifties, young fans opened this club for him southwest of the French Quarter. They named it after his most famous song, of course, and while 'Fess died a couple years later, in 1980, the club endures. "It's the best atmosphere to play a show," says Phoenix's Thomas Mars. "Extremely wet and packed. It's impossible to have a bad show there." In particular, jam bands from Widespread Panic to Galactic have found a southern home base here. On a mild summer evening, stick around outside for the overflowing bar scene at Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas.

Capacity: 800

Website: http://www.tipitinas.com

Fun Fact: During one sad period from 1984 to 1986, Tipitina's closed, and the owners at the time hacked up the bar and removed the classic signs above the bar.

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee

CC Image courtesy of Joseph A on Flickr

6

Ryman Auditorium in Nashville

At first, the Ryman was for fancy types – the Metropolitan Opera, John Philip Sousa, Charlie Chaplin,  Harry Houdini and President Theodore Roosevelt appeared on stage in the decades after steamboat captain Thomas G. Ryman built it for $100,000 in 1892. But in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry radio show needed a new stage to accommodate roaring and occasionally misbehaving country-western crowds, so it moved to the Ryman. It's gone on to welcome just about every country star you can think of over the years, from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift. Chicago promoter Andy Cirzan calls it "the legendary mother church."

Capacity: 2,362

Website: http://www.ryman.com

Fun Fact: The Ryman's first-ever sellout was a lecture by Hellen Keller in 1913.

Stubb's, Austin, Texas

CC Image courtesy of ricardodiaz11 on Flickr

5

Stubb’s in Austin, Texas

On a warm Saturday night in Austin, stroll down Red River Street, past the din of punk bands at Emo's, past the little Red Eyed Fly, until you come to the huge barbecue joint with a dusty stage out back. That's Stubb's, opened in Lubbock in the Thirties by a Texas cook named C.B. Stubblefield, then relocated to Austin 50 years later. Today, Stubb's regularly snags major headliners – from Metallica to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – at the SXSW festival and beyond. "My favorite shows there are when too many kids show up and they put you on the stage outside," says Stump. Don't worry, that rickety-looking staircase near the outdoor stage is rock-solid.

Capacity: 2,200

Website: http://stubbsaustin.com

Fun Fact: In the Seventies, when Stubb's was still in Lubbock, performers included Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Linda Ronstadt.

Metro, Chicago, Illinois

Courtesy Metro

4

Metro in Chicago

Chicago's 31-year-old North Side fixture opened with a $5 R.E.M. show – but it became a rock mecca when local heroes like Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and Urge Overkill, not to mention out-of-towners like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, grew into headliners in the Nineties. From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a joint next to the sidewalk, but the front hallway opens into a huge room with a balcony that seems to float over the stage. (The prized location in the audience is front-row, second floor.) Chicago's a discerning crowd, too: "The room has a sense of drama to it, with the high stage," says Corin Tucker. "The audience can sometimes seem to be a bit standoffish at first, but if you hit the right notes, the right spots, people roar to life in there." And if a plain old rock club is too boring for you, check out the cutting-edge DJs in the basement SmartBar.

Capacity: 1,100

Website: http://www.metrochicago.com

Fun Fact: At one Sleater-Kinney show, a "rock & roll psychic" was hanging around backstage. "He told me I needed to be very careful as there could be an accident in my future," Tucker recalls. "Come on! I was spending 10 hours a day in a van and was completely freaked out for the rest of the tour."

First Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Courtesy First Avenue

3

First Avenue in Minneapolis

This downtown Minneapolis club opened in 1937 as a Greyhound depot, but the history of First Avenue as we know it begins with Prince. Throughout the Eighties, he and the Revolution were sort of the house band here – you can see it in all the famous concert scenes in Purple Rain. The club was also a key staging ground for the city's punk-and-hardcore scene, starring the Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum. Today's fans still love the no-frills vibe and killer acoustics, even if waiting in line during a Minnesota winter can be a bummer. "Plus," says hip-hop star Talib Kweli, a regular headliner, "I saw [famous rapper's name redacted] deck an undercover cop and hop in a cab and get away at the club."

Capacity: 1,600

Website: http://first-avenue.com

Fun Fact: Prince reunited with his classic band, the Revolution, including Wendy and Lisa, at First Avenue early last year. Questlove DJed the post-show party.

The Fillmore, San Francisco, California

CC Image courtesy of LookingforJanis on Flickr

2

The Fillmore in San Francisco

Promoter Bill Graham's first event at this theater was a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1965. Among the local acts on the bill: the Jefferson Airplane and the newly renamed Grateful Dead. The rest is rock history – Graham developed the early history of West Coast rock & roll at the Fillmore, hosting Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Who, Howlin' Wolf and hundreds of other Hall of Fame names. The scene became so big that Graham had to relocate to the Fillmore West (where Led Zeppelin played a set still prized by bootleggers) and spin off New York City's Fillmore East (where Hendrix, The Who and the Allmans cemented their legends). Graham closed his beloved club in 1971, but after his death 20 years later, his promotion company reopened it at its original 1805 Geary Boulevard location. The original concert posters lining the walls today are so comprehensive they're almost intimidating.  "Legend," sums up Brian Ahern, a William Morris booking agent.

Capacity: 1,100

Website: http://www.thefillmore.com

Fun Fact: After Graham closed the Fillmore, it reopened in the Eighties as The Elite Club, starring Black Flag, Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys, Public Image Ltd. and other punk pioneers.

9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.

Mike Danko

1

9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.

After opening in 1980 in an out-of-the-way part of town, the 9:30 became ground zero for D.C.'s Reagan-era hardcore scene – local teenager Dave Grohl saw hundreds of bands there. The club snagged every name in new wave, punk and alt-rock, including R.E.M., Nirvana and Green Day, before moving on to more mainstream stuff like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Since moving to a larger location in 1996, playing the 1,200-capacity club has remained a rite of passage for indie acts on the rise. Says Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, "It's got so much character, you wonder if the locals know how lucky they are." More importantly for artists, adds Britt Daniel of Spoon and Divine Fits: "I can't think of any other club that gives its bands bunk beds, laundry, and a private balcony."

Capacity: 1,200

Website: http://www.930.com

Fun Fact: Early on, owners almost named the club Chair Dancing Nightly, Tuba Dancing, Aerosol or Cool Whip.

Show Comments