The Best Music Venues in America: Readers’ Choice
This March and April, our expert panel of artists and insiders picked the best clubs, big rooms and ampitheaters in America. Then, in May, we asked you to choose from the list of 40 finalists and submit your favorite. Read on to see if your favorite venue made the list, then visit our Venues That Rock page for an interactive map and much more.
Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY
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.
Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA
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.
The Troubadour in West Hollywood, CA
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.
The Fillmore in San Francisco, CA
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.
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.
Continental Club in Austin, TX
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.
Metro in Chicago, IL
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.
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."
Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN
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."
Fun Fact: The Ryman's first-ever sellout was a lecture by Hellen Keller in 1913.
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."
Fun Fact: Early on, owners almost named the club Chair Dancing Nightly, Tuba Dancing, Aerosol or Cool Whip.
First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN
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."
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.
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."
Fun Fact: Prince opened his 2001 show here with "Purple Rain," then played, among others, "Cream," "Kiss" and "I Wanna Be Your Lover."