America's Coolest Music Venues
“Les Schwab Amphitheater has beautiful grass, and it’s right along the Deschutes River, so there’s usually a lovely breeze,” says Noelle Fredland, marketing director for Bend, OR’s Old Mill District, where the concert venue is located. “The first thing you want to do here is take your shoes off and start dancing.”
It’s the kind of concert experience that’s worth a trip. And summer is the ideal time to embrace Fredland’s freewheeling spirit and hit the road to make memories amplified by live music.
A spectacular outdoor setting also draws concertgoers out of Boulder, CO, to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which overlooks three natural sandstone formations. Not only are they a beautiful backdrop, but they happen to provide terrific acoustics.
Scenery and sound quality are just two of the elements that measure up to a cool music venue. For Carol Noonan, owner of Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, an intimate setting and the behind-the-scenes treatment of musicians are key. Serving lavish homemade meals and providing well-equipped dressing rooms is her strategy for persuading big-name acts to play the rustic 200-seat venue at the foothills of the White Mountains—a popular ski area with quaint inns.
“It’s fun seeing artists get out of their tour buses and say, ‘Are we actually playing here?’ It's like they’re in the audience’s living room,” Noonan says.
The Stone Mountain Arts Center’s atmosphere evokes its location, as does Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, a former tabernacle steeped in southern history. It’s hosted the Grand Ole Opry, and Patsy Cline and Mae West once performed in front of its pews and stained glass.
In other words, if you want to understand a place and mingle (or mosh) with locals, a concert is just the ticket. Whether you’re headed to Washington, D.C., or Washington State, pack your bags, but leave your headphones at home. It’s live music time.
9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.
Credit goes to the 9:30 Club for inciting a music movement in downtown D.C. in the 1980s. One of America’s best-known rock clubs has since moved to the edge of the U Street corridor in the up-and-coming Shaw neighborhood, where it’s easy to find a trendy restaurant or cocktail bar before a show. Indie bands and mainstream stars alike dig the intimate, standing-room-only venue, which fits 1,200 patrons. It’s hosted Bob Dylan, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, and local band O.A.R., as well as reggae acts, house-music DJs, and jazz groups. 930.com
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA
The Surf was opened in 1934 by developer Carl J. Fox, who borrowed against his life-insurance policy to kick-start the project. He attracted jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who played the lakefront venue during the ’40s. After a fire devastated the original location, the current ballroom was built across the street. Soon, it became one of the first places in Iowa to book rock-n-rollers like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Everly Brothers, who performed against a backdrop mural of boats, ocean waves, and palm trees. Nowadays, you can enjoy big-band dances at the ballroom or catch acts like Craig Morgan, and various orchestra performances. surfballroom.com
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
This supposedly haunted venue is San Francisco’s oldest, grandest nightclub, with ornate Rococo balconies, marble columns, and elaborate ceiling frescoes. It opened in 1907, not long after a catastrophic earthquake had rocked the city. Its restaurant and brothel are long gone; instead, you’ll find two bars and a cutting-edge sound and lighting system. The 5,000-square-foot concert hall has been graced by the Grateful Dead, Arcade Fire, and Patti Smith. slimspresents.com
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO
Carved into the sandstonefoothills of the Rocky Mountains and surrounded by monolithicformations (Ship Rock, Creation Rock, and Stage Rock), Red Rocks truly has a one-of-a-kind setting. It’s proven irresistible to musicians like Dave Matthews Band, Jimi Hendrix, and U2, which filmed the video for Under a Blood Red Sky here. You can hike or bike on trails surrounding the venue anytime, and occasionally you might see people practicing yoga on the seats when there’s not a concert. In 2014, Red Rocks celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first rock concert: The Beatles. It was the only venue on the band’s 1964 tour that didn’t sell out—because of its expensive $6.60 ticket price.
Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield, ME
What do you get when you build a 200-seat arts center on a dirt road in Maine farmland, 50 miles from the nearest city? A concert venue that feels like a living room; a secluded experience in a post-and-beam barn where singer-songwriter Carol Noonan and husband Jeff Flagg previously built commercial fishing nets. The venue has welcomed Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Judy Collins, the Indigo Girls, Aztec Two-Step, Lucinda Williams, the Wailin’ Jennys, John Hiatt, and many others. Fans arrive early for homemade pizza and wine, but by eight o’clock, the servers are gone and the show begins—with each seat no more than 45 feet from the stage. stonemountainartscenter.com
Tipitina’s, New Orleans
In 1977, a few music fans launched this club to showcase performances by New Orleans pianist Henry Roeland Byrd—or Professor Longhair, as he was known—who created the New Orleans samba-style piano rhythm. Tipitina’s is now one of the city’s most influential music clubs, attracting local talent like G. Love, Maceo Parker, and Cowboy Mouth, as well as musicians from around the country such as Karl Denson and Todd Snider. Tipitina’s Foundation provides instruments to local schools, organizes Sunday youth music workshops, and directs a music internship program. And Tipitina’s runs a free Fridays program through its foundation so visitors can enjoy tunes gratis.
Bowery Ballroom, NYC
You could easily walk by Bowery Ballroom without realizing you’re in the presence of a Lower East Side institution (est. 1998)—one that quickly developed a reputation as the place to catch indie rock bands. Its historic building, completed just before the stock market crashed in 1929, delivers superb sight lines and sound, along with architectural flourishes. The multilevel venue keeps capacity to only 550, offering private seating, a downstairs lounge, and views of Delancey Street from the balcony. It also hosts light shows synced to music that have been known to foster epic dance parties. boweryevents.com
The Gorge, Quincy, WA
Less than three hours from Seattle awaits this 20,000-seat outdoor theater, which offers panoramic views of the Columbia River and the Cascade mountain range. It’s been the setting for major music festivals like Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, and the Vans Warped Tour. Most folks camp here overnight, turning a show into a full-blown weekend getaway. Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews Band, Bruno Mars, and Aerosmith are among the big-name artists performing in 2014. Whatever the act, the most memorable part of the day there is watching the sun set. gorgeamphitheatre.net
40 Watt Club, Athens, GA
Every grade-A college town needs a cool music venue—especially Athens, which is famous for its music scene. 40 Watt Club, near the University of Georgia, has welcomed a genre-spanning range of acts including Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, Kings of Leon, Gnarls Barkley, and the Black Crowes. Its name comes from the moniker given to local rock band Pylon’s original rehearsal space in 1979, around the time when R.E.M. and Indigo Girls played there. Though the venue has since moved from that space, look for the neon lights outside, and follow the tunes inside the small rock club, where you never know what talented, up-and-coming act you’ll catch next.
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
Nashville’s Ryman stage, inside a tabernacle, has been graced by not only Marian Anderson, Mae West, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Louis Armstrong, but also presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as Charlie Chaplin and Helen Keller. The Grand Ole Opry was based here from 1943 to 1974. All that history contributes to the frozen-in-time appeal of this venue, complete with wooden pews and stained-glass windows. But make no mistake about the sound: there are professional acoustics and a fully equipped recording studio, which is available for rent to local artists. ryman.com
Les Schwab Amphitheater, Bend, OR
On the banks of the Deschutes River in Bend’s Old Mill District, Les Schwab offers concertgoers scenic water views from picnic blankets on a grassy knoll. Those paddleboarding or kayaking during concerts can even pause for a listen. The 2014 lineup includes The National, Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, and Steely Dan; Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, and Norah Jones have played previously. There are also free concerts by local and national performers as part of the annual Bend Memorial Clinic Free Summer Sunday Concert Series, and Bend Brewfest sets up here every August. The artist dressing rooms are in the schoolhouse where Les Schwab (founder of Les Schwab Tires) once attended class. bendconcerts.com
Triple Door, Seattle
Triple Door wins our vote for the most sophisticated food options, thanks to Wild Ginger restaurant, just upstairs. You can enjoy a quality cocktail, too, like the Highland Lotus (scotch, sake, ginger liqueur, and lemon juice). Grab a seat in one of the sleek semicircular booths for indie acts like Gypsy Soul and Eric Hullander Group, with sight lines guaranteed. The venue hosts First Friday art openings and singer-songwriter showcases as well as happy hour with a live-music soundtrack in its Musicquarium lounge. It’s located in a former vaudeville house, the Embassy Theatre.
The National, Richmond, VA
With decorative plaster moldings and paintings reminiscent of a Broadway theater, the National features a standing-room-only wood floor with a mezzanine so that everyone gets a wide view of acts like Neon Trees, Bastille, Conditions, and Steep Canyon Rangers. Pick up drinks at one of the bars festooned with red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers. It’s the only surviving stage in a stretch of downtown near the State Capitol formerly known as Theatre Row. Ask to see the theater’s nursery, where children would go while their parents watched productions. It had been closed off but was found during a 1990s restoration. thenationalva.com
Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, Austin, TX
Sundays are special at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, when a brunch buffet of brisket, Czech-style pork sausage, spinach enchiladas, fried catfish, buttermilk pancakes, and cheese grits comes with live gospel music. Owner Christopher B. Stubblefield began hosting acts like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who “played for their supper,” as well as local talent back in the ’70s. Concerts take place nightly, both inside and outside the restaurant. If you’re in town for the South by Southwest or Austin City Limits music festivals, a trip to Stubb’s is a must, particularly after midnight—there’s a chance of seeing unannounced shows by some very big names.