10. Ryman Auditorium
What You’ll See: Ben Harper, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt
The Ryman is in many ways the house that bluegrass built. Originally opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, it has subsequently undergone numerous renovations and changes in ownership. Perhaps most significant was the period during which Lula C. Naff oversaw operations. A female executive working in a male-dominated field, Naff often went by L.C. to avoid prejudice. In her time running the Ryman, the venue became known for its battles against censorship, as well as its variety of bookings that spanned popular culture and included names like Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, and Harry Houdini.
The auditorium gained new acclaim as the home for the Grand Ole Opry, a country radio music program that became wildly popular for their live broadcasts in the late 1940s. Eventually a period of dormancy set in, decades punctuated with the occasional film being shot on location and one very bizarre bomb threat (look it up). It was a concert Emmylou Harris held in the early ’90s that helped get the Ryman back on the map, where it has now returned to its rightful place as one of Nashville’s historic music venues.
Nowadays, the Ryman is a 2,362-capacity theater renowned for its sterling acoustics. It served as the site for Neil Young’s Jonathan Demme-directed concert film Heart of Gold and earlier featured as the setting for the majority of episodes of Johnny Cash’s ABC Series, The Johnny Cash Show. The Ryman is the venue to play for a band visiting Nashville, an honor made all the more impressive in a town ripe with music history.
09. The Gorge
What You’ll See: Sasquatch! Music Festival, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band
Some of the best venues in the US aren’t built for their convenience. Located more than 100 miles from both Seattle and Spokane, the Gorge in Washington is a destination venue in every sense. But with campgrounds located on site, getting there and staying there are a part of the experience. Because, the best attribute that the Gorge has going for it is the scenic qualities. Breathtaking views of a literal gorge created by the Columbia River create a backdrop for the stage, with the amphitheater’s high-arching setup intact for everyone to take in the majestic scenery while enjoying the concert.
It’s best known as the home of Sasquatch! Music Festival, one the most successful and esteemed weekend fests in the country, but several times during the summer, standalone concerts are held as well. It’s where Seattle royalty like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam can treat their faithful to a memorable outdoor experience, or jam bands like Phish or country stars like Luke Bryan might take the opportunity to turn what could have been an ordinary tour stop into an all-day (and night) experience. It’s the kind of thing you need to have away from major cities, where fans can escape into music and not have to fight traffic home. It might be the closest thing America has to seeing large-scale concerts in the wild.
08. Great Scott
What You’ll See: Speedy Ortiz, Ty Segall, Ought, Julia Holter, Titus Andronicus, Earth
For all of Boston’s cliched drunken swagger and collegiate crowds, no place makes the most of alcohol and youth quite like Great Scott. The petite, 240-capacity venue carries all the traits of an ace dive bar without the unbearable setbacks.
Bathrooms are cramped, but they’re cleaned frequently. It gets stuffy in summer, but a giant AC above the crowd maintains sweat control. Shows are earplug-worthy loud, but the sound crew prevents highs from getting drowned out. Shows run late, but it’s right next to public transportation. Everything is cash only, but there’s an ATM inside and numerous banks on the same block. In other words, Great Scott offers the intimacy of your favorite college venue without the crummy conditions that keep you from returning as an adult.
With small space charm comes soon-to-be-big names. Great Scott has been on top of the booking game ever since the venue was purchased back in 1975. It’s showcased household indie acts like MGMT, Grimes, and Passion Pit before they exploded and routinely snags metal heroes like Earth and Harvey Milk — all for under $15. There’s the weekly comedy show The Gas and the now-defunct indie dance party The Pill, but perhaps Great Scott’s best claim to fame is that it’s just as good at selling out local bills as it is for national tours, allowing Speedy Ortiz, Mutual Benefit, and Pile to garner as much pre-sale buzz as Julia Holter or Ty Segall.
Great Scott takes quality booking, unassuming intimacy, and a dash of comically out-of-place crowdsurfing and turns it into something too special to describe. It’s a group of music obsessives and live show veterans that are willing to chat (even if they don’t know you), ready to welcome you to the family (even if you’re not local), and know the songs playing over the loudspeaker between sets (just kidding, only the sound guy seems to know that answer).
07. Red Rocks Amphitheater
Red Rocks, Colorado
What You’ll See: Disclosure, The Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket
Construction on the Red Rocks Amphitheater began about 296 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period, when the Ancestral Rocky Mountains were being whittled down to the little hills that we see today. The process created jaw-dropping rock formations, and while many of these natural wonders can claim to have the most gorgeous views, it’s the Red Rocks which have the reputation for the most gorgeous acoustics.
John Brisben Walker founded the first stage on the land in 1906, with proceeds from his sale of Cosmopolitan magazine. He sold it to the city of Denver in 1927, which reopened the venue in 1941. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix made iconic stops at the intimate 9,500-seat venue, and many jam bands make nearly yearly pilgrimages. It’s not hard to see why: the isolation, sound quality, and breathtaking scenery elevate shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater to an almost spiritual experience.
What You’ll See: Lauryn Hill, Passion Pit, Vince Staples, Disclosure
To really look at the history of Austin staple Stubb’s, one must look to the story behind the venue’s original owner, Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield. A barbecue restaurateur, Stubb first opened the small but legendary Stubb’s Bar B-Q in Lubbock, Texas, in 1968 where Stubb’s name became synonymous with barbecue and blues as people would cram into the restaurant to see the like of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and more.
In the early ‘80s, the original restaurant closed down and moved to its cozy home of Austin, Texas. Despite the struggles of closures and Stubb’s death in 1995, the restaurant would eventually move to its current location on Red River where artists and foodies can get the combo of great music and nourishment. Don’t let the simple stage fool you as the venue serves as a go-to destination for South by Southwest, where Deftones, St. Vincent, Kendrick Lamar, and R.E.M. have all performed.
05. 9:30 Club
Established: 1980; at its current location since 1996
What You’ll See: Everyone from Death Grips to Yo La Tengo
In its original location at 930 F St. NW in Washington, D.C., the 9:30 Club (“A Place and Time!” its slogan proudly proclaimed) featured acts like The Replacements, Butthole Surfers, and The Police during the early ’80s, and R.E.M., Björk, and Nirvana before they achieved widespread notoriety amid the early ‘90s. It was also foundational in the city’s hardcore punk scene, showcasing early performances by Fugazi and Minor Threat.
The club moved into its current location at 815 V Street NW in 1996, with a grand reopening headlined by the Smashing Pumpkins. Co-owners Seth Hurwitz and Rich Heineke wanted to maintain the intimacy of the venue’s original location while taking full advantage of the new space’s increased capacity, and the production manager at the time had the idea of putting the stage on wheels so it could be moved around as needed.
Performers love the 9:30 Club — with its bunk beds, laundry room, kitchen area, and complimentary customized cupcakes, what’s not to love? — but for patrons, it’s the storied venue’s rich history, great views from almost any vantage point, and top-tier acts that keep them coming back. Every music-loving Washingtonian will gladly tell you about their favorite 9:30 Club shows or that time they caught a glimpse of the band leaving the venue afterwards from the window of the next-door Satellite Room.
04. Hollywood Bowl
Los Angeles, CA
What You’ll See: The Beatles, Kanye West, Florence + the Machine, AVICII
The Hollywood Bowl has in spades what few other venues have at all: prestige. To perform at the Hollywood Bowl, and even better to headline it, is an honor that is never really lost on the acts that grace its stage. It’s the kind of venue that The xx would fly family in from England to see them perform with live strings, that Belle & Sebastian would recognize as a career high, and that Kanye West would use as the location to attempt his landmark 808s and Heartbreaks for the first time.
Aside from the performances, just the presentation of the building is iconic. The band shells over the stage have been a fixture of the venue since the 1920’s, a recognizable, iconic look not really matched by any other venue in the country. It’s also a wonder that the outdoor live music exists at the base of the Hollywood Hills while managing to feel remote and secluded, the activity of the nearby city shielded by the surrounding landscape.
Annually, the Bowl mixes one-of-a-kind events of Los Angeles Philharmonic performances and live scores of films with popular music concerts from all genres. And it’s not just for the big guns. This summer, Brainfeeder is getting their own night, while past years has seen indie rock headliners like Bright Eyes and The Decemberists get full orchestral treatments. For many events, you can bring your own booze and food and make a night of music into a complete experience. As far as outdoor concerts go, there might not be any better.
03. Metro Chicago
What You’ll See: Everything from Chance the Rapper to The Smashing Pumpkins to any high-profile secret show
Chicago’s fiery past has afforded the city a vast collection of historic landmarks. But few neighborhoods carry as much pop culture heritage as Wrigleyville — or more specifically, Clark and Addison, where Wrigley Field houses the Cubs. Just two blocks north of that, however, lies one of the nation’s most reputable music venues: the Metro Chicago.
Originally dubbed the Cabaret Metro, the multi-storied venue was founded in 1982 by Columbia College grad Joe Shanahan. In the years prior, Shanahan would host these wild, eclectic parties in his own loft, inspired by his post-collegiate years living in New York and London. When things got out of hand, he took his talents to Clark street and set up shop.
As with anything, he started out small, turning up the heat on the neighborhood with Smart Bar, the venue’s basement club that showcased the likes of DJ Frankie Knuckles. A month later, he booked R.E.M. in the 1,100-capacity “big room,” and that’s when the doors truly opened for the founder, leading to The Replacements, New Order, Hüsker Dü, and Depeche Mode.
By the 1990s, the Metro was more or less the launch pad for the Midwestern’s own alternative rock movement, birthing The Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, and Veruca Salt. As such, it was also a landing strip for outside alt rock talent like Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden. You name it, they played there.
Over time, they’ve since hosted legendary names like Bob Dylan, Prince, Kanye West, James Brown, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Joe Strummer, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, Jeff Buckley, Oasis, and the list goes on. It’s hard to find an act that hasn’t graced the stage, but it’s easy to understand why: The quality of life here is contagious.
Every venue can look prestigious, but few ever sound like it. Rare is a night at the Metro when even the sloppiest, dirtiest, and straggliest outfit doesn’t come off sounding legendary. Whether it’s a band of brats from across the street or Sinéad O’Connor popping in for a song or two, the venue acts nothing short of professional. And you gotta respect that.
Oh, and that haunted attic of theirs is all sorts of wonderful.
02. Bowery Ballroom
New York City, New York
What You’ll See: Chelsea Wolfe, Mitski, Wolf Parade, Twin Peaks
As hard as it is to imagine New York City without Bowery Ballroom, it’s also easy to pass it by. Despite being out in the open on Delancey Street in Manhattan, the venue is otherwise hidden, playing dead behind beige bricks and a decent smattering of torn show posters. The building itself was built shortly after the stock market crashed in 1929, but Bowery Ballroom didn’t take over the space to showcase music until 1997 when it decided to combine the sparkling energy of punk with the otherwise decadent wood and velvet lining the inside of the space.
As New York City continues to swallow up most of Brooklyn’s DIY spaces, Bowery Ballroom carries on as an alternative — although slightly larger in comparison — to see indie rock acts about to break — or artists looking to forget how loudly fame is knocking on their door. In other words, that means it still busts out special evenings like Wolf Parade’s reunion shows, the indie rock blowout that was Our Concert Could Be Your Life — a 10-year anniversary covers show celebrating Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life — or the closing night of Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas tour. And thanks to its snug spot in Manhattan, those who arrive early to snag front-row spots can chow down on Asia Dog or Egg Shop while they wait for the hours to pass. Of course, prime people watching helps shorten the wait, too. When you get a ticket to a show at the 575-person capacity, you may as well go the full mile to get a good view.
Bowery Ballroom was the place to see bands big enough for a cult following yet small enough to skip under the radar in its early days. It was The Get Up Kids and Moby in 1999, Elliott Smith and The Strokes in 2003, Vampire Weekend and St. Vincent in 2008. Today, it’s still that same place, but for a new generation of music fans. In less than 20 years, Bowery Ballroom has made itself an establishment that’s as much a brand as it is a vital organ of New York City’s music scene, and it won’t be stopping anytime soon.
01. The Fillmore
San Francisco, California
What You’ll See: Kurt Vile, Patti Smith, Dave Chappelle
Originally opened as The Majesty Hall in 1912, the location now known as The Fillmore in San Francisco’s Fillmore District came to serve as the defining landscape of the 1960s rock music scene. Before iconic promoter Bill Graham took over the space, it was run by Charles Sullivan, who used the venue to book prominent black musicians of the 1950s and 1960s – legends like James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner – establishing the Fillmore district as a diverse and culturally rich neighborhood.
An 1100-capacity theater with opulent chandeliers, a ballroom floor, and limited table seating on the balcony level, the Fillmore is the ideal space for an intimate show that still packs in a crowd. The walls are literally covered in history, as decades of framed psychedelic posters offered as giveaways to concertgoers line the upper bar space and main foyer. You’ll also find the ubiquitous apple basket, with ripe fruit free for the taking, a throwback to the days when Graham would bid concertgoers a good evening and hand them an apple at the end of every show.
The list of bands that have played the space is as wide and varied as music itself: The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, Pink Floyd, Cream, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding all headlined shows at the Fillmore during its original run. In 1970, the venue went private, only to reopen in 1991 as a tribute to Graham, who tragically passed away in a helicopter crash. For the past 30 years, it has served as San Francisco’s preeminent venue.
Acts like The White Stripes, Radiohead, Blur, The Foo Fighters, and countless others have all visited The Fillmore on their way to superstardom. The space has also been a favorite spot for secret shows from contemporary heavy-hitters like Metallica and the recently departed Prince and is often used as a filming locale for stand-up comedy specials. To this day, a ticket to the Fillmore ensures a poster and an apple on the way out, a friendly “farewell” from the greeter at the top of the stairs, and a concert experience unlike any other.