30. Black Cat
What You’ll See: The best up-and-coming acts before you know they’re the best up-and-coming acts
Dante Ferrando’s inspiration to start his own club was born out of frustration with another of DC’s prized musical haunts, the 9:30 Club. The deal breaker came one night while watching Nirvana at the club, which was oversold and packed to the walls on one of the hottest nights of an already-oppressive DC summer. Feeling he could do better than the 9:30’s original F Street home, a space as notoriously decrepit as rock clubs get, Ferrando opened Black Cat on 14th Street in 1993.
The club’s opening briefly initiated a turf war with the 9:30, as bands began flocking to the Black Cat’s newer digs when they came through the Capital. Nowadays, both venues peacefully coexist, with the Black Cat largely serving as a smaller, feeder venue for the larger, more lavish 9:30 on V Street. Punk, indie, soul, metal, DJ nights, and everything in between has a home over at the Cat, making it one of the most diverse venues in the city. And don’t forget to bring your appetite. Food for Thought, run by Ferrando’s father, Bob, has a pretty killer menu of vegetarian dishes.
29. Merriweather Post Pavilion
What You’ll See: Phish, The Cure, Animal Collective
Long before Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and Geologist named their landmark 2009 album for the Maryland venue it was well known to many as one of the best outdoor amphitheaters in the United States. Originally built as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra, the former Oakland Manor slave plantation immediately found itself a popular destination for acts of the day like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who.
Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a gorgeous relic of the 1960s building aesthetic and one that fully embraces its outdoor surroundings. It takes its name from Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress to the Post cereal fortune. Another plus is how well the venue can shift from more intimate fare to true amphitheater size (at capacity, it can hold over 15,000), giving it flexibility in who it can book.
An ideal spot for mid-size and large-scale summer tours, locals can rest easy knowing an artist would be remiss not to book a night or two at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on their summer schedule. Small-scale festivals have been mounted at the space as well. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Jimmy Buffet who has played the venue more than any other artist, with 42 shows under his belt.
28. Radio City Music Hall
New York, New York
What You’ll See: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Sigur Rós, Aretha Franklin
If it weren’t for Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall would be the most renowned venue in New York City. Even so, it’s historically probably even more important. Developed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. during the Great Depression as part of Rockefeller Center, the hall was in part responsible for bringing financial attention back to the area and the city at large. The Art Deco interior designed by Edward Durell Stone and Donald Deskey was declared a city landmark in 1978, and walking through it feels like being transported back to old Hollywood.
Though the 6,000-capacity space is rarely used for movie premieres anymore, it still welcomes a range of top-ranking touring artists like David Gilmour, Adele, and The War on Drugs. Imagine seeing Tame Impala perform on the same stage as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald at the height of their careers. Seeing a band in this gorgeous music hall isn’t just witnessing great musician perform in an elegant, intelligently designed venue — it’s seeing them stand alongside history.
27. Bluebird Cafe
What You’ll See: Don Schlitz, Phil Vassar, Rising Stars
When it comes to the country music scene, there exists a mythical Nashville, full of cowboy hats and pickup trucks; as well as the modern Nashville, an urbane commercial center with more boardrooms than back roads; and then there’s the Bluebird Cafe, with a foot in both worlds, simultaneously real and the stuff of legends.
Everyone from Garth Brooks to a 15-year-old Taylor Swift was discovered here, not to mention a legion of ghostwriters; dozens of Grammy Award-winning songs and No. 1 hits were first heard at the Bluebird’s legendary Writer’s Night. The intimate 90-seat venue, unpretentiously located in a strip mall, is so iconic that it’s a recurring character on the ABC show Nashville.
While the food isn’t great, the Bluebird Cafe might be the only place in the world that you can participate in music’s past, present, and future all while eating spanakopita.
26. Starlight Theatre
Kansas City, Missouri
What You’ll See: Beauty and the Beast, Blue Man Group, The 1975, Duran Duran
Who knew that a Missouri river town could buzz with so much creativity? Barbecue? Yep. Baseball? Sure. But the arts? That’s a pleasant surprise. Nestled within the greenery of Kansas City’s Swope Park lay the Starlight Theatre, an 8,000-seat castle-like concert shell. Doubling as a playhouse and music venue, the outdoor theater quenches Kansas City’s artistic thirst in one sweet gulp. While it has been refurbished over the years, the Starlight’s story dates back to KC’s first cultural renaissance (similar to the one that’s occurring there now). In 1925, the city organized a showcase honoring the arrival of Romania’s Queen Marie. The showcase’s massive success catalyzed plans to erect a formal performance structure, and 24 years later, The Starlight broke ground.
As one can imagine, the stage has experienced a number of unique moments in its 66-year history. In 1958, a demanding Jerry Lewis foot the Starlight’s bill in order to elongate the stage to fit his act. Several years later, President Harry Truman shocked spectators with a guest appearance during the musical Mr. President. These days, performers at the Starlight remain as eclectic as ever. The regal stage flip-flops performances nightly, interspersing legacy acts with pop radio favorites and family-friendly musicals. In addition to the type of acts it hosts, what sets the Starlight apart from other KC and US venues is its ambience. It doesn’t always boast the trendiest fare, but in truth, it doesn’t need to. With beautiful stage design and idyllic location, the Starlight creates experiences that transcend the performers onstage.
25. The National
What You’ll See: Beirut, Slayer, Third Eye Blind
When The National first opened its doors in the ‘20s, it was just one of the many venues in Richmond’s thriving theatre district. Over the years, it’s been a vaudeville house, a movie palace, and a building that just kind of sat there. But like so much else about the entertainment industry, The National has changed with the times, and it now combines its stunning, Italian Renaissance-style architecture with kinds of technological advancements you’d expect to find at a young whipper-snapper venue. The V-DOSC sound system—the sixth installed in the country—makes the great big sounds of the bands and comedians who roll through Richmond even bigger and clearer.
So yes, there are creature comforts aplenty, as is the case with most top-tier venues. There are comfortable seats in the balcony with cupholders, and screens throughout the venue’s seven bars so that you don’t miss a single piece of weird in-set banter. It’s all very convenient. But what really matters is the chance to see world-class acts in a damned gorgeous building, and to hear some national treasures in an honest to god national treasure—the venue was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2003.
What You’ll See: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Wavves, of Montreal
Austin is a music town above almost anything else, and it’s not surprising that a place nicknamed the Live Music Capital of the World is packed with incredible venues. Amongst them, The Mohawk stands out for both its maximized space and its unique design. Inside is a small, simple area behind the main bar that’s great for DJs and fresh local talent alike, as well as events like BYOVinyl Tuesdays. Outside, there’s a 850-capacity, multi-tiered venue that’s perfect for touring acts and hometown favorites of all sizes.
Unlike the field-like setting of Stubb’s, the Mohawk’s outdoor space maintains a sense of intimacy and comfort. No matter where you find yourself — whether it’s on one of the balconies or on the ground level — you’re nearly guaranteed a solid view of the stage. Having the capacity spread out vertically like that allows it to rarely feel overcrowded, while simultaneously allowing you to choose your own concert experience, from vantage point to noise level.
A favorite South by Southwest venue, the Mohawk remains an Austin concert destination worth visiting year-round thanks to the range of talent it attracts and the unrivaled setting it provides.
23. Tipitina’s Uptown
New Orleans, Louisiana
What You’ll See: George Clinton, Cypress Hill, Dawes, Gang of Four
Sitting at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street in Uptown New Orleans, Tipitina’s is a thoroughly NOLA institution. Originally a juke joint, it was founded in 1977 by local music fanatics The Fabulous Fo’teen, who named the venue after Professor Longhair’s 1953 single “Tipitina”, and served as the home of local nonprofit radio station WWOZ upstairs.
The venue is also connected to a good cause, namely Tipitina’s Foundation, which was launched in 2003 and, as defined on its website, “supports Louisiana and New Orleans’ irreplaceable music community and preserves the state’s unique musical cultures through its four main programs.”
Those four programs include: the school band initiative, Instruments A Comin’; the instructional series, Sunday Youth Music Workshops; the after-school jazz and digital recording workshop, Tipitina’s Internship Program; and the workforce development network, Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Ops.
While Tip’s is hardly the biggest venue on this list, with a capacity of 1,000, its place in New Orleans and its impact is more sizable than any number could ever let on.
22. Beacon Theatre
New York, New York
What You’ll See: The Smashing Pumpkins, Leon Bridges, Patti Smith
Let’s put this bluntly: There is no more gorgeous venue in all of New York City than the Beacon Theater. The interior was updated in 2009, but the theater’s ornate design has been there since Walter W. Ahlschlager designed the building in the ’20s. On either side of the stage stand 30-foot high Greek goddesses, with similarly large lions resting on either end of the upper balcony. The ceiling contains a stunning array of colors with a chandelier like an upside city spire jutting from the center. As breathtaking as the look of the place is, however, the sound is even better.
Because it was designed as a movie house during the days of pre-sound film, its acoustics were perfectly tuned for live accompaniment, which today translates into one of the best sounding music venues you’ll ever find. It’s why The Allman Brothers Band played over 200 shows there, why Hot Tuna perform there every year, and why My Morning Jacket chose to hold their recent four-night residency there. Splendid in both visual and aural appeal, the Beacon Theater deserves to be in the upper echelon of venues not just in the city, but the entire country.
21. The Showbox
What You’ll See: D’Angelo, Kurt Vile, Drive Like Jehu, Decibel Festival
Although The Showbox’s marquee traditionally boasts some of today’s most promising young talent, it’s long been a fixture for legendary artists passing through the Northwest, from Duke Ellington to the Foo Fighters. Walking into the venue, there’s a sense of regality with the glittering chandelier beaming over the ballroom floor. This makes for a great juxtaposition on nights when acts like The Melvins or Drive Like Jehu bring their sonic mayhem into the abyssal concert hall.
Fans wanting to get in a little early can grab drinks next door at Kerns Music Shop, a converted lounge that previously housed jazz cats and purveyors of swing like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. All of this history legitimizes the venue, but it’s the day-to-day operations that keep the legacy thriving. Yet there’s a reason the Showbox has endured for all these years: Both the quality of life and their adventurous bookings offer all the bragging rights any self-respected venue could ever need.