The Best Clubs in America
For the first in a four-part series on great music venues, Rolling Stone polled 24 insiders and musicians – from Miranda Lambert to Thomas Mars of Phoenix – and came up with a list of the most rocking small rooms in America. 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 (Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker Band)
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 (agent, Bassnectar)
Andrew Cook (manager, Deadmau5)
Brooklyn Bowl in New York
With 16 bowling lanes, food from local restaurants and a hopping bar, performers such as Kanye West, M.I.A. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost an afterthought – almost. The 4-year-old club in Brooklyn's Williamsburg district, originally an ironworks-foundry building from the 1880s, has become a favorite place to catch hip-hop and R&B acts like the Roots, who have played a "holiday jam" there to close out the last two years. Bonus: LED lighting, good for the earth.
Fun Fact: With food by Blue Ribbon, the venue is home to some of the best fried chicken in the five boroughs.
Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, Mass.
Perhaps the world's only concert venue with a Lebanese restaurant upstairs, the Middle East opened in 1970 and began playing host to rock bands 17 years later. The site now hosts three music venues along with the restaurant; the downstairs club, with a capacity of nearly 600, is the crown jewel, attracting top indie acts to Cambridge's bustling Central Square.
Fun Fact: WBCN’s renowned “battle of the bands” has taken place at the Middle East for the last two decades.
40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga.
Years before Michael Stipe used to stage-dive into the crowd at this legendary Georgia nightclub, the future R.E.M. frontman would count pennies to get in as doormen stared him down. (He later befriended Nirvana's Dave Grohl over veggie sausage at a restaurant the morning after the Seattle band performed at the 40 Watt.) Originally the rehearsal space for local rock heroes Pylon, the 40 Watt morphed into a bona fide club in 1979, drawing the B-52's, Sonic Youth, X, Patti Smith and Drive-By Truckers.
Fun Fact: The 40 Watt Club has changed hands a few times in its 35 year history, but it’s currently owned by Barrie Buck, Peter Buck's ex-wife.
Union Transfer in Philadelphia
Union Transfer can fit between between 600 and 1,000 fans, depending on how the "flexible room," as Arcade Fire agent David T. Viecelli calls it, locates its unusual movable stage – which makes it a small club some nights, and a mid-sized venue on others.
Fun Fact: In 1889, the building that houses Union Transfer opened as the Spring Garden Farmers Market.
Belly Up in Aspen, Colo.
An oasis in a ski-town concert scene that usually focuses on local singer-songwriters and itinerant jam bands, Belly Up Aspen opened in 2005 and has drawn surprisingly major headliners from Jane's Addiction to Tiesto to Pitbull to B.B. King. Although the biggest shows are often sold out at the 450-capacity club and drinks are pricey, that's usually not a problem for the ritzy Aspen crowd. Owner Michael Goldberg "introduced music to Aspen that probably never would have played there," says Brian Ahern, a top William Morris booking agent.
Fun Fact: Legendary Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson didn't fancy the name of his friend Michael Goldberg's club. He thought it should be called "The Orifice."
Lincoln Hall in Chicago
Longtime Chicagoans know this castle-like 1912 building for its rooftop – where FBI snipers stood to make sure mobster John Dillinger didn't escape from the nearby Biograph Theatre. The crew from Schubas Tavern renovated this space in 2009, turning it into a two-level, 600-capacity live-music venue that Chicago-based agent Tom Windish calls "the Bowery Ballroom of the Midwest."
Fun Fact: The building used to house the 3 Penny Cinema — Chicago’s first and only movie-theater with a liquor license.
Bluebird Theatre in Denver
The curvy-lettered, bright-blue neon marquee suggests a tiny, intimate club, but the Bluebird is actually a full-sized (400 capacity) room with a great balcony space. Built in 1913, then drastically renovated in the mid-Nineties, the Bluebird regularly grabs rising stars like Japandroids, leaving bigger names to the larger Fillmore and Ogden theatres down the street.
Fun Fact: The theater was featured in the 1995 movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.
Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Ore.
Before opening this ground-level restaurant and basement performance space in 2004, Doug Fir's architects had to evict the rats and other detritus left behind by a damaged former diner, punk club and parking garage. The cozily redesigned, wood-paneled room ("like Paul Bunyan's home in outer space," one local writer put it) is perfectly located in central Portland, less than a mile from downtown. Try the Eggs La Bamba.
Fun Fact: The Doug Fir is housed at the Jupiter Hotel, along with a tattoo parlor and a hair salon — perfect for that multitasking scenester.
Empty Bottle in Chicago
With its plain brick facade and Old Style sign hanging out front, the 20-year-old Empty Bottle looks more like a plain Chicago townie bar than the city's most consistent punk-and-indie-rock club – not to mention the free jazz, skronky pop and other out-there genres it books. Chicago promoter Andy Cirzan calls the 400-capacity club "a kind of communal space for adventurous musicians and their fans."
Fun Fact: For nearly 20 years, Radley the cat resided at the venue. The rock & roll puss passed away in 2009.
Largo in Los Angeles
Five years ago, Largo – a club that had been booking young talent from John Mayer to comedians like Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis since the early Nineties – moved into the former home of the Coronet Theatre, a legendary L.A. space where Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles had performed. Today the club continues to showcase producer Jon Brion once every month, along with top comics such as Jeff Garlin and Reggie Watts. Says Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, "One of the coolest things is seeing the highbrow crowd a show there attracts: 'Holy shit, is that Jackson Browne?'"
Fun Fact: You can't talk or use your mobile phone during performances, but liveblogging on a laptop is perfectly acceptable.
Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tenn.
At this intimate Music City club, you can see a pro songwriter woodshedding new tunes, or meet a producer who changes your life (it happened to Taylor Swift).
Fun Fact: The cafe made its primetime debut on the ABC drama Nashville last year.
Continental Club in Austin, Texas
In its 56 years, the Continental evolved from burlesque house to anything-goes rock room to revamped rockabilly joint with a killer jukebox. Squeeze in, get sweaty.
Fun Fact: The club was BYOB when it opened in 1957.
Joe’s Pub in New York
Part supper club, part theater, Joe's Pub has made everyone from Lady Gaga to Leonard Cohen to Alicia Keys (who called it her "favorite rock & roll venue") feel like royalty.
Fun Fact: Amy Winehouse made her stateside debut here in 2007.
The Crocodile in Seattle
Opened in 1991, this 525-person club hosted every important band of the grunge era, including Nirvana (billed as Pen Cap Chew) and Mudhoney in 1992 for $3.
Fun Fact: The Croc abruptly closed in 2007, but reopened in 2009 after undergoing extensive renovations that kept its signature stained glass intact.
Great American Music Hall in San Francisco
Originally an ornate restaurant and bordello, this is a venue whose classy accouterments (old-fashioned marquee, ceiling frescoes, oak floor) bring out the best in bands and fans.
Fun Fact: The 1907 building — built after the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city — is reputedly haunted.
Schubas Tavern in Chicago
This "intimate and warm-sounding little wooden box," as Viecelli puts it, thrived as a home for country and folk, though acts like Gary Clark Jr. make noise here, too.
Fun Fact: Co-owners Chris and Mike Schubas helped launch the careers of Dave Matthews and Feist.
Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colo.
The former movie house mixes modern elegance with the everybody's-welcome warmth you'd expect from an old hippie town.
Fun Fact: It was once the Buff Café, billed as "Boulder's most modern eating house," in the Fifties.
Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J.
Bands from Nirvana to Yo La Tengo have figured out who they were at this indie-rock mecca. "The room really has love for the underdogs," says Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker.
Fun Fact: Bruce Springsteen filmed parts of the video for his 1985 hit “Glory Days” here.
The Troubadour in West Hollywood, Calif.
Few clubs have such an impressive history: The Troub was key to L.A.'s late-Sixties rock explosion and the glam-metal scene of the Eighties, a room where both Jim Morrison and Axl Rose became legends. More recently, everyone from Radiohead to the White Stripes has kept its legacy alive.
Fun Fact: Legendary potheads Cheech and Chong were discovered by Lou Adler at the Troubadour’s Monday Hoot night in 1970.
Bowery Ballroom in New York
Opened 15 years ago in a vacant jewelry store and haberdashery on the Lower East Side, the 550-capacity club is a must-play for bands on the way to stardom. David T. Viecelli, agent for Arcade Fire, says it's "another dressing room or two shy of perfection." It's both intimate and grand, with consistently great sound and sightlines, and touches of old-school class, like 84-year-old brass rails.
Fun Fact: Joan Baez’s live album Bowery Songs was recorded during her November 2004 show at the famed venue.